Lebanese security forces, including the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), the Internal Security Forces (ISF), and the Parliament Police, fired live ammunition, metal pellets, and kinetic impact projectiles such as rubber balls at mostly peaceful protesters in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020. More than 700 people, who turned out to demand accountability for the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port, were injured. However, in letters to and meetings with Human Rights Watch (HRW), all the security institutions denied wrongdoing and instead several blamed each other for abuses they admit occurred.
And while it is encouraging that security agencies have been engaging more with human rights groups recently, the overwhelming evidence we gathered contradicts many of their claims.
All three denied firing metal pellets, which caused many serious – in some cases, life-threatening– injuries. The LAF commander, General Joseph Aoun, in a letter to HRW on November 3, stated that the army strictly prohibits the use of metal pellets in any assemblies –violent or not –and that units tasked with preserving order are not equipped with weapons that use them. In a letter dated September 14, the ISF commander, Major General Imad Othman gave a similar answer and also blamed the Parliament Security Force. The Parliament Security Force, comprising Parliament Police, an Army unit, and an ISF unit, however, said these allegations are “absolutely false” in a September 21 letter. During a meeting on October 19, the Parliament Police commander, Brigadier General Adnan Sheikh Ali, explained away the injuries, saying that protesters had created improvised explosive devices filled with metal pellets and nails, some of which exploded among the protesters.
All the medical evidence HRW reviewed from doctors and protesters supports injuries from metal pellets, which, unlike other metal fragments, create uniform round wounds, depending on their size and velocity. Moreover, we visited the protest site the day after the protest and found scores of empty shotgun cartridges labeled “Nobel Sport 12.” These cartridges contain spherical metal pellets known as “birdshot” or “buckshot,” which are often used for hunting game, discharged from shotguns. There isn't any evidence to suggest that protesters were armed with shotguns. But numerous photos, videos, and testimony indicate that security forces in civilian clothes in the parliament compound were pointing pump-action shotguns at protesters.We can’t confirm the identity of these men, but the ISF identified them as “civilian employees of the Parliament Police.”
Both the LAF and the ISF denied shooting live ammunition at or toward protesters. Brigadier General Sheikh Ali admitted that some of his members did fire live ammunition, but insisted that they only fired in the air or on the ground, and not at protesters.
Here again, the evidence tells a different story. We verified an incident in which two soldiers wearing camouflage uniforms with the insignia of the Lebanese Army’s Airborne regiment fired at least eight live rounds from their M4 assault rifles, either over their heads or at the ground in front of them. We also verified an incident in which security forces inside the parliament compound were shooting live ammunition at the head level, narrowly missing one protester. We also interviewed and reviewed the medical records of a protester who had been hit by gunfire in his upper left thigh in parliament’s vicinity.
There is no doubt that the recurring protests have posed a challenge for security forces, who have the dual responsibility of protecting the right to protest while also maintaining order. And while it is true that a small group of protesters attacked them with stones, fireworks, and even Molotov cocktails, the use of violence by some protesters does not justify the excessive and at times unprovoked use of force by security forces that I witnessed and experienced.
The Lebanese authorities’ abject failure to address the worsening economic crisis and the ensuing political gridlock is likely to fuel more protests in the coming months. Security forces should demonstrate that they are protecting the rights of the public rather than the interests of the corrupt political elite. So what can security forces do to improve the balance between respecting rights and maintaining order?
First, their members should be given adequate time to rest. Since the protests began, they have had to work for longer shifts than usual without overtime pay and very few days off. Such working conditions increase the likelihood of mistakes and of a disproportionate reaction to protesters.
Second, they need to be more appropriately equipped. We saw many soldiers deployed only with rifles and without the proper protective gear – such as body armor, shields, and helmets appropriate for crowd control – which can help ensure that security forces do not resort to firing their weapons when faced with crowds.
However, the key – missing so far – is accountability. Law enforcement officials who use excessive force should face disciplinary action as well as criminal prosecution. Accountability needs to go up the chain of command to any senior officers who gave such orders, or failed to take steps to prevent or punish subordinates responsible. And the results should be made public.
The ISF, LAF, and Parliament Police declined to provide any information on the investigations and resulting accountability measures for the violence we documented on August 8. The ISF said that they did not open an investigation because “the ISF members did not use excessive or unlawful force.” The LAF said that “all mistakes, if they happen, are individual and are subject to an investigation and accountability from the competent authorities, and there is no current inclination to publish the investigations or disciplinary proceedings.” The Parliament Police commander said he deals with mistakes when they occur, and that the military judiciary has jurisdiction over his members, but provided no additional information. In meetings with us, all of them insisted that making the results of accountability proceedings public would harm the “morale” and “prestige” of the security forces.
These answers are inadequate. Deflecting blame instead of taking responsibility will only inflame tensions, while admitting mistakes and taking steps to rectify them would go a long way toward restoring faith in the security apparatus and diffusing tensions.
At a time when the political and economic order in Lebanon seems to be unraveling, the security institutions have an opportunity to present a different model for carrying out their mandate. A model based on the rule of law, accountability, and transparency is essential in a country that suffers from a chronic accountability deficit.