Editor’s Note: The following is an edited translation of the statement made by Nizar Saghieh, legal counsel for the associations representing the families of the disappeared – the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon (CFKD) and Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE).
In light of the handing over of the Lebanese government investigative report on the fate of the disappeared in Lebanon [to their families], one can only commend the pivotal decision taken in 2009 by the committees representing these families, to appeal to the courts to consecrate their rights after public authorities chose to ignore their cases and failed to provide them with recourse. The families of the disappeared have since accomplished a great deal. Their most prominent achievement was obtaining a State Council ruling on March 4, 2014, which enshrined the right to the truth as a natural right and shall not be subject to exceptions or restrictions. By implementing this ruling [and handing over the report], the prime minister’s implicit approval marked a major milestone: that of the recognition of this right and of the obligations it entails.
Without exaggeration, this moment can be said to represent a major juncture in Lebanon’s history. After the end of the 1975-1990 [civil] war, a political system was established based on glorifying warlords and war heroes, while refusing to acknowledge the victims and repressing war memories to prevent any pangs of conscience. With such a ruling, this political system finds itself facing its antithesis: the right of war victims (the families of the disappeared) to truth and justice. The resultant stirred-up memories and pangs of conscience will be essential [for the country] to overcome its wartime value system.
From such a perspective, the judicial ruling appears to have restored to the Lebanese an essential part of their memory – one that was supposed to remain obscured. As if paving the way for rewriting history, it prompts us to view this war not only through the eyes of its heroes whom we are asked to glorify and approve of, but rather, primarily through [the experiences of] its victims. Above all, our duty to the latter is to grant them justice and to heal their wounds. Our [collective] memory would thus no longer be associated with heroics, and a selective one based on sectarian affiliation that only heightens our acute divisions – but rather, be primarily one of pain. A national collective memory would arise: a memory of mothers and wives coming together from all over the country to the frontlines to stand against sectarian fighting. Their coming together would bring us together, in a unified vision of the future based on equality and justice.
Since the end of the war, by virtue of their pain and suffering, the families of the disappeared have shed much doubt on the legitimacy of the current power-sharing political system, when nearly everyone else seems to have resigned to its rule. Many thought, and perhaps wagered, that their resistance would weaken and fade away with time with the death of every mother or wife – of every witness to the past. Then came the ruling [issued by the State Council]. It consecrated the strength of their resistance rooted in a natural right, and bestowed upon their cause the status of a major national issue. Such an issue concerns everyone and grows stronger with every newborn, and with every witness to the future. Regardless of its content, the handover of the dossier represents a historical moment. At this historical juncture, the [Lebanese] political system is witnessing the start of a core transformation, at the very foundations of its legitimacy.
Yet, regardless of the moral and symbolic value of the State Council’s ruling, the general public today is entitled to raise questions about the practical consequences of implementing it and handing over the dossier. How do the contents of this dossier reinforce the right to the truth? What information can be used or built upon to uncover the fate of the disappeared? Many are waiting for the answers to those questions today. These are urgent questions. For they do not concern a dossier of investigations conducted by a single commission. Rather, they concern the dossier of all the investigations conducted by all post-war governments, through several commissions at different times (in 2000, 2001 and 2005). What we have before us today is thus a dossier that embodies all the policies followed by successive governments. By showing how the latter dealt with the issue of war victims, the contents of this dossier are rendered irrefutable and conclusive evidence of the nature of their policies in this respect.
In my capacity as legal counsel for the families of the disappeared, I shall make the following evaluation remarks:
Firstly, anyone going through the investigations dossier will quickly realize that the information it contains is incomplete. In many instances, such information remained in the form of raw data, notwithstanding its importance. In other words, it remained at the primary stages of investigation, while successive commissions failed to perform their duty of seeking the truth by examining it more closely. We thus find the dossier to contain a large number of forms filled out by the families of the disappeared. These contain everything they know about the abduction of their loved ones; the date of disappearance, the causes and circumstances surrounding it, and the kidnapping party or the people suspected of being involved. From this perspective, the dossier provides us with highly valuable information about the families of the disappeared, and about those who might have access to information required in order to uncover their fate.
Unfortunately, after having gathered all this information, the investigations conducted by [government-appointed] commissions remained superficial and incomplete. Their efforts were limited to classifying the files of the disappeared based on the identity of their suspected kidnappers, and on the extent of available evidence. Were the perpetrators a Lebanese group or a militia? Was it a security service affiliated with the Syrian Arab Republic? Or was it Israel?
