Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 5.5
Civil Liberties: 5
Political Rights: 6
Lebanon experienced major political changes in 2000: Israel withdrew from its self-declared "security zone" in the country's south after a 15-year occupation, leaving the area largely in the hands of the radical Islamist group Hezbollah, and opposition candidates swept to victory in parliamentary elections, reinstalling the controversial Rafik al-Hariri as prime minister. Many critics alleged widespread irregularities in election campaigning and balloting. While Syria maintained its de facto occupation of Lebanon and exercised significant influence over the election outcome, the Lebanese registered uncommon open criticism of Syria's overbearing role in Lebanon's internal affairs. After Israel's withdraw from the south, many found the continuing Syrian presence unjustified. As Israel withdrew, several thousand former Israeli-allied South Lebanese Army (SLA) militiamen fled into Israel. Many of those remaining faced charges of conspiracy and were sentenced to prison terms. Lebanon continued to face serious economic difficulties in 2000; the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the south revealed a region beset by economic underdevelopment and in need of major rehabilitation.
Lebanon gained full sovereignty from France in 1946. An unwritten National Pact in 1943 gave Christians political dominance over the Muslim population through a mandatory six-to-five ratio of parliamentary seats. After three decades during which non-Christians tried to end this system, a civil war erupted among Muslim, Christian, and Druze militias in 1975, claiming more than 150,000 lives before it ended in 1990. Complicating the situation was the presence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which, after having been expelled from Jordan in 1971, used Lebanon as a base for attacks against Israel and constituted an occupying force. Syria sent troops into Lebanon to support the government in 1976. Syrians, who consider Lebanon part of Greater Syria, continue to occupy the country today.
The Lebanese assembly ratified a peace plan put forward by the Arab League on November 5, 1989, in Taif, Saudi Arabia. The Taif accord maintained the tradition of a Maronite Christian president indirectly elected to a six-year term, but it transferred most executive power to the prime minister, a Sunni Muslim, by agreement. Parliament is evenly split between Muslims and Christians.
After Israel withdrew its forces from a 440-square-mile security zone in the south in June, the Shiite, pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia moved in to fill the power vacuum. Despite international and United Nations pressure to mobilize its army along the Israeli border, Lebanon had by year's end only apportioned some police and army personnel to towns and villages within the former security zone, but not at the actual border. Lebanon publicly refuses to protect Israel's border in the absence of a peace agreement with its southern neighbor. Israel's withdrawal was certified as complete by the UN and in full compliance with UN resolution 425 which stipulated the terms of the withdrawal. In October, Hezbollah guerillas kidnapped three Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, signaling a willingness to exercise its authority in the south and its desire to display its relevancy in Arab-Israeli affairs.
The Lebanese government is not sovereign in its own country. With some 35,000 to 40,000 troops in Lebanon, Syria dominates the country politically and militarily. The 128-member parliament, elected in September 2000, follows the Syrian line on internal and regional affairs.
Despite huge electoral gains by opposition candidates – who claimed 92 out of the 128 parliamentary seats – the elections generated pronounced criticism over alleged irregularities and Syria's overbearing influence in Lebanon's electoral process. Rafik al-Hariri, disgraced in 1998 as prime minister, mounted a stunning comeback, displacing Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss, who, along with President Emile Lahoud, had been handpicked to lead Lebanon by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Assad selected the two while in charge of Lebanon for his father, the late Hafez al-Assad. Prime Minister Hariri, while considered an opposition candidate, nonetheless maintains strong ties to the Syrian political establishment. A multibillionaire land developer, he has initiated massive construction projects in Syria.
Interior Minister Michel Murr, a staunch Syrian ally who ran as a candidate, faced serious doubts that he was running an open and honest campaign, as his government post puts him in control of police and internal security forces and the granting of licenses. Indeed, some candidates with no ties to Syria were harassed; campaign posters were torn down, cars vandalized, and shots were fired at the home of a former parliament speaker and opponent of Syria. Nassib Lahoud, a sitting member of parliament who during the election called for an examination of Lebanon's relationship with Syria, was banned from displaying campaign posters. In some areas, his posters were replaced with those promoting the candidacy of a Syrian-supported list led my Interior Minister Murr.
According to the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) and other independent observers, the elections were deemed "unfree and unfair" as a result, primarily, of Syrian meddling. LADE reported the illegal presence of security forces at polling stations, which served to intimidate voters. The organization criticized state-supported candidates who distributed voter registration cards to their own supporters after the official deadline. "Many of these cards were issued to people who didn't even have a voter registration card in the first place," said LADE in a statement. Many observers doubted that the election results – in spite of the large opposition gains – would translate into significant political change as long as Syria maintains its presence in Lebanon.
