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

The law empowers an independent commission to inquire about the missing, collect DNA samples and exhume mass graves for identification.
Sunday 18/11/2018
Women hold pictures of relatives who went missing during Lebanon’s civil war during a protest in Beirut. (Reuters)
Seeking closure. Women hold pictures of relatives who went missing during Lebanon’s civil war during a protest in Beirut. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Decades after Lebanon’s devastating 1975-90 civil war ended, parliament has passed a long-awaited law to determine the fate of thousands of missing and forcibly disappeared people and help give answers to their families.

“It is a crucial milestone, a great step forward in our struggle,” said 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 legislation had been in parliament since 2012 undergoing reviews and amendments by 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 found responsible for forced disappearances could be punished with prison sentence of 15 years and fines of 20 million Lebanese pounds (approximately $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 after Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri 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 protested, saying calls for accountability may affect current officials. They were reassured that a post-war general amnesty that pardoned crimes during that conflict remains in place.

Many of Lebanon’s political parties are led by former warlords implicated in 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,” Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said on Twitter.

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

Rights groups that have been campaigning for justice for victims and their families applauded the establishment of the inquiry commission. Other commissions were established by ministerial decree in the 2000s but could not provide 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 has been compiling biological reference samples, to be used to extract DNA samples, from relatives of the disappeared since 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 sample collection and storage.

Amnesty International said, local and international organisations have identified sites of mass graves but authorities had 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 bad surprises 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 Lebanese civil war, 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.