Letter from Lebanon

Issue section: 

On 14 April this year Lebanese campaigners launched the people's tribunal to investigate the disappearances and massacres committed during Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.

The tribunal is set to coincide with one launched by the United Nations into the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Campaigners are demanding that the deaths of all Lebanese and Palestinians be investigated, not just that of a billionaire politician.

Farah Koubaissy is one of the organisers. She writes from Lebanon on the long running campaign for justice.

On 14 April this year we launched the people's tribunal under the slogan "Yes to the annulment of the amnesty law - Justice for the Victims".

The people's tribunal has three main goals. We want to expose the truth and find those responsible for war crimes committed during the civil war. We want the government to pay reparations for the victims and to declare the destiny of the missing so that their families can inherit property.

Finally, we feel that only through finding the truth can we find true reconciliation so that the sectarian war is not repeated.

The event was called "To be remembered in order not to be repeated - It will not be repeated". Although the invitation was public, the organisations that joined the campaign were The Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union and the Khiam Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, as well as youth groups and some left wing parties.

The tribunal was supported by the Committee for the Families of Kidnapped and Disappeared - a secular group that campaigns for all victims of the war.

Since we are insisting on the public criteria of the tribunal, the launch took place on the Corniche of Ain al-Mraysse - a popular promenade along Beirut's sea front. Most of the events will be held in open and public spaces.

The people's tribunal came as a natural response to what we considered as ignorance on the part of the judiciary in dealing with lawsuits against war criminals.

An amnesty for all crimes committed during the war was agreed as part of the Taif Agreement that put an end to hostilities in 1990. It has been criticised by most human rights organisations as it covers up war crimes and crimes against humanity - such as the massacres and killings based on identity cards - perpetrated by the Lebanese warlords who are currently part of the government, and some in the opposition.

The first test case is against the kidnappers of Mohieddine Hachicho, a school teacher "disappeared" by right wing militias in 1982. Since 1991, the courts have been looking into the case. It has been repeatedly postponed even though there are witnesses who saw Hachicho being kidnapped and testimonies of people who trailed the kidnappers to the military base.

The latest complaint was presented by former prisoners of Israeli jails against the leader of the Lebanese Forces, a right wing militia led by Samir Gaegae. Lebanese courts refused to look into the complaint under the pretext of the amnesty given to Gaegae following the US backed "Cedar Revolution" in 2005.

Gaegae is now part of the US backed ruling coalition.

The people's tribunal is the result of many years of struggles against the Lebanese ruling class who want to undermine our collective memory and to dissimulate the truth about the crimes they committed during the civil war.

It is a new experience for Lebanese civil society. We are learning from similar experiences applied in different regions over the world such as Argentina and South Africa.

We started collecting experiences and testimonies of witnesses and victims. These testimonies will be reviewed by legal specialists to determine the juridical responsibilities of the cases.

The complaint will be based on international conventions and treaties that Lebanon is a signatory to, especially since they are considered to be an integral part of the constitution.

Public hearings will be held on 13 April 2008 in which testimonies will be presented. Prior to that, we will be organising in schools, universities, public conferences.

Our goal is to push the authorities to cancel the general and the private amnesty laws in order to make the accountability process possible, to determine responsibilities, to declare publicly the destiny of the kidnapped, and to give reparations to the victims or their families.

There is an old tradition in Lebanon in which any accountability is denied. There is no culture of accountability, only the culture of forgetting. This is a tradition that we want to smash.

We are saying that from now on, our security and our lives are not to be toyed with. We are here to know what really happened and it is our right to know.

For several years the response of the government to the demands of the families' committee was to say that "all the disappeared were killed so there's no need to search for them."

The families were accused of "exhuming the memory of the war that the Lebanese want to forget" and of awakening the "sensibilities of the war".

So far the response of the authorities was to ignore the demands. The parties of the government organised a commemoration of the war. The event was televised on government controlled channels and was financed and run by the same agencies that ran the "Cedar Revolution".

But it did not question anyone, preferring empty slogans and claiming that "we are all responsible". This is partly true, since, with a few exceptions, all of those in the present government were involved in the 1975-1990 war.