Beirut, a city once enjoying the reputation of being “the Paris of the Middle East,” was a place boasting “scrumptious cuisine” and “effervescent nightlife” in the agonizing reminiscence of a Lebanese expatriate. However, it is also a city inured to an unremitting series of tragedies that besiege its citizens like a tyrant unwilling to loosen his grip. While the legacy of the 1975-1990 civil war is still lurking in its national memory, a fusillade of recent crises has sunk Lebanon into a deeper abyss of pain and suffering: the influx of Syrian refugees into a country barely equipped to cope with their needs; an economic implosion that left many people struggling with poverty, with no access to clean water, and with the daily occurrences of power outage ; a health care system about to buckle under the weight of a global pandemic; government corruption and negilegence that have sparked protests since last October And now, a deadly explosion that ravaged a beautiful city has sent out billows of smoke that is suffocating a country already drowning in debt.
Given this backdrop, it is understandable that the majority of Lebanese would choose to live as diaspora rather than reside in their homeland. But that is not the story of The Legal Agenda, one of the three organizations awarded the 2020 Tang Prize in Rule of Law.
Based in Beirut, The Legal Agenda has committed itself to furthering the rule of law since its establishment in 2009, striving tirelessly to achieve judicial independence and transparency in Lebanon and Arab region. After the catastrophe hit, the Foundation immediately reached out to them, asking about their safety and expressing our condolences. Though we were relieved to be informed that no one in the team had suffered serious injuries, the email correspondence was tinged with sorrow when we were told that some of their friends didn’t escape unscathed—bodies wounded, homes damaged, and worst of all, lives lost. Thinking little of their own distress, they were instead finding ways to “be helpful at a personal and organizational level.”
In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino gives his readers advice on how to face “the inferno of living.” If we don’t want to simply become oblivious to it, then “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, given them space.” The Legal Agenda’s love and compassion for a city dogged by misfortunes and their dedication to the residents mired in adversities serve as a powerful reminder of the space that inferno cannot take over, the space those of us lucky enough not to have to experience this calamity should make endure.
The 2020 Tang Prize honors the achievements of three organizations all located in the Global South, as manifested by the fact that the other two recipients, Dejusticia: The Center for Law, Justice and Society and the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, are based in Colombia and Bangladesh respectively. It is hoped that this recognition can increase awareness among the international community about the importance of making cooperative efforts to care for and provide support to countries grappling to a greater extent with issues such as financial deprivation and social inequality. In the near future, should the pandemic abate and a trip to Taiwan be a viable options again, the Foundation will welcome their visit with open arms, anticipating that their lectures will help broaden the horizons of the Taiwanese people and foster a stronger sense of solidarity with our friends in Lebanon, Colombia, Bangladesh, and around the world.