(Beirut) – Lebanon’s parliament on October 19, 2016, took a positive step to improve the human rights situation and end the use of torture in the country. A new law established a National Human Rights Institute (NHRI), which will include a committee to investigate the use of torture and ill treatment.

A view of the parliament building in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, October 27, 2016. The Lebanese Parliament approved a new law that established a National Human Rights Institute (NHRI), which will include a committee to investigate the use of torture and ill treatment.

© 2016 Reuters

The institute will monitor the human rights situation in Lebanon, receive complaints of violations, and issue periodic reports and recommendations. The Committee for the Protection from Torture, a national preventative mechanism, will have the authority to conduct regular unannounced visits to all places of detention, investigate the use of torture, and issue recommendations to improve the treatment of detainees.

“In establishing an independent national human rights body and mechanism to investigate torture, Lebanon has taken a positive if overdue step toward advancing human rights and eradicating the use of torture in the country,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Now it’s time for authorities to follow through by appointing independent experts, and ensuring that they can get to work.”

The legislation brings Lebanon into compliance with its obligation under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT), which it ratified on December 22, 2008, to set up an independent national mechanism to prevent torture, including through regular visits to the country's detention centers to examine the treatment of detainees.

The National Human Rights Institute will monitor the human rights situation by reviewing laws, decrees, and administrative decisions and by investigating complaints of human rights violations and issuing periodic reports of its findings. In times of war, it will also monitor violations of international humanitarian law and work to ensure accountability for abuses.

The investigative committee will have the authority to enter and inspect all places of detention in Lebanon, without prior announcement or permission, and submit findings and recommendations to the institute and the relevant authorities. Under the law, places of detention are not limited to prisons and police stations but also include immigration detention sites such as in ports or the airport, and mental health facilities. Those working for the investigative committee will be able to interview detainees privately and outside the presence of guards. The law requires Lebanese authorities to cooperate with the committee and facilitate its work.

Both bodies will release annual reports of their activities and have the power to issue recommendations, negotiate solutions for violations, or refer matters for prosecution.

In establishing an independent national human rights body and mechanism to investigate torture, Lebanon has taken a positive if overdue step toward advancing human rights and eradicating the use of torture in the country. Now it’s time for authorities to follow through by appointing independent experts, and ensuring that they can get to work.

Lama Fakih

Deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch

The law includes important provisions to guard against conflicts of interest and retaliation against members of the institute. Members will not be allowed to work a second job or to hold certain public offices simultaneously or within two years of leaving. They can only be dismissed under certain narrow criteria such as physical or mental incapacity to carry out their duties.

Lebanese authorities should now fund and staff the National Human Rights Institute with qualified, independent experts, through a transparent process, and ensure that it is able to visit all places of detention in the manner and frequency with which it decides and without fear of sanction or reprisal. Authorities should take steps to guarantee the financial and operational independence of the institute and protect sources from retaliation, as recommended by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture’s guidelines on national preventative mechanisms.

Lebanon should also bring national legislation into compliance with the Convention against Torture, including by criminalizing all forms of torture and ill-treatment and confirming its obligation to pursue all torture allegations in a diligent, timely, and effective manner to bring those responsible to justice.

Article 401 of the Lebanese Penal Code criminalizes the use of violence to extract confessions, but not all forms of torture. The Lebanese judiciary rarely, if ever, prosecutes people alleged to have tortured detainees. While some judges set aside confessions extracted under torture, others continue to accept such confessions despite the prohibition in Lebanese law on using forced confessions to convict people of crimes. Lebanon’s delegation at the UN Human Rights Council agreed to criminalize all forms of torture and ill-treatment during the country’s 2010 Universal Periodic Review. However, although the law passed on October 19 adopts a broad definition of torture, Lebanon has yet to criminalize all forms of torture, as article 4 of the Convention Against Torture requires.

Human Rights Watch has long documented the use of torture by security services in Lebanon, as well as the failure of authorities to properly investigate allegations of abuse. In a 2013 report, Human Rights Watch documented the widespread use of torture by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces against vulnerable groups like drug users, sex workers, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in their custody. In July 2013, Human Rights Watch documented seven cases of torture of detainees in military custody, including two children, following clashes between followers of Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir and the Lebanese army.

Human Rights Watch has also documented several cases in which the military courts have issued decisions based on confessions allegedly extracted under torture. One woman reported that she had been tortured and raped by Lebanese military intelligence while in detention in 2013, and was subsequently convicted by a military court for “offending the military institution.”

A cut on the shoulder of a man who was allegedly detained and beaten by Lebanese army personnel following clashes in the southern Lebanese city of Saida in June 2013.

© 2013 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch

In five other cases that Human Rights Watch documented in 2014 and 2015, detainees tried before military courts on terrorism or security-related offenses reported that interrogators had tortured them and forced them to confess, and the court relied on their coerced confessions as evidence against them.

One detainee said that during his interrogation at the Ministry of Defense, officers slapped him, punched him in the face, and threw him against the wall. He said that the beatings left him with a swollen neck, back, and legs, and with bruises all over his body. He said officers made him stand in front of the wall in the interrogation room for five hours until he passed out and collapsed. The next day he was forced to sign a piece of paper that he was not allowed to read.

Lebanon has failed in the past to properly investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment by security services. No proper investigations were opened into serious allegations of military abuses against detainees in connection with the fighting between the Lebanese army and the armed Fatah al-Islam group in 2007, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. There was no judicial investigation in October 2012 after army and intelligence officials rounded up and beat at least 72 male migrant workers, most of them Syrians, in the Beirut neighborhood of Geitawi, allegedly because officials had received reports of migrants “harassing women.” The alleged torturers in the military court cases were not investigated or penalized.

Following a UN Committee Against Torture inquiry on Lebanon, the Committee found, in its 2014 report, that “torture in Lebanon is a pervasive practice that is routinely used by the armed forces and law enforcement agencies for the purpose of investigation, for securing confessions to be used in criminal proceedings and, in some cases for punishing acts that the victim is believed to have committed.”

The need to combat torture and ill-treatment lie at the heart of several international conventions, treaties, and declarations that Lebanon is obligated to uphold under international law and is bound to by the preamble of its constitution. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and the OPCAT.

The OPCAT is the first international human rights instrument that seeks to prevent torture and other forms of ill-treatment by establishing a system of regular visits to detention sites by independent international and national bodies.

“Lebanon’s efforts to end the pervasive use of torture in the country should not stop here,” Fakih said. “Authorities need to take steps to amend the definition of torture under domestic law to bring it into compliance with Lebanon’s international obligations and investigate and prosecute alleged abusers.”