Lynn Maalouf on death penalty: “Lebanon could play a role model”

Amnesty International’s Middle East research director Lynn Maalouf answers ByTheEast’s questions about human rights in Lebanon: violations of different kinds, death penalty, torture, women’s rights, rights of sexual minorities, and finally the situation of Syrian refugees. Maalouf has a lot to say.

lynn maalouf bytheeast amnesty international
"Even though courts continue to hand down sentences, Lebanon has had an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty and has not carried out an execution since 2004." © Michelle Mouracade
ByTheEast: Let’s begin by getting a general overview of the human rights scene in Lebanon. Do you see any signs of progress over the last 10 years?

Lynn Maalouf: The situation of human rights, as anywhere in the world, hinges on an operational state – with an independent judiciary, an active parliament and government – as well as on rigorous laws and a strong, mobilized and strategic civil society. It’s a good indicator of where a society stands in this respect.

If you look back at the past 10 years, you see a state that was largely either paralyzed, or non-functional, or actively pushing back against demands for an improved human rights situation (for instance, the security forces’ excessive use of force against protestors in 2015 during the waste management crisis as one case in point), but coupled with a more mature, strategic, and active human rights community.

On paper, Lebanon has made the right commitments to ensure its citizens their main rights: it is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

But in practice, if we’re to look at citizens’ access to basic services today, such as affordable housing, clean water, air and electricity, which it should in principle be ensuring as per its obligations under ICESCR, there’s no question the Lebanese state has much to improve on. When looking at the situation of migrant domestic workers, who suffer from a range of serious violations reaching to the level of forced labor, the Lebanese state needs to up its ante on putting in place improved and functioning protection measures, as well as carry out legal and administrative reforms that would address the dire situation of a quarter million workers in the country. There are growing concerns around the ability of individuals to express their opinion freely, without fear of repercussion – we continue to document cases of people who are summoned for questioning, ill-treated, threatened, made to sign pledges that have no legal foundation by a host of security institutions.

There have been nonetheless some wins in the recent past – mostly in areas where there was sustained, and strategic campaigning and lobbying on specific issues, coupled with diplomatic pressure, or where the political cost of addressing the issue diminished – for example the ratification of the law on the missing and disappeared: ten years ago, one would have never thought possible such a law could pass in the country, even less with a clause that included the possibility of seeking criminal prosecutions. In September 2017, parliament finally passed the country’s first anti-torture law; and a month earlier it abolished the infamous “marry-your-rapist” law. We can and should expect to see more positive change in areas where the discourses resisting change have lost legitimacy, or credibility, and thus that represent low-hanging fruits for decision-makers at little cost – for instance one can think of issues concerning children’s rights, women’s rights, domestic workers, etc. Human rights organizations and civil society partners need to keep pushing – now that all three bodies of the state are finally functioning, and Lebanon is under pressure to clean its house so to speak, there can be room for improvement in the coming period.

“There has been a drop in over 30% in executions worldwide in 2018, with the lowest number that Amnesty has recorded over the past decade.”

BTE: In 2017 and 2018, although Lebanese courts continued to hand down death sentences, your report states “no executions were carried out”. What is your opinion on abolishing death penalty in the foreseeable future?

Maalouf: Indeed, even though courts continue to hand down sentences, Lebanon has had an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty and has not carried out an execution since 2004. It has stopped short though of abolishing the death penalty, and pressure on decision-makers to resume executions returns every once in a while. It wouldn’t be a wild assumption to think that the state could decide to abolish it altogether, if decision-makers today decide they want to follow the global trend and even play a role model in the region in this respect. Amnesty just released its global Death Penalty report, which shows that there has been a drop in over 30% in executions worldwide in 2018, with the lowest number that Amnesty has recorded over the past decade. This would be an example of the low-hanging fruit that I mentioned earlier.

BTE: Let us focus on torture. According to Sahar Mandour from Amnesty’s Lebanon office, “The authorities have recently taken steps to align Lebanon with its international obligations, namely by ratifying the anti-torture law and a just last week, by appointing the members of the National Preventive Mechanism. Ziad Itani’s case is a real litmus test of their intent to implement the law and meaningfully address torture.” And yet, although a year has gone by since the release of Ziad Itani on March 2018, he still carries signs of physical and psychological sequelae. What role can Amnesty International further play to implement, facilitate and act as a catalyst towards the implementation of this new anti-torture law which came into effect from October 2018?

Maalouf: Amnesty has documented the case of Ziad Itani and communicated both privately and publicly with the Lebanese authorities, first to call for his unconditional and immediate release, then for his case to be transferred from the military to a civil court and now for his right to seek redress for the claims of torture during his detention. Ziad’s case gained momentum in the public domain, and brought pressure on the authorities to address his case. Just last Friday, the military prosecutor decided to refer the case back to the civilian court, which Amnesty and others have been pushing for – it shows that with the right laws, and solid mobilization, there can be impact.

Lebanon has already signaled its willingness to address torture, by enacting the anti-torture law and then forming the Committee members. It now needs to take the next step which will be enabling the Committee to perform its duties, and a judiciary that will follow through on claims of torture with rigorous investigations and holding those responsible for the acts of torture or other forms of ill-treatment accountable.

