Editor’s note: This is part of a series of weekly articles interviewing pioneering Lebanese women.
BEIRUT: Elisabeth Zakharia Sioufi found her calling as a human rights lawyer long ago. She joined the Beirut Bar Association in 1980 and has been working to achieve human rights compliance ever since.“As a lawyer, you like to see justice served, you like to see people whose rights are protected,” Sioufi told The Daily Star.
Her interest with the field was piqued when she delved into the study of international human rights conventions, and committed herself to introducing them to Lebanon. There was still a long way to go, she said to herself, but as long as the country was keen on introducing human rights laws to its domestic policy, it would be well on the way to internalizing them.
“We always work on having laws that require the implementation of international human rights bills. When you have a law, it becomes essential,” she said, stressing that the law would have to be implemented to ensure protection.
“The work doesn’t end,” Sioufi added with a smile.
The 60-year-old is the director of the Institute for Human Rights at the Beirut Bar Association, a member of the International Criminal Bar, secretary of the Commission of Human Rights at the International Association of Lawyers, member of the Council of the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute, the representative of the Beirut Bar Association in the National Steering Committee concerning Women Migrant Domestic Workers, and member of the Committee on Child Protection Against Violence, among others.
Her aim is to create a culture of respect for the law and human rights. She expressed hope that one day the Lebanese would respect laws out of volition.
Just last month, she was honored as a 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report hero in Washington, D.C. by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a first for a Lebanese and an extraordinary achievement for Sioufi herself.
“I did not expect at all to get such a prestigious award, but I was very happy with that,” she said. “I was very glad and very proud ... as a Lebanese, that meant a lot to me.”
“Human trafficking is the worst crime against a person. Can you imagine treating a person, man, woman or child, as if they were merchandise without any respect to their dignity or safety?”
And while she said one does not take up work in human rights for the rewards, she acknowledged that recognition was still necessary to keep a person going.
“This gave me motivation to keep going and go further in combating trafficking in persons and [helping] victims. I think, and I hope, that it will give others enough motivation to achieve their goals in their respective fields,” Sioufi said.
In fact, Lebanon has been taking “very big steps” in the fight for human rights and has already signed on to a number of international conventions. The country enforced Law 164 in 2011, which criminalizes trafficking-in-persons and specifies the mechanism to help victims and deal with witnesses.
According to Sioufi, while Lebanon has passed several important laws, very few people are aware of them, primarily because they were not being properly enforced.
She is currently working toward implementing a national strategy to combat human trafficking in Lebanon in order to put the law into practice. To fight trafficking, she explains, one needs to focus on four essential axes: awareness and prosecution, trial and punishment, helping victims, and monitoring the law’s implementation.
“Awareness is essential in everything with respect to human rights, because people want to know that there is a law that protects their rights,” she explained.
Sioufi also provides the Internal Security Forces with training sessions on how to receive and deal with victims of trafficking. The aim is to better help these victims by providing them with a safe environment, and for the ISF to be able to provide comfort and protection to anyone whose rights are violated.
“Of course, results won’t come in days, human rights takes time, but as long as they have begun working on this, and training their female officers, we’ll get there,” Sioufi said.
“But they alone cannot do everything, human rights needs the involvement of an entire society. In the end this is a culture that we need to attain,” she said.
Also an advocate of women’s rights, Sioufi lauded the law against domestic violence passed in April, despite protest from women’s rights organizations who said it does not offer enough protection. “It is important that it came out, and it is important that women are still working on it,” Sioufi said, stressing that this matter was no longer taboo.
And while work takes up much of her time, like many successful and career-oriented women, Sioufi credits her husband and three children for their support, which she says gives her strength.
“Balance between work and home life requires defining priorities and practical and clever time management, but when you are passionate about your work, you can overcome all difficulties,” she said.
“You have to be convinced that this is the field you want to work in, but you have to work in it with a lot of commitment.”
Perseverance when facing obstacles is vital and women needed to do that by clearly defining their objectives, says Sioufi, who is also running for parliamentary elections in November.
“Nothing comes easily but, with determination and willpower, you can do it,” she said.