The long to-do list of Lebanon’s minister for Human Rights
Beirut - "The list of issues is long. The file is big with many ramifications involving several ministries and time is tight.” That statement by Ayman Choucair, Lebanon’s minister for Human Rights, underlines the challenges he faces in the newly created portfolio in Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government.
“The objective behind creating a Ministry for Human Rights is basically there is a need for it,” Choucair said. “No country can claim to be developed and modern if it does not respect human rights. It also shows that Lebanon is a pioneer in the region with regard to human rights issues.
“In Lebanon, legislations for the protection of human rights already exist but the problem is in the implementation and enforcement of the law.”
Torture in detention facilities, inequitable gender rights, long pretrial detention periods and prosecution of civilians by military courts are among issues that Lebanese and international human rights watchdogs have denounced.
Choucair said his ministry’s task is humongous and placing Lebanon on the right track requires essential reforms in several ministries, including Justice, Interior and Social Affairs.
“It is a long process but, within the coming three to four months, which is the lifespan of this government until general elections, I hope we will be able to set the ground for those who will come later to build on… The most important thing is to create the National Commission for Human Rights,” Choucair said.
A ten-member commission, a long-standing demand by human rights groups, is to be an independent body attached to the office of the prime minister, comprising judges, lawyers, doctors, activists and journalists, he said.
“The structure is meant to represent Lebanese society. The commission will have the task of monitoring incidents of violation of human rights and raising the alarm,” Choucair said.
Torture, ill-treatment and lengthy pretrial detention periods of suspected members of Islamist radical groups — some lasting for several years — have caused an outcry by human rights groups and the families of prisoners in Lebanon. The country is a signatory to the UN Convention against Torture.
“This is definitely a blatant violation of human rights and the law,” Choucair said, citing security and political reasons as being behind the lengthy incarceration of Islamist suspects.
“The problem is that under the present regional conditions [of conflict and rampant terrorism], the line between respect of human rights and security is very thin,” Choucair said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) welcomed the creation of the ministry and called for concrete moves to improve the human rights record in Lebanon.
“It is definitely a step forward, and it is encouraging to see human rights issues are being taken out at such high levels,” said Bassam Khawaja, HRW’s Lebanon researcher.
“The extent to which things will actually get done depends on whether this is a position that is funded to be able to tackle human rights violations in the country and whether it will be maintained when a new cabinet is formed after general elections.”
Lebanon is expected to have an election in May to select a new parliament.
Khawaja said the minister for Human Rights could take the lead on many pressing issues, including torture, which is reportedly prevalent in military interrogations, even though it is against Lebanon’s criminal laws.
“Prolonged pretrial detention is definitely a large issue in Lebanon,” Khawaja said. “The criminal defamation laws that criminalise speaking out against officials are also a concern and seem to be used against people who speak out like journalists and lawyers. Other issues include migrant domestic workers and refugees who are left out of labour protection… There is a long list absolutely.”
While the precarious security situation in Lebanon has led to human rights abuses, HRW said there was never any justification for torture.
“Torture is illegal under both international and domestic law but also it has been shown it is ineffective and counterproductive. It actually does quite serious damage to the relation of populations with security services, and even leads to radicalisation,” Khawaja said.
Choucair said ensuring respect for human rights in Lebanon’s environment of heightened security risks and instability is no easy task.
“Let’s achieve what we can for now,” he said. “Treat issues that are in our capacity to treat step by step, until we can overcome this very difficult period in the region and in Lebanon.”