Thousands of people “disappeared” during the Lebanese civil war. Not the 150,000 people who died, the 300,000 who suffered wounds, or the millions who left their homes time and again, these people’s fate was — and is — unknown.
From 1975 to 1990, Lebanese factions, Palestinian militias, and the Syrian and Israeli militaries waged war in Lebanon. In that time, they and associated actors — be they Syrian security services, or armed Lebanese gangs using the war to turn a profit — “disappeared” people. They did so while raiding homes, perhaps because residents flew the wrong banner. They did so while targeting business executives, whose families they could then extort for money or goods. They took people at checkpoints, in cars, on street corners, and in back alleys. They took them from public buildings, from schools, and from places of worship.
Now, 30 years after the Lebanese civil war ended, the Lebanese have created a national commission. In doing so, they’ve taken a small step toward helping families grapple with the consequences of a conflict that has never, really, ended — certainly not for them. They’ve also recognized, on paper, that the disappeared aren’t just a problem of the past in Lebanon, where violence is still routinely used as a tool of political discourse. And, after decades of fitful, slow progress, they have taken a step forward. They must now do more.
During the Lebanese civil war, three sorts of actors were primarily responsible for disappearances (setting aside known killings or abductions): Lebanese factions, Palestinian militias, and the Syrian regime. As many as 17,000 Lebanese “disappeared” during the war. For most, the killers, abductors, or jailers were probably their own countrymen: members of Lebanese factions, with their militia wings, in every community and area. Many disappeared when Palestinian and Lebanese factions clashed in the 1970s, when the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982, and when Lebanese clashed with each other in the mid-1980s. All the while, Syrian security services — Military Intelligence, Internal Security, Political Security, and State Security — also abducted thousands of Lebanese, Palestinian, and Jordanian people. As the Syrian regime came to control Lebanon’s peacemaking and post-conflict processes, it put in place the foundations of an occupation that would last 15 years. In the Ta‘if Accord, a patchwork deal doubling as a peace agreement and a quasi-constitutional understanding, Lebanese legislators under Syrian and Arab pressure to sign a document did not mention the displaced or draft in a detailed program for war-era atrocities, crimes, and mistakes.
In the next few years, the Syrian military and auxiliary Lebanese security services supervised Lebanese militias as they disarmed and demobilized. They did not engage in a balanced transition in the security sector. They did not, for instance, disarm all militias. Not only did they allow Hezbollah — a militia cultivated by Iran — to maintain its arsenal, but they actively worked to cultivate the organization as an instrument in Lebanon. Nor did they disarm Palestinian groups still operating in Lebanon’s refugee camps, despite agreements in the late 1980s and legislation in the 1990s. (The Israelis, meanwhile, continued their cultivation of the South Lebanon Army — a proxy militia they worked with until ending their occupation in 2000.) They did not engage in balanced reintegration, either, but instead reorganized and subordinated the Lebanese Armed Forces, the Internal Security Forces, the General Security Services, and others. Not only did the Syrian regime exclude Lebanese hostile to its occupation from the military, police, ministries, and syndicates, but it expelled officers who were already in those institutions. The war never really ended, in that deep sense. The new Syro-Lebanese security apparatus continued to kill and abduct people for political reasons in the new era of purported peace.
Meanwhile, Lebanese lawmakers passed an amnesty in 1991 — the sort of blanket measure that is usually problematic philosophically and legally, but which may have merit politically and socially. When they passed the law, Lebanese leaders required nothing of themselves or of their citizens — save for obedience, of the people to their leaders and of the leaders to Syria — in exchange for amnesty. They recorded no confessions. They heard no testimonials. They held no dialogues. And they engaged in no reconciliations. Nor did Lebanese leaders create special — or empower existing — institutions through which citizens could heal themselves: a truth commission, a national dialogue forum, a special court, a museum of memory, a reconciliation initiative. What’s worse, they created and empowered some institutions — for instance, the ministries of justice, social affairs, and displaced people — as instruments of political factions, which in turn were stooges of the Syrian regime or, in the best cases, pragmatists who were unable to overcome its influence in Lebanon.
Orchestrating the overall post-conflict process, the Syrian regime and Lebanese leaders never really ended the war. Meanwhile, the Syro-Lebanese apparatus buried aspects of the past damaging to its standing while incessantly resurrecting other ghosts and demons to punish parties it saw as problematic or marginalize communities it considered unruly.
