Lebanon rejects the refugee protection regime it helped create

Lebanon rejects the refugee protection regime it helped create

With its geographical location and its perceived diversity, freedom, and openness, Lebanon is widely believed to have historically attracted those seeking refuge from persecution. Today, it hosts the highest number of refugees in the world in proportion to its population size and is frequently lauded for its approach to refugee protection. In fact, in 2014 the UN Secretary-General even stated that ‘Lebanon is a key pillar in the international framework for the protection of Syrian refugees, and without it, that entire system would collapse’.

The country was also active in the very establishment of international refugee law. In 1946, it was one of only 20 states that formed the committee appointed by the UN General Assembly to lay the basis for the International Refugee Organization (IRO). Following this, in 1949, Lebanon participated in creating United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Records of the drafting process reveal that Lebanon was particularly active in advocating for a broad definition of ‘refugee’. Around the same time, Lebanon also participated in partially in drafting the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the main treaty providing for the protection of the world’s refugees today.

In addition, Lebanon was a member of the eight-person drafting committee for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which enshrines – in Article 14 – the key principle of the right to seek asylum. The significance of the UDHR is underscored in the Lebanese Constitution, which states in its preamble that: ‘Lebanon is also a founding and active member of the United Nations Organization and abides by its covenants and by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Government shall embody these principles in all fields and areas without exception.’

In 1963, Lebanon became a member of the UNHCR Executive Committee, the main body tasked with advising the High Commissioner for Refugees ‘in the exercise of his functions under the Statute of his Office’ and approving the High Commissioner’s assistance programmes. This allowed UNHCR to establish a regional office in Beirut. Since then, Lebanon has been reliant on UNHCR to protect and assist, and to seek durable solutions for, many of its refugees. With the arrival of refugees from Syria, UNHCR has strengthened its position as the primary provider for the country’s refugees – its country budget even decupling between 2012 and 2015.

This embeddedness with the international refugee regime is nevertheless juxtaposed by Lebanon’s official rejection of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Its position is that it is not a ‘country of asylum’, an approach which, it is claimed, can be traced back to the Lebanese Constitution. While, as we saw above, the Lebanese constitution obliges the country to abide by the UDHR, it also appears to prohibit any permanent settlement of foreigners. The notion of Lebanon not being a country of asylum is currently also cemented in the key document laying out the UN and government response to the country’s Syrian refugee presence, the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP), which in its 2015 version states that ‘Lebanon is neither a country of asylum, nor a final destination for refugees, let alone a country of resettlement’.

How can we reconcile these seemingly contradictory approaches? And how, with this drafting history, does Lebanon justify the non-ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention?

In recent research, I show that there are many reasons why this is the case. Firstly, there is widespread uncertainty – sometimes genuine, sometimes simply politically expedient – as to the obligations that come with the 1951 Convention, including a belief that the Convention would require Lebanon to allow the permanent settlement of refugees on its territory. Its history regarding Palestinian refugees is testament to the considerable ideological obstacles to any local integration or naturalization of foreigners.

Secondly, the responsibility-shift for refugees to third parties such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has obvious advantages for Lebanon – not least because it maintains the pressure on the international community to continue to support their care and maintenance – and has made the country less inclined to become a party to the Convention. There is a general belief that, should Lebanon ratify the Convention, it would have to bear more of the ‘burden’. In this context, many governments in the region are more likely to tolerate the presence of refugees on their territory if responsibility for them is assigned to a third party: the UN as ‘surrogate State’.

Thirdly, the ‘good-neighbourliness’ argument between Arab countries holds that Lebanon should not employ the term ‘refugee’, since to do so would put the State in positions that could violate the good neighbour principle. This principle takes as central that states should not interfere in the ‘sensitive issues’ of neighbouring countries. Ratifying the Convention would, in essence, entail a duty to recognize certain forced migrants as refugees and would thus indirectly accuse neighbouring states of persecution. In June 2012, Lebanon’s caretaker government established a policy of neutrality towards the events in Syria under the label of the ‘disassociation policy’. One strand of the Lebanese government’s disassociation policy was precisely the enforcement of the term ‘displaced persons’ rather than ‘refugees’.

Finally, I argue that many Lebanese government officials and policymakers consider Lebanon’s accession to the Convention to be redundant for three key reasons. First, Lebanon applies the provisions of the Convention and Protocol on a voluntary basis, so that there is no need for ratification; secondly, Lebanon already has human rights obligations towards refugees on its territory by virtue of its membership of the United Nations and its ratification of a number of core human rights instruments; and, thirdly, due to the ‘crisis’ in international refugee law, in which many States appear to reject the Convention altogether, Lebanese decision makers are now questioning the relevance of these instruments.

Lebanon’s rejection of international refugee law places UNHCR and other refugee protection actors in a challenging position. UNHCR has for its part chosen to adopt a ‘pragmatic but principled’ approach – one that avoids pressuring Lebanon into ratifying international refugee law instruments as long as the country provides de facto protection to refugees.

You can read a longer version of this article in the International Journal of Refugee Law.


Picture: Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Equivalence

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