The human rights situation in Lebanon deteriorated further in 2021. More than 80 percent of the country’s residents did not have access to basic rights, including health, education, and an adequate standard of living, such as adequate housing and electricity, according to the United Nations. The World Bank has described Lebanon’s crisis as a “deliberate depression,” due to Lebanese leaders’ mismanagement and lack of effective policy actions, and ranked it among the top three most severe global financial crises since the mid-nineteenth century.
The Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value since October 2019, eroding people’s ability to access basic goods, including food, water, health care, and education. Fuel shortages have caused widespread electricity blackouts, lasting up to 23 hours per day, and private generators—a costly alternative—have not been able to fill the gap, leaving large portions of the country in darkness for several hours per day. Hospitals, schools, and bakeries have struggled to operate amid these energy shortages.
The Lebanese government removed or decreased subsidies on fuel, wheat, medicine, and other basic goods, but it has failed to implement an adequate social protection scheme to shield vulnerable residents from the impact of steep price rises. Marginalized communities, including refugees, people with disabilities, migrant workers, and LGBTQ people, have been disproportionately impacted.
No one has yet been held accountable for the catastrophic explosion in Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020, which killed at least 219 people and devastated half the city.
Security forces continued to use excessive and even lethal force to suppress protests, often with impunity.
Women face systematic discrimination and violence due to the archaic nationality law and multiple religion-based personal status laws. Although Lebanon criminalized sexual harassment, the law falls short of international standards.
On September 10, Prime Minister Najib Mikati formed a government, ending the 13-month vacuum.
Following decades of government mismanagement and corruption at Beirut’s port, on August 4, 2020, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history pulverized the port and damaged over half the city. The explosion resulted from the detonation of tons of ammonium nitrate, a combustible chemical compound commonly used in agriculture as a high nitrate fertilizer, but which can also be used to manufacture explosives. The Beirut port explosion killed at least 219 people, wounded 7,000 people, and left hundreds with permanent disabilities.
Human Rights Watch’s review of hundreds of pages of official documents strongly suggests that some government officials were aware of the fatal disaster that the ammonium nitrate’s presence in the port could result in and tacitly accepted the risk to human life. This amounts to a violation of the right to life under international human rights law.
Lebanese leaders have continued to obstruct and delay the ongoing domestic investigation, shielding high-level officials from accountability. In February 2021, a court dismissed the judge appointed to lead the investigation after two former ministers whom he had charged filed a complaint against him. While judge Tarek Bitar was appointed a day later, the political establishment has similarly started a campaign against him after he made requests to charge and summon for questioning senior political and security officials. In October, seven people were killed and dozens injured after gunfire erupted during a demonstration that Hezbollah and its allies called for to demand the removal of Bitar.
Human Rights Watch has also documented a range of procedural and systemic flaws in the domestic investigation that render it incapable of credibly delivering justice, including flagrant political interference, immunity for high-level political officials, lack of respect for fair trial standards, and due process violations.
Families of the victims and local and international rights groups have called for a Human Rights Council-mandated international, independent investigation, into the Beirut Blast.
In December 2020, the World Bank, United Nations, and European Union announced an innovative model for disbursing aid to Lebanon in the aftermath of the Beirut Blast, the Reform, Recovery, and Reconstruction Framework (3RF), that aims to disburse funds directly to nongovernmental groups and businesses.
Financial and Economic Crisis
Lebanon’s financial and economic crisis is caused by the Lebanese authorities’ “deliberately inadequate policy responses,” according to the World Bank.
Between June 2019 and June 2021, the inflation rate was 281 percent. Food prices alone increased by 550 percent between August 2020 and August 2021. Meanwhile, the national currency lost 90 percent of its pre-crisis value, and banks continue to impose arbitrary restrictions on cash withdrawals.
In 2019, the government decided to subsizide vital imports, such as fuel, wheat, and medicine. But in 2021, the central bank ran out of money to finance these imports, causing residents to experience severe shortages. Fuel shortages have caused widespread electricity blackouts, lasting up to 23 hours per day. Hospitals, schools, and bakeries have struggled to operate amid these supply and electricity shortages, and residents had to endure hours-long queues for necessities, such as fuel and bread.
The impacts of the crisis on residents’ rights have been catastrophic and unprecedented. The UN estimates that by March 2021, 78 percent of Lebanon’s population was in poverty—triple the estimated number in 2020. Thirty-six percent of the population live in extreme poverty—up from 8 percent in 2019 and 23 percent in 2020.
The Lebanese government provided almost no support to families struggling to cope with the economic crisis, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, fumbling a World Bank loan intended to provide emergency relief to vulnerable Lebanese and repeatedly delaying a ration card program to help families cope with the lifting of subsidies.
The economic crisis has had a devastating impact on the healthcare sector. Medicines and medical supplies, most of which are imported, are in short supply, leading to several deaths due to lack of medication and threatening the lives of patients with illnesses, such as cancer. The fuel and electricity shortages in the country have pushed hospitals to “imminent disaster,” with hospitals permanently closing or warning that they will be forced to cease their operations, threatening the lives of hundreds.
The value of nurses and doctors’ salaries has declined rapidly, triggering a mass exodus, placing a heavy burden on the remaining workforce. The Covid-19 pandemic also placed an additional strain on a healthcare sector already in crisis. Lebanese authorities have shown a callous disregard for the protection of healthcare workers at the front lines of the pandemic.
Despite the enormous pressures facing hospitals, the government is not disbursing billions of dollars that it owes them.
A national vaccination campaign was rolled out in mid-February and, as of November 15, around 30 percent of the population had been vaccinated against Covid-19. However, the government’s program risks leaving behind marginalized communities, including refugees and migrant workers.
