Lebanon: Debunking the Myths

Chaml activists being beaten up by security officers, as published on the Facebook page of the organisation



A friend of mine recently asked a very relevant question: how come Human Rights violations in Lebanon always go unnoticed?

Truth be told, he’s right: you hear news about heavy crackdown on protesters in Egypt and Yemen, about sexual harassment in Cairo, about atrocities in Syria, about human rights defenders intimidation in Morocco and Algeria, yet you seldom hear anything about violations in Lebanon, wrongly leading people to believe Lebanon’s own publicity of being the only democratic, ‘civilized’ State in the Middle East where freedom of speech is respected and where demonstrations go peacefully, a safe haven for journalists and people of conscience.

Lebanon might have represented this forty or fifty years ago, for about 2 months.

Thing is, the majority of the Lebanese love to believe the narrative mirrored in Western newspapers such as the New York Times: Ah! Beirut! How liberal! How diverse! The Pubs! The Rooftops! The women wearing mini-skirts even though it’s a predominantly Muslim country! This image of Lebanon benefits tourists and foreigners who come to Beirut for six months. It doesn’t however represent the reality people and activists have to face on a daily basis.

We have been hearing reports and testimonies of clashes, death and destruction in Tripoli and Wadi Khaled and in the North of Lebanon as well as in other ‘hot’ areas in Beirut such as Tareek El Jdideh or Dahiyeh presented as a consequence of the spill over of the Syrian conflict. While this is partly true and while the number of Syrian incursions on Lebanese territories increases, it yet again represents Lebanon as a peaceful country whose only problem is its neighbours, something that is even being reflected in memes representing Lebanon living as an island with a caption reading something like ‘paradise’, completely avoiding the crucial internal Lebanese framework. This interpretation doesn’t take into account the situation in Lebanon, Syrian conflict or no Syrian conflict, which is of a sectarian, corrupt, conservative system that has done nothing for its population except increase the income gap and social inequalities between different classes through the adoption and implementation of aggressive neo-liberal policies. As an illustration, the report ‘Poverty, Growth and Income Distribution in Lebanon’ by Heba Al Laity, Khalid Abu Ismail and Kamal Hamdan states amongst its findings that ‘nearly 28 per cent of the Lebanese population can be considered poor and eight per cent can be considered extremely poor. However, the most important finding of the report is that regional disparities are striking’. According to indicator reports published by the World Bank (yes, the same institution that forces upon countries and corrupt elites policies that impoverish populations then judges them about the results), Lebanon ranks 120 over 214 in terms of good governance and 199 in terms of political stability, which quite gives the picture of a failed state.

Among this dire socio-economic situation (how many of us or people we know have to work two jobs just to make ends meet or depend on stipends sent over from our relatives abroad to supplement salaries?), the sectarian and tribal system operational in Lebanon sustains this context of political instability and violence, much to the benefit of sectarian leaders who find in this system their raison d’être and their main sources of funding. These very same leaders being in government, the culture of impunity is rife, leading to human rights abuse on the most vulnerable parts of the population, namely migrant workers, refugees, human rights defenders, journalists, LGBTQIs, and women, all the more, given the high levels of corruption, if they do not have the financial means to buy themselves out of trouble.

The latest shocking abuse that has made the headlines recently is the case of special security forces beating up Syrian and Sudanese workers residing legally in Jeitawi  in Lebanon on Sunday evening. As Raphael Telen, who has witnessed the scene, from Now Lebanon reports: ‘ As NOW reporters looked on from an adjacent balcony, Lebanese army soldiers could be seen rounding up the Syrians and beating them with sticks and belts. At one point the Syrians were sent into the courtyard of the building. Afterward, they were forced to run up the staircase of the building one after the other. There, four men in civilian clothes waited for them, punching them in their faces and on their heads.’

Picture of a Syrian worker after his beating by Lebanese security forces

This instance is not the first example of severe abuse against Syrian workers, with other beatings taking place in Ashrafieh on the first of October and discriminatory curfews being put in place against Syrian workers during the summer. Some Lebanese municipalities, such as Bhamdoun, have forbidden said workers to step out of their accommodation from 8PM until 6AM, claiming it is for the safety of the town. This discriminatory curfew applies only to Syrians and reinforces the stigma Syrian workers already suffer from in Lebanon. If they are caught in the streets during these hours, they can be expelled from the municipality, therefore losing their job. These measures constitute a blatant violation of their freedom of movement[1]. Cases of beatings and harassment against workers have also been reported[2].

