Liberty on the line

By Sami Halabi

The Lebanese Parliament seeks to strip the people of their rights before granting them their long overdue privileges

Lebanon's lawmakers need to be reminded that now is not the time to take advantage of the people (Photo: AFP)

As most of us head to our beaches and balconies in the hopes of catching a summer breeze and perhaps a much-deserved siesta, our Parliament seems to be bucking the trend, having apparently awoken from its years-long slumber.

The country’s legislative branch, a collection of 128 sectarian officials representing a flawed and arcane electoral process, has been unusually busy of late. The 69-odd draft laws recently thrown at the foot of its door have been picked up by the corresponding committees and subcommittees, which comprise one of our most inefficient branches of government.

With so much work to do, one would think that Parliament would be a bustling hub of deputies and their staff scurrying from one office to another at all hours of night and day. But last April, as an experiment, I decided to knock on the office doors of each of the members of the subcommittee mulling a piece of legislation I was reporting on. Not one of the MPs was present in their offices after lunch, nor were there any staff on hand to receive me.

Eventually, a lonely lingering soldier on guard asked me what I was doing rushing back and forth through the building. After explaining myself he just laughed and said “god help you.”

Considering such utter disinterest in keeping functional working hours, or at least having some staff to do so, it’s a marvel how quickly laws are being put before parliament. This discrepancy would appear to be down to one of two things: either lawmakers have been too indifferent to take a look at proposed legislation, or they have been relying on their respective party’s policy buffs and intend to rubber stamp whatever their party tells them is best — neither of which is going to produce the reform we need.

Take the recent information and communications technology (ICT) law that, thankfully, has been put off for another month. The law, like most of those pending ratification, was intended to bring Lebanon into step with minimum international standards, in this instance relating to payments and accountability in electronic transactions. Instead, the administration and justice committee which oversees proposed legislation, used the opportunity to push a law to the floor that would stem our already limited freedom of expression, by calling for the formation of an authority — subject to a sectarian appointment system for executives — that would have the power to carry out unwarranted searches of any and all electronic information through a “specialized judicial police.”

The fear is that this authority will function as little more than an electronic Stasi, and perhaps unsurprisingly, concerned civil society and private sector actors were not contacted before the law was presented. If they had been, they would have certainly reminded our public officials that government does not just exist to take away people’s freedoms without offering them something in return. It’s no coincidence that the laws being pushed through are of the ‘take’ and not ‘give’ nature. Currently, long awaited and necessary legislation covering freedom of information and whistleblower protection still lies in a drawer somewhere in the quiet halls of Parliament. Taking people’s freedoms away rather than granting them seems to be the priority, before lunch of course.

The ICT law is but one example of the constant and ongoing attempts to curtail the rights that we Lebanese have come to enjoy, in many cases only because governments have either been absent or uninterested in lawmaking. But since the nature of being a public official is to be held accountable by the public, we should not be content with merely electing a Parliament. Perhaps we have become so accustomed to a government in crisis that we have lost sight of the goal of institution building and our inalienable right to question our officials, rather than allowing them to hold closed invitation-only sessions to mull legislation and hide behind layers of opaque sectarian bureaucracy. That age-old habit needs to come to an end.

And now that we have a semi-functioning parliament we cannot, and should not, simply bask in the sun while they run rampant over our rights. Government is not a one-way street, and at this point more ‘give’ and less ‘take’ is in order. The beach may have to wait.

First published in Executive Magazine’s July 2010 issue


Author: Sami Halabi

Sami Halabi is a policy consultant who covers a range of policy issues and analyses development programmes, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Sami specialises in analysing policies and programmes in order to provide evidence-based recommendations to policy-makers and international development agencies. Sami holds a Master of Public Policy with Distinction from The University of Edinburgh.

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