Lebanon Protests

Lebanon has seen mass anti-government demonstrations since October 17, 2019, when the government announced a slew of new taxes. The countrywide protests devolved into expressions of anger against the entire political establishment, whom protesters blame for the country’s dire economic crisis. State security forces at times used excessive force against demonstrators and failed to protect them from violent counter-protesters. The economic crisis and an irresponsible fiscal policy threatens people’s  access to health care and food, and has driven many families into poverty. Vulnerable groups, including refugees and migrant workers, have been particularly hard hit by the economic crisis.

Spate of Free Speech Prosecutions

A spate of prosecutions since the outbreak of nationwide protests on October 17, 2019 against activists and journalists critical of government policies and corruption is threatening free speech and opinion in Lebanon.

Security agencies called in at least 29 people for interrogation concerning free speech charges, including insult and defamation, between October 17, 2019 and March 6, 2020. Insult and defamation are criminal offenses in Lebanon, with prison terms of up to three years. Media also reported that at least 20 people, including at least 18 children, were briefly detained and interrogated in 2 separate incidents for tearing down posters of politicians and the president.

 “The state is using these repressive tactics to intimidate us into stopping our protest activities,” Jaber told Human Rights Watch. “But after October 17 is not the same as before October 17…. We won’t let them take the dream from us.”

Instead of heeding the protesters’ demands for accountability, those in power in Lebanon are bringing criminal charges against activists and journalists exposing corruption and peacefully expressing their opinions on social media. Such practices only reinforce the need to reform Lebanon’s abusive criminal defamation laws immediately.

Michael Page

Deputy Middle East Director, Human Rights Watch

Laws that allow imprisonment over peaceful criticism of individuals or government officials are incompatible with Lebanon’s international obligations to protect freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.

In November, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing a year-long investigation into attacks on freedom of expression in Lebanon. The investigation found that in dozens of cases between 2015 and 2019, public officials and security forces used criminal defamation and insult laws to retaliate against and silence people who criticized public officials or government policies, resulting in a chilling effect on free speech.

Medical Supplies Scarce as Coronavirus Spreads

The health minister, Hamad Hassan, warned today that Lebanon was no longer focused on containing the coronavirus outbreak as the virus spreads, but rather on mitigating its impact. Six new cases were confirmed today, raising the total number of people infected with coronavirus in Lebanon to 22.

The Lebanon World Heath Organization (WHO) representative in Lebanon, Iman Shankiti, predicted that the outbreak will grow, challenging Lebanon’s already struggling medical sector.

The spokeswoman for Lebanon’s medical supply importers, Salma Assi, told Reuters, “if we are talking about masks and gloves, there is none. We are completely out of stocks and this issue is because for five months we haven’t been able to import.” Assi added that medical supply importers have brought in just $10 million of the $120 million in goods they have sought since October, and nearly all transactions have been frozen since February.

Medical suppliers who provide equipment for both public and private hospitals told Human Rights Watch in December that they have not been able to import medical equipment since September due to the shortage of dollars and the absence of government regulations that would prevent banks from arbitrarily restricting money transfers outside the country.

The head of the Syndicate of Private Hospitals, Sleiman Haroun, also told Human Rights Watch that the government owes private hospitals more than 1.3 billion dollars, compromising their ability to provide urgent healthcare. Haroun said that the government has not paid private hospitals “a single pound” of the dues owed to them in 2019.

Despite the medical community sounding the alarm on several occasions, the Lebanese government has not yet put in place any measures to meet the challenges that the economic crisis has posed to access to medical care, medicine, and medical equipment.

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, Lebanese authorities have closed schools and entertainment venues, cancelled sporting events, and halted flights from countries with high rates of infection. However, Lebanese citizens have stated that they have little faith in the government’s ability to manage the outbreak. On March 2, the Prime Minister admitted that “the state is no longer capable of protecting the Lebanese people.”

Life for Lebanon’s Migrant Domestic Workers Goes From Bad to Worse

Hardly anyone in Lebanon has been left unscathed by the economic crisis, the worst since the end of the civil war in 1990. Its impact has been most devastating on communities already marginalized prior to the crisis. The situation for  the estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers, for instance, who are excluded from labor law protections, has gone from bad to worse.

Many domestic workers have reported that their employers slashed their salaries—if they paid them at all. But even the more fortunate workers who are still receiving their salaries in full have seen their money’s value decrease by almost a third as the Lebanese lira depreciates.

Making matters worse, even though some migrant workers stand to effectively lose out on half of their pay or more, they cannot readily leave their employers or advocate for better pay or conditions. Their presence is regulated under a kafala (sponsorship) system—which former Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman likened to “modern-day slavery”—under which they cannot leave or change jobs without their employer’s consent. Giving employers this level of control over workers’ lives has led to an array of abuses that Human Rights Watch has been documenting for years, including non-payment of wages, forced confinement, no time off, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

For years, the Lebanese government has been shirking its duty to protect migrant domestic workers, leaving employers, recruitment agencies, and embassies to manage the working relationship—often with disastrous consequences for the workers. As the economic crisis worsens and the situation of migrant domestic workers becomes even more precarious, the government should no longer look the other way.

The new Labor Minister, Lamia Yammine, has an opportunity to correct this historical injustice. Dismantling the kafala system will not solve the economic crisis, but it will ensure that the tens of thousands of women who left their homes and families to work in Lebanon are not left to bear the brunt of it.

