9 June 2014

Is Lebanon's new policy about to punish Syrian refugees?

Article for GlobalPost

Over a week after Lebanon announced radical changes in its approach to the Syrian refugee crisis, questions about the policy remain: Is the government about to enact a policy, in compliance with international law, that helps it to identify and better assist the most needy among the displaced? Or has the ground been laid for legitimate refugees — people fleeing falling bombs, summary killings, torture, and more — to be forcibly returned to the very dangers they fled?

After months of growing pressure to curb the number of people entering Lebanon, the interior minister announced on May 31 — days after the area around the Syrian Embassy in Beirut was brought to a standstill when tens of thousands turned out to vote in Syria’s presidential election — that Syrians in Lebanon risked losing their refugee status if they crossed the border back to Syria. Refugee status is required for these individuals to claim basic food, shelter or medical aid from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

The government claims the new powers are in accordance with Article I, Section C of the UN’s 1951 Convention on Refugees, which states that an individual cannot be defined as a refugee if “he has voluntarily re-availed himself of the protection of the country of his nationality.”

But Latmah Fakih, Lebanon and Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the policy’s broad scope jeopardizes the principle of “non-refoulement,” which the UNHCR describes as “the cornerstone of asylum and of international refugee law.” The principle forbids governments from returning refugees and asylum seekers to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

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3 June 2014

Lebanon claims right to strip Syrians of refugee status

Article for Middle East Monitor

Few people outside Lebanon noticed when the government gave itself the power to strip Syrians of their refugee status. While the world's eyes were trained on the election in Syria, the outcome of which is thought to be a foregone conclusion, the far more uncertain consequences of this quietly radical move began taking shape.

Twenty-four hours notice was all the Interior Ministry thought necessary to give some of the most vulnerable people in its borders when it announced that "All Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR [the UN's refugee agency] are asked to refrain from entering Syria starting June 1, or else they might be stripped of their refugee status." The decision came just two days before June 3, when many refugees would have intended to go to Syria to vote, and two days after the scenes outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut provided a stark demonstration of how many of them felt (whether forced or free) strongly enough to make that trip.

The government justified its move with appeals to security, saying it acted to quell tensions in host communities (not an unfounded fear, as one recent study showed) and to curb what looks like an increasingly unsustainable population influx.

While previously Lebanon has appealed to its state sovereignty in acting against refugee populations on its soil – for example in the military operation against the "state within a state" established in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared – it has now turned to international law, citing a section of the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention that says refugee status can be reneged when the individual concerned "voluntarily re-avail[s] himself of the protection of the country of his nationality". The government says it suspects many Syrians to be economic migrants masquerading under the protections of refugee status, and its policy is ostensibly intended to isolate the former and better protect the latter. That such a clean distinction can or even should be made is questionable in itself.

But rights groups have decried the sweeping scope of the new powers, which do not differentiate between someone with the financial means to make regular trips across the border and someone who simply wants to make a rare visit to the relatives they have left behind.

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7 May 2014

Conrad Shawcross interview

Though an intimidating sixteen feet tall, the industrial robot in Conrad Shawcross's flat doesn't look at all out of place. A flight of steps is all that separates the bustling workshop from the living space above, where the robot silently supervises our conversation through the half-open door to an adjacent room.

The device is the centrepiece of ‘The Ada Project’, Shawcross’s latest work, for which he and his team have ‘choreographed’ an industrial robotic arm, transforming it into a mesmerising sculpture that draws sweeping paths of light in six axes with a thousand-watt bulb fitted to its tip. Named after Ada Lovelace, the Victorian mathematician credited with being the world’s first computer programmer, Ada has recently performed at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and MONA in Tasmania, with live accompaniment by sound artists Holly Herndon, Beatrice Dillon and Rupert Clervaux.

A highlight of his sequence of rope-making machines was ‘Chord’ (2009) – two adjacent, claw-like frames suspending spools of brightly coloured wool, their disparate strands slowly converging into a single length of rope as though magnetised by a central point of symmetry. Ada is the latest in a long series of light works, including ‘Timepiece’ (2013), an installation that saw Camden’s Roundhouse stripped bare and reoriented around a tangle of revolving steel arms. As their orbits marked the passing minutes, hours and days, the interplay between three connected bulbs and a central sundial cast shifting shadows that scanned the space with silhouettes of its own interior architecture.

While most machines stand or fall on their ability to carry out a given task faster, stronger or longer than their human rivals, Shawcross’s are engines of ambivalence, their only common ‘product’ being the alloy of unease and awe they induce in equal measure. His work orbits quantum theory, geometry and bionics, among other fields, but simply to observe that they explore ‘scientific ideas’ obscures their true force: their science is a distinctly human one, driven by an urge to interrogate the ways in which we – often unknown to ourselves – have come to rationalise the world around us, and what might be gained or lost in that process. Just as a photograph exists at the expense of everything its frame excludes, scientific models inflect nature with their own historical or disciplinary biases: scales of measurement present competing languages, and the already slippery terminology called upon to communicate ideas can further corrupt over time.

With each new work surpassing the scale and engineering complexity of the last, Shawcross’s ambition shows no signs of waning. Despite these grand designs, however, he is modest and precise in conversation, hasty only to credit his team, or to draw analogies that bring the abstract to life.

To read the full interview, click here

5 May 2014

Politics overshadows Lebanese Maronite leader's historic visit to Israel

Article on the political row over the first ever visit of a Lebanese Maronite patriarch to Israel. 

The head of Lebanon's Maronite church will make history this month when he becomes the first such figure to visit Israel since its foundation in 1948.

