Lebanon’s justice interrupted

It is fairly common in Lebanon that politicians will pick up the phone to influence deliberations of a judge on any matter.
Sunday 08/04/2018
The Martyrs’ Monument stands in front of apartment buildings under construction in Beirut, on April 2. (AP)
Putting its own house in order. The Martyrs’ Monument stands in front of apartment buildings under construction in Beirut, on April 2. (AP)

Lebanon has very few good things going for it. With a feeble economy and an even weaker state, many predict the imminent collapse of this once successful Middle Eastern democracy.

Despite this bleak outlook, many Lebanese imprudently hope that a few remaining institutions may salvage and protect the state and its constitution. Among these are the Lebanese armed forces, with its cross-sectarian composition, and the judiciary, which has been seen to defy and stand against the country’s political elite.

This sliver of hope runs counter to the reality in which those two institutions operate, as the recent strike of the Lebanese judiciary because of proposed cuts to salaries and benefits reignited the debate over its role and that of the ruling political establishment.

The judiciary has seldom resorted to a work stoppage to make its voice heard or to improve and reclaim the economic benefits extended to it. However, the recent walkout, while ostensibly to demand better pay and conditions, was as much about safeguarding the independence of the judiciary from political meddling and the biases of the sectarian system in which it operates.

In theory, the Lebanese Constitution, crafted in 1926 under the French Mandate, prescribes a strict Montesquieuian separation of powers, with the judiciary enjoying equal privileges to the legislative and executive branches of government.

In theory, this concept, both equally simple and complex, allows the judiciary to dispense justice without fear of economic or political retribution and, more important, safeguards the concept of checks and balances that stand as a central pillar of any democracy.

In Lebanon, however, no traces of such high-minded political theory are to be found. Both other branches of government treat the judiciary as little more than an ancillary tool to further their hold on power.

For example, it is fairly common, if not par for the course, that politicians will pick up the phone to influence the deliberations of a judge on any matter ranging from a simple traffic violation to first-degree murder. Previously this cheeky meddling in the justice system was dismissed as nothing more than simple local political folklore, which, irrespective of whatever political pressures were applied, did little to affect the outcome of any judicial decision.

However, that system can no longer be said to exist, with the judiciary subjugated by a greedy political class bent on enhancing its hold over the various resources of the Lebanese state and its economy. This hostile takeover was made possible by the fact that, since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, much of the political power in Lebanon has shifted almost exclusively towards the executive branch of government.

That makes for a bad situation. However, it’s exacerbated by successive political crises that engulfed the country as well as the 2-year impasse in which parliament was unable to agree on a president and power was free to flow upward without check.

One only needs to examine the way the Minister of Justice Salim Jreissati, addresses the judiciary to understand how the executive regards the tools of the state, seeing them as mere lackeys rather than as fundamental aspects of a sovereign constitutional body.

The Hariri cabinet’s suggestion that the salaries and benefits of the judiciary be reduced seems not so much an austerity measure as a reminder that the livelihoods of the judiciary rest on the whims of the ministers and their leadership. That these proposed reductions were defeated on the parliament floor means little. Their spectre and the message they carry lingers on and will almost certainly be redeployed to keep Lebanon’s judges in check.

At the centre of the debate over an independent and strong judiciary lies the indisputable fact that Lebanon’s sectarian political system reduces the role of its 520 judges to little more than representatives of their own communities, tribes and political parties, all of whom are reliant on the patronage of their political masters for advancement.

In practical terms, a judge’s promotion to important and crucial positions is dictated by their willingness in responding to the requests and favours of their political patron, regardless of legality or inconvenience caused.

At the Cedre conference, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri put forth a series of economic reforms and anti-corruption measures, all geared towards avoiding the eventual collapse of the Lebanese economy. Yet, as long as the Lebanese judiciary is held hostage by the political establishment and the sectarian system it labours under, Lebanon and its justice system will remain, unfortunately, interrupted.