The threats from autocratic rulers and the pains of economic woes made the promotion of the rule of law in the Middle East a Herculean task, but don’t underestimate these people’s determination.
By Heather Yang/Hong Kong Journalist, Columnist
English translation by Wei-Hsin Lin
A global pandemic, a port explosion, and an economic meltdown made 2020 a tough year for Lebanon
Samer Ghamroun, a founding member of The Legal Agenda, a Lebanon-based non-governmental organization, told us about the three disasters that struck Lebanon around the same time in 2020.Apart from the coronavirus pandemic, the people of Lebanon also grappled with a collapsing economy, and a blast that ripped through Beirut in August. Three cataclysms that happened during an overlapping period of time put the local residents in great affliction and left The Legal Agenda with no choice but to continue their work under such trying circumstances.
Founded in 2009, The Legal Agenda is aimed at combining the expertise of specialists from different fields to strengthen Lebanon’s judicial independence and promote the rule of law. Items on their agenda include studying and monitoring the judiciary, helping establish a judges’ club to assert judges’ independence, drafting bills that support judicial independence while seeking solidarity with like-minded people, and encouraging debates on how to ensure judicial independence and discussions on all kinds of social issues. They also concern themselves about victims of SGBV, the plight of refugees, and the rights of marginalized groups such as the LGBT community.
In 2020, The Legal Agenda was jointly awarded the Tang Prize in Rule of Law with other two public interest organizations.
In Lebanon, there is an increasing degree of political interference in courts, “making it impossible to indict anyone in power for corruption or any other malfeasance.”
Around 6 p.m. on August 4, 2020, two massive explosions shook Beirut’s port area, led to at least 200 fatalities, more than 6500 injuries. A huge number of people were unaccounted, and about 300 thousand became homeless. Government reports point to the 2700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port since 2014 as the cause of this tragedy. It was a triple whammy for the Lebanese people, who had been living under lockdown and faced with an economic crisis before being caught off guard by these blasts.
Ghamroun pointed out that the convention of Lebanese politics would incline the government to compensate the victims or find other ways, such as providing them with public money in exchange for their compromise and silence, so that these people would give up their rights voluntarily. It’s a vicious cycle that usually results in the public becoming oblivious to the voices of the victims. Therefore, since August 2020, they have been making all-out efforts to break this circle and protect the victims from these political manipulations. “We immediately put together a team and have been trying to help victims of the explosions, including the families of those who were killed, and people who were wounded or lost their homes or jobs. We try to support these people and help them form groups to claim their rights,” Ghamroun explained.
During the Lebanon Civil War that lasted from 1975 to 1990, political interference with Lebanon’s judicial system became increasingly widespread. For Ghamroun, the past 10 to 15 years have seen this phenomenon get ever more rampant. “In the past 25 years, there have been many judges paying regular visits to political heavyweights or heads of government departments, attempting to secure a higher position for themselves, while these politicians asked the judges to return the favor by obeying their wills and providing the services they want.” Ghamroun concluded that “as we can see, nowadays judges (in this country) need good political connections to allow them to hold a post in the judicial branch.”
According to Ghamroun, powerful politicians can decide whether or not a judge will get promoted. Anyone considered insubordinate usually gets transferred to some trivial positions. Moreover, Lebanon’s Higher Judiciary Council also holds sway over a judge’s career. 8 out of the 10 members of this council are nominated by the government, which enables the authorities to exert huge influence on the council.
Step by step, Lebanon’s judiciary became subjugated to the political will of the ruling class. The integrity of prosecutors, in particular, was badly damaged. As a consequence, “in Lebanon, it is impossible to indict anyone in power for corruption or any other malfeasance.”
Most of the judicial and prosecuting agencies chose to absolve the authorities from any blame, so they were not held accountable for any policy decision. “The lack of accountability is part of our culture, because we don’t have an independent judiciary,” Ghamroun said, “and this is also one of the main reasons why we are now faced with an economic crisis.”
An economic crisis is not a permit for a government to oppress the marginalized and flout laws
In the wake of the Beirut port explosion, The Legal Agenda went on a mission to challenge this culture of unaccountability. “We are trying to introduce a new interactive relationship between the victims and the authorities, an interaction playing out in the domains of law and human rights. Several politicians and security official are directly or indirectly responsible for this disaster and what’s more, the victims’ rights should be recognized, be ‘seen.’ They have the right to know the truth, to know what caused the explosion, to get compensation through legal avenues, and to see those responsible being punished,” Ghamroun remarked. “We need to introduce into the public debate this idea of accountability, which is often disregarded in Lebanon.”
