Amend Laws to Reform Sectarian System and End Discrimination
February 16, 2009

"This is a step in the right direction, but the government needs to take the next step and ensure that all Lebanese can have access to personal status laws that are not religiously-based and provide for equal treatment...Otherwise all Lebanese will continue to be forced to be officially members of specific religions and subject to their laws on key issues like marriage and inheritance." 

Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) - The decision by Lebanon's Minister of Interior to give citizens the right to remove their religious affiliation from identification papers is an improvement, but further steps are needed for Lebanon to meet its international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said today. The group urged the government to move urgently to adopt a civil personal status code which would be applicable to any Lebanese, irrespective of religious affiliation, and would ensure access to equal treatment under the law in personal status matters.

Interior Minister Ziad Baroud issued a circular on February 11, 2009, allowing Lebanese the right to remove any reference to their religion on Civil Registry Records. Under the current system, all Lebanese must identify themselves by religion.  The circular stated that the registrar will accept any request to remove a person's confession and replace it with a slash sign ( / ) on registry records. The circular cited the Lebanese constitution, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties that Lebanon has ratified, as the basis for this initiative.

"This is a step in the right direction, but the government needs to take the next step and ensure that all Lebanese can have access to personal status laws that are not religiously-based and provide for equal treatment," said Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Otherwise all Lebanesewill continue to be forced to be officially members of specific religions and subject to their laws on key issues like marriage and inheritance." 

Lebanon should also ensure that the laws it recognizes and enforces, including laws based on religious confessions, comply with human rights standards, including that they do not discriminate on gender or religious grounds, Human Rights Watch said.

Lebanon recognizes 18 religions, most of them variants of Islam or Christianity. When it comes to personal status matters such as marriage, inheritance, and child custody, each Lebanese is subject to the laws and courts pertaining to their religious community, regardless of whether they practice or adhere to the religion in question. Many of these laws do not treat men and women equally. Lebanese civil society groups have unsuccessfully campaigned in the past for a civil marriage law that will guarantee equality between men and women. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women reiterated its recommendation in 2008 that Lebanon "urgently adopt a unified personal status code which is in line with the Convention [Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women] and would be applicable to all women in Lebanon, irrespective of their religion."

"A new approach is needed to reconcile the legitimate concerns of Lebanon's various religious groups and the rights of all Lebanese to be treated equally," Houry said. "The government needs to reform personal status laws so that citizens are not forced to comply with religious laws they haven't freely chosen."