Stolen Public Maritime Property in Lebanon: No More Grace Periods

2021-03-11    |   

Stolen Public Maritime Property in Lebanon: No More Grace Periods
Photo by Dalia Khamissy

The deadline for settling encroachments on public maritime (i.e. coastal) property elapsed at the end of October 2019. However, via a distorted interpretation of two laws issued in May and August 2020 to suspend legal, judicial, and contractual deadlines in Lebanon, the public authorities froze their measures to recover such property, effectively granting the encroachers permission to continue their violations for approximately 14 months. Now, after these laws expired at the end of 2020, this issue – which is highly symbolic both for addressing the legacy of the 1975-1990 war and beginning the recovery of stolen wealth – is expected to return to the fore. (Editor)


In several articles published days after the outbreak of the October 17 uprising, the Legal Agenda called attention to the fact that the deadline granted, and subsequently extended, for settling encroachments on maritime property that began before 1994 would elapse at the end of that month. Consequently, the authorities would have to put a stop to any encroachment for which no settlement application had been filed while examining the applications filed to determine the obligations that they entail based on Law no. 64/2017. The Ministry of Public Works and Transport published that 386 encroachers had filed settlement applications before that deadline while approximately 700 had taken no procedure. It asked the Cassation Public Prosecution and Ministry of Interior to take action to seize the property [illegally] occupied by the latter group. Note that encroachments that began after 1993 do not qualify for any settlement and must, by law, be cleared immediately.


However, the first surprise came from the Cassation Public Prosecution, specifically Cassation Advocate-General Ghassan Khoury. On 6 February 2020, he took the initiative to grant an additional one-month grace period for encroachers to pay their fines before taking any measure against them. Granting a grace period in this manner exceeds the powers of the Public Prosecution, which must apply the law and may not amend it. Speaking to Al Akhbar, Khoury justified the difficulty of recovery on the basis that there are camps and informal settlements “from Saint Simon to Sarepta – it’s a sorry state” and that “the state does not have the institutions or capacities to seize” the illegally occupied property. While Parliament’s Public Works Committee invited Khoury to a meeting to discuss how to handle these violations, on February 19 Al Akhbar reported that most MPs had displayed coldness toward removing the encroachers and were inclined to grant additional grace periods. Thus, state officials seemed to be continuing the policy of indolence toward the occupation of public maritime property, contrary to the public discourse about recovering stolen wealth and fighting corruption. The Public Works Committee was unable to convene thereafter. After the deadline set by the Cassation Public Prosecution elapsed, the prosecution warned a number of encroachers in April and May that they must pay the fines and declared that it had reached an agreement with the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Public Works and Transport to draft terms for auctioning resorts erected on the illegally occupied areas. On the other hand, neither the Public Prosecution nor the Ministry of Interior took any step to enable the state to recover its property or even any areas that could be used to combat the COVID-19 crisis. Shortly thereafter, all procedures halted when the encroachers argued (and the Public Prosecution agreed) that they benefit retroactively from the May 2020 law that suspended various deadlines from 18 October 2019 to the end of July 2020 in order to preserve rights. They argued that this law is comprehensive, covering all deadlines except for a few that it explicitly excluded, which did not include the deadline for filing applications to settle encroachments. Whether or not this view is sound, in August, Parliament extended the deadline suspension law until the end of 2020 without explicitly excluding the deadline for settling encroachments, thus repeating the same error. Today, the excuse has expired as Deadlines Extension Law no. 199/2020, which Parliament passed on 21 December 2020, abandoned the use of flexible language in this regard.


While ending these encroachments was highly desirable as part of the effort to recover stolen property and address the state’s collapse, it has certainly become more pressing in light of the accumulation of crises and the need to mobilize energies and domestic resources pursuant to the general mobilization declared. Hence, this article will rebut and refute the excuses given for postponing this extremely important due.


Excuse 1: The Encroachments Shelter Low-Income Earners

The first excuse is that the property in question is occupied by low-income earners. Yet data we obtained from the General Directorate of Land and Maritime Transport via the Access to Information Law indicates that at least 73% of encroachments cannot be justified on the basis of sheltering low-income earners.


The data supplied to us by this administration pertains to parties and people who did not file applications to settle their encroachments on public maritime property under Law no. 64/2017. The list is divided into two main categories. The first category consists of the encroachers who own property adjacent to the illegally occupied maritime property. Hence, their encroachments are extensions of structures erected on private property. The second category consists of the other encroachers. Only for this category did the administration’s response include data about the area illegally occupied and its usage.


