Decades on, families of Lebanon’s war missing see hope

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Mothers and relatives of Lebanese citizens who disappeared since the Lebanese civil war in 1975, carry their pictures during a press conference at the entrance of the UN headquarters in downtown Beirut. (AFP)
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Mothers and relatives of Lebanese citizens who disappeared or went missing since the Lebanese civil war in 1975, carry their pictures during a press conference that revolves around the newly voted law regarding the missing during the civil war, held next to the tent of the families of the missing at the entrance of the United Nations headquarters in downtown Beirut on November 28, 2018. (AFP)
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Mothers and relatives of Lebanese citizens who disappeared since the Lebanese civil war in 1975, carry their pictures during a press conference at the entrance of the UN headquarters in downtown Beirut. (AFP)
Updated 14 April 2019
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Decades on, families of Lebanon’s war missing see hope

  • For more than a decade, she and a dozen other women have regularly protested in the garden outside the UN headquarters in Beirut, clutching faded photographs of their long-gone loved ones

BEIRUT: As Lebanon marks 44 years since the start of its civil war on Saturday, families whose loved ones disappeared during the conflict hope they might finally get some answers.
The small multi-confessional country passed a landmark law in November to determine the fate of thousands of Lebanese who went missing in the 1975-1990 war.
But political parties once involved in the fighting must now encourage followers with key data such as the location of mass graves to come forward to help.
Wadad Halwani, who heads the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Missing, says the new legislation has given grieving relatives a glimmer of hope.
“It’s the first time we commemorate the war with a law to enshrine the right to know... the fate of all the missing, dead or alive,” she said.
More than 150,000 people were killed during Lebanon’s civil war and some 17,000 people went missing, according to official figures.
Halwani’s husband was among them, abducted, never to return.
For more than a decade, she and a dozen other women have regularly protested in the garden outside the UN headquarters in Beirut, clutching faded photographs of their long-gone loved ones.
The new law is “crucial to allow relatives of the missing to move on with their lives like everyone else, instead of wasting them waiting,” she said.
Law 105 gives families the right to know the place of abduction or detention of their loved one, as well as the whereabouts of their remains and the right to retrieve them.
To do this, the Cabinet must set up an official commission of inquiry to gather testimonies and investigate mass graves. But five months on, nothing has been done.
Former lawmaker Ghassan Moukheiber, who co-drafted the law, said political will was key to moving forward.
The “decision to pass this law now needs to be translated into appointing a commission and facilitating its work,” he said.
The probing body is to include, among others, family representatives, lawyers, an academic and a forensic doctor.
Once formed, its first task should be to draw up a unified list of all those missing, Moukheiber said.
They will have to “track down... those still alive and work toward their return, as well as retrieving the remains of those killed or dead,” he said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has said it is willing to hand over all information and DNA samples it has collected into a database on the missing since 2012.
But what Moukheiber describes as the commission’s “purely humanitarian” mission is also a highly sensitive one.
After Lebanon’s war ended, Parliament in 1991 passed a general amnesty law that saw former warlords breathe a sigh of relief and move on to politics.
Almost three decades later, their parties are still going strong, and persisting differences have repeatedly sparked government deadlocks.
“A number of parties that were once militias and have... a past of war crimes have started to at least tentatively fear this commission’s future work,” Moukheiber said.
With numerous groups implicated, choosing where to start will also be delicate.
“In what mass grave should the inquiry begin?” asked the former lawmaker.
“There are burial grounds all over Lebanon, in every area once under control of” an armed group, he said.
“Choosing where and how to exhume these graves will require wisdom and courage.”
All previous calls to investigate the fate of Lebanon’s missing have come up against uncooperative political parties and inactive governments.
Researcher Lokman Slim, who has spent years gathering data on the missing, says there was little chance the commission would produce tangible results.
“That a political authority with blood-drenched hands actually voted on this law just means that it doesn’t fear its consequences,” said the head of the Umam Documentation and Research center.
“It knows very well that, as with so many issues in Lebanon, the law will simply remain ink on paper.”
“In Parliament, in government, in the circles of Lebanese leaders, there are dozens... who have the detailed information we need about the fate of the missing or locations of mass graves,” Slim said.
But he says he doubts the law’s ability to spark collective introspection into “what led them into a bloody war” in the first place.
Relatives of the missing, however, are determined.
“Successive governments have accused us of pouring salt into old wounds,” said Halwani. But “the whole of society needs to know the truth because it’s the only way forward toward real reconciliation,” she added.


