EUVP visit story - Rina Constantine
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Reflections on my EUVP Experience
On June 2020, the Delegation of the European Union to Lebanon nominated me to participate in the 2021 European Union Visitors Program (“EUVP”) in my capacity as an international lawyer and international affairs consultant at the Ministry of Justice of Lebanon. I was subsequently selected by the EUVP Management Committee, which was composed of officials from the European Parliament and Commission. The EUVP is a people-to-people diplomacy program that invites young current or emerging leaders in government, law and politics, amongst other fields, from non-member countries as guests of the European Parliament and the European Commission, to become acquainted with EU institutions and values.
I undertook my EUVP visit virtually on the week of March 15th, 2021, due to the COVID restrictions, with the aim to conduct an in-person visit as soon as practicable.
The informal discussions I had with my interlocutors during my visit were conducted in my personal capacity and fall under the framework of the cooperation between Lebanon and the European Union (the “EU”), and their common interests. Any opinion I expressed during the visit is solely my own and does not represent the view of any entity I work with.
In particular, I touched upon issues revolving around the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon, disinformation and hate speech, sexual harassment against women in politics, the reform and independence of the judiciary, as well as anti-corruption initiatives.
I had the chance to discuss these issues with Members of the European Parliament who took the time to exchange thoughts and ideas with me, and with valuable officials from the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF, which is the EU body mandated to detect, investigate and stop fraud with EU funds), the European Parliament Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (“FEMM”), and the Directorate General for Justice and Consumers at the European Commission (“DG JUST”).
Interestingly, at the level of the European Parliament, the political cooperation with Lebanon falls within the realm of competence of the Delegation for the Relations with the Mashreq countries.
The denomination of such delegation had caught my attention given that the Mashreq classification of countries i.e. the Levant is not as commonly adopted and used as the classification of the MENA or Arab countries. I learned that the Mashreq Delegation is actually one of the oldest delegations at the European Parliament, was created in 1979, and has remained in place since then. I welcomed the fact that Lebanon would be associated with other Levantine countries such as Syria and Jordan, given the cultural similarities and historical ties that connect them closely with each other.
On the Syrian refugees’ crisis. I brought up the issue of the Syrian refugees’ crisis with several of my interlocutors and voiced the concern of a large portion of the Lebanese population in this respect: Lebanon is the country with the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide, with a population of 4 million Lebanese and 1.5 million displaced Syrians on Lebanese territory. Contrary to other neighbouring countries, Lebanon remains fully committed to the principle of non-refoulement1 , although, it has not signed the Geneva Convention. Nonetheless, with the intensification of Lebanon’s financial, economic and security crisis, and the growing rate of unemployment and Lebanese people below the poverty line, the frustration of the Lebanese people with displaced Syrians has considerably increased. Lebanon has no longer the capacity to sustain the financial burden caused by the presence of the displaced Syrians, magnified by the historical drop of the Lebanese lira and hyperinflation that have severely harmed the Lebanese population. Beyond the humanitarian aspect of the crisis which should definitely not be dismissed, it seems that a large portion of Lebanese people are no longer welcoming of the fact that most of the European financial aid is dedicated to displaced Syrians, which prompts them to remain in Lebanese territory. I therefore brought up the right of the displaced Syrians to return to safe areas of their home country, which is, after all, a Human Right. It transpired from the conversations I had in this respect that the dominant view within the EU is that the latter must continue to financially support the Syrian displaced in neighboring countries such as Lebanon where they feel the most at ease, culturally and linguistically, and to avoid discussing their potential return before a sustainable peace agreement in Syria is reached. I concurred that the solution to the Syrian crisis will definitely have to be a political one but opined that this should not prevent the discussion on the return of the Syrian displaced from being officially initiated between Lebanon and the EU. I welcomed the opportunity to seriously discuss a practical solution that would alleviate the burden of the Syrian refugee crisis which has cost the Lebanese economy 45 billion USD in direct and indirect costs according to the World Bank.
On disinformation and hate speech. Democracies around the world are currently facing a proliferation of disinformation and hate speech which can destabilize their democratic institutions and have an adverse impact on their citizens. In fact, one of the 6 priorities set by the European Commission for 2019-2024 is protecting democracy from external interference such as disinformation and online hate speech.
In fact, Lebanon’s political life is no exception to the phenomenon of the rise of disinformation. The country has 18 officially recognized religious communities, and the vast majority of our political parties are sectarian parties. Various sects and political parties have been in conflict throughout history, and the belonging to the sect trumps the belonging to the Nation. While we may have witnessed the emergence of some kind of a national civic identity with the October 17 Revolution, the momentum has considerably faltered since then. Today, hatred between different political factions and religious communities is peaking. Despite the Revolution and the August blast, people are very much polarized. The polarization is undoubtedly fuelled by political actors but also by influential journalists and biased media outlets which tend to manipulate the masses to advance their own agendas and those of undisclosed funders, which are closely imbricated. This has led to an intractable proliferation of fake news and hate speech that go to the extent of death wishes and threats on social media, and is all the more critical in the context of Lebanon where the threat of a civil war is constantly lurking in the background.
In light of the above, I discussed the adverse impact of disinformation and hate speech with a Member of the European Parliament and emphasized the need to instil some sense of responsibility in political figures but also in journalists, socio-political influencers and the media as a whole, while safeguarding freedom of speech. My interlocutor agreed that the line between freedom of speech and disinformation is a very fine one, and that hate speech per se entails an incitement to hate or an appeal to death. Interestingly, I learned that a fake information can be replayed 6 times more than a true information, and that the EU is still experiencing challenges when it comes to building an efficient framework to regulate speech. That being said, my interlocutor underscored how important it is for the EU to have independent and free media and journalists and avoid censorship, which can only be achieved through clear rules to combat disinformation and hate speech by opening up the dialogue with big technology platforms. In her view, for the balance between freedom of speech and combatting disinformation to be reached, the world needs to have more fact checking services, raise social media literacy, but also initiate a multilateral work on countering disinformation and hate speech that would involve the United Nations.
