General: Lebanon: Authorities react violently to peaceful protests in aftermath of Beirut blast and impose state of emergency
The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) expresses its deepest sympathy and solidarity with those affected by the Beirut port blast on 04 August 2020 and pays tribute to the civil society organisations who have been at the frontlines in supporting the victims and their families.
At least 177 people died, with dozens still unaccounted for under the rubble, over 6,000 were wounded, and 300,000 are now homeless. The causes of the explosion were widely covered by the local and international media, and an independent investigation, justice and restitution are among the main demands of GCHR and other human rights organisations.
The catastrophe of the Beirut port blast took only a few minutes to annihilate entire neighbourhoods, devastating lives, and destroying walls and monuments that stood for years and even survived wars. “It’s a human rights violation! They denied us our basic rights and now they repudiate our right to life. It is contemplative yet very overwhelming,” said GCHR Internal Manager Farah Hassouna. “Despite their responsibility, the authorities’ indisposition is just unbelievable and unacceptable,” she added.
August 8th Protests and State of Emergency
Pushed by dignity, sorrow, anger and demands for truth and justice, thousands of Lebanese people marched on Saturday, 08 August 2020 in popular protests in the name of the victims, calling for those responsible to be prosecuted. The fact that experts referred to the explosion as “a tenth of the intensity of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb but far bigger than any blast from a conventional weapon” is seen by the Lebanese people and activists as a result of the failure of those in charge in the performance of their duties. Protesters were adamant about holding the authorities accountable and putting an end to the corruption of the Lebanese state. They gathered in sit-ins at three ministries for a few hours on 08 August questioning once again the legitimacy of the authorities.
The protest area in downtown Beirut witnessed heightened security reinforcements from different Lebanese security forces, while excessive violence was used against demonstrators. “The [security] forces used to repress the protests should have otherwise been used to rescue and help those affected by the explosion in a timely manner,” said a Lebanese activist.
A two-week state of emergency was imposed by the Cabinet on 05 August, and approved by Parliament on 13 August 2020. It was subsequently renewed until 18 September 2020, but legal experts considered it invalid as it has been issued as an administrative memo by the Secretary General of the Council of Ministers while it should be a decree approved by two-thirds of the Council of Ministers as per the Lebanese constitution. The state of emergency gives the army unfettered powers to place restrictions on freedoms of expression and assembly, including restricting freedom of the press, as well as the power to enter people’s homes without a warrant, arrest anyone they deem a security threat, and expand the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians.
The disproportionate use of force against protesters on is a glaring example of the dangers to civil society when invoking emergency powers. Among the violations documented during protests on 08 August were the use of tear gas canisters fired heavily into the crowds, and the use of rubber bullets and live ammunition to target demonstrators in clear violation of international conventions prohibiting the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters. Many people gave their live testimonies on television.
There was systematic targeting of protesters' eyes and faces with rubber bullets and lasers were used to identify targets, according to the testimony on MTV Lebanon talk-show “Bi Ism Al-Shaab” (In the name of people) on 19 August 2020 by 25-year-old Hussein Al-Rashed, who lost his right eye as a direct hit. “We lost half of our beloved city, we lost beloved ones and friends, we lost hope of tomorrow, and a better future for our children, and today some of us have lost an eye in the protest. It is just unbearable and very inhumane, this won’t blind us against these human rights violations, we will forever be witnesses,” a Lebanese woman human rights defender told GCHR.
According to the Legal Agenda, as a result of shots fired during the demonstrations on 08 August, eye surgeon Dr. Nada Jabbour, the president of the Lebanese Ophthalmologist Association, reported that “50 people entered the operating room, 15 people lost their eyes completely, and [there are] eight cases of injuries in both eyes.”
According to the Committee of Lawyers for the Defense of Demonstrators in Lebanon, 20 protesters, including minors, were arrested, and 18 out of 20 were not released until the next day. All were subjected to drug tests by order of the public prosecutor.
What GCHR finds remarkable was the presence of plainclothes individuals who fired both rubber bullets and live bullets at the demonstrators. The Lebanese Internal Security Forces denied firing bullets or that they were affiliated with the shooters, which raises the question of the identity of those individuals, their role in the shootings, and from whom they were receiving their orders.
Blast’s Effect on Marginalised Groups and Calls for Independent Investigations
GCHR welcomes the statement on 13 August 2020 by 37 United Nations experts calling for an independent investigationinto the port explosion. The UN experts wrote, "The scale and impact of the lethal explosion are unprecedented. We are deeply concerned about the level of irresponsibility and impunity surrounding human and environmental devastation on this scale.” They added, “The catastrophic blast occurred while Lebanon is already confronted by a devastating political, economic and financial crisis, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a sharp deterioration of human rights protection and much suffering.”
Among those who are suffering greatly are some of the most vulnerable members of Lebanese society. Migrant workers are in great danger of exploitation as many had already lost their jobs due to the deteriorating economic conditions and COVID-19, and more have lost their jobs and homes due to the port explosion. They are left in the limbo and unable to go back to their home countries. Feminist and migrant rights groups have been highlighting the plight of migrant workers, many of whom are women domestic workers, since the beginning of the public protests that spread across Lebanon in early October 2019.
“The feminist movement has flourished in the past year to fight social, economic and political injustice, within a complicated patriarchal system. Today, women human rights defenders and feminists are leading the way for legal support, humanitarian relief, rehabilitation, advocacy, and justice for the victims and everyone in the country. But also, they are at the greatest risk of harassment and gender-based targeting. Their safety and protection remain precarious especially within such occurrences!” said Weaam Youssef, GCHR’s WHRDs Programme Coordinator.
There are an estimated 250,000 migrant workers in Lebanon, and rights groups have criticised the authorities for failing to help them, even when there are women and their children sleeping in the streets. According to Global Voices, many domestic workers from Africa have been treated poorly, and some are infected with COVID-19, with no medical care.
GCHR echoes the calls of the UN Special Procedures, who said, “We also call on the national authorities to allow peaceful protests and to protect demonstrators and journalists. All Lebanese, civil society and affected communities must be able to freely influence government decision-making during this critical moment, including in relation to the coordination, oversight and delivery of any foreign aid. Everyone in Lebanon has the right to information about the health and environmental risks posed by stockpiles of dangerous substances. Such information must be available, accessible and functional, in a manner consistent with the principle of non-discrimination.”
GCHR reiterates calls by human rights organisations, UN special procedures and the wider human rights community for the Lebanese authorities to:
- Immediately put an end to any use of violence or repression against protesters, refrain from restricting the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and rescind the state of emergency;
- Respect their duties, fulfill their responsibilities to protect, and listen to the public demands;
- Use their power and resources to facilitate humanitarian aid in cooperation with the wider civil society organisations and activists; and
- Actively collaborate with an independent investigation, make the results known, and support justice and reparations to all victims and their families.
Photo source: Belshare3