The tables provided to us list approximately 640 encroachers. The actual number is probably much higher as this figure only includes cases documented by the ministry and it very likely omitted, for one reason or another, other infringements committed on the Lebanese coast. Moreover, accepting this figure would mean that the total number of infringements on maritime property is 1,026 (i.e. 640 + 386), whereas the Ministry of Public Works and Transport announced at the beginning of the century that it had documented 1,068 infringements (i.e. 42 more) on maritime property, and the figure has probably since increased.


This incomplete data suggests a high likelihood that 73% of encroachments cannot be justified on the basis of the need to ensure low-income groups’ right to housing. To reach this conclusion, we relied on standards that we consider almost definitive with a small margin of error. However, more data (which we will request again from the General Directorate of Land and Maritime Transport) about the encroachments whose motivations we were unable to determine could raise this percentage.


We drew the aforementioned conclusion from the following facts:

  • The first category mentioned above (encroachers who own private property adjacent to the public maritime property along the Lebanese shore and have not filed settlement applications) contains 194 encroachers, i.e. approximately 30% of all encroachers who have not filed settlement applications. While the data provided to us neglects to mention the area illegally occupied or its usage, the mere fact that the encroachers own private property very likely negates the possibility of abject poverty, logically speaking. Twenty-nine of these encroachers, i.e. 15%, are not even individuals but companies, churches, religious endowments, schools, and tourism projects.
  • In the list of encroachers in the second category, i.e. the 446 who do not own any property, we observed the following:
  • In 181 cases – i.e. approximately 28% of all encroachments for which no settlement application has been filed – the illegally occupied property is being used for non-residential purposes. These cases are distributed as follows: 48 commercial cases, 51 chalets, 42 tourism-related cases, 24 industrial cases, six agricultural cases, three abandoned property cases, two gardens, two storehouses, one school, one restaurant, and one unknown. Hence, we can almost definitively conclude that these encroachments cannot be justified on the basis of low-income groups’ right to housing. These areas amount to 395,695 m2.
  • The available data on the illegally occupied areas used for residential purposes within this category showed that in 92 documented cases, i.e. approximately 14.5% of all encroachments for which no settlement applications have been filed, they exceed 200 m2. Once again, justifying the occupation of areas this large on the basis of low-income groups’ right to housing is very difficult.


Excuse 2: “The State Has Neither the Institutions nor the Capacities to Seize” the Illegally Occupied Property

The second argument – namely that “the state has neither the institutions nor the capacities” to seize the illegally occupied property – was raised by the Cassation Public Prosecution’s representative, as explained above. It is invalid for the following reasons:


  • In principle, the state only needs to demolish any structures erected on illegally occupied property and restore its status as a public beach. To say that the state lacks sufficient capacities to do so is absurd and tantamount to a declaration of its total incapacity. As for the claim that administration must be provided for these structures, it too is absurd as it assumes that contrary to the exigencies of public good (as explained below), they will continue to be exploited rather than demolished.
  • Even if state capacities are lacking, the potential achievement is clearly enormous in terms of not only recovering property that has been illegally occupied for decades but also the symbolism of ending one of the lingering effects of the 1975-1990 war. Hence, any initiative to recover such property can bet on broad and concerted national efforts to help it achieve this extremely significant and symbolic national goal.
  • In any case, the data provided to us showed that 19 of the aforementioned encroachments cover areas larger than 5,000 m2. By usage, they are divided as follows: seven tourism-related cases, eight commercial cases, one industrial case, and three agricultural cases. Among them are seven structures with areas between 10,000 m2 and 20,000 m2, one with an area of 38,975 m2 (for commercial purposes in Tripoli), one with an area of 54,295 m2 (for tourism-related purposes in Dbayeh), and one with an area of 58,488 m2 (for agricultural purposes in Tyre). Hence, Public Prosecution action against just these 19 encroachers would free more than 311,913 m2 of public maritime property. The number of encroachments covering more than 5,000 m2 is probably much higher as the information provided to us did not include the area of 194 encroachments for which no settlement application has been filed, namely those committed by owners of adjacent property, as previously mentioned.


