Lebanon: Addressing a Legacy of Conflict

Between 1975 and 1990, daily life in Lebanon was shaped by armed conflict and widespread political violence that impacted people and communities across the country. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, injured, displaced, disappeared, or harmed in the violence, in which a wide range of local and international actors were involved.

Residents of Tyre, Lebanon, return to their homes after an air attack by Israeli forces (UN Photo/John Isaac)

The Ta’if Agreement that ended the war in 1990 did little to curb a root cause of the conflict: sectarianism. In fact, it reinforced sectarian politics and the population shifts brought about by the war through power-sharing by the major parties. The division of political power among the three main confessions has created the perpetual challenge of a political balancing act.

As a result, Lebanese society remains politically and socially divided, with the widespread perception that “war could erupt at any time.”

The Lebanese government has been reluctant to engage in discussions about the past or how to prevent violence from recurring. There has been a near-total lack of official truth seeking, acknowledgment, or reparations for victims of the wars. This silence adds to the victims’ suffering and sense of insecurity.

While it is true that Lebanon is acutely vulnerable to regional tensions, the continuing cycle of violence may in part be due to the failure to address the legacy of the past in a meaningful and sustainable way.

Now Lebanon is at a crossroads, and it’s clear that the path toward stability requires finally hearing the voices of victims and fulfilling their rights to truth and justice.”

Carmen Hassoun Abou Jaoudé
ICTJ’s Head of Office in Lebanon

In 2011, to help open new possibilities, ICTJ initiated a multiyear project—under the name “Addressing the Legacy of Conflict in a Divided Society”— aimed at sparking debate on how to break the cycle of political violence in Lebanon and bring about accountability, the rule of law, and sustainable peace.

Funded for two years by the European Union and then Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the project has produced four publications and multiple events on the wars of Lebanon, seeking greater clarity on: What happened? How has the government responded? How are people affected? And what does Lebanese civil society think should be done?

UN Photo/John Isaac

What Happened?

While the widespread harms caused by violence are still visible everywhere in Lebanon, the official denial of Lebanon’s past has left a gaping hole in the historical record and the public’s understanding of the war.

We say inshallah he will return. We say inshallah but 30 years have passed. Some tell you they threw them in the sea, others say in mass graves.”

Wife of a victim of enforced disappearance

An elderly Palestine refugee who lost his family in the Shatila camp massacre in Beirut, in September 1982 (UN Photo/UNRWA)

To contribute to documentation efforts, an ICTJ report released in September 2013 presents information on hundreds of incidents of serious human rights violations that occurred in Lebanon from 1975 to 2008, affecting individuals and communities. The report, titled “Lebanon’s Legacy of Political Violence: A Mapping of Serious Violations of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Lebanon, 1975−2008”, is the first effort to gather existing reports of political violence together in one place.

Importantly, the report does not analyze the causes of the violence or establish the criminal responsibility of individuals or groups. Instead, it presents descriptions of incidents stripped of partisanship, in a factual, straightforward way.

Based on information collected from dozens of newspapers, journals, reports and other records, it reveals patterns of serious violations perpetrated against civilians. These include mass killings, bombing of residential areas, systematic and widespread use of torture, assassinations, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, sieges of villages, and depriving civilian populations of food and water.

This data was shared with Lebanon Support to enhance an online interactive “map of security incidents” in Lebanon.

The report also provides a legal analysis of the violence to enable readers to see incidents in the context of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

It is time to start questioning the logic of forget and forgive… Teenagers and young adults are asking questions about their country’s past and the suffering of their parents.”

Lebanon’s Legacy of Political Violence, p. 113

While not an exhaustive database of all crimes, the report is intended to serve as a resource for future research and investigative work. It identifies incidents of violence in a way that could feed into a broader, long-term process of acknowledging what has happened to people in Lebanon, across the country and across social divides.

Listen to an interview with Lynn Maalouf, one of the primary authors of the report “Lebanon’s Legacy of Political Violence.”

