Confronting Ghosts: Lebanon, Transitional Justice and Enforced Disappearances


Amid the dreadful politics Lebanese are being served by their so called political ruling elite, the only initiatives worth mentioning are the ones created by activists and civil society organizations that are trying to put the government in front of their obligations. That is, actually respecting, protecting and promoting the Human Rights of people living on the Lebanese territory, something the authorities do not seem to actually, fully grasp.

Act for the Disappeared is one of the associations, along with Hangar-UMAM and Nasawiya, amongst many other organizations and individuals.

There are over  17000 Lebanese whose fate is unknown. Only about 2000 of them are reported as missing. Maybe they’re still in Syrian prisons. Maybe they’re still in Israeli prisons. Perhaps they’re dead. Have they been tortured? Who knows? While the families are left not knowing what happened to their loved ones, the political class, the same that was waging the civil war, still bickers over power and control. Mothers, sisters, cousins, hold regular sit-in in front of the UN in Beirut, carrying the pictures of faces they love, people they know they would recognized in a heartbeat even after all these years.

In February 2012, a group of representatives from the families of the disappeared, including the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon (CFKDL) lead by Wedad Halawi (whose husband has been missing since the Civil War), along with NGOs, lawyers and civil society organizations have submitted a draft law calling for an independent Institute for Missing Persons monitored by a civil society group, including a Bureau and a Public National Commission. The proposed draft law also calls for the appointment of a senior judge who would be named by the Higher Judicial Council, along with public servants and forensic experts. The project, which is funded and coordinated by the European Union delegation in Beirut, would work to trace mass graves, through information provided by the state, witnesses and organizations. According to the draft law, all witness accounts would remain confidential[1]. This mechanism draws from examples from Guatemala, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Argentina, with Jeremy Sarkin, member of the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances participating in the conversations in his personal capacity as an expert in the field. 16032_433969636658370_1744119054_n

International NGOs have backed up this initiative such as the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and Amnesty International, who has been working on this issue with the families quite some time now and has issued a statement in 2011 asking for the creation of a commission of inquiry on this issue in Lebanon[2]. The ICTJ has been heavily involved in the process and has produced a list of six principles along which the mechanism addressing this matter should be shaped[3]:

  • Inclusivity. All cases of the missing, including those of enforced disappearance, should be investigated by such a body without limitation to a particular time period. While there are differences between the forcibly disappeared and the broader category of missing persons, the same mechanisms and norms apply to both categories when it comes to the right to truth.
  • Victim involvement. The families of the missing, including the disappeared, should be empowered to play an active part in a commission.
  • Independence of commissioners and commission staff. The commission’s full and meaningful independence – both in practice and perception – is of paramount importance. It should be independent of any ministry, both physically and financially. Membership of the body is also key – inclusion of a government delegate on the Commission and other state officials still in office would run counter to best practice, and also undermine the body’s independence. The use of a state attorney before tribunals could also lead to questions about the Commission’s independence.
  • Authority to compel. The Commission should have the power to compel evidence from government and/or private actors who may have records or other information such as documents or testimony. Within this framework, there should be appropriate sanctions against those who do not cooperate in the provision of such evidence.
  • Provision for the rights of the families. The rights of the relatives of the missing, including the disappeared – including the right to know the fates of their loved ones, to access information and to participate in investigations, and to compensation – should be clearly specified.
  • Duration. If the six-year duration of the decree also reflects the temporal mandate of the Commission, then provision should be made for an extension if needed, or for the functions to be taken over by an independent and responsible authority.

This core group has decided to take matter into their own hands and to submit a draft law as there is a  glaring lack of trust between civil society and members of Parliament and the executive power in Lebanon, CSOs being wary by the promises the political establishment keeps on making without any kind of actual hands-on follow-up. Indeed, in 2005, mass graves were discovered when the Syrian military presence left Lebanon and a commission was formed to investigate on the missing person cases both in Lebanon and Syria. However, the Commission never handed in the report, even though President Michel Sleiman asked it to finalize it and submit it when he accessed power in 2008[4].

While MP Ghassan Mkhaiber has asked the Internal Security Forces to disclose any information they might have over the missing, the issue of enforced disappearances goes hand in hand with the question of reconciliation and the social duty of memory about the Civil War. This work of transitional justice should have been performed by public powers with the support, if called for, of the international community and international organizations but unfortunately Lebanon has chosen the path of ‘amnesty’ which has translated itself into wounds that did not heal, a complete lack of accountability for the perpetrators of human rights and humanitarian law violations, leading to an ever growing culture of impunity, no reparation for the victims and most importantly, no justice . Opening the question of the people who have been forcefully disappeared would mean reopening the folder of the Civil War, something the political elite has been very careful not to do. The irony of it is that Lebanon still operates along the same sectarian lines and rules that it did before the war: not leading a national reconciliatory effort amounts to maintaining a status quo that benefits no one except  former war-lords turned sectarian leaders (whose fathers/uncles/cousin twice removed were already sectarian leaders).

The current uprising and conflict in Syria has revived hope for some families as some former disappeared people have managed to escape Syrian prisons and give information to other families on the whereabouts of some missing persons with whom they were being held[5].

These families have the right to know what happened, they have a right to closure, a mere right to life, a life that has been on hold since the date their loved ones were abducted/arrested/kidnapped. It is one of the most abominable injustice to leave these families in the darkness, it is simply, well, not human.

This train of thought has often been triggered by different injustice and violations we have witnessed in Lebanon over the year, and the lined faces of women who have been waiting all their lives just to hear about their sons and husbands, daughters and sisters, is just yet another reminder that impunity is rife and that people, quite simply, are yet again paying the price.


To Learn More

–          Act for the Disappeared

–          This Thursday in Beirut at Nasawiya, an event on the impact of enforced disappearances on women

–          Transitional Justice: The Missing and Disappeared in Lebanon




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