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Policemen spray water to disperse people protesting against a rubbish collection problem near the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon August 19, 2015. © 2015 Reuters/Mohamed Azakir
(Beirut) – Police in Lebanon used force to disperse a peaceful protest on August 19, 2015, failing to uphold human rights standards.
The authorities should immediately open an impartial investigation, ensure accountability for any excessive use of force, and refrain from repeated violence against demonstrators who are protesting the government’s failure to resolve a trash removal problem and plan to gather again on August 22.

“Violence has no role in responding to peaceful assembly and basic social demands,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “Lebanese authorities should respect the protesters’ rights and listen to their demands for a sustainable solution to the garbage crisis.”

Three witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces used excessive force to disperse a crowd of approximately 100 gathered in front of government headquarters, known as the Grand Serail. The witnesses said that the police fired water hoses without warning and kicked protesters and beat them with batons after protesters attempted to remove the barbed wire separating them from the Grand Serail. Local activists told Human Rights Watch that at least two protesters required medical care and that security forces arrested five protesters, who were released later in the day.

An Internal Security Forces representative, Jospeh Moussalem, told the local Lebanese television channel LBC that security forces practiced maximum restraint to prevent a riot but that protesters resisted and pushed back. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch denied using force against the security officers. Some videos uploaded on social media showed protesters hurling eggs, trash bags, and bottles over the barbed wire fencing. One video showed a protester attempting to ward off the security officers with a flag.

Protesters rallied outside the government’s headquarters on the afternoon of August 19 as the government met to discuss the garbage crisis. Police officers erected barb wire to halt the protesters’ march, and when protesters attempted to remove the barbed wire, Grand Serail guards sprayed them with water hoses and detained Assad Thebian, an activist, for 20 minutes.

Shortly thereafter, several police units were dispatched. They beat demonstrators and arrested four more protesters. Protesters attempted to remove the barb wire again. The Internal Security Forces Strike Force Unit, headed by Brig. Gen. Majd Tarabay, arrived and said that those detained would be released within five minutes. Media reports quoting activists said, though, that instead, Tarabay ordered the baton-wielding units to hit the protesters. Videos on social media appear to show security forces beating men and women with batons, some as they tried to flee. Bilal Alaw, an activist, was injured and carried off in a stretcher to the American University of Beirut Medical Center.

Imad Bazzi, an activist with the “You Stink” group leading the protests, told Human Rights Watch in a telephone interview that while he was trying to pull protesters away from security officers, one security officer beat him on his right hand. Later, he said, “I was blinded by the water hoses and couldn’t see how many security officers were attacking me. I could only feel them hitting me with sticks on my left arm and chest as I tried to protect my head.” He sought medical care at St. George Hospital.

Demonstrators first took to the streets in July, protesting the government paralysis over the accumulation of waste on the streets and inability to reach a solution after Beirut’s main landfill was closed down. Some protesters described the government’s failure to address the crisis as representative of the corrupt and dysfunctional administration they want to be rid of.

The “You Stink” group is urging sustainable solutions to the crisis, including requiring people to separate rubbish before putting it out for collection, a commitment from the government not to dump trash into the sea, and the creation of a composting area for each region. Environmental organizations, such as the Lebanon Eco Movement, Terre Liban, Greenline, and others have long been involved in advocacy on these issues.

International human rights standards limit the use of force to situations in which it is strictly necessary. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials may only use force if other means remain ineffective or have no promise of achieving the intended result. When using force, law enforcement officials should exercise restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and to the legitimate objective to be achieved.

The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Lebanon in 1972, has called on governments to ensure that regulations governing the use of force and weapons by police conform fully with the Basic Principles and that “any violations of these rules be systematically investigated in order to bring those found to have committed such acts before the courts; and that those found guilty be punished and the victims be compensated.” Lebanese authorities should allow an independent review of police conduct during the demonstrations, and use maximum restraint in response to protests.

Under article 21 of the ICCPR, Lebanese authorities are required to respect the right of peaceful assembly, and can only impose proportionate limitations on demonstrations “in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

“With protests scheduled for this evening, Lebanese authorities have a chance to show respect for peaceful assemblies and refrain from repeating the violence against demonstrators,” Houry said. “The authorities should make clear at the highest levels that aggressive and excessive police actions will absolutely not be tolerated.”

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