The full report is available in English and Arabic.

How Has the Government Responded?

Successive Lebanese governments have made only partial and ineffective attempts to hold powerful individuals and groups accountable for political violence and serious human rights violations committed on Lebanese soil. As a result, a culture of impunity continues to thrive in Lebanon.

A report by ICTJ examining impunity for serious crimes, titled Failing to Deal with the Past: What Cost to Lebanon?, looks at the steps Lebanese governments have taken so far to address violations through prosecutions, institutional reform, truth seeking, and reparation since 1990 – and why these measures have mostly fallen short of guaranteeing victims’ rights.

In particular, the report decries the amnesty laws that have prevented Lebanon from examining and prosecuting war-time violations, and contributed to “state-sponsored amnesia” about the war.

Given the massive scale of the war’s destruction and the number of victims, the country needed to adopt a sweeping approach to justice and reform in order to transition successfully from war to peace.”

“Failing to Deal with the Past,” p. 1

Judges at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, August 2013 (Special Tribunal for Lebanon)

Efforts to confront the legacy of past violence have included official domestic initiatives, such as the Ta’if Agreement, committees to investigate enforced disappearances, and compensation processes through the Ministry of the Displaced. Local unofficial processes have included the documentation work of UMAM Documentation & Research organization and promotion of nonviolence among youth by the Permanent Peace Movement. International measures have included the International Commission to Enquire into Reported Violations of International Law by Israel During Its Invasion of the Lebanon (MacBride Commission) and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (a hybrid court).

Yet, victims in Lebanon continue to await answers and justice for crimes sometimes suffered decades ago.

There is no information on the fate or whereabouts of over 17,000 persons who are acknowledged by the state of Lebanon as missing or forcibly disappeared. Their families do not know if they were killed or if they are being held somewhere in Lebanon, Israel, or Syria.

Successive Lebanese governments have always pledged to address the issue of the missing and to give answers and support to families. Three different committees have been established for this purpose:

  1. Official Committee of Inquiry to Investigate the Fate of the Kidnapped and Missing Persons (January 2000).
  2. Committee formed to receive complaints from the families of the disappeared under a ministerial decree (2001); its mandate was extended twice, ending in February 2002.
  3. Joint Lebanese-Syrian Committee (August 2005), which has not convened since July 2010.

But their work has been severely criticized. Although the 2000 commission report—albeit only two-pages long—recognized for the first time the existence of mass graves, it claimed it would be impossible to identify the remains because more than two decades had passed since the killings. It also denied claims that Lebanese citizens were being detained in Syria or Israel. Subsequent commissions did not challenge the 2000 report or undertake investigations.

As the ICTJ report concludes, Lebanon has made no serious attempts to comply with its national or international legal obligations to pursue perpetrators of serious human rights violations or to address the rights and needs of the victims.

The full report is available in English and Arabic.

Thomas Leuthard/Flickr

How Are People Affected?

Despite the long history of political violence in Lebanon, only a few studies have attempted to examine people’s perceptions of past violence and their attitudes toward confronting the country’s turbulent past.

In 2013 as part of a qualitative study, ICTJ collected data about how communities in Greater Beirut talk about the past and the need for truth, justice, and an end to violence. The findings are presented in the 2014 report “How People Talk About the Lebanon Wars: Perceptions and Expectations of Residents in Greater Beirut.”

Fifteen focus group discussions were held in 5 neighborhoods in Greater Beirut, involving a cross-section of younger and older residents, members of the main confessional groups, men and women, Palestinian refugees, and victims of direct and indirect violence.

The neighborhoods in Greater Beirut studied were:

The report looks beyond the narrow framing of victims and perpetrators to understand how diverse communities within Lebanon have been affected by the Lebanon wars and how their experiences, along with the consequences of official and unofficial responses to it, have shaped their attitudes and expectations regarding attempts to deal with the past.