Treasury Secretary: US ‘could not be happier’ with Bahrain outcome

Updated 49 min 14 sec ago
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Treasury Secretary: US ‘could not be happier’ with Bahrain outcome

  • Mnuchin confident of raising the first $4 billion soon

MANAMA: Jared Kushner’s “workshop” aimed at securing economic prosperity for Palestine closed with optimistic forecasts from President Donald Trump’s special adviser that it could be the basis for a forthcoming political deal with Israel.

Kushner told journalists at a post-event briefing: “I think that people are all leaving very energized, very pleasantly surprised at how many like-minded people they see. It is a solvable problem economically, and the reason why we thought it was important to lay out the economic vision before we lay out the political vision is because we feel we need people to see what the future can look like.

“The Palestinian people have been promised a lot of things over the years that have not come true. We want to show them that this is the plan, this is what can happen if there is a peace deal.”

The next stage, before a political deal is attempted, will be to get feedback from the event and agree to commitments for the $50 billion package for Palestine and other regional economies.

“I think you need $50 billion to really do this the right way, to get a paradigm shift,” Kushner added.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said: “I could not be happier how this has gone,” adding that he was “highly confident we will soon have the first $4 billion. It’s going to be like a hot initial public offering.”

Most of the attendees at the event in Manama, Bahrain, gave Kushner’s economic proposals a serious hearing and agreed it was a useful exercise. Mohammed Al-Shaikh, Saudi minister of state, said: “Can it be done? Yes it can, because it was done before. In the mid-1990s to about the year 2000 there was a global coordinated effort by the US and other countries. I was at the World Bank at the time. I saw it. If we could do it then with significantly less money we can do it again.”

Others warned, however, that there was still a long way to go on the political aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and Middle East peace envoy, said a political deal was essential.

“This is an economic plan that, if it is implemented, is going to do enormous good for the Palestinian people. But it isn’t a substitute for the politics. There will be no economic peace. There will be a peace that will be a political component and an economic component. The economy can help the politics and the politics is necessary for the economy to flourish.

“The politics has got to be right in this sense as well. The obvious sense people talk about is how do you negotiate the contours of the boundaries of a Palestinian state in a two state solution,” Blair said.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, highlighted the work the fund has done in conflict situations. “We had an exceptional result in Rwanda, and a good economic outcome in Mozambique,” she said. But she contrasted this with disappointing results in other African conflicts.

Lagarde said that the aim of the economic plan should be to create jobs. “The focus should be on job-intensive industries, like agriculture, tourism and infrastructure.”

Willem Buiter, special economic adviser to US banking giant Citi, said there were obstacles to the Kushner plan succeeding. “Necessary conditions for any progress are peace, safety and security. And there must be high-quality governance and the rule of law in Palestine,” he said.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Jared Kushner believes the conflict is a ‘solvable problem economically.’

• The senior adviser vows to lay out political plans at the right time.

• Expert urges external funding in the form of grants or equity, rather than loans.

He also suggested external funding should be in the form of grants or equity, rather than loans. “We should not burden a country trying to escape from its past with high debts,” he added.

Some attendees warned of the risks to investor funds in the current political situation in the Middle East. 

But Khalid Al-Rumaihi, chief executive of the Bahrain Economic Development Board, said: “Risk is not new to the region. We’ve tackled it for the past 30 to 40 years, but that has not stopped investment flowing in.

“Investors trade risk for return, and the Middle East has learned to cope with risk and conflict. There are pockets where the risk is high and Palestine is one of them. But I remain positive. The return in the region is higher to compensate for the risk,” he added.

At a session of regional finance ministers, Mohammed Al-Jadaan of Saudi Arabia said: “The region is in desperate need of prosperity and hope. There is a way forward, but you need political commitment.”

UAE Finance Minister Obaid Al-Tayer added: “We are decoupling politics from economics. If it’s the only initiative on the table we should all give it a chance.”