(Beirut) – Lebanese General Security has banned a group of activists and academics from re-entering Lebanon following their participation in a September 2018 conference on gender and sexuality, Human Rights Watch, the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE), and Legal Agenda said today. General Security officers attempted to unlawfully shut down the conference and took names of all conference participants from the hotel registry, including those from highly repressive countries. The agency apparently used the information to create a list of people who are not welcome in Lebanon. This appears to be the first time Lebanon has imposed a collective ban on individuals for participating in a conference.
Six people who took part in the NEDWA conference, hosted by the Arab Foundation, have since tried to visit Lebanon on different occasions in late 2018 and 2019, but told AFE that General Security officers at Beirut’s Hariri International Airport refused to allow them to enter the country. The officers gave no reason for the refusal at the time, they said. General Security oversees the entry and exit of foreigners and monitors nongovernmental organizations.
“The Lebanese authorities’ actions against the conference is a blatant attempt to restrict the space for free speech and assembly,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These collective sanctions undermine the rights of advocates who are committed to advancing equality in Lebanon and in the region.”
Three of the people refused entry – including a Tunisian and a Canadian – filed suit against the Interior Ministry with the assistance of AFE and Legal Agenda, asking the State Council – the high administrative court in Lebanon – to lift the entry bans. The Ministry of Interior and General Security responded to all three complaints, refusing to remove the bans and confirming that the bans resulted from the individuals’ participation in NEDWA, and that other participants are under similar bans.
In a response letter to the complainants, General Security justified its decision on grounds of “considerations of state security” and “protecting society from imported vices” that “disrupt the security and stability of society.” General Security falsely claimed that the purpose of the conference was to “discuss same-sex marriage,” and that the Arab Foundation “violated the Lebanese public order.”
“The NEDWA conference is and has always been a space for activists, including sexual and gender minorities, to discuss important issues, such as sexual health, mental well-being, and human rights,” said Georges Azzi, executive director of AFE. “We’re disappointed that security forces that exist to protect people are instead busy restricting activists’ basic rights with false claims.”
General Security’s mission statement obliges it to uphold “non-discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion, language, gender, political opinion or national origin, or any other grounds.”
On December 17, Human Rights Watch requested a meeting with the director general of General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, to discuss the entry bans. He declined. On April 5, 2019, Human Rights Watch, AFE, and Legal Agenda also requested a meeting with interior minister, Raya El-Hassan, to discuss the entry bans and are still awaiting a response.
“General Security’s measures against participants in a conference is an arbitrary collective sanction that has no legal basis, which further proves that the Lebanese authorities are attempting to limit discussion on issues related to gender and sexuality instead of upholding their duty to protect free speech,” said Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer and president of Legal Agenda, “We ask the Ministry of Interior and the General Security to lift such sanctions immediately.”
Applying poorly defined morality standards to crack down on human rights events related to gender and sexuality breaches Lebanon’s obligations under international law.
As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Lebanon should protect freedom of expression, association, and assembly for everyone, regardless of their own sexual orientation or gender identity or their advocacy on behalf of sexual and gender minorities.
The Yogyakarta Principles, on the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, say that countries should ensure that notions of public morality and order “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.” The United Nations resolution 15/21 mandates member states to ensure the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in all their manifestations.
The Interior Ministry should urgently work with the interior minister, public prosecutor, and the general director of General Security Forces to safeguard the rights to free expression, assembly, and association, and ensure that groups can organize around the protection of rights of people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities without official interference and intimidation, the groups said. The authorities should immediately lift any entry bans based on discriminatory criteria.
The Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality is an officially registered nongovernmental organization that works on advancing rights related to gender and sexuality, including for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Since 2013, it has held the NEDWA conference, a four-day conference whose initials stand for networking, exchange, developments, wellness, and achievement, annually in Lebanon. The conference includes workshops on health, human rights, advocacy, movement-building, and the arts, and attracts people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Human Rights Watch representatives have attended the conference regularly since 2016.
In an oppressive regional climate where individual freedoms and the rights of gender and sexual minorities are severely constrained, Lebanon had been known to set an international example by serving as a safe haven for activists from the Arabic-speaking world to organize freely and without censorship. The annual NEDWA conference has been one such hub for inclusive advocacy for the past five years. Because of the 2018 General Security raid and the entry ban affecting participants, AFE has been forced to hold its 2019 NEDWA conference outside Lebanon, a development that signals the steady decline of safe spaces in Lebanon for networking and assembly around the rights of gender and sexual minorities in the Arab world.