The study revealed the dominant, yet unsurprising, perception that the “war is not over.” Participants had the sense that Lebanon is far from being in a meaningful transition to sustainable peace, because of ongoing regional instability and the lack of institutional reforms.

Our discussions here are the same as five years ago… In my opinion this is not what we need to discuss. Instead, we should discuss how the Lebanese war must end. We all feel we are victims of the sectarian conflict, victims of the economic situation, victims of the security situation and political concerns, and victims of the educational problems.”

Saad, a participant from Hamra/Ras Beirut

A common sentiment was a lack of trust in the current political leadership and existing government structures to advance transitional justice processes that are nonpartisan and geared towards reform.

During focus group discussions, victims of direct violence emphasized the importance of learning the truth about past wrongs and acknowledging them. As Sara, a woman from Hamra whose brother was killed during the 1975−1990 war, said: “Justice is to know the truth of who killed your brother, father, or husband.”

Young Lebanese boys play in the damaged city of Tyre, in Southern Lebanon, March 1978. (UN Photo/John Isaac)

While older generations (particularly older women) called primarily for memorialization at the family and community level, younger participants were most supportive of an unfettered truth-telling process, cutting across familial, community, and national lines. In particular, younger participants shared a desire to confront Lebanon’s “collective amnesia” about the wars, in order to understand the logic of ongoing conflict and sectarian tensions.

Participants who were supportive of “confronting the past” identified nonpartisan community groups and civil society groups as viable channels to advance historical clarification and intercommunity dialogue about justice and accountability.

Almost all participants agreed that sectarian political arrangements have fuelled ongoing tensions. Interestingly, the most common notion of justice raised by participants on their own was not criminal accountability, but legal equality or nondiscrimination guaranteed across confessions in Lebanese society.

The full report is available in English and Arabic.

Thomas Leuthard/Flickr

What Does Lebanese Civil Society Think Should Be Done?

The space for change does exist, and Lebanese civil society is making use of it. The recommendations for reform set out in the fourth publication in the series, titled “Confronting the Legacy of the Past: An Agenda for Change,” are part of this movement, a civil-society-led initiative.

Based on research and advocacy work carried out by a consortium of practitioners, experts, and victims’ groups in Lebanon, the recommendations are a set of practical political and social reforms designed to address the legacy of the 1975−1990 war and Lebanon’s ongoing cycles of violence.

Directed at state authorities, they touch on a wide range of human rights violations affecting people in Lebanon today, such as torture, displacement, impunity, and enforced disappearance, as well as the lack of trust in state institutions.

The passage of time is opening new spaces to re-examine the past.”

Confronting the Legacy of the Past, p. 1

The consortium recommends, among other measures, that Parliament adopt the Draft Law for Missing and Forcibly Disappeared Persons, which recognizes the basic rights of the families of the forcibly disappeared and outlines a process to provide a “missing person certificate” to families as a clear and recognized status for the missing or forcibly disappeared.

Sit-in in front of the Criminal Court in Sidon, held every year on April 13th since the end of the civil war, April 2006 (Mazna El Masri)

The consortium agrees that the issue of persons whose fate remains unknown but who are believed to have been arrested or abducted in Syria—or arrested or abducted in Lebanon and then transferred to Syria—requires special attention.

Further, to address human rights violations still occurring today, the consortium recommends that the Lebanese authorities afford “prompt and effective remedy to victims of arbitrary detention and torture in view of bringing the respective violation to an immediate end.” And it calls for a comprehensive national strategy for the rehabilitation of victims of torture and arbitrary detention, through a consultative and inclusive process.

Taken together, the recommendations put a strong emphasis on the need to initiate fact finding processes, reparations, and institutional reform—and to acknowledge those who have been most affected by conflict in Lebanon.

If followed by the government, it is hoped that these measures will help to foster greater public trust in state institutions and curb Lebanon’s ongoing vulnerability to political violence.

The full report is available in English and Arabic.