(Beirut) – Lebanese security forces have repeatedly interfered with human rights events related to gender and sexuality in violation of international human rights protections, Human Rights Watch said today in a complaint to United Nations (UN) human rights officials.
The complaint follows unsuccessful attempts by Human Rights Watch to meet with Lebanon’s General Security officials about recent security force actions that have undermined the rights of sexual and gender minorities and human rights advocates in Lebanon.
“Bans on these events not only discriminate against gender and sexual minorities and their advocates, but they also undermine everyone’s rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression in Lebanon,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Lebanon can’t shy away from its obligations not to discriminate and to protect these basic rights by pointing to poorly defined morality standards.”
The complaint was submitted to the UN special rapporteurs on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and on human rights defenders, and to the UN independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Human Rights Watch urged the UN officials to press Lebanon’s government to hold its security forces accountable for violations of international law and to refrain from using unjustified grounds, such as vague “morality” claims, to undermine the rights of sexual and gender minorities.
General Security is the intelligence branch of Lebanese security forces that oversees foreigners’ admission to the country. On September 29, 2018, it attempted to shut down the annual NEDWA conference of the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality, which works to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and other human rights.
General Security officers also took details of all conference participants from the hotel registry where the conference was being held, including participants from countries such as Egypt, where police arrested over 70 people in 2018 for being gay or transgender, and Iraq, where armed groups have murdered LGBT people with impunity.
The four-day conference, whose initials stand for networking, exchange, developments, wellness, and achievement, included workshops on human rights, advocacy, movement-building, health, and the arts. It has been held annually in Lebanon since 2013 and includes people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. General Security’s interference followed public statements from the Muslim Scholars Association accusing the organizers of promoting homosexuality and drug abuse. The association called for the organizers’ arrest and the cancellation of the conference on the grounds of “incitement to immorality.”
The group has also filed a legal complaint against the Arab Foundation’s HIV prevention program, saying it promotes debauchery. Internal Security Forces, responding to the complaint, called in the foundation’s director, Georges Azzi, for questioning in December.
In May, Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces detained an activist and pressured him to cancel events associated with Beirut Pride, including a poetry reading, a karaoke night, a discussion of sexual health and HIV, and a legal literacy workshop.
On October 25, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Major General Abbas Ibrahim, director of General Security, raising concerns about the security forces’ interference and requesting clarification on the agency’s position on the legality of advocacy or cultural events in Lebanon that touch on gender and sexuality issues.
He responded on November 26, citing the so-called “morals” exception under Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on the right of peaceful assembly. He claimed that the article requires an event “to be consistent with the moral standards of the particular society,” and maintained that “the topic of the conference remains controversial in Lebanese culture.”
As a party to the ICCPR, Lebanon must protect freedom of expression, association and assembly for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, Human Rights Watch said. The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has made clear that it is prohibited to discriminate based on sexual orientation in upholding any of the rights protected by the treaty, including the rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression.
In its April 2018 evaluation of Lebanon, the Human Rights Committee said that Lebanon should “explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and ensure that LGBTI individuals are afforded, both in law and in practice, adequate and effective protection against all forms of discrimination, hate speech or violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.” It said that Lebanon should “take all measures necessary to guarantee in practice the effective enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly of LGBTI individuals.”
The Yogyakarta Principles on the application of human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity state that countries should ensure that notions of public morality “are not employed to restrict any exercise of the rights to peaceful assembly and association solely on the basis that it affirms diverse sexual orientations or gender identities.”
UN resolution 15/21 also mandates member states to ensure the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in all their manifestations.
Major General Ibrahim also attempted to justify the agency’s interference in NEDWA by claiming that the sponsor “failed to obtain prior approval from the authorities,” citing the 1911 Lebanese Law on Public Meetings. However, international guidance on freedom of association and assembly stipulates that even if prior notification might be required, no authorization should be required to assemble peacefully in a democratic society.
Ghida Frangieh of Legal Agenda, a Lebanese human rights organization, told Human Rights Watch that the 1911 law applies to public meetings, not private, invite-only conferences, “Let there be no doubt: the General Security forces are baldly misinterpreting archaic laws and applying them in a biased and discriminatory way in order to shut down discussion of gender and sexuality,” Frangieh said.
Since the NEDWA conference was held, the Arab Foundation has reported that General Security has prevented at least three people who attended from re-entering Lebanon, without providing any explanation.
Although it is unclear whether these entry bans are directly related to the individuals’ participation in NEDWA, Human Rights Watch is concerned that these measures further restrict the space for free speech and assembly in Lebanon. Human Rights Watch asked the UN officials to urge the Lebanese government to lift the entry bans if they are related to the activists’ participation in NEDWA.
Human Rights Watch also urges countries providing assistance to Lebanese security forces, including to General Security, to press them to abide by their international law obligations and ensure that this funding is not an investment in violating the rights of human rights activists in Lebanon.
“The efforts to shut down advocacy and cultural events in the name of public morality are unjustified and indefensible,” Fakih said. “There is nothing ethical about standing in the way of advocating for equality.”