By Nadim Houry
Commentary by
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lebanon was right to flex its (limited) diplomatic muscle last week to express displeasure with Libya over the disappearance of Imam Musa al-Sadr, the leading Lebanese Shiite cleric who was last seen on a trip to Libya in 1978. In a rare move, Lebanon’s famously divided Cabinet unanimously agreed not to send any of its top leaders to attend the Arab League summit in Libya that took place last weekend, and limited its representation to its Arab League ambassador.

In diplomatic speak, and particularly in a region used to kings and presidents attending such gatherings, the low-level representation amounted to a snub. Don’t expect Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi to forget this slight any time soon. But whatever the possible cost of Lebanon’s actions, the government took the right course of action by putting principle ahead of “business as usual.”

The speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, who succeeded Musa al-Sadr at the helm of the Amal movement, was quick to laud the united stance of the government. “This stance, which comes decades late, puts Lebanon on the unity road,” he declared last Thursday.

But is Berri, or for that matter any of the other top Lebanese leaders, willing to show unity and commit to concrete actions for Lebanon’s other disappeared – the 17,000 estimated to have disappeared during the years of the Lebanese Civil War and the hundreds of others who went missing in Syrian jails?

The short answer is no, and as long as that is the case, actions like last week’s decision to give the Libya summit a pass will be interpreted through a narrow sectarian and political lens, not as a unifying national act. A taxi driver – always a good weather vane of public sentiment – put it bluntly last week when I asked him about his thoughts on the decision: “[T]he Shiites succeeded in convincing the government because they have the power these days.”

Wadad Halawani, the head of the Committee of the Kidnapped and Missing in Lebanon, expressed her doubts about the decision when she spoke on March 21 at a gathering of the families of the disappeared: “Isn’t it strange that Lebanon boycotts the planned Arab League Summit in Libya because of [Libya’s] responsibility in the disappearance of Musa al-Sadr, but Lebanon does not bother to shed light on those who disappeared in Lebanon? Is it possible to differentiate between one disappeared and another because of their position, affiliation or gender?”

The sad truth is that in Lebanon not all the disappeared are equal. During the 1990s, it was popular for government officials to complain about the disappeared in Israel, while harassing those who spoke about the disappeared in Syria. After the Syrian Army withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, Lebanon’s new ruling coalition embraced the cause of the disappeared in Syria, but refused to tackle the disappeared found in Lebanon’s mass graves.

Under the current national-unity government, things look better on paper but not in practice. In its policy statement, the government pledged to follow up on all of the disappeared, but still discriminates in its actions.

So while Lebanon mustered the courage to stand-up to Libya symbolically over Sadr, it is forging ahead in building better relations with Syria without conditioning this new rapprochement on reliable information about the hundreds who disappeared in Syrian prisons. One need not look further than the official apathy surrounding the joint Syrian-Lebanese committee established to address the matter – which has not produced any specific result in almost five years of work – to see that Lebanon’s leaders are not willing to stand up to Syria on the disappeared.

As long as Lebanon continues to play favorites with those missing, the question of the disappeared will always be prone to politicization. The only way to build “unity” around this issue – to use Berri’s term – is for the government to form an independent national commission with the authority to require all official sources, including intelligence and security agencies, to provide information about missing individuals. The commission must also be granted the responsibility to outline elements of a cohesive and principled foreign policy to shed light on those who disappeared beyond Lebanon’s borders. Only then will we know if Lebanon’s absence in Libya was a one-off decision or the harbinger of a more principled approach.


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