On sexism. Gendered disinformation targeting women in politics persists across the globe in the 21st century, which is unacceptable. I therefore raised the issue of sexism against women in politics at my meeting with the FEMM Committee. I explained that Lebanon has recently witnessed an improvement in women’s inclusion in politics with one third of our current government being composed of women, for the first time in the history of the country. Unfortunately, Lebanese female politicians are often subject to mansplaining and misogynistic comments made by their male peers, be it in Parliament or on national television. Often, and especially during debates on TV, male political figures make sexist comments to bring down a female opponent instead of retaliating on the substance of the political issues in play. Sexism is dangerous because it lies at the root of gender inequality: it is based on the idea that women are inferior to men because of their sex, and creates a climate of intimidation that we desperately need to fight.
In this respect, my interlocutor explained that the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers adopted for the first time a recommendation to stop sexism, defined in a dedicated legal instrument. The recommendation stresses that sexism is a manifestation of “historically unequal power relations” between women and men, which leads to discrimination and prevents the full advancement of women in society. Notably, the recommendation draws the link between sexism and violence against women and girls, and was implemented in a solid legally binding framework under the Istanbul Convention.
On judicial reform and anti-corruption. The conversation I had with the DG JUST revolved around the independence of the judiciary and judges, which is the cornerstone of the prevention and fight against corruption, and is a crucial tool to build a strong State where transparency and accountability prevail, and to provide legal certainty which is essential to draw investments.
In particular, I provided my interlocutors with a brief overview of Lebanon’s latest judicial appointments and permutations. I pointed out that for the first time in the history of Lebanon, the Minister of Justice provided her written comments on the judicial appointment proposal made by the Higher Judicial Council, in accordance with the law. Contrary to the practice adopted in the last years, the Minister did not accept to meet with the Higher Judicial Council before the latter had issued its proposal in order not to interfere with the Council’s work and not to overstep her own competence under the law. I recalled some of the most important comments, namely:
- The non-observance of the principle of application of objective criteria of selection across the board, especially at the level of the public prosecutors and the investigative judges who play a crucial role in the battle against corruption.
- Opposing a wrong practice that allocates specific judicial positions to specific sects, which has rendered such positions subject to power-sharing and influence in the various Lebanese regions, and prevented the right candidate from earning the right judicial position.
Furthermore, I engaged with a Member of the European Parliament on the EU Anti-Corruption Intergroup, a cross-party initiative aiming to combat corruption which includes 129 Members of Parliament and is headed by a cross-party bureau. The impetus for the initiative, being that corruption is not a fight that single actors can win, has certainly caught my attention, especially when extended to the Lebanese context. Indeed, hostilities between different political factions are preventing them from coming together around pressing anti-corruption policies that are desperately needed to protect people’s rights. For instance, the forensic audit on the accounts of the Central Bank, which has been identified by the international community as a reform of priority, has not rallied enough political actors around it, and created controversy because one particular party is pushing for it. I find this very unfortunate because, as my interlocutor highlighted, corruption should not be a party issue. If the fight against corruption is politicized, it will ultimately be lost.
I concluded the meeting by raising the potential introduction of the Global Magnitsky Act at the EU level, which I had read about in the news. I stated that, while I appreciate the impetus for such an act, I have reservations on the way it was applied in certain instances up until now, which raises concerns of (i) due process given the unilateral nature of the sanctions which prevents the person accused of corruption or Human Rights violations from defending themselves, whereas due process is precisely a Human Right enshrined in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and (ii) lack of transparency in the administration of the sanctions given that the decision to sanction is announced in a press statement but is not accompanied by any supporting evidence and that the administration’s reluctance to share evidence on the ground that most the documents/information would be privileged or classified or concern national security. In a nutshell, I believe that the non-observance of due process and the lack of transparency in the administration of sanctions might lead in certain instances to an unfair and arbitrary outcome, which ultimately disserves the objective of an act such as Magnitsky that precisely aims to combat Human Rights violations and acts of corruption. In any event, I am a firm believer that counting solely on efforts by the international community to sanction corruption is not a sustainable solution, nor one that observes the concept of State sovereignty. I believe that, before anything, the Lebanese people owe it to themselves to increase pressure on their MPs to pass the law on the independence of the judiciary, which has been subject to discussions in Parliament for over a year now and which, it seems, will only be discussed by the Parliament’s general assembly in October 2021. Indeed, only an independent, competent and efficient domestic judiciary can offer Lebanon the possibility to effectively sanction acts of corruption committed by its citizens. Only an independent, competent and efficient domestic judiciary will help us rebuild our State.
To conclude, my EUVP experience was extremely enriching and fruitful, helped me better understand the functioning of the EU institutions and European values, and build ties with knowledgeable and open-minded professionals. It also allowed me pave the way for a concrete project to be undertaken in Lebanon in cooperation with the EU, and I now look forward to an in-person visit of the EU institutions in Brussels.
I look back at my EUVP’s experience hoping that, someday, the various factions of Lebanon’s unique pluralistic society might find inspiration in the European Union’s motto: “United in Diversity”.
1 A core principle of international refugee and human rights law that prohibits States from returning individuals to a country where there is a real risk of being subjected to persecution, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or any other human rights violation.