Journalists are also becoming a target with Rami Aysha being arrested on August 30 and released on bail on September 27, after being held on unclear charges centered on alleged weapons-buying. As An Nahar reports,  based on an appeal by Reporters Sans Frontières:

Aysha was carrying his camera and press card when he was kidnapped by armed men in south Beirut, where he was reporting on arms trafficking, the watchdog said.

“They took me to a nearby place where they put a pistol to my temple and asked me on which side I wanted the bullet,” Aysha said.

“They broke my camera on my head,” the RSF statement quoted the journalist as saying, adding that they also broke his finger. “I was sure they were going to kill me.”

Aysha was then turned over to the Lebanese intelligence service, RSF said.

“Still blindfolded, he was beaten by men who told him, ‘Fuck you, fuck journalism!’ From there, Aysha was transferred again, this time to the military police, where mistreatment continued,” RSF said.

Human rights defenders and activists are also being targeted by security forces, with a peaceful sit-in organized on the 23rd of September by Chaml association in front of the Parliament asking for the adoption of the law on civil status being violently broken up by security forces. The activists were beaten up, threatened with being raped, harassed, and insulted. It has been reported by L’Orient-Le Jour that one soldier might have said to one activist: ‘Bring me that boy so that I can marry and fuck him!’. This is not the first time peaceful assemblies are being violently broken up, with security forces beating up leftist activists demonstrating peacefully at the beginning of the year in front of the Banque du Liban, and many activists from the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform reporting beatings.

These beatings echo the harassment, detention and anal tests LGBTQIs have had to endure in August at the hand of security forces, even though the Ministry of Justice had forbidden their use, sparking outrage within public opinion and leading the head of the Union of Physicists to call on all doctors to refuse to perform such tests, equating them with torture.

Palestinian refugees continue living in dire conditions. Indeed, UK medical journal The Lancet[i] has published a series of abstracts drawn from a meeting of public health researchers, The Lancet-Palestine Health Alliance, in Beirut in March 2012. According to one of the studies, by researchers from the American University of Beirut, “discriminatory laws and decades of marginalisation” have left Palestinian refugees in Lebanon socially, politically and economically disadvantaged. Over half of them live in increasingly overcrowded camps, where “the provision of housing, water, electricity, refuse and other services are inadequate and contribute to poor health”.

Women are also being discriminated against by the security forces, with the Lebanese Internal Security Forces issuing a new regulation to prevent women serving in the force from wearing the hijab[ii], not to mention the numerous testimonies of women reporting harassment from soldiers.

Given that overview, we can only ask ourselves why there isn’t more consistent reporting and appropriate follow up on human rights violations in Lebanon, especially when they’re perpetrated by security forces or the army. Sectarian ties might be at play, but there is also the fact that they’re regarded as sacred, what with the myth that they’re not religiously affiliated and all. Debunking this myth is however paramount if Lebanon is seriously committed to the full protection and promotion of its population’s human rights.

It is high time Lebanon takes a long, hard look at itself and starts tackling impunity in a consistent way, even and most importantly when it involves its military and security wings.




[1] Rania Massoud, A Bhamdoun, les ouvriers syriens soumis à un véritable couvre-feu, 16 August 2012, http://www.lorientlejour.com/category/%C3%80+La+Une/article/773608/A_Bhamdoun,_les_ouvriers_syriens_soumis_a_un_veritable_couvre-feu.html

[1] Nowhere to hide: being a Syrian in Lebanon, 18 August 2012, http://www.albawaba.com/editorchoice/syrians-lebanon-kidnappings-438808



[1] Rania Massoud, A Bhamdoun, les ouvriers syriens soumis à un véritable couvre-feu, 16 August 2012, http://www.lorientlejour.com/category/%C3%80+La+Une/article/773608/A_Bhamdoun,_les_ouvriers_syriens_soumis_a_un_veritable_couvre-feu.html

[2] Nowhere to hide: being a Syrian in Lebanon, 18 August 2012, http://www.albawaba.com/editorchoice/syrians-lebanon-kidnappings-438808

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