BTE: In March 2019, the Lebanese government had approved the appointment of a five members committee towards the creation of the National Prevention Mechanism against torture and such ill-treatments. Further, the U.N. Convention against Torture specifically mentions that such detention centers should be physically visited by inspectors in order to discourage and prevent such inhumane treatments. In practical terms, what steps should be taken towards implementing this mechanism in Lebanon?

Maalouf: The members of the committee were just recently appointed – even though this should have happened some 10 years ago, it is still a very welcome step. Now the state needs to empower that committee, afford it a budget so it can start operating fully.

BTE: OK, let’s go in a different direction. I would like to talk about women’s rights. Lebanese civil society has called on the authorities to repeal articles 505 and 518, which allow for marriage with minors aged between 15 and 18 as a way to escape prosecution (in case of rape). What can you do to change this tragic reality?

Maalouf: On this issue, Amnesty can support and join forces with the very active and leading women’s rights organization who have been successfully fighting against child marriage, the marry-your-rapist law, domestic violence amongst other issues. The success of rights’ groups in recent years hasn’t been to only push for legal reforms but also in changing mentalities, in raising awareness, in making it more and more difficult for decision-makers to be taking regressive and repressive positions – so there is still much to be done but I do have hope for impact on women’s rights issues in Lebanon in coming years.

BTE: Lebanese women are not allowed to transmit their citizenship to their children. Many officials are afraid of Palestinians; they say it would mean a “raz-de-marée” of naturalizations. But reliable figures and statistics clearly say it’s a false reasoning since it would apply only to 3000 Lebanese-Palestinian families, a minority compared to the 18000 bi-national families. What can be done to change Lebanese authorities’ perception on this issue?

Maalouf: So the “raz de maree” argument has become quite difficult to hold in our day and age. The Lebanese government itself in fact commissioned the first survey of Palestinians living in both official camps and informal settlements – and the results showed that there was less than half of the estimated 450,000 Palestinians in Lebanon. So of course, this provides a good entry-point to push for a change in policy in this respect towards ensuring women’s right to pass on their citizenship – which affects Lebanese women primarily in fact, married to Palestinians or any non-Lebanese person.

“On homosexuality, mentalities have changed […] but the Lebanese authorities are still very much influenced by the pressure of religious institutions.”

BTE: With regard to the LGBT community, they are prosecuted and stigmatized in Lebanon. Traditional habits and archaic legislations condemn homosexual practices as they “contradict the laws of nature”, which is a moral and religious point of view. But recently, a military court cleared staff by ruling that sodomy’s “not punishable by law”. Could we consider this decision as a huge step forward?

Maalouf: Actually even though the law itself hasn’t been abolished, there have been a number of judicial decisions in the recent past that have all but made the law irrelevant, arguing that a homosexual act is not contrary to nature. There is no doubt that in the past decade or so, mentalities have changed and this has provided a backbone to the judges who have taken such decisions. This is in no small part due to the very brave activism by LGBTI groups sustained over the past years.

However, the Lebanese authorities are still very much influenced by the pressure of religious institutions and groups in the country in this area – and in the past couple of years, there have been a number of attempts by security institutions to shut down IDAHOT activities or conferences for example, that came on the back of threats proffered by religious groups.

So the need to keep pushing back against such repressive moves, with the overarching goal of abolishing the law altogether, is still very much needed – even though the recent judicial decisions can be seen as bearers of potential positive change.

BTE: Let’s conclude with your statement about Syrian refugees in Lebanon. For the past 4 years, Lebanese government forbid UNHCR to register new refugees’ entries in Lebanon. Therefore many refugees faced difficulties to renew their residency. What have done Amnesty International for them?

Maalouf: Indeed the Lebanese state stopped allowing UNHCR to register refugees since May 2015, which Amnesty called out since the decision had been taken, and has since been advocating for a reversal of this decision. Many refugees are struggling with a host of legal and administrative difficulties in the country, which all represent what we call “push” factors – or in other words, an environment in which the conditions of life are so dire that some refugees prefer to risk going back to their country where the situation is far from safe. Lebanon, along with Jordan and Turkey, have carried the greatest weight of the Syrian crisis and war; at a time when the rest of the world has to a large part closed its doors and fallen behind on supporting the host countries. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, Amnesty has called on the world to “share the responsibility” and step up its support of host states; but also continues to raise its concerns, publicly and privately, to the Lebanese authorities about its handling of the refugees in the country.

BTE: According to your 2018 report, around 9900 Syrian citizens have returned to their hometown in 2018. It sounds really short. What can Amnesty International do to facilitate their return? Can you work properly in Syria?

Maalouf: Amnesty, as a human rights organization, is not involved in the returns process. Our role is to monitor the situation and raise our concerns before the authorities and globally. To our knowledge, at this point in time, not one party or organization is able to ensure the safety of refugees returning to their country. There are credible reports that those returning, whether in an organized manner or not, are doing so without sufficient clarity or information about the situation on the ground in their places of origin – and that includes first and foremost the issue of safety.

With regards to our access to Syria, we have requested access on a regular basis from the authorities but receive no response. Our teams have been able to access the northeastern part of the country in the past couple of years, but it has been restricted to that area.