To achieve this goal, the first step they have to take is to make sure the victims are being “seen” in the public sphere. As of this writing, The Legal Agenda has successfully provided and continue to provide support for four victims advocacy groups to try to put pressure on the Lebanese government and ruling class and force them to accept the change. Meanwhile, they continue to show concern for the rights of Lebanon’s vulnerable and marginalized. Besides the economic crisis, some groups, including sexual minorities, women, and refugees, also have to face systemic discrimination and oppression. It’s like adding insult to injury. Ghamroun observed this very dangerous and familiar scenario unfolding in the lives of these people. As a result, their living conditions has been deteriorating rapidly. He is deeply worried that their rights will be the first thing to be sacrificed during this crisis.
At the same time, the authorities have taken an irresponsible attitude to this problem. “What we have in Lebanon is a government that always advertises its ‘good behaviors’ to the world.” To give us an example, Ghamroun mentioned that in terms of LGBT rights, gay sex is still considered illegal. However, when The Legal Agenda or other similar organizations managed to defy these intransigent forces and get the implementation and interpretation of law move in the correct direction, the Lebanese government took credit for the progress they made, turned it into propaganda materials and used it as a bargaining chip to extort more resources from the international community.
“The country has been in this economic crisis for a year. We are working hard to ensure that legal protections are still available, to remind the government that even though economy is faltering, it doesn’t make it acceptable for them to be indifferent to the needs of vulnerable groups,” Ghamroun stated. Therefore, through legal means and through their actions, they hope to send the authorities the message that an economic crisis is not a permit for them to oppress the marginalized and flout laws.
Nonetheless, he admitted that when the majority of the population are suffering from poverty and hunger, how to emphasize discussions about the rule of law will be a challenge in the future.
Facing all kinds of obstacles, The Legal Agenda has four strategies up its sleeve: research, advocacy, social movements, and education.
“Research is an incredibly important step, though it doesn’t receive much publicity.” Ghamroun added that they put a lot of emphasis on the importance of research in order to find the best strategy. For example, one of the main issues The Legal Agenda wants to address is judicial independence. In Lebanon’s parliament, debates are now taking place about the introduction of legislation on judicial independence. These debates can be held at the legislative level all because of a large-scale research project launched a few years ago. “We adopted research methods used by social scientists to try to gain a clear understanding of what actually happened in Lebanon’s courts and of how judges think and carry out their duties,” Ghamroun explained.
The second tool The Legal Agenda has is media advocacy. “We have our own media platforms. Our own magazine and website, in both English and Arabic. From Morocco to Iraq, our readers come from every corner of the Arab speaking world.” Ghamroun believes that in Lebanon and in other countries as well, it is very often the case that many mainstream media outlets fail to focus on really critical issues, and this isn’t just a bias against the stories about judicial independence or the rights of marginalized groups. Having your own platforms, on the contrary, means you can put pressing matters on the homepage. You can set your own agenda. You can “suggest and discuss with the public topics no one is paying attention to,” such as important trials or the rule of law.
Their third tool is activism or social movements. The Legal Agenda is on the battleground of a variety of progressive issues, including those related to LGBT rights, women’s rights, and sexual aggression. They work closely with other local organizations. “We are very active in our area. Not only do we offer legal support (to these movements,) but we’ve also been making attempts to directly effect social changes.”
The fourth strategy they pursue is judicial sensitization. Members of The Legal Agenda would promote specific cases so that court decisions on potentially transformational cases had a chance to become legal precedents. First of all, they made good use of media reports and social movements in order that certain issues could draw more attention. Then, they made sure the trials were making progress in order that issues no one was talking about would be taken notice of. Finally, they documented these cases in order that they could be promulgated among legal professionals. In this way, “lawyers and judges can see that while the law isn’t perfect, decisions like these can be made despite the limitations.”
