Anti-torture progress likely to be slow

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Having appeared before the U.N. Committee Against Torture for the first time since adopting the treaty the committee oversees 17 years ago, Lebanon must now determine how to act on the body’s recommendations. Civil society organizations and the newly established Ministry of State for Human Rights Affairs are leading the push to implement the recommendations, which were published in the CAT’s concluding remarks on May 12 after Lebanon appeared before the committee in April. Lebanon ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2000, but failed to attend or provide an initial official report. Hopes and potential stumbling blocks regarding implementation emerged at a conference hosted Wednesday by the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), attended by government representatives and one the CAT’s 10 independent experts, Sebastien Touze. Lebanon’s progress regarding torture and the seriousness with which the delegation to the CAT approached the process were praised, but the current political climate was raised as a significant barrier to maintaining momentum on this issue. Many of the recommendations’ key priorities – amending and passing a draft law to criminalize torture, selecting and appointing members to the new national human rights institution and establishing a plan of action to follow up on the committee’s new and previous recommendations – require governmental action. “There is a year to execute the priority recommendations and then to establish a plan of action concerning the whole of the recommendations,” Touze said during the conference. “The final observations will be followed-up on by the CAT. [The process] forms a relatively close relationship [between the state] and the committee. ... It’s really an ongoing cycle, a permanent dialogue with the state.” In front of the conference’s roughly 25 attendees, Farouk al-Moghrabi, adviser to the minister of state for human rights affairs, expressed doubt over the speed with which legislative change could be made. “It is impossible to amend the law [to criminalize torture] in three months [as was initially suggested by Touze] because of the current political situation,” he said, adding that funding problems had impeded the progress of the National Commission for Human Rights, and “frankly, no one has been seeking funding.” A law was passed by Parliament on Oct. 19, 2016 to establish a National Human Rights Institute, but the details – including funding and staffing of the body – are still needed. Moghrabi said the ministry had submitted a decree to establish a council made up of representatives from the Foreign, Justice, Defense and Interior ministries to follow up on the recommendations issued by human rights bodies. A similar proposal to “establish a national commission to be in charge of reporting with regard to international conventions on human rights,” was submitted to the Cabinet in 2016 by the Foreign Affairs Ministry, a ministry source told The Daily Star in April, adding that the ministry is meanwhile coordinating with other authorities. Wadih al-Asmar, secretary-general of CLDH, said Wednesday that the organization supports the creation of one governmental body to serve as a point of liaison for ministries as well as civil society organizations. “The meeting was to work on the implementation of the recommendations,” he told The Daily Star. “We want ... to have one centralized group to liaise with instead of a fragmented approach.” The conference, the third held by CLDH, also aimed to cement cooperation between the government and civil society organizations on the issue of torture in Lebanon. This cooperation is acknowledged to be important, but attempts to improve it have been checkered. “The meeting was to avoid playing with the Lebanese state the way the state has played with us,” Asmar said, specifically in reference to the government’s failure to publish their CAT report before submitting it to the committee, thus precluding dialogue with civil society groups. CLDH was one of the many non-governmental groups that submitted “shadow reports” – unofficial documents in lieu of Lebanon’s official submission – to the CAT, which were praised as “very valuable” and “particularly relevant” by Touze, and cited frequently by CAT experts during the April sessions. Jeanne Mrad, a Lebanese diplomat representing Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil at Wednesday’s conference, said the “intention was not to marginalize civil society,” but that time constraints in preparing the report had been a reason for not widening the scope of input. Mrad said that the ministry had been enthusiastic about submitting Lebanon’s initial report to the CAT, but she noted that implementing the recommendations required widespread cooperation. “We have a problem with ministerial coordination,” she said. Moghrabi acknowledged the political, economic and social challenges likely to impede the recommended changes, but said that, nonetheless, “we have to try.” He noted that governmental coordination already exists with groups such as CLDH, Alef – Act for Human Rights, Karama and others. “No one needs to go to Geneva to know there are problems in Lebanon,” Moghrabi said. “But this report allows us to acknowledge issues. And the only solution is to cooperate with civil society.” But the ministries that were in the spotlight at the April CAT sessions – and that will have the lion’s share of the work in tackling torture – were thin on the ground Wednesday. The Justice and Defense ministries said they would send representatives, according to Asmar, but neither did so. The Interior Ministry made no response to the invitation. “Many ministers sent apologies because they were focusing on elections, as the deadline to hold them has just passed,” Asmar said. While this did not excuse their absence, he said, “We believe the state wants to make progress because otherwise they would not have ratified the CAT.” He expressed hopes for future cooperation. Touze was also optimistic about Lebanon’s engagement with the CAT, the quality of the government’s report and the state’s receptiveness to dialogue. But he did not shy away from reiterating the CAT’s ongoing concerns, which had been outlined in their concluding remarks. He noted that although the CAT found the situation in Lebanon had changed since its 2012-13 inquiry, which reported systematic torture in the country, the committee remains concerned by reports security forces and military personnel continue to routinely use torture. He said Lebanon, like many of the countries that appear before the CAT, had expounded on the laws and structures that would act as preventative measures, but that the “practical application of laws is left out.” Lebanon still had not passed a law that explicitly prohibits torture as defined by the convention, he noted, despite the draft law existing in various iterations for several years. “We always hope that our final observations will be adopted ... but we are not naive, we know very well that ... certain national circumstances can make it so that legislative processes take longer than we would wish,” Touze said. He also noted that there is no mechanism for enforcing adherence to U.N. conventions. Ultimately, he said, “Everything rests on the goodwill of the states” to engage in an ongoing dialogue with the committee. Asmar, along with Moghrabi and other ministerial representatives expressed hope that the committee’s recommendations would not be left to gather dust. “I want everyone to look at Lebanon and take it as an example,” Asmar said.

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