The announcement that patriarch Beshara Rai will meet with the Pope on his May 24-26 tour of the Holy Land and Jerusalem has caused uproar in parts of the Lebanese media, particularly pro-Hezbollah outlets, with the As Safir newspaper describing the move as a "historic sin" that could undermine the resistance against Israel's occupation of parts of southern Lebanon.

Religious officials insist the visit is purely religious in scope, and has no political significance. "The visit is in the framework of welcoming Pope Francis to the patriarchal territory, and not accompanying him on a trip," said father Abdo Abu Kasm, head of the Catholic Media Center. "The patriarch will not meet any Israeli official and rumours about attempts to normalize relations [with Israel] are merely part of media analyses and are inaccurate."

Rai himself has dismissed the criticism as "meaningless," saying: "I know my limits and I know that Lebanon considers Israel an enemy." Elsewhere, he noted that the Pope "is going to the diocese of the patriarch, so it's normal that the patriarch should welcome him."

Technically, Lebanon remains in a state of war against Israel, with tensions particularly high since the 2006 war that was sparked when Hezbollah kidnapped two IDF soldiers near the border. This "blue line," so called after the helmets of the 15,000 UN troops who patrol it, remains a frequent flashpoint. In addition to being Hezbollah's avowed raison d'ĂȘtre, resistance against Israel was also part of the Shiite militant group's justification for intervention in Syria.

There are no diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Israel, while former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora – who left office in 2009 – said Lebanon would be "the last Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel," citing the number of Lebanese citizens killed in the 2006 war – 1,191, according to Amnesty International.

The clergy of the Maronite church – which represents one of Lebanon's principal confessional groups and is in full communion with the Holy See – are the only individuals who are exempt from a law that prohibits Lebanese nationals from travelling to Israel, on the grounds that they require access the estimated 10,000 Maronites living in the Jewish state.

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25 April 2014

Ghosts in the ballot box: Lebanon's presidential election

Martyr's Square, close to Parliament, in 1982

Article about the first round of the Lebanese presidential election, for Middle East Monitor

Ghosts of Lebanon's civil war hung over the first round of voting in the country's presidential election on Wednesday, when several ministers cast ballots bearing the names of men killed by one of the contest's leading candidates during the 15-year conflict.

Samir Geagea, whose Lebanese Forces (LF) party emerged from a wartime militia of the same name and is now the most prominent Christian component of the anti-Hezbollah and anti-Assad March 14 alliance, needed the support of two thirds of the 128 ministers to win. He convinced only 48 of them, with the rest of the vote split between the seven invalid ballots, 52 blank ones submitted by the opposing March 8 alliance, and 16 for a centrist candidate, Henry Helou. A rival Christian candidate, Amine Gemayel received 1 vote, and 4 MPs were absent.

The unusually high turnout was the source of jokes at the start of the session, with Speaker Nabih Berri saying "Long time, no see" to some of the less familiar faces as he began the proceedings, but was undermined immediately after the inconclusive end to the first round of voting, when all but four of the March 8 ministers left the room in unison, in an apparent bid to scupper the quorum required to continue. MPs will meet again for a second round next week.

Geagea, or "al-Hakim" (the doctor, or the wise one), as he is known to many of his followers, spent 11 years in solitary confinement after being convicted for the assassination or attempted assassination of several senior politicians in 1994, including former Prime Minister Rashid Karami. A staunch critic of Syria's 29-year occupation of Lebanon, he was granted amnesty in 2005 after the Cedar Revolution saw the withdrawal of Hafez al-Assad's troops. He maintains his innocence, and is the only wartime leader to have been tried for his crimes – a trial over whose integrity Amnesty International has expressed concerns.

The symbolic resurrection of the war's victims in the context of the election of the country's most senior representative demonstrates just how deep divisions run in Lebanese politics, and how hollow the talk (from all sides) of the need for a consensus candidate really was in the run-up to the vote. But what really short-circuited the vote was March 8's perhaps canny refusal to play along with the rules of the political game. In their failure (whether deliberate or not) to put forward their own official candidate to rival Geagea, and in their decision to walk out, they effectively illegitimised the whole contest, leaving the LF leader shouting in the dark.

As Strida Geagea – herself an MP and also Samir's wife – said after the vote: "It would have been better if a clear candidate was running against us." After all, there's little glory in winning a one-horse race, and even less in losing one.

March 14 itself waited until the last minute to officially confirm that Geagea was its man, and had until that point announced only its resolve to back a single candidate, presumably to put on a strong front against March 8. They may have cornered themselves with their own resolve, however, because Geagea was quick to announce his candidacy and quicker still to announce that he had the support of anyone who might have been considered a potential internal rival. Even when Geagea publicly announced that Saad Hariri, the son of the alliance's symbolic figurehead (former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005) had offered him personal assurances of his support, he did so before Hariri's own office were willing to confirm it to the press. March 14 had little choice but to endorse him, because to acquiesce would have appeared institutionally weak, and to go against him would have split the vote.

When their "strong" candidate fell short of the mark on Wednesday, his subsequent claim that the inconclusive ten-minute vote was "a major victory for democracy" therefore struck an unconvincing note. To many, the stalemate looks more like democracy at its most dysfunctional and indecisive. Worse still, it is all too familiar, not only with regard to the impasse that has marked Lebanese politics for months, but also historically, with one local reporter this week noting the uncanny continued relevance of bleak observations he made about the 1970 election in an article at the start of his career.

Parliament will reconvene for its second round of voting on April 30, and in the meantime the parties will try and renegotiate over their ever-elusive compromise candidate. But with few observers anticipating a breakthrough, and the incumbent president Michel Sleiman's term now in its final month, the prospect of a power vacuum looms all too large at a time when Lebanon can ill-afford such uncertainty.