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Human rights reports, a tribunal, and the US, Lebanon and Syria

A number of important reports have come out in the last week, detailing the Human rights situation in both Lebanon and Syria. The first is related to the second. The last one, on Syria, is important, as the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon to find those responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri kicks off on Sunday. 

Syria was implicated in the initial UN investigation of the murder. Damascus denies any involvement. Anti-Syrian politicians here are mortified that the U.S. (which partially funds the court) will put the tribunal on the table as a possible bargaining chip with Syria, as contacts between the two countries have intensified in the last few weeks. Senator John Kerry met with President Bashar al Assad last week. 

But first, an International Crisis Group report on Lebanon’s Palestinian camps:

“The vast Palestinian refugee population is routinely forgotten and ignored in much of the Middle East. Not so in Lebanon. Unlike in other host countries, the refugee question remains at the heart of politics, a recurrent source of passionate debate and occasional trigger of violence. The Palestinian presence was a catalyst of the 1975-1990 civil war, Israel’s 1982 invasion and Syrian efforts to bring the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to heel. Virtually nothing has been done since to genuinely address the problem. Marginalised, deprived of basic political and economic rights, trapped in the camps, bereft of realistic prospects, heavily armed and standing atop multiple fault lines — inter-Lebanese, inter-Palestinian and inter-Arab — the refugee population constitutes a time bomb. Until the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved, a comprehensive approach is required that clarifies the Palestinians’ status, formally excludes their permanent settlement in Lebanon, significantly improves their living conditions and, through better Lebanese-Palestinian and inter-Palestinian coordination, enhances camp management.”

Now, for the the U.S. State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report on Lebanon.  It initially describes how, since 2005, “internal violence and political battles hindered Lebanon's ability to improve the country's human rights situation.”

The report then goes into the details of the May 2008 violence and reveals the overall arc of Lebanon’s human rights records, mentioning at the end what the above ICG report covers in more detail:  

“There were limitations on the right of citizens to change their government peacefully. Militant and sectarian groups committed unlawful killings, and security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals. Torture of detainees remained a problem, as did poor prison conditions, lengthy pretrial detention, and long delays in the court system. The government violated citizens' privacy rights, and there were some restrictions on freedoms of speech and press, including intimidation of journalists. The government suffered from corruption and a lack of transparency. There were limitations on freedom of movement for unregistered refugees, and widespread, systematic discrimination against Palestinian refugees and minority groups continued. Domestic violence and societal discrimination against women continued, as did violence against children and child labor.”

And, as Acting Assistant Secretary of State (and former U.S. Amassador to Lebanon) Jeffrey Feltman prepares to meet with Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha, the Washington Post says this meeting signals a “potential thaw in relations between Damascus and Washington.”

Yesterday, Human Rights Watch released a report on Syria’s Supreme State Security Court, which the organization calls a “special court that exists outside the ordinary criminal justice system to prosecute those perceived as challenging the government.”
HRW alleges the court has “relied on sham trials to prosecute at least 153 defendants since January 2007 on the basis of vague charges that criminalize freedom of expression. Those prosecuted include 10 bloggers, 16 Kurdish activists, and eight citizens accused of 'insulting the Syrian president' in private conversations.”
“The State Security Court is one of Syria’s main pillars of repression,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s a kangaroo court providing judicial cover for the persecution of activists, and even ordinary citizens, by Syria’s security agencies. Defendants have no chance of defending themselves, much less proving their innocence against the bogus charges brought against them.”