Against that backdrop, dedicated Lebanese people have engaged in an “unrelenting pursuit” for the “right to know.” Family members, activists, and advocates have tried to help all affected people reunite with — or, at least, learn the fates of — the disappeared. During the occupation, they began urging Lebanese lawmakers, ministers, and established elites — many of whom had directed the factions responsible for some disappearances — to help them. They also beseeched leaders of the Syro-Lebanese security apparatus. Not only were they responsible for many of the war-era disappearances — especially while overrunning the autonomous area, when they disappeared Lebanese soldiers, militiamen, and civilians — but these services kept killing, maiming, and abducting Lebanese during the occupation, too.
After years of denial, Lebanese leaders acknowledged that the Syrian regime had imprisoned at least some Lebanese in Syria. Then-President Elias Hrawi, for instance, announced publicly that he believed 210 such people were in Syrian jails. However, the Syrian regime never acknowledged abductions or provided information regarding disappeared Lebanese, including many who, as it turned out, were rotting in its jails. Then, in 1998, the Syrian regime released 130 Lebanese without explaining why it had imprisoned them to either the Lebanese or Syrian publics. Most went home to their families, while others were merely transferred to the custody of Lebanese authorities. In 2000, as the Israelis were withdrawing from Lebanon and the Syrians were attempting to peel away moderate opponents of their occupation, a Lebanese commission convened for a few months and concluded that the Lebanese should consider any person missing for more than four years to be dead. All commission members were Lebanese military and intelligence officers, beholden to or aligned with the very regime responsible for most of these “enforced disappearances.” No civilian leaders, no political party representatives, and no members of civil society served on the commission. (Indeed, members of the Lebanese security services may have asked family members of disappeared Lebanese to sign death certificates — or lose state-provided social welfare.) Even so, the Syrian regime repatriated another 50 Lebanese prisoners later that year — this time in a more naked bid to woo moderate Lebanese leaders opposing its occupation.
After the Cedar Revolution of 2005, the Lebanese government and Syrian regime agreed to establish a joint committee on the “disappeared.” The committee didn’t meet much. Nor did it conduct an investigation, resolve cases, or publish a report detailing any of its substantive conclusions or procedural approaches. Like the people whose fates it was meant to uncover, the committee just disappeared. Meanwhile, families of the disappeared camped out in downtown Beirut, establishing one of the longest-running sit-ins in the contemporary Middle East and North Africa. Mothers and sisters, brothers and fathers, friends and concerned citizens took turns occupying a tent. And, yet, while they welcomed all who wished to learn more, they couldn’t capture Lebanon’s attention for more than a few moments at a time.
The Lebanese have made more — though, by no means rapid and regular — progress over the past decade. In 2012, the Lebanese justice minister created a Lebanese — that is, national or domestic — commission on all people who’ve “disappeared” in Lebanon since the beginning of the civil war in 1975. While his colleagues formed a cabinet committee to study his proposal, they neither issued a decree nor voted on the matter. At least three Lebanese MPs submitted draft legislation to Parliament from 2012 to 2014. (Lawmakers and lobbyists later consolidated these draft laws.) Then, in 2014, the relevant judicial council ruled that people in Lebanon had the “right to know.” The judicial council recognized relatives, specifically, as a class of people able to obtain information about the disappeared. It also instructed the state to share the 2000 committee’s files with the families.
In November 2018, after the first parliamentary elections in nine years, Lebanese legislators passed a “law on missing and forcibly disappeared persons.” Last year, the Ministry of Justice nominated 10 people to serve on the commission and sent their names to the Council of Minister for approval, pursuant to the law. And, now, the Lebanese cabinet appointed commissioners, taking a small, but symbolically significant, step in the right direction.
One commission does not a policy make. Lebanese leaders — be they in the established elite, or officials working in strained state institutions — must develop a policy and surrounding framework for missing, disappeared, or abducted people whose cases are connected to Lebanon territorially or otherwise.