In cases of suspected Lebanese kidnappers, the Commission sent requests to all security services (the General Directorate of General Security, the General Directorate of State Security and Internal Security Forces) for any information they might possess. All the responses were nearly identical: “results negative” or “no information in our records”. There was a very small number of cases in which security services did in fact send back whatever information they had. Yet, even those amounted to little more than anecdotes about certain individuals. It seems clear that the [successive] commissions did not go any further, and they never bothered to check with any of the militias or groups to which the families of the disappeared had ascribed responsibility for their kidnappings.
In cases pertaining to individuals likely to be found in Syria, the head of the 2001 Commission, MP Fouad Saad, had sent a request for information to [Syria’s] late Major General Ghazi Kanaan [who was in charge of Lebanese affairs at the time]. Saad’s request begins with the words “concerning the discussion we had…and as per your request”, and the dossier contains no response by Kanaan. At a later stage, a similar request was sent to the Syrian Lebanese Higher Council. In the case of suspected Israeli involvement, the Commission sent a request for information via the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and received answers about a number of individuals Israel admitted to detaining.
Regarding mass graves, the Commission of Inquiry claimed to have found several such sites in 2000, identifying the location of some but not others. With the exception of one mass grave in which the bodies were examined, the dossier that was handed over contains no indication of supporting evidence or intelligence the Commission might have relied on in this respect. More importantly, the mere existence of these mass graves was considered sufficient reason to close the case and end the investigation. One might have expected it instead to lead to taking immediate measures to guard and protect these sites, as a first step to identifying the individuals whose bodies were dumped there. In turn, this would have allowed their families to bury them according to their own customs, and to begin mourning their deaths.
As a result, it seems absolutely clear that the investigations conducted by the successive commissions remained on the whole at the early stages of gathering and classifying information. The commissions did not investigate any further, nor did they attempt to obtain clear results about the [fate of the] disappeared on an individual basis. Rather, they seemed to be “burying” them all in virtual mass graves as a prelude to closing the case. These commissions thus seem to have made use of the families of the disappeared, and of the forms they had completed not to uncover the facts, but rather, to suggest that the state had done everything it was required to do. The findings seemed to insinuate that it was time for the families to give up on their demands, and join the rest of the country in the game of amnesia and silence.
From this perspective, the dossier we hold in our possession today represents incontrovertible proof of the negligence of past governments in this respect. In fact, such negligence clearly reflects their abovementioned policies of refusing to acknowledge the victims and of repressing the memory [of the civil war]. In this respect, we demand that the ruling class take immediate steps to negate such policies, by taking clear legislative and administrative measures of recognition in order to achieve the promised change and justice. Chief among such measures should be the ratification of the proposed law on the right to the truth put forward by MPs Ghassan Moukheiber and Ziad al-Kadri, and the establishment of a DNA bank. Of course, we entirely reserve our right to demand compensation from the state for its aforementioned negligence. Such compensation should be entirely set aside for the establishment of a DNA bank, dedicated exclusively to achieving the right to the truth. We also entirely reserve our right to consult competent international bodies, in order to expose those policies of which we now have conclusive and irrefutable proof.
The second question the dossier raises with equal urgency is: how will the families of the disappeared act today, now that this information, as fragmented and incomplete as it might be, is in their possession? What are the possibilities it affords them for achieving the right to the truth? Naturally, the committees representing the families [of the disappeared] feel a tremendous responsibility in this regard. The dossier, now in their hands, contains information of the utmost importance – information that needs to be completed and brought to its conclusion. The successive commissions [appointed by the Lebanese government] may have chosen to back away at a certain point. However, in the name of the suffering endured by all those who never gave up waiting, the committees representing the families [of the disappeared] find themselves compelled to do everything needed to complete the investigations from the point they were dropped by those commissions. They plan to take both judicial and nonjudicial action in relation to national and foreign government bodies suspected of abduction.
As they have indicated many times before, [the families of the disappeared] once again wish to make it clear that they do not seek to punish anyone. Rather, they merely and above all, seek the truth that would put an end to the torment of waiting. Their resolve has been strengthened after their decades-long struggle won them the right to know the truth, and consecrating the obligation to reveal it which accompanies the recognition of such a right. They are also encouraged by the actions of the judiciary. By issuing the ruling that has brought us to where we are today, the Lebanese judiciary has indeed proven its ability to play a supportive social role to those segments of society who are most vulnerable to injustice when facing the prevailing political order.
There remains for us to assure the families that, in our concern for the personal information contained in this dossier, we will safeguard its documents with the utmost care. We equally assure them of our absolute commitment to the right to the truth for the families of the disappeared concerned. We will also provide the ICRC with a copy of the complete dossier, so as to contribute to its ceaseless efforts to uncover the fate of missing persons and victims of enforced disappearance in Lebanon.