Hence, as the law can be implemented gradually beginning with the largest encroachments, which would free enormous areas along the Lebanese coastline, any argument that the state lacks the institutions and capacities to seize the illegally occupied property is invalid.


In conclusion, we call upon the minister of interior to immediately develop a plan, as part of the general mobilization, to provide 19 detachments to seize the aforementioned 19 properties so that they can be used as needed for public service and, as a priority, quarantine. The other properties should then gradually be seized, and the ministries must collect the necessary fines and fees as soon as possible.


Excuse 3: The General Suspension of Deadlines Applies to Settling the Encroachments

As previously explained, the invocation of the law suspending deadlines was another reason that the process of recovering public property was halted, at least in the period following its initial issuance at the end of May 2020. The Cassation Public Prosecution had accepted that the grace period for settling encroachments ended at the end of October 2019. However, because this argument was raised, it then deemed this grace period to still be effective on the basis that the law to suspend deadlines retroactively suspended all deadlines from 18 October 2019 until the end of July 2020. The subsequent extension then caused the grace period to be considered effective until the end of 2020. Thus, by virtue of this excuse, people whose infringements began before 1994 benefited from another 14-month grace period on top of the previous grace periods that were afforded by Law no. 64/2017 and subsequently extended to last more than two years (October 2017-October 2019). Hence, the total grace period granted to people who have for decades been encroaching on public maritime property free of charge has so far reached three years and two months.


This excuse can be rejected for the following reasons:

  • Whether sound or not, it had no bearing on the violations that began after 1993 as they do not qualify for any settlement and the public administrations were obliged to recover the property they affect as soon as the 2017 law was issued. In any case, it no longer has any merit under the new deadline suspension law (Law no. 199/2020), which Parliament passed on 21 December 2020. If we suppose that the deadline for settling encroachments actually was suspended from 18 October 2019, i.e. 11 days before it was due to elapse under the previous laws, then it elapsed when the original deadline suspension laws expired at the end of 2020.


  • The fundamental goal of the law to suspend deadlines is to preserve legally protected rights. Obviously, occupying maritime property is considered an encroachment and in no way constitutes a legally protected right because, firstly, it stems from an offense and, secondly, it cannot by nature give rise to any acquired right as under Decision no. 144/1925 (issued during the French Mandate period), the state may reclaim its public property at any time because of its connection to public good. To say otherwise leads to the absurd result of perpetuating the encroachment via the application of a law enacted to preserve rights.


Consolidating the War Paradigm of Commodifying and Allocating the Shore


The first indications of this trend were the leaks from the meeting that was held in the Cassation Public Prosecution office and attended by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. It generally involved auctioning the public resorts and tourism projects, the professed goal being to secure additional financial resources for the public treasury. In fact, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport drafted terms of reference in July 2020, although this action led to no practical steps.


The mere act of preparing such documents constitutes another violation of public interest from two angles:

It Undermines the Principle That the Occupation of Public Maritime Property is Exceptional

The fundamental idea of public maritime property is that it is for everyone’s use or for usages related to public good, as evident from Decision no. 144/1925. Consequently, Article 1 of Decree no. 4810/1966, which governs the occupation of public maritime property, restricts the granting of permits to use such property to exceptional cases. The article explicitly states that allocating part of the shore for exclusive use by certain individuals or groups shall be an exceptional action applicable in special cases. This system prevailed until the 1975-1990 war, which witnessed the occupation of large swaths of the shore estimated by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport to have reached 5 million m2.


From this perspective, legitimizing the principle of privatization and putting the exception before the rule by drafting terms of reference constitute a submission to and consolidation of the paradigm of converting the shore into private fiefs by way of force. This paradigm had been tolerated in the decades following the war thanks to the public administrations’ suspicious silence about these encroachments. Most gravely, such legitimation is a testament to the continued prevalence of the war’s values, paradigms, and legacy even though three decades have passed since it officially ended.


It Commodifies the Shore Irrespective of Socioeconomic Considerations

Besides the above, auctioning maritime property and commodifying and privatizing the shore prioritizes the generation of quick resources for the public treasury while neglecting the importance of preserving the shore’s public nature in vitalizing overall tourism and the economy. Similarly, it neglects the importance of nation-building and the prominent role it demands for the state, its property, and its public services.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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Decree, Environment, Urbanism and Housing, Law Proposal, Lebanon, Legislation, Parliament, Public Properties

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