(Beirut) – This week’s anticipated vote to postpone parliamentary elections would contravene Lebanon’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said today. Parliamentary elections were originally scheduled to take place in June 2013.

The proposed extension bill, for the second postponement since the legislature took office in June 2009, would contravene Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Lebanon ratified in 1972. Article 25 stipulates that every citizen shall have the right and opportunity to vote and be elected in genuine periodic elections.

“There is never a convenient time to hold elections, particularly in Lebanon, but this country has held elections in difficult circumstances in the past, including 2005 and 2009,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The failure of politicians to reach an agreement on a new election law or to nominate a new president does not justify suspending the right of Lebanese citizens to vote.”

Nicolas Fattoush, the Member of Parliament who introduced the draft bill in August 2014, contended the move was aimed at protecting civil peace.

Political factions supporting the bill have said that the current security situation is not conducive to holding elections. In 2013, Parliament voted to extend its mandate by 17 months, through November 20, 2014. At the time, political factions also said that the security situation would prevent the government from holding elections. Since then, parliament has failed to agree on a new electoral law or to address any obstacles to holding the elections.

Article 25 of the ICCPR states that “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity…to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”

The UN Human Rights Committee, a body of international experts which interpret the covenant, has defined periodic elections as meaning elections that are not held at unduly long intervals: “Genuine periodic elections…are essential to ensure the accountability of representatives for the exercise of the legislative or executive powers vested in them. Such elections must be held at intervals which are not unduly long and which ensure that the authority of government continues to be based on the free expression of the will of electors.”

Although the Human Rights Committee has not defined what constitutes an “unduly long interval,” other international documents offer guidance. The European Commission for Democracy Through Law, known as the Venice Commission, in its Code for Good Practices in Electoral Matters, has specified that “elections must be held at regular intervals; a legislative assembly's term of office must not exceed five years.”

Current proposals would extend the current parliament’s term to eight years, twice their elected mandate.

Only under specific provisions of exceptional and temporary nature may a state party to the ICCPR derogate, or limit, some of its rights and obligations. Furthermore, such power is not absolute. Under Article 4 of the ICCPR, it is stated that “In time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed, the States Parties to the present Covenant may take measures derogating from their obligations under the present Covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”

The Human Rights Committee says that before a country invokes Article 4, two fundamental conditions must be met: “The situation must amount to a public emergency which threatens the life of the nation, and the State party must have officially proclaimed a state of emergency. The latter requirement is essential for the maintenance of the principles of legality and rule of law at times when they are most needed.”

Lebanon has not declared a state of emergency. Under such circumstances, any form of derogation from ICCPR article 25 is not permissible. Lebanon is therefore required to uphold its human rights obligations, which grant every citizen the right and opportunity to vote and be elected at genuine periodic elections. The canceling of elections and extending of parliament’s term would therefore contravene Lebanon’s human rights obligations under ICCPR.

The Civil Movement for Accountability, an umbrella initiative consisting of about 30 Lebanese nongovernmental groups, including the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), as well as activists and student groups, have urged parliament to not extend its mandate. The movement has led protests and sit-ins calling for elections.

In October, the For the Republic movement, which has also been active in these protests, submitted a complaint to the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights. The complaint contends that canceling elections and extending the parliament’s term, contravenes both local Lebanese law and Lebanon’s international human rights obligations under Article 25 of the ICCPR and Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 21 says that “The authority to govern shall be based on the will of the people, as expressed in periodic and genuine elections.”

The complaint also says: “By extending their own mandate beyond the term to which they were originally elected, the Lebanese MPs have self-appointed themselves in the only constitutional institution that is directly elected by the people in the Lebanese Parliamentarian system…the lack of popular legitimacy of the non-elected Parliament has a devastating effect on the whole Lebanese democratic system.”

The complaint also notes that parliament has not exceeded the four-year term specified in the country’s election law except during the civil war era (1975-1990) and for the 2000 Parliament. That body had a term of four years and eight months because of a new electoral law. 

“It would be a shame for Lebanon to go down the route of other Arab states where elections are held at the whim of their rulers or not at all,” Houry said. “Lebanon should instead play a leading role in political rights and civil liberties for other states in the region.”

Most Arab states are monarchies or autocracies where national elections either do not take place such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, or are highly controlled exercises by autocrats such as the recent elections in Syria, Human Rights Watch said.