Almost daily, Lebanon's media outlets release breaking news stories about an investigating judge for the military court having leveled an accusation against someone, about the court sentencing someone for a misdeed, or about the Military Court of Cassation (MC) having finally agreed to release someone else.
While one does not expect that issues related to military justice should be the story du jour, much less hold a central position within Lebanese public affairs, reality is quite different. Considering that most of the activities found within the military justice system are related in varying degrees to the political and sectarian conflicts Lebanon experiences, we see that court functioning as if it were the country's undisputed provider justice. Again, however, reality is markedly different. In a country that describes itself constitutionally as "a founding and active member of the United Nations Organization [that…] abides by its covenants and by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…,” it is de rigueur for the military court (by definition a specialized purveyor of justice) to be intimately involved in the day-to-day lives of Lebanese citizens. Consider the opinion of a former minister of justice
, who observed, “I don’t understand the wisdom of bringing a civilian in front of the military court because of a banal car accident or because of a fight between a civilian and a military [individual] over a real estate issue.”
Indeed, there is no novelty involved with the expanded mandate of the military justice system. Beyond the mundane motor vehicle accidents and real estate squabbles mentioned above, the expanded scope of the military court often prompts suspicions that decisions made by that court are driven by political and extrajudicial motivations and considerations. Along those lines, the observations announced in May 1997 by the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR)
are still germane:
The Committee expresses concern about the broad scope of the jurisdiction of military courts in Lebanon, especially its extension beyond disciplinary matters and its application to civilians. It is also concerned about the procedures followed by these military courts, as well as the lack of supervision of the military courts’ procedures and verdicts by the ordinary courts. The State party should review the jurisdiction of the military courts and transfer the competence of military courts, in all trials concerning civilians and in all cases concerning the violation of human rights by members of the military, to the ordinary courts.
By August 2001, events in Lebanon would substantiate the concerns expressed in the CCPR report. At that time, Lebanese security forces launched a massive effort to arrest individuals opposed to Syria's occupation of Lebanon, an initiative that netted some 200 youngsters. When those prisoners were referred to trial before the MC, a judicial battle erupted over the breadth of the MC's mandate. The encounter peaked when the MC attempted to overturn a decision by the Court of Cassation to deny it the latitude to try the civilians that had been apprehended. The situation became increasingly dramatic until the president of the Court of Cassation, frustrated at mounting political-security interference, submitted his resignation. Although the issue was “closed” soon afterward à la libanaise, it framed the debate over the notion of the country being a "state of law" compared with a "state of martial law."
Although conversations about amending Lebanon's Code of Military Justice undoubtedly occurred before August 2001, its development in terms of security and justice vis-à-vis where the MC should be situated within Lebanon's judicial system gave that debate substantial momentum. Among the contributions made to that discussion, the "National Plans of Action on Human Rights" (released after years of elaboration in a pompous function organized in the Lebanese parliament to commemorate Human Rights Day on December 10, 2012) stated the obvious when it noted:
Regarding the [application of] military justice, the laws still permit civilians to be prosecuted by the military courts. Those courts do not offer the required judicial guarantees and they are not required to provide any rationale for the sentences they prescribe. This places those courts outside the realm of legal supervision.
Of course, the overarching issue of the MC's alarmingly elastic and questionable practices consists of far more than intellectual discussions and impassioned debates. A core consideration regarding the role it plays in justice as a whole is that, within the "state of exception" culture that prevails in several Lebanese circles, some proponents believe the MC's mandate is justifiable because of "exceptional situations" in Lebanon, which include a wide range of threats to the country and its citizens. However, such logic not only cannot be sustained, but it should also be refuted whenever and wherever possible. In effect, that perspective is based on the pure "fallacy of redundancy," as it holds that because of the prevalence of a state of exception, the Lebanese must keep things as they are. Ultimately, the assertion that the judiciary must reflect the exigencies imposed by those exceptional situations must be considered false, as it implies vis-à-vis the Lebanese experience (i.e., the failure to progress beyond the "state of exception" supposedly imposed by the civil war) that the “rule of the exception” will exist in Lebanon in perpetuity.
The expanded role of military justice is just one aspect of a debate that must take place in Lebanon. Nevertheless, it provides an important point of entry into the broad discussion of Lebanon's judicial and military institutions. Today, the substance of that discussion is becoming increasingly critical since some of the legislation presently being suggested in the area of military law seeks to broaden rather than diminish the mandate of the MC. That tendency should stimulate action among Lebanese citizens, an outcome UMAM D&R could help facilitate by dedicating a section of its online Memory at Work database to the matter. Beyond that specific response, however, UMAM D&R plans to increase the scope of Memory at Work (the original focus of which was on memories related to Lebanon's civil war) by including references to current events. Thus, aside from expanding the concept behind "Lebanese memory," the new section, "Field Justice – The Application of Military Justice in Lebanon," seeks to broaden the concept of "Lebanese Memory," serve as a platform for the "Martial Justice for All" project and become a useful toolbox that contains as much data as possible about this issue. Within the enhanced content mentioned above, UMAM D&R will include coverage of one of its newest projects, "Martial Justice for All? Reevaluating the Mandate and Practices of the Military Court in Lebanon," an initiative being funded by EuropeAid. Similar to many of the projects the organization has undertaken previously, "Martial Justice" will be comprised of documentation, research and advocacy efforts that aim to broaden public debate over military justice and assess the space it should occupy within Lebanon’s national life