On March 6, 1982, a car bomb exploded in Jnah, West Beirut, killing at least five people and wounding 16 others. In a similar attack on Feb. 19, 2014, twin suicide explosions rocked Beirut’s Bir Hasan, claiming the lives of at least 10 people and wounding 129.
These are two examples of hundreds of such bombings carried out in Lebanon over the last four decades. It is a painful, stark reminder of how the legacy of violence permeates the everyday lives of Lebanese to this day.
Lebanon’s vulnerability to renewed violence is rooted in the sectarian divisions that have been allowed to grow for decades in the shadows of collective grievances and alleged crimes. These divisions have festered in a culture of impunity and amnesia, according to a new study by the International Center for Transitional Justice.
Lebanon must make a choice to remove itself from the shackles of its violent past. It must let in some light to honestly address the wounds that need to be healed. The failure to take these necessary steps has cost not just the victims of violence but their children and their children’s children.
Lebanon has a long history of political violence dating back to before the start of the Civil War in 1975. So far attempts to hold individuals, armed groups and foreign states, such as Israel and Syria, accountable for violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed in Lebanese territory and against Lebanese nationals have been largely ineffective and partial.
The opening of the first trial at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on Jan. 16 constituted the first substantive attempt to hold some perpetrators accountable – though for a limited set of crimes.
The court, which the U.N. Security Council set up in 2007 to prosecute cases related to the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, has been the subject of contentious debate.
Still, notwithstanding the controversies surrounding its creation and proceedings, it must be acknowledged that it is a rare attempt to achieve accountability for political violence in Lebanon.
Official silence on the war has been the order of the day. The political settlement signed in Taif in 1989 to end the conflict failed to include measures to restore either respect for the rights of citizens or public trust in the state. Instead, it established a power-sharing arrangement among the most powerful parties, many of whose leaders had allegedly committed war crimes themselves, fostering impunity at the highest level.
Amnesty laws passed in 1991 and 2005 propped up this settlement, built atop the traumas of the past. Two decades later, the Doha agreement ended the political crisis of 2008, but again shielded powerful actors from being held accountable for their crimes.
What happened during the war, who was involved in violations, and what were the underlying causes of atrocities?
Lebanese civil society groups and international organizations, including the ICTJ, have helped to document abuses. It is estimated that tens of thousands of people in Lebanon suffered serious human rights violations from 1975-1990: nearly 2.7 percent of the population was killed, 0.75 percent was forcibly disappeared and 33 percent emigrated out of the country.
These violations – almost always committed against civilians – did not affect just one group, but cut across religious, political, and regional divides. At the end of the war there was an opportunity to address this collective suffering, when it should have been recognized that a broad and shared history of trauma can be a starting point for uncovering the truth and seeking reconciliation, as a means of preventing further violence. It was not taken.
The defenders of impunity in Lebanon, as everywhere else, raise the specter of more violence. It is the refuge of the apologist, well-meaning or not. If Lebanon is to have a society founded on respect for basic human rights, and if citizens are to be asked to believe that the state takes those rights seriously, it must deal with the past. It must let the truth out and show that victims and ordinary citizens do more than bear the brunt of division and conflict – they bear the dignity and rights of human beings.
As experiences in other states show, official silence on past violations will not last forever. Either the violence is renewed or victims’ demands for justice become too loud and well-organized for the government to ignore. Argentina is one example. Twenty years after the president pardoned top government and military officials in 1989-90 for crimes committed during the Dirty War, criminal accountability returned with the conviction of over 200 former generals, judges, ministers, and civilians. Today, Spain is being asked by survivors to withdraw its 1977 Amnesty Law and examine alleged atrocities of the Franco era.
Victims’ demands for justice and accountability do not simply go away, in the same way that the pain and loss of those who suffered violations do not go away. For those who have lost a loved one or who were forced to flee their homes, the traumas of the war cannot be forgotten. As the ICTJ’s study shows, Lebanon’s population has paid a heavy price for impunity, as have government institutions.
Moreover, the Lebanese government has an obligation under national and international law to investigate and prosecute alleged human rights violations and provide equal justice to victims, irrespective of their political standing or religious background. For Lebanon to attain the long-term peace it seeks, the government must undertake impartial, wide-scale investigations and prosecutions of crimes committed during the war and in the decades of conflict that followed.
The accountability that Lebanon needs is one that fulfils victims’ rights to justice outside of the boundaries of politics, ends the “private” practice of justice, and signals intolerance toward the recurrence of crimes. Accountability anchored in uncovering the truth about the war and subsequent conflicts is not a sufficient step, but undoubtedly a necessary one in the right direction of rebuilding a state worthy of trust, worthy of its citizens.
Carmen Abou Jaoude is head of the Beirut Office of the International Center for Transitional Justice.