World Bank Warns Lebanon at Risk of “Implosion”

Lebanon was at risk of “implosion” unless it develops a new governance model that is less corrupt and more transparent, the World Bank warned on February 16 . Farid Belhaj, the bank’s most senior official for the Middle East and North Africa, underscored the importance of politicians implementing some much-needed reforms, including improving the electricity supply and reforming the education sector.

Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), delivered a similar message when she said that the IMF will consider financial assistance to Lebanon only “if we are convinced that there is a seriousness in the approach the government is taking.” On February 13, the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab asked the IMF for technical assistance for an economic “rescue plan.” The IMF announced that a team of experts will begin consultations with the Lebanese government on February 20.

Under a new policy announced in April 2018, the IMF affirmed that tackling corruption will be a key pillar of its programming. The IMF said that it will analyze countries’ financial governance to get an idea of how rampant corruption is, and the economic impact. If it concludes corruption is having a significant economic impact, the fund will offer policy advice and in some cases financial assistance to strengthen governance.

While the nature of the IMF’s assistance to Lebanon is not yet clear, the IMF should ensure that its recommendations do not have an adverse impact on access to basic rights.

Violence Ahead of Government Confidence Vote

Lebanese security forces, including riot police, parliament police, army paratroopers, and army commando regiments, encircled the parliament building in downtown Beirut and clashed with protesters ahead of a vote of confidence for the new cabinet.

Thousands of protesters gathered around the entrances to parliament early on February 11 and tried to obstruct MPs from attending the session. Protesters reject the new cabinet, saying its members have clear connections to established political parties and are unable to address the economic crisis.

Human Rights Watch observed security forces launching tear gas to disperse protesters at the entrances to parliament, and fired some canisters directly at protesters in violation of international standards. A teargas canister went through a woman’s cardboard sign and burnt the flag around her neck. A journalist reported being hit in the leg with a teargas canister.

Security forces also used water cannons to disperse protesters around the Annahar building. Two protesters from Tripoli told Human Rights Watch that security forces launched teargas and aimed water cannons at them around the Annahar building at 8 a.m. without any provocation. A local media watchdog reported that security forces fired a rubber bullet that hit a photographer’s in the mouth near the Annahar building.

Human Rights Watch observed soldiers beating protesters around the ESCWA building, and saw riot police beating protesters around the Zkak el-Blat entrance. One injured protester told Human Rights Watch that a riot police officer threw a rock that hit his head near the Riad al-Solh entrance. Some supporters of Amal and Hezbollah also threw rocks at protesters around the Ring road and Zkak el-Blat.

While Prime Minister Hassan Diab was talking to a half empty parliament hall about the importance of the right to protest, security forces were throwing tear gas and beating people up outside. For the right to have any real meaning, Lebanon’s authorities should ensure that protesters are able to freely express their opinions, including those deemed critical of the government.

Aya Majzoub

Lebanon and Bahrain Researcher, Human Rights Watch

The protests were overwhelmingly peaceful in the morning, but Human Rights Watch observed a few protesters throwing rocks at security forces and hurling teargas canisters back at them. Other protesters threw water bottles, rocks, and eggs at the parliamentarians’ convoys. One parliamentarian was transported to the hospital after protesters attacked his convoy.

Around noon, after the parliamentary session started, some protesters attempted to break into Nejmeh Square, where parliament is located. They threw rocks and fireworks at security forces and removed at least two of the concrete and metal barriers that security forces had set up around the compound’s perimeter. Security forces escalated their response, launching large amounts of teargas, firing rubber bullets, and beating protesters.

As of 4:30 p.m., the Lebanese Red Cross reported treating 328 injuries at the scene and transporting 45 to nearby hospitals.

Lebanon’s Military Courts Have No Business Trying Civilians

At least two civilians have appeared before military courts in Lebanon in recent days, prompting fresh concerns over authorities’ attempts to stamp out dissent in the country. Hassan Yassine and Nour Chahine both face charges related to their involvement in the protest movement currently sweeping Lebanon.

Activist Hassan Yassine, who the Internal Security Forces (ISF) arrested during a protest in Beirut on January 22, 2020, has been charged by the military prosecutor with “forcefully resisting security forces.” He appeared before the Military Tribunal on February 3. The Lawyers’ Committee for the Defense of Protesters said that a forensic doctor who examined Yassine while in detention found his body bore marks of abuse, which the committee say resulted from the ISF beating him during his arrest and before his interrogation at the El Helou police station.

Another man from Tripoli, Nour Chahine, has been charged with attempting to kill a member of the army and with “resisting the security forces” in front of Beirut’s parliament. Chahine turned himself in to the military intelligence branch in Tripoli on December 25, 2019 and has been detained at the Defense Ministry and Military Police branch in Rayhaniyya ever since. According to the Lawyers’ Committee for the Defense of Protesters, Chahine was not allowed to contact his family or meet with a lawyer before his interrogation. He first appeared before the Military Tribunal on January 31, and before a military investigative judge on February 4. During his first hearing, Chahine alleged that he was tortured while being interrogated at the Defense Ministry.

A 2017 Human Rights Watch investigation revealed the many due process and international law violations inherent in trying civilians before military courts in Lebanon. 

Military courts have no business trying civilians. Lebanon’s parliament should end this troubling practice by passing a law to remove civilians from the military court’s jurisdiction entirely.

Podcast: Security Forces’ Unlawful Use of Force

Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch, spoke with the hosts of The Lebanese Politics Podcast, Nizar Hassan and Benjamin Redd, about the security forces’ unlawful use of force against demonstrators since the protests began on October 17, 2019. Listen to the episode here.