On August 4, 2020, Beirut experienced one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, which took the lives of more than 200 innocent people, injured over 6,500 others, and damaged or destroyed some 300,000 homes. A year after the horrific blast, Lebanese people are still infuriated over it, the lack of accountability, the dominant atmosphere of impunity, and the government’s negligence and false promises of truth and justice. Having lost faith in the country’s ineffective judiciary, they have been persistently calling for a credible, impartial, and independent investigation into the explosion.
“I want to protest the government’s response to the August 4 explosion, the people who were kidnapped and went missing during the Lebanese civil war, and other crimes that left thousands of victims, without holding the perpetrators accountable and without revealing the truth,” a Lebanese law student shared at ICTJ’s latest transitional justice workshop for youth in Lebanon. “I seek to redress the victims’ families as much as possible.”
As part of its ongoing support of the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon, ICTJ organized a three-day virtual workshop on transitional justice for university students on July 12-14, 2021. The students all served as volunteers on a project to establish an archive of the committee’s work and activism over the past four decades and participated in a previous workshop in February 2020 that introduced them to transitional justice concepts.
The workshop was led by ICTJ experts who used practical exercises and comparative experiences from other contexts to help participants understand the concepts of transitional justice more deeply and to raise awareness about the important role youth can play in encouraging society to engage with its past. Anna Myriam Roccatello, ICTJ’s deputy executive director and director programs, welcomed the workshop’s participants and urged them to seize every opportunity to advance justice for victims and everyone affected by the civil war in Lebanon.
Wadad Halwani, head of the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon, gave the participants an overview of the National Commission for the Missing and Forcibly Disappeared, which was established by Law 105/2018. The commission, she explained, consists of 10 members and is tasked with investigating the missing and forcibly disappeared, with the aim of revealing their whereabouts, tracking down human remains, and handing them over to their families. “The biggest challenge that lies ahead for the commission is preserving its independence and shielding it from political interference,” Halwani however warned. She also stressed the importance of implementing transitional justice processes in Lebanon. “If we had really implemented post-conflict transitional justice processes, the issue of the disappeared would have been resolved and Lebanon wouldn’t have been living this economic collapse among other crises,” she said.
The head of ICTJ’s Lebanon program Nour El Bejjani Noureddine and ICTJ program expert Elena Naughton followed with a session on accountability mechanisms in Lebanon and the challenges they face. El Bejjani Noureddine emphasized that justice cannot be achieved through criminal trials only. Rather, it also requires acknowledgment of past violations and harm done to the victims, meaningful reparation, truth seeking, and institutional reform. For El Bejjani Noureddine, “The common denominator between the victims of the Lebanese civil war, the victims of political assassinations and sectarian battles in the post-civil war period, the victims of corruption, and the victims of the August 4 explosion, is the prevailing culture of impunity.”
Naughton presented the process through which a society grappling with legacies of mass human rights violations can attain accountability, giving relevant examples from contexts around the world. “International criminal accountability is a fundamental component of transitional justice, as are truth, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition. All can help societies to own up to and face the consequences of conflict, political violence, and state repression. Only then, can a nation find feasible solutions and focus on their proper implementation for achieving justice.”
Naughton then described various types of mechanisms for pursuing accountability, such as the International Criminal Court, hybrid international and national mechanisms (namely the Special Tribunal for Lebanon), national courts and commissions of inquiry, and the application of universal jurisdiction. Through illustrative examples from other countries, she discussed the advantages and disadvantages of each.
The participants were given food for thought on how to reform Lebanon’s judiciary and extricate it from political interferences and pursue meaningful accountability. In terms of accountability, all participants agreed that Lebanon has always fallen short and that politicians were largely responsible, faulting them for either refusing to acknowledge the country’s endemic corruption and even economic crisis or playing the blame game when they do.
Nadia Jmal, program officer in ICTJ’s Tunisia office, gave a session on art and creative storytelling and their vital contributions to transitional justice. Nadia opened the session with a presentation of ICTJ’s Voices of Memory project in Tunisia, an interactive art exhibition spotlighting women’s experiences of repression in the country. She then described other ICTJ projects that sought to engage young Tunisians and preserve collective memory through participatory art and storytelling. She invited the participants to consider how they might spark a constructive dialogue among ordinary citizens about Lebanon’s past human rights abuses without overburdening the direct victims. “I understood some things from another perspective regarding the means or ways to spread awareness about transitional justice,” one participant said after the session.
Firas BouZeineddine, communications associate at ICTJ, led a session on communications strategies in which he presented the key elements of a successful strategy. Stressing the importance of effective communication, he also described the dangers of poor communication or miscommunication. He concluded with a hands-on exercise in which the participants developed communications strategies to publicize the archive project and to raise awareness about the National Commission for the Missing and Forcibly Disappeared and encourage people to get behind it.
In the workshop’s final session, led by ICTJ program expert Sibley Hawkins, participants simulated a press conference in which they took on different personas: victim, youth activist, women’s rights activist, representative of the National Commission for the Missing and Forcibly Disappeared, and journalist. The student playing the journalist would ask the others in their various roles about the commission and its work, the challenges it faces, and their expectations of what it might accomplish over the next five years. “It was inspiring to see the students adapt to their assigned roles, develop their own unique approaches, and present innovative ideas on what needs to be done to engage more of their peers and others who may otherwise remain excluded from conversations about justice and the past. It was moving to see how their inputs really took into consideration the moral and symbolic significance of the commission’s work,” Hawkins said, reflecting on the session.
Throughout the workshop, the participants demonstrated an eagerness to engage in Lebanon’s transitional justice processes, raise awareness about the country’s violent past, and help uncover the truth about the missing and forcibly disappeared. “It was a fruitful training,” said one student. “It taught me about ICTJ’s activities and the role of civil society in addressing the county’s past as well as human rights issues.”
PHOTO: A Lebanese man stands in front of Beirut's demolished port, following the explosion on August 4, 2020. He holds two Lebanese flags, the official one and another colored in black to commemorate the victims of the tragedy. (Nabil Ismail)