Rights group calls for law banning sectarian incitement

Impromptu roadblocks again marked parts of Beirut’s former civil war demarcation line during this month’s violence. (Lucy Fielder/IRIN)

BEIRUT, 20 May (IRIN) - Lebanon needs a new law banning sectarian prejudice and incitement, to help heal rifts that widened after last week’s fighting between opposition and pro-government forces, the Beirut-based Khiam Rehabilitation Centre said.

The Khiam Centre’s call for such a law was made against a backdrop of fears among citizens that, unless checked, sectarian incitement might unleash another wave of killings as in the 1975-1990 civil war which had serious humanitarian consequences.

The Khiam Centre and New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) have both condemned attacks on civilians and violations of international humanitarian law during the conflict, which broke out on 7 May after the government tried to ban the opposition Hizballah’s communications network and remove the airport security chief, viewed as an ally of the group.

“There is a severe psychological crisis within the citizens, as well as a serious sectarian rift that will have devastating consequences, especially in Beirut, due to abuses against citizens,” Khiam said in a statement issued on 18 May.

HRW called for impartial investigations of the violations, which it said included kidnappings, summary executions and the killing of at least 12 unarmed people. At least 81 people were killed in total and 250 wounded.

Lebanese leaders meeting in Qatar to try to resolve the 18-month political crisis that erupted in violence must not try to shield supporters suspected of crimes, HRW said in a statement, also issued on 18 May.

“We’re talking about this now because the leaders in Doha are just trying to get seats in the next government, or arrange the electoral law so they can win,” Mohammad Safa, general-secretary of the Khiam Centre, told IRIN.

Phase-out of sectarian political system?

Safa pointed out that the Taif agreement that ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war called for the establishment of a national body to oversee the phasing out of the sectarian political system.

“But no one’s talking about that anymore,” Safa said. “Last week’s events didn’t fall from the sky, they’re a result of this sectarian structure. If we don’t change it, we’ll find that this was just the latest chapter of a civil war.”

Incidents documented by Khiam showed gunmen on both sides were checked for signs of sectarian affiliation at impromptu roadblocks, a worrying throw-back to the civil war. Lebanese ID cards no longer denote the bearer’s sect, but it can often be guessed by the name.

Khiam called on the two sides to abide by international laws concerning the expulsion of civilians in armed conflict, respect freedom of opinion and refrain from resorting to arms to resolve political differences.

Both groups said supporters of the US- and Saudi-backed government and those of the opposition led by Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizballah had attacked civilians.

“Accounts of abuses by the gunmen are spreading like wildfire and raising tensions,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW, in the statement. “Unless the state acts quickly to hold the perpetrators accountable, there are likely to be further reprisals.”

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