Freedom of Assembly and Expression
Anti-government protests, which began in October 17, 2019, continued amid the rapidly deteriorating economic and political situation.
In January, the Internal Security Forces (ISF) used force to disperse protests that turned violent over the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions, exacerbated by Covid-19 lockdown measures, in one of Lebanon’s poorest cities, Tripoli. They fired teargas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition at protesters, injuring hundreds and killing one protester.
Military Intelligence forcibly disappeared and allegedly tortured detainees who were participating in these protests. The military prosecution charged at least 35 of the protesters, including two children, with terrorism before the military courts, which are inherently unfair.
Journalists, media workers, and activists in Lebanon—especially critics of the ruling elite and established political parties—are coming under increasing threat both by private actors, with the authorities unwilling or unable to protect them, and directly by government authorities, often acting with impunity.
Lokman Slim, a prominent intellectual and Hezbollah critic, was assassinated in February by unidentified assailants. There has been no meaningful progress in the investigation.
Women continue to face discrimination under 15 distinct religion-based personal status laws. Discrimination includes inequality in access to divorce, child custody, and inheritance, and property rights. Unlike men, Lebanese women cannot pass on their nationality to foreign husbands and children.
In December 2020, parliament passed a law criminalizing sexual harassment which provided important protections by making sexual harassment a crime and outlining whistleblower protections, but the law fails to meet international standards including that it should have sought to tackle harassment at work through labor laws, occupational safety and health laws, and equality and nondiscrimination laws. Parliament also amended the domestic violence law to expand its scope to include violence related to—but not necessarily committed during—marriage, enabling women to seek protection from their ex-husbands. But it still does not criminalize marital rape.
An estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers, primarily from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, are excluded from Lebanon’s labor law protections, and their status in the country is regulated by the restrictive kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties migrant workers’ legal residency to their employer.
Abuse against migrant domestic workers has increased amid Lebanon’s economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, including employers forcing domestic workers to work without pay or at highly reduced salaries, confining them to the household, to work long hours without rest or a day off, and verbal, physical and sexual abuse. The International Labour Organization has warned that migrant workers in Lebanon now face conditions that “greatly increase their risk of entering forced or bonded labor.”
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
LGBTQ people participated prominently in the nationwide protests that began on October 17, 2019. By taking their struggle to the streets, through chants, graffiti, and public discussions, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have moved demands of their rights from the margins to mainstream discourse.
However, Article 534 of the penal code punishes “any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature” with up to one year in prison. Transgender women in Lebanon face systemic violence and discrimination in accessing basic services, including employment, health care, and housing. The economic crisis, compounded by Covid-19 lockdown measures, disproportionately affected LGBT people.
General Security forces issued entry bans, which remain in effect to date, to the non-Lebanese attendees of a 2018 conference that advances LGBT rights.
Lebanon hosts nearly 900,000 registered Syrian refugees, and the government estimates another 500,000 live in the country informally. Only 20 percent of Syrian refugees have legal residency, making most of them vulnerable to harassment, arrest, detention, and deportation.
The government continues to pursue policies designed to coerce Syrian refugees to leave, and the acute economic crisis and staggering inflation have made it exceedingly difficult for refugees to afford the most basic necessities; 90 percent of Syrian families in Lebanon live in extreme poverty, relying on increasing levels of debt to survive.
According to the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, there are approximately 174,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, where they continue to face restrictions, including on their right to work and own property.
Syrian refugees who returned to Syria from Lebanon between 2017 and 2021 faced grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and affiliated militias.
Many Lebanese and nearly all Syrian refugee children received no meaningful education as the government closed schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic without ensuring access to distance learning. Children with disabilities were particularly hard hit, as they could not access remote education on an equal basis with others amid a lack of government support.
The authorities’ planning failures delayed the start of the 2021-22 school year to October 11 and led to concerns public schools would not remain open.
Corporal punishment of children was widespread and permitted under the criminal code.
Legacy of Past Conflicts and Wars
Despite a 2018 law creating an independent national commission to investigate the fate of the estimated 17,000 Lebanese kidnapped or disappeared during the country’s civil war, the government has yet to allocate a budget for the commission to commence its work.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which in 2020 convicted a member of Hezbollah for his role in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others in 2005, risked shutting down amid funding difficulties. Although tribunal officials announced in October that they had secured sufficient funding to handle a prosecution appeal of the acquittal of two other suspects in the Hariri case, the tribunal’s operations remain uncertain after that due to funding constraints.
Key International Actors
Syria, Iran, and other regional powers maintain influence in Lebanon through their support of local political allies and proxies.
Tensions with Israel along Lebanon’s southern border remain high, and hostilities flared up in May and August. A Lebanese man was shot and killed by Israeli forces after he tried to cross a security fence on the border with Israel. Israel continues to frequently violate Lebanese airspace.
In July, the EU adopted a framework for targeted sanctions against Lebanese officials responsible for obstructing the formation of a government, the improvement of accountability and good governance, and for serious financial mismanagement, but no individual or entity has been designated.
The United States has continued to sanction individuals for links to Hezbollah, and in October, sanctioned two Lebanese businessmen and one lawmaker for contributing to “the breakdown of good governance and the rule of law in Lebanon.”
On September 16, the European Parliament adopted a resolution describing the dire situation in Lebanon as a “man-made disaster” and calling for the establishment of an international fact-finding mission into the Beirut Blast and targeted sanctions against corrupt Lebanese officials.
In October, several Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, expelled the Lebanese ambassadors and banned all Lebanese imports in response to critical comments made by a Lebanese minister about the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.
Lebanese security agencies continue to receive assistance from a range of international donors, including the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, France, and Saudi Arabia.