The Legal Agenda combined and deployed these four “weapons” under different circumstances. Ghamroun conceded that he was not optimistic about the parliament’s debate on judicial independence, but they had some great success in tackling this issue and many other social issues. One example is that for 30 years, private entities have been occupying the public land on Lebanon’s seafront with the silent permission of the government. LA work, alongside other organizations, allowed this issue to become central in today’s public debate. Another one is their speaking out against treating drug addicts as criminals and arguing that the law requires that these people be seen as those who need help. “We are very active in the front line of advancing these important issues,” Ghamroun said.
The Legal Agenda is not only a pioneer in the advocacy of these issues in Lebanon, but it also continues to promote its values in other countries in the Arab region. In fact, they have already set up an office in Tunisia.
Referring to the complicated situation in the Middle East, Ghamroun noted that every place had its own problems when it comes to the rule of law and human rights. In many countries in the region, a basic democracy doesn’t even exist, making it very difficult for The Legal Agenda to work on the field and to collaborate with people in those societies. “Many Middle Eastern governments are just autocracies in one form or another. Human rights, the judiciary, and the rule of law there are in grave jeopardy and surrounded by uncertainty. So it’s nearly impossible for us to doing anything related to our work there.”
“We were very active in Egypt, but its political situation now made the work for the rule of law in Egypt almost impossible, and extremely dangerous. It’s the same when we are talking about Syria. By comparison, Lebanon and Tunisia, and Morocco to some degree, are countries where we can carry out our work with more freedom.”
Looking at what happened during the past 10 years in the Arab world, Ghamroun thinks Tunisia is the one most likely to become a poster child for democratization. It is also where The Legal Agenda has been devoting much of its manpower and resources. “We became deeply involved in Tunisia’s movements for judicial independence. Our legal correspondents and experts are very active in promoting the essential principles underlying judicial independence. We also participated in the debate surrounding the implementation of transitional justice measures there, as well as in the debate around the rights of its marginalized groups, such as the LGBT community.”
Ghamroun remarked that as far as advocating these rights was concerned, Tunisia was an important place. Though its economy is wobbling, it’s not as bad as Lebanon’s. But generally speaking, he would consider the judicial systems in Arab countries to be in a very bad shape. “The current economic situation is very stressful and that makes our jobs incredibly hard, because when people are hungry, they might become less mobilized about protecting their rights.”
“Nowadays, more Lebanese are aware that we don’t have judicial independence. People’s rights and freedoms are not protected. The rule of law is not dutifully enforced.”
With the society hit by so many crises, Ghamroun conceded that they had to reassess the work plans drawn up a few year ago. “When Lebanon is faced with such an economic crisis, we are unable to discuss trials and the rule of law the way we used to. Our main challenge now is to figure out how to strategize these issues under these (trying) circumstances.”
Having dedicated itself to the fight for Lebanon’s judicial independence for more than 10 years, The Legal Agenda has produced many desirable outcomes. For example, they have been very active in public debates. As a consequence, people became more sensitive to the status quo of Lebanon’s judicial culture. “Nowadays, more Lebanese are aware that we don’t have judicial independence. People’s rights and freedoms are not protected. The rule of law is not dutifully enforced.” In addition, they helped making the idea of a judges’ club in Lebanon more acceptable in the profession, in order to encourage legal professionals to resist any political manipulation so that politics cannot have full control over the judiciary, and to encourage an increasing number of judges and prosecutors unwilling to bend the knee to those in power to rebel.
Unfortunately, the soaring inflation and exchange rate drastically changed the practical reality regarding how they can achieve judicial independence. It is the fallout of the economic crisis. When judges are so poorly paid, it’s more likely that they would become corruptible. For those who joined the judges’ club, if the salary they earn is 200 US dollars, it may be only one tenth of what it was worth a year ago. “When they are struggling to provide their families with food and shelter, is there anything you can do to encourage them to fight for independence ? No doubt, the economic situation has changed the reality we used to deal with, mainly in Lebanon, but even in Tunisia where the change wasn’t so significant, the scenario is the same.”
Working in an environment riddled with crises, Ghamroun and his colleagues know they are trying to further the rule of law in a society where the foundation of the rule of law is quite shaky. Frank about his worries, Ghamroun said they would continue to tackle problems related to judicial independence, the rights of marginalized groups, socioeconomic inequality and social justice.
“In the face of an autocratic regime and an economic crisis, those promoting the rule of law will be in for a tough ride, but we are determined to keep doing our jobs,” Ghamroun asserted.