BEIRUT: Independent unions, women’s nationality rights, civil marriage, justice for the disappeared – causes once considered lost are being successfully championed in Lebanon’s judiciary after years of being shunted aside.
“It’s what we call strategic litigation, to get a change in policy,” said Nizar Saghieh, a well-known lawyer and activist who has represented many such cases. “I believe that having a government and a Parliament who ... are more attached to the protection of their interests than the protection of the public interest [means] yes, the judiciary may be a good arena to defend a cause.”
Many of these claims can be loosely gathered under the umbrella of “civil society.” While civil society has become something of a catchall phrase, legal professionals and activists who spoke to The Daily Star repeatedly invoked the civil state as one in which the rights of citizens as individuals trump their rights as members of a particular religious sect.
What most of these causes have in common, from women’s citizenship to investigating mass graves from the Civil War, is that they been dismissed as a threat to the country’s sectarian power-sharing agreement.
Over time, the few activists, lawyers, notaries, judges and even politicians who have been working toward empowering individual over collective rights have built up a network of like-minded individuals in strategic positions, although each is mindful to maintain boundaries or else risk endangering their tenuous gains.
“As professionals, we cannot call ourselves activists,” said Joseph Bcharra, the notary who certified the country’s first civil marriage contract. “We have a professional duty to provide a legal service. We can say that in the administration, there are people who are ready to implement the law and grant people their rights.”
Civil society, labor and women’s rights movements have scored a number of legal victories in recent years.
In 2009, Lebanese national Samira Souweidan successful petitioned a court to grant her four children Lebanese citizenship even though her late husband was Egyptian. The state appealed the ruling, and the case is currently pending in the Court of Cassation, the highest appeals court.
Last year, a court sided with employees of the supermarket chain Spinney’s in their struggle to form an independent union, and a few weeks ago, the Justice Ministry’s Higher Consultative Committee approved the civil marriage contract of Kholoud Succariyeh and Nidal Darwish. The couple is now waiting for the Interior Ministry to formally recognize the marriage.
Saghieh himself recently succeeded in winning the right to have a forensic expert examine an alleged mass grave in the Baabda village of Shabanieh that was previously sealed off by authorities.
He is suing on behalf of the Committee for the Families of the Disappeared, which represents some of the families of the over 17,000 people who went missing in Lebanon, mostly during the Civil War. The lawyer hopes the evidence gathered by the forensic expert will be a first step toward opening Shabanieh and other alleged mass graves scattered throughout the country. The final verdict in expected sometime in the next few months.
“We hope that even if we don’t win the case, [the judiciary] can become the theater for such causes,” said Saghieh. “Strategic litigation is a new phenomenon in Lebanon. When the government opposes such causes more people will look toward other possibilities, and the judiciary is one of those possibilities.”
Unlike the government, Saghieh pointed out, a judge is obliged not only to reply to cases that have been filed, but to justify his or her decision on legal grounds. Despite this, for many years it was widely perceived as weak compared to the traditional political power players. Even civil society NGOs tend to focus more on drafting legislation than litigation. Over time, however, people grew frustrated with the endless protests, with no response from the executive branch.
“Previously, all these movements just chanted slogans; they didn’t have the methodology or legal studies to support these steps on the ground, but today it’s different,” Bcharra said.
“There is a general feeling among citizens now that the confessional system is choking us, and people are being turned back into numbers within sects as a prelude to a new round of sectarian violence. Many people have come to feel that there is no alternative other than citizenship.”
Talal Husseini, the head of the Civil Center for National Initiative and the driving force behind the recent resurgence of the civil marriage debate, said the problem was often the lax implementation of laws that already exist.
Husseini, a writer and researcher who has been mistakenly identified as Succariyeh and Darwish’s lawyer in media reports, has devoted much energy to studying the historical roots of the country’s confessional political system. It was his study of the Lebanese personal status law and its Ottoman and French precedents on which the civil marriage contract was based.
“People have been talking for years about a law for civil marriage in Lebanon, and they ask a sectarian Parliament to give them a civil personal status law, and this will not happen,” he said. “The plan is to create a reality on the ground using the existing laws.”
Husseini said he was not surprised when the initial protests inspired by the Arab uprisings and calling for the fall of the country’s sectarian regime fizzled, leaving many disappointed that Lebanon seemed to be left out of the wave of change sweeping the region.
“There is no regime; there are remnants of a regime,” he said. “We are using the Constitution and the laws to bring down the remnants of the sectarian regime and to open the door to a nonsectarian regime, a civil state. Many people criticize this mobilization for being too slow, but I say this pace is necessary for real change.”
The efforts to push certain issues through the judiciary have not been without setbacks.
In 2010, Judge John Azzi, who ruled in favor of Souweidan in her quest to secure Lebanese nationality for her children, was removed from his post as a chief magistrate of the Civil Court of First Instance in the Metn after a series of similar rulings that appeared to challenge the confessional personal status laws.
In some of his most controversial rulings, Azzi approved the adoption of a child by a couple who had been married in a civil ceremony and granted shared custody in a civil divorce case. Azzi is currently a court counselor at the civil appeals court.
Despite the incremental pace of progress, many see the judiciary as a potential platform for forcing action of some kind from the state, or at least being heard.
“There is cooperation between the civil society, which continues to raise these social issues, and the legal institutions in all its branches, especially the judiciary, which is issuing very daring verdicts granting rights to those who are entitled to them,” said Bcharra. “There is a kind of accrual happening, which at a certain moment will become a qualitative shift.”