Lebanon's economy worsened in 2000, presenting Prime Minister Hariri with the enormous task of reforming a severely depressed economy in order to attract much needed foreign investment. The Israeli withdrawal from the south revealed a region severely underdeveloped. Lebanese and other nongovernmental organizations estimated the cost of rebuilding the south at $1.3 billion, citing infrastructural, agricultural, educational, and health projects, along with removal of land mines, as major priorities. Lebanon's deficit stood at $22 billion, or 140 percent of gross domestic product. Lebanon suffers from a brain drain, as hundreds of thousands of educated Lebanese have left in recent years. Based on the prime minister's proclivity for ambitious public spending, which drew past accusations of driving up the nation's debt in his previous term as premier, many critics expressed doubt over his ability to improve the economy.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Shortcomings in the electoral system limit the right of Lebanese citizens to change their government. The parliamentary elections held in 2000 were neither prepared for nor carried out impartially. According to the constitution, a president is to be elected by parliament every six years. In fact, Syria's choice of president is simply ratified by parliament. Just prior to the election of Emile Lahoud as president in October 1998, parliament amended a constitutional requirement that senior government officials resign their posts at least two years before running for office.
The judiciary is influenced by Syrian political pressure, which affects the appointments of key prosecutors and investigating magistrates. The judicial system comprises civilian courts, a military court, and a judicial council. International standards of criminal procedure are not observed in the military court, which consists largely of military officers with no legal training. The average case is tried in minutes. Extragovernmental groups, such as Palestinian factions and Hezbollah, detain suspects and administer justice in areas under their control, generally without due process safeguards.
Arbitrary arrest and detention are commonplace. Security forces use torture to extract confessions. Prison conditions do not meet international standards. After the Israeli withdrawal from the country's south, roughly 2,000 militiamen of the now-defunct SLA remained in Lebanon rather than seek refuge in Israel. Collaboration trials began in June for the remaining SLA members. Many were sentenced in batches and without adequate representation. The courts refused to hear cases on an individual basis, and one lawyer reportedly handled 700 cases by himself. By the end of September, more than 1,000 former militiamen were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three weeks to 15 years.
While Lebanon enjoys greater press freedoms than its patron Syria, the government has not abated its crackdown on independent broadcasting, which flourished during the civil war. Some candidates in the parliamentary elections were denied television coverage. In 1998, a government decree banned two of the country's four satellite television stations from broadcasting news or political programming. Since the crackdown began in 1996, the government has licensed only 5 television stations, 3 of which are owned by government figures; it has also licensed 6 radio stations that may carry news and 20 stations that may carry only entertainment. Fifty-two television stations and 124 radio stations have been closed. The appropriation of frequencies is a slow and highly politicized process.
Print media are independent of the government, though their content often reflects the opinions of the various local and foreign groups that finance them. Insulting the dignity of the head of state or foreign leaders is prohibited. All foreign print media are subject to government approval. In June, Reporters Sans Frontières filed a complaint with Lebanon's interior ministry over the banning of major foreign newspapers, including the French dailies Liberation and Le Monde and the International Herald Tribune, over the days immediately following Syrian president Hafez al-Assad's death. All three papers carried articles critical of Assad's legacy. Following the ban, a military court sentenced Salah Noureddine, a Lebanese man, to one year in jail for publicly criticizing the late Syrian ruler.
Rates of Internet access in Lebanon are substantial. In 1999 there were an estimated 50,000 users, with more than 25 Lebanese Internet service providers. Many "cybercafes" can be found in Beirut. Internet access does not appear to be closely monitored or controlled by the state.
While the government generally tolerates public demonstrations, those protesting Syria are dealt with swiftly. In April, Lebanon moved to suppress several peaceful anti-Syria protests. Army and security forces broke up demonstrations by university students calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, injuring several demonstrators. Eight people were arrested and sentenced to prison terms ranging from ten days to six weeks. Human Rights Watch criticized the prosecution of civilians in the country's military court.
Citizens may travel abroad freely, though internal travel is restricted in certain areas. Syrian troops maintain checkpoints in areas under their control. The government does not extend legal rights to some 180,000 stateless persons who live mainly in disputed border areas. In January 1999 the government announced a plan to lift travel restrictions imposed on Lebanon's Palestinian population. Palestinian travel documents are to be treated the same as passports. After 1995, Lebanon had required Palestinians once living in Lebanon to obtain visas to return.
Some 350,000 to 500,000 Palestinian refugees live without adequate electricity and water; they face restrictions on work, on building homes, and on purchasing property. Palestinians are denied citizenship rights. Lebanon insists that Israel repatriate all Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Lebanese authorities are loath to absorb the refugees into regular society for fear of upsetting the country's delicate sectarian balance. Palestinian refugee camps are noted breeding grounds of radical anti-Israel sentiment, and large segments of their residents are heavily armed. Lebanese authorities warily avoid the often-violent camps.
Women suffer legal and social discrimination. Although women commonly work in fields such as medicine, law, journalism, and banking, they are severely underrepresented in politics. Women constitute only two percent of parliament. Lebanon has ratified the United Nations Convention for the Eradication of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) but has not applied all its recommended laws. Women continue to receive smaller social security payouts than men, and female government employees often do not receive the same benefits as their male counterparts. Men convicted of so-called honor crimes – usually the murder of women deemed to have violated their families' honor – are often not punished severely.
All workers except those in government may establish unions, strike, and bargain collectively. Foreign domestic workers are routinely abused by employers, who pay them little or nothing and confiscate their passports to prevent them from leaving. Women are most vulnerable to brutality or sexual abuse. Lebanon has no written code to arbitrate domestic worker disputes.
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