Landmark law gives hope to families of Lebanon’s war missing

The draft law had been sitting in parliament since 2012 undergoing reviews and amendments by different committees.
Wednesday 14/11/2018
A file photo showing a member of the International Red Cross taking a saliva sample from a relative of a person who went missing during the Lebanese civil war. (AP)
A file photo showing a member of the International Red Cross taking a saliva sample from a relative of a person who went missing during the Lebanese civil war. (AP)

BEIRUT - Decades after Lebanon’s devastating 1975-1990 civil war ended, parliament passed a long-awaited law to determine the fate of thousands of war missing and forcibly disappeared people and help bring answers to their families.

“It is a crucial milestone, a great step forward in our struggle,” says Wadad Halwani, who heads the Committee of the Families of the Missing and Disappeared in Lebanon. “Finally a positive development after 36 years (since the committee was established)… The law amounts to an official recognition of our right to know what happened to our loved ones.”

Halwani said the draft law had been sitting in parliament since 2012 undergoing reviews and amendments by the different committees.

“Six long years during which we have been putting pressure on parliamentarians and following up on the processing of the draft. It is an essential step on the way to solution, but it is not the solution. We will continue our struggle to ensure the proper implementation of the law,” she said.

The law empowers an independent national commission to inquire about the missing, collect DNA samples and exhume mass graves from the conflict for identification.

Under the legislation, those who are found to be responsible for forced disappearances would be punished with jail time of up to 15 years and fines of up to 20 million Lebanese pounds (around $13,000).

“The accountability part is not a demand of the families of the missing,” Halwani said. “We have been repeating that we do not want revenge or punishment, taking into consideration the particular situation in Lebanon. We only want to know what happened to them… If they are alive, where are they, and if they are dead we want their remains.”

The law on the missing was passed by Lebanon’s first new parliament in nine years, and comes as premier designate Saad Hariri has spent five months struggling to form a cabinet. Lebanon’s National News Agency said lawmakers approved the law after voting on each of its 38 articles.

Some lawmakers had initially protested, saying calls for accountability may affect current officials. But they were reassured that a post-war general amnesty law that pardoned crimes during conflict, absolving the militias of responsibility, remains in place despite the new law.

Many of Lebanon’s political parties are led by former warlords implicated in some of the civil war’s worst fighting.

“For the first time after the war, Lebanon enters a genuine reconciliation phase, to heal the wounds and give families the right to know,” Gebran Bassil, the country’s foreign minister, tweeted.

It is unclear how many people went missing in Lebanon’s war. The government puts the figure at 17,000 but activists say that number double counts many of the missing and that a more realistic estimate is around 8,000.

Rights groups that have been campaigning for justice for the victims and their families applauded the new bill and establishment of the inquiry commission. Other commissions were established by ministerial decree in the 2000s, but failed to bring any answers for the families.

“This is a positive step for thousands of families to find closure,” the International Committee of the Red Cross  (ICRC) said in a statement on Twitter.

“We stand ready to support the government in the implementation of the law so that families can finally have the answers they’ve long waited for.”

The ICRC began compiling biological reference samples, to be used to extract DNA samples, from relatives of the disappeared in 2016 and has interviewed more than 2,000 families to help the future national commission.

DNA samples have been stored with the ICRC. The law allows Lebanese security forces to take part in the sample collection and storage.

According to Amnesty International, local and international organisations have identified sites of mass graves, but the authorities have previously refused to protect these sites.

Halwani, whose husband has been missing since 1982, described the law as “an achievement on the way to a closure.”

“If there is a real goodwill by the politicians, I can say that we are almost halfway to a closure. However, in Lebanon you can have surprised… But we are hopeful,” Halwani said.

Lebanon has been rocked by a series of political crises in recent years, aggravated by the civil war in neighbouring Syria.

The Syrian military presence that followed the conflict, a brief war with Israel, an influx of refugees from Syria and protracted economic and political instability have pushed the issue of the missing to the bottom of the government’s agenda.

(With additional reporting from the Associated Press)