Under the law and existing policy proposals, Lebanese leaders may:
Empower the commission, by:
Providing financial, operational, logistical, and security support as it works to determine people’s fate;
Directing ministries to allow and facilitate the commission’s work to locate, examine, protect, and — perhaps — exhume mass graves;
Directing ministries and security services to conduct, or update, comprehensive reviews of collected materials gathered in the past and provide any and all relevant materials to the commission (while of course providing materials upon the commission’s request);
Investigate the fates of:
Lebanese who’ve disappeared, gone missing, or been abducted in peacetime, including a Lebanese photographer who disappeared in Syria in 2013 and Lebanese citizens kidnapped by criminal cartels, clans, or political factions in Lebanon from time to time;
Non-Lebanese — Syrians, Palestinians, and migrants from beyond the Levant — who have gone missing in Lebanon, such as Palestinians who disappeared during clashes between the Syrian regime and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1980s or Syrians who’ve disappeared in Lebanon since the Syrian civil war began in 2011;
Appoint a special representative, to serve as an effective intermediary between the state, the commission, and civil society while briefing the cabinet on best practices and lessons learned in other states. (A former minister or legislator might do well in such a role. So, too, would certain Lebanese lawyers.);
Help families of the disappeared, by granting citizenship through special decree to any child of any disappeared Lebanese parent, reimbursing people for costs incurred while applying for and maintaining shorter-term residency permits over the past 30 years, and supporting family members who’ve lost potential providers (by providing reparations or, for instance, paying any outstanding state-supported benefits or pensions due to the disappeared and their families);
Improve the Lebanese legal framework, by ratifying the U.N. Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances and applying other international and domestic law (constitutional principles, existing legislation, treaty obligations, and applicable customary international law) on the rights of citizens and people in Lebanon;
Engage with and enable the commission and issue-specific civil society organizations, whose members have been struggling — on a volunteer basis, for 30 years, with some unfortunately not living to see the small fruits of their great labors — to learn the truth. To do this, the Lebanese state, special purpose entities, or state-connected companies may:
Hold regular parliamentary and committee hearings, allowing families and organizations to further the legislative framework and propose specific initiatives on these issues;
Provide reasonable amounts of airtime at no cost, for organizations to raise awareness on state-owned and state-operated media such as the public television station (Tele Liban) and public radio (Radio Lebanon);
Arrange for or allow educational workshops in or dialogues with relevant institutions, including civilian ministries (say, of interior, justice, and social affairs), security services, and the judiciary, so that officials become more aware of the consequences of leaving these issues unaddressed for decades and more attuned to the plight of the families their predecessors in power ignored or even threatened;
Gather, reengage with, rely on, and consider implementing research and proposals of others who have already been working on these issues for decades. SOLIDE, SOLIDA, Act for the Disappeared, and the Committee of the Families — all Lebanese organizations — have researched, documented, advocated, and lobbied in relation to this issue. So, too, have religious institutions, charitable foundations, legal groups, syndicates, and universities. International organizations have worked on this issue for decades as well. Amnesty International has compiled a treasure trove of reports, including testimonies and accounts, dating back to the 1980s. The International Center for Transitional Justice has put together detailed proposals and action plans, while also highlighting other people’s work. The International Committee for the Red Cross has, since 2012, been working to collect, process, and preserve vital information — such as the DNA of aging relatives — to prepare for the creation of a commission that could, perhaps, put it to good use. It has also assessed the needs of families of disappeared and missing persons, more broadly; and
Integrate the issue of disappeared Lebanese into an initiative — including, for example, days of remembrance, school curricula reform, and a national museum — on memory and the past.
The state can and should do more, but that doesn’t mean that it will. Lebanese and Lebanese-origin people around the world may — as they have, routinely and tragically — prepare to step in if and when the state fails to support the commission or uses it as a formalistic distraction without addressing people’s substantive demands. In any event, the Lebanese people are more appropriate sources of support for organizations working on such issues. For starters, most of them are not as responsible or actively and directly complicit in disappearances as Lebanese leaders have been over the past half-century. And many Lebanese — for instance, those who’ve made professional careers abroad or accumulated wealth they keep outside of the system — are less beholden than state officials to these leaders — a subset of which remain closely aligned with the Syrian regime and problematic people in Lebanese security services. Moreover, they’ll also be less likely to co-opt or suppress people’s work under the guise of support, through bureaucratic burying or perverse processes where those given power for the sole purpose of protecting others instead abuse or mistreat them. These Lebanese may donate money, offer technical expertise, and provide professional services and organizational support. (Note: Under the law, the commission may receive and use donated funds. In other states, citizens have been able to use such provisions to prevent the state from choking off the finances of particular institutions or organizations empowered on paper but eviscerated in practice.) They may also support specific families and organizations while raising awareness, in their own families and communities.
In their absence, the disappeared have revealed much about Lebanon. A few families, activists, advocates, and their supporters have been toiling away for decades to reclaim and reassert their dignity, while their own leaders and most of their society treat the war and occupations, and the disappeared, as dullened, muddled memories or convenient cudgels to wield against political opponents at whim. These people have done their part — and have certainly done more than any Lebanese leaders claiming to be decent should have required of them. If and to the extent they care about making the Lebanon they wish for, other Lebanese must do more — even or especially now, in this time of tumult. Otherwise, the path toward Lebanon’s future will — in yet another sphere of its political existence — run through the sordid past.
Anthony Elghossain is a lawyer, writer, and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
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