BEIRUT: The often-overlooked Ministry for the Displaced could face the additional responsibility of taking on more Lebanese internal evacuees if the precarious security situation persists, according to it’s recently appointed Minister Alice Shabtini, on whose shoulders the neglected portfolio, still mired with the missteps of its predecessors, now falls.
Upon her appointment as one of the independent ministers in Prime Minister’s Tammam Salam’s Cabinet formed nearly three weeks ago, the media immediately took notice of Shabtini as the only female minister in the new government, which she said highlighting only served to reinforce gender stereotypes.
“When you point out that I am the only female in the Cabinet, then you are discriminating between men and women,” she said of the common issue brought up by journalists. “I am with 23 persons of the Cabinet, not 23 men.”
An active magistrate for nearly 46 years, presiding over countless hearings has evidently rubbed off on Shabtini, whose words are measured at all times, as though she is prudently handing out a verdict.
Implementation of the return process for internally displaced Lebanese has been characterized by coordination snags and inconsistencies since the end of the Civil War, while a worsening security situation, along with budget shortfalls, corruption and political rivalry as well as social and economic consideration has encumbered progress on the ministry’s duties further.
“Nothing is difficult,” Shabtini said of the challenges before her, in an interview with The Daily Star at the ministry’s Starco headquarters.
“I don’t look at it as a challenge, I look at it as finding a different way to treat a problem,” she said.
“Of course, when you have money, there are no problems,” she said, referring to the chronically underfunded ministry that must both pay out compensation and rebuild homes and infrastructure.
In terms of planning for the future of the ministry, Shabtini said she didn’t have a clear-cut plan of her own yet, as the Cabinet, which is still at an impasse over its policy statement, faces an uncertain future.
“What is done is done,” she said of the mistakes of her predecessors, “And now, I’m doing something that was planned before. I’m continuing.”
Reintegration of internally displaced Lebanese was high on the agenda of the government after the Civil War, as the Taif Accord singled out the return of displaced Lebanese as crucial for a viable peace. The Ministry for the Displaced, along with the Central Fund for the Displaced, was established in 1993 to implement the resettlements, with 2002 set as the deadline.
While the government offered compensation to those displaced, the vast majority of them have not reclaimed their original properties, and there are still thousands of Lebanese who remain displaced from their homes. Many have become part of a new social context, mostly in the country’s urban centers, and do not want to go back.
“I don’t know if I can say that decisions were poorly taken ... but in my opinion, the payment of compensation was not personalized, they were not subjective, everyone received the same sum,” she said.
While she said rebuilding initiatives should be focused on attracting youth, such as at universities and recreational centers, she hoped that the ministry would ultimately accomplished its mandate so that its work could be complete.
“I would like to close this ministry,” she said, but added that “it all depends on what happens in Lebanon from a security perspective.”
If terrorist attacks persist, especially in areas where Hezbollah enjoys broad support, and if border towns with neighboring Syria continue to fray under rocket attacks and raids, Shabtini says the ministry might have to add more internally displaced to its list of dependents – Cabinet approval pending – as it did after the July 2006 war.
“In the southern suburbs, there are a lot of people who are already leaving,” she said.
While Cabinet ministers are set to discuss the stalled policy statement at a meeting Thursday, Shabtini said, respecting existing laws and codified obligations was important, but not at the expense of ignoring current realities that might require rethinking or amending the laws in place.
“We have three voices in this Cabinet – the March 14, the centrists and the March 8 – so we have to take into consideration where we are and try to make compromises,” she said.
“Nothing is fixed in politics; things evolve. Everything is evolving and that’s why you have to change, even the laws. But there is a protocol to changing laws; you can’t take a revolver and oblige someone to write or sign off on something.”
As for the issue of gender equality, Shabtini said the problem did not lie so much with legal discrimination, but with the lack of financial independence and power. As an aspiring magistrate who was once without power herself, she credits “chance” for her ascendency.
“At that time [in 1970], they didn’t accept female applicants into the judiciary,” said Shabtini, who always envisioned herself as a judge, as from a young age people always sought her counsel. Her application was refused in 1970, and she, by chance, complained to then-Economy Minister Suleiman Franjieh and asked him why such a discriminatory policy existed.
“He said to me: ‘I will do my utmost to convince one member of the Judicial Council to rethink their decision,’ but he couldn’t,” she said.
A few years later, Franjieh became the president of the republic and made good on his promise to Shabtini. “By coincidence, I happened to ask someone who happened to become the president of the republic,” she said
In her judicial career, Shabtini would become assume the helm of the Court of Cassation and the Military Court of Cassation.
In 2011, her acquittal of four alleged collaborators with Israel brought her under fire from Hezbollah, but she maintains to this day that it was a unanimous decision made by a five-member council, and not hers alone.
The incident revealed the degree to which the independence of the Lebanese judiciary can, and often does, compromise.
“It all depends on the judge,” she said. “There are judges who are independent, but the judiciary isn’t, because the nominations are made by politicians.”
“I was always independent in my way of thinking, which is not encouraged in the judiciary,” she said.