Historical Dialogue Initiatives in Lebanon

Lebanon gained its independence in 1943, following some four centuries of Ottoman rule that ended in WWI, and the French mandate rule that extended between the two World wars. Since then, the country went through two civil wars, a short-lived one in 1958 and the other from 1975 to 1991. Starting in 1948, it became host to successive waves of Palestinian refugees, some of whom took up arms to pursue their armed resistance against Israel. In the years preceding the outbreak of the war in 1975, the country saw regular flare-ups of violence fed by political, economic, social, ideological and sectarian factors, with a growing polarization within the political spectrum, mainly around socio-economic issues and power distribution and divergent views about the role of the Palestinian armed struggle in Lebanon.
The 15 years of successive conflicts engulfed all regions in Lebanon and all communities; they were marked by waves of forced displacement, mass killings, forced disappearances, and sieges. It was estimated that up to 144,000 people were killed, mostly civilians, 17,415 people disappeared, one third of the population was internally displaced while one third left the country. A power-sharing agreement, brokered by the Arab League in 1989, put an end to the conflict; but it was only until 1990, following a full-blown Syrian attack against the Lebanese Army that the conflict stopped. Israel, which had invaded Lebanon in 1982, retained control of South Lebanon; while the rest of the country fell under the hegemonic rule of the Syrian State, marked by the presence of its armed and security forces. Israel eventually withdrew in May 2000; and Syria withdrew its armed and security forces in April 2005, enabling Lebanon to restore its sovereignty for the first time in almost three decades.

The lack of accountability for the crimes that took place over the years, and the inability to address the violent past, how it continues to shape past and present community memories, and its legacy, are shaping today’s society and its emerging generations. In such a context, there is little space afforded to undergo meaningful reforms or undertake any substantial initiatives that would seek to address the structural or root causes of Lebanon’s repeated cycles of violence and vulnerability to regional conflicts. There have been nonetheless some initiatives, both at the official and unofficial level, that sought to address the war, its consequences, and its causes, not to mention a proliferation of academic studies and civil society initiatives and an emerging trend of academic body that is deconstructing the official “historians of coexistence”1. The following are examples of civil society initiatives; official initiatives, international interventions, and judicial processes, have been left out for the purpose at hand.

Civil society initiatives

Examples of civil society initiative include, though in no means, a comprehensive listing:
A series of hearings organized in March 2001 by the group “Memory for the Future”, a coalition of intellectuals founded in 2002, who also involved former militia fighters into the discussion. The presentations were compiled in a publication published in 2002.

Memory at Work Initiative: in 2008-2009, a series of workshops, held on a monthly basis, by NGO UMAM Documentation andResearch (UMAM D&R), in cooperation with ICTJ’s Lebanon program, allowed a space for discussion about issues of accountability, truth-seeking, memorialization and other related themes. These discussions, held over a year, allowed various Lebanese NGOs to partake in discussions in presence of actors from other countries, sharing their experiences and initiatives.

UMAM D&R created the website “memoryatwork.org” which compiles an archive of material (publications/newspaper articles/documents) that are related to the period of the 1975-1990 war.

UMAM D&R organized a nation-wide photo exhibition about the issue of the missing and disappeared in2008-2009 (the first exhibition served as the opening of the workshop series).

The Beirut-Damascus Declaration/Damascus-Beirut Declaration: In May 2006, several hundred Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals signed this declaration, which described the deteriorating relations between the two countries, especially after the killing of Prime Minister Hariri, and set out, in 10 points, trust-building measures to build the grounds for improved relations, from “the root”. A wave of arrests of those who had signed this declaration came as the Assad regime’s response to this declaration.

National campaigns for the disappeared: several campaigns have been held over the years demanding that the Lebanese authorities undertake steps to clarify the fate of the missing people, including:
A permanent sit-in organized by SOLIDE (Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile) in front of the UN offices in Beirut by families of relatives believed to be detained in Syria, which exists since April 2005.

In 2012, Act for the Disappeared, in partnership with the two main family associations SOLIDE and the Committee of Families of the Kidnapped and Missing, organized a nation-wide campaign entitled “Enough waiting”, which included TV spots, billboards, a press conference, to raise awareness about the demands of the families, and held a mass demonstration, including a visit to three sites of mass graves by the demonstrators.

In 2014, SOLIDE and the Committee organized a campaign “It is our Right to Know” to demand that the government hand over the files of a 2000 State commission, based on a State Judicial council that recognized the families’ right in this respect. The government handed over the files in late 2014.
Several NGOs (many of which were operating prior to 2005) undertake “peace-building” initiatives. For example:

Offre-Joie has been organizing since 1985 summer camps bringing together children of different communities to get know each other, in a bid to increase tolerance and understanding of each other. It has also been very active in organizing yearly commemoration events marking the beginning of the war, each April 13.

Permanent Peace Movement (PPM) has been organizing youth summer camps, workshops, and trainings in schools on issues such as peace-building, conflict resolution, and memory and reconciliation.
The Sustainable Democracy Center (SDC), another NGO that works on issues of conflict resolution, is in the process of conducting teacher trainings and has recently finalized a teachers’ kit to help address the issue of the war with their students, through questionnaires, film references and scenes, specific terminology, and biographies of artists, activists, and intellectuals who made a positive contribution to the country during the war.

Badna Naaref  “We Want to Know” is an oral history project, conducted by ICTJ, Universite Saint Joseph and UMAM, that brought high school students from different private and public schools in Beirut (also representing the different religious denominations) to interview their parents (or persons who were their age at the time of the war, and from their immediate surrounding) to discuss their daily lives during the period of the war. Abstracts of the transcripts are online, a documentary film was made by filmmaker Carol Mansour about this project, with several screenings held across universities and schools.

Academic and joint academic/civil society work
Below is a selection of publications/conferences that sought to bring the debate onto a public platform, through conferences, releases and publications involving both scholars and activists. Some references:
– Sabra and Shatila, September 1982 (Beirut Institute for Palestine Studies, 2003 and in English, Pluto Press, 2004). Despite several official commissions, this documentation work offers the most reliable figure to date around this event.

– Options for Lebanon is a 2004 publication (English version published by the Centre for Lebanese Studies in association with IB Tauris Publishers), offers concrete options for political, economic, education, social reforms in the form of contributions by leading scholars in the field.

Mémoires de Guerres au Liban (1975-1990), Mermier Franck, Varin Christophe (eds), Paris, Sindbad Actes Sud, 2010. The French Institute for Near Eastern Studies (IFPO) held a series of roundtables, which contributions were compiled in this publication. It contains one of the most comprehensive bibliographies to date of references related to Lebanon’s conflicts.

In 2012, Conciliation Resources compiled a special issue of Accord on Lebanon, entitled: “Reconciliation, reform and resilience: Positive peace for Lebanon.” This publication includes articles and interviews by some 30 authors.

In November 2012, a group of history teachers from public and private schools came together to create the “Lebanese Association for History,” with a view to integrating individuals from other disciplines and NGOs, to discuss ways of teaching history through a multi-narrative framework, including the period of the civil war.

Between 2011 to 2014, ICTJ Lebanon program implemented a project entitled “Addressing the Legacy of Conflict in a Divided Society” – which involved the publication of three reports, a mapping of serious violations that occurred between 1975 and 2008; an examination of the impact of Lebanon’s failure to address the legacy of its conflicts; and a qualitative study examining the attitudes and expectations of resident of Beirut about how to address this legacy. The three reports were the basis for a final policy recommendations paper, developed with a consortium of 22 Lebanese civil society organizations and 10 leading Lebanese academics.