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UNDP: Mukhtars key to stopping violence

After decades of local supremacy the power of the mukhtar slipped from view during the civil war. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s lowest level administrators may prove influential in preventing conflict and building peace in the country, according to new reports issued by the U.N. Wednesday.

The projects focused on how mukhtars (a term for local administrators originating in the Ottoman period), mayors and municipal council members can mediate local disputes and stop them from flaring into violence.

Around 100 mayors and mukhtars were offered mediation training in addition to the conflict-resolution publications that were distributed as part of the projects.

The first project traced the role of the mukhtar as it developed in Lebanese society and offered a guide as to how local leaders can provide the first line of reconciliation in community conflicts.

“Mukhtars have always played an important mediation role at the local level and conflict resolutions skills have been passed on through the generations,” Luca Renda, U.N. Development Program country director, said during the launch of the report at UNESCO palace.

“Mukhtars are in direct daily contact with their communities and are aware of their needs, challenges and aspirations.”

A mukhtar was originally a local strongman and enforcer of Ottoman rule. In villages and towns the strength of the mukhtar was unrivaled and his word on matters was considered final.

Mukhtars were tax collectors, land distributors and occasional lawmen. Since then the role of the mukhtar has changed significantly.

UNDP researchers tracked the changes in the mukhtar’s responsibilities over the years through legal documents and pieced together a map of what the job was and what it became.

After decades of local supremacy the power of the mukhtar slipped from view during the civil war.

Many mukhtar posts weren’t filled, while others stopped carrying out their duties as the nation was gripped by years of violence.

The post-war mukhtar is an elected position and a much lower profile handler of official documents. Most no longer play the major role in society that they once did.

Government and U.N. officials hope that can change and that the mukhtar can be re-elevated as a key member of society.

Rather than exercising power they hope that the mukhtar will serve to mediate disputes.

A joint project with the UNDP, the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Interior Ministry created a guidebook and training for mukhtars to deal with disputes. The booklet emphasizes that mukhtars should listen and oversee a gradual resolution of problems through discussion.

Project participants said such a method offers honorable resolutions to arguments and stops conflicts before they get out of hand.

Mukhtars are “part of a fundamental strategy to reach social peace through different communities,” said head of the Mukhtars Unit at the Interior Ministry, Medhat Zayter. “The mukhtar is the ... most capable of playing a mediating role where they serve.”

A second project focused on mayors and municipal councils, examining their differing roles in the resolution of disputes. The program offered dispute training for mayors, municipal council officials and mukhtars.

“Through their daily work and direct contact with local communities, mayors and municipal council members play an important role in mediation, conflict prevention and conflict resolution in their localities,” Renda said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 04, 2012, on page 4.

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