Peace building in Lebanon: youth rising to the challenge
The peace building process in Lebanon collapsed almost as soon as it began in 1989. The country’s leaders bargained away the concept of post-conflict reconciliation for a feeble stability. The losers in this arrangement were the country’s various religious communities. Their fears of ‘the Other’ were reinforced and prejudices that led to civil war in 1975 further ingrained. It is only now, some two decades after the 1989 Ta’if Agreement, which ended the fourteen year conflict, that civil society is making significant advances, setting in motion a process with a real chance to heal the social divisions that have embodied much of Lebanon’s problematic history.
The complete and utter lack of any state- or elite-led peace building initiative results from the duel failures of Lebanon’s consociational political system and the Ta’if Agreement. Due to Lebanon’s complex patchwork of eighteen officially recognised sects, called confessions, a system of democracy prevails in which the leaders of confessional groups are responsible for negotiating with each other to ensure stability. The leading three communities are the Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, who are allocated the posts of the President, Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Parliament respectively. Political parties have emerged from religious communities with none attempting to create a cross-confessional ideology or electoral platform. The population is relegated to subservience within this system – a Sunnite from the Hamra district of West Beirut will never vote for anyone other than his or her traditional community leader, in their case the caretaker Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, regardless of his actions or policies. The political system is intertwined with the clientalistic economic framework whereby community leaders provide everything from access to healthcare and education to protection from the law, and only demand support in exchange. Consequently, the replacement of a leader for poor performance is all but unheard of.
This system meant that when peace came in 1989 with the Ta’if Agreement it was more an understanding between leaders rather than a reconciliation of previously warring religious communities. Ta’if did stipulate for healing the social scars of war and ending the confessional political system, but it proved to be too gargantuan a task for the fragmented leaders to assume. The only true progress was in the reinforcement of the wartime politics as warlords quickly granted themselves amnesty – one of the few policies all could naturally agree on – and the vast majority gained formal political power during the 1992 elections. Indeed, national reconciliation was not in the interest of either the confessional leaders, or of Syria, who continued to occupy its smaller neighbour and dictate the most important policy issues. Lebanon’s leaders were scared reconciliation would weaken their support bases whilst Syria saw its strength in Lebanon’s division.
When the state was forced to confront the civil war, it chose ‘collective amnesia’ in the words of sociologist Samir Khalaf. The military represents the foremost institution required to explain fourteen years of civil war to its new recruits and chose to condemn external forces, leaving soldiers free to lay blame at America’s, Israel’s, the Palestinians’ or Syria’s door, depending on their individual community’s prejudices. Attempts at commemorating the civil war through either a public day of remembrance or demonstrations have been banned outright. Correspondingly, the rebuilding of Beirut has been a state-sponsored attempt to recreate the city’s heydays of the 1960s and forget the proceeding decades by physically removing its legacy. School textbooks are the worst manifestations of collective amnesia with none attempting to confront the civil war; therefore, youth have no objective knowledge of their past. Families and communities are their only sources of information about the war, yet these imprint the same prejudices onto their children that they were subjected to.
Due to these inadequacies, the peace that prevailed in the previous two decades has been a false one. It has been externally imposed on Lebanon – Syria was given carte blanche by the US for its support against Iraq in the First Gulf War in 1990-91 – and the country’s leaders acquiesced in their neighbour’s authority. The lack of any attempt even to discuss the civil war, let alone initiate a holistic national truth and reconciliation commission as many other nations emerging from conflict did, is compounded with the war era ‘cantonisation’ of Lebanon. As previously mixed towns and villages erupted in conflict, each side attempted to create homogenous religious communities to maximise their security through expulsions and massacres. The Shouf Mountains, immediately outside of Beirut, were mixed Christian-Druze in 1975. Now Christians number 5%. Other than in Beirut, communities simply do not interact – the self-sufficiency forced onto them by the civil war has become habitual. As a result, the deeply ingrained prejudices of ‘the Other’ have remained and a bewildering situation has prevailed whereby the youth of today were born after the civil war, yet have inherited its legacy in a passive way, unwittingly reinforcing the dynamics that led to previous conflicts.
There have been efforts from individuals to address the civil war, but these have either been half-hearted or few and far between. There were a number of films released between 1998 and 2000 about the civil war, the most popular of which, West Beirut, underscores the problem with the genre – they are celebrated for merely mentioning the civil war and are neither required nor expected to address any of the tough issues. One of the main characters in West Beirut witnesses the 13 April 1975 bus massacre that sparks the civil war, yet when the characters discuss the event, they obey the habitual narrative and ascribe the attack to foreign forces. Other films, including In the Shadows of the City, are more daring, both in their blame of the Lebanese leaders, and in depicting the day-to-day nightmare people faced. Nevertheless, when compared to their Israeli counterparts, Lebanon and Waltz with Bashir which address Israel’s aversion to non-essential wars and the responsibility for the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre respectively, one finds the Lebanese films lacking.
A more comprehensive attempt to draw the population out of their collective amnesia came from As’ad Shaftari, a former Christian militiaman, who, in February 2000 in the al-Nahar newspaper, took the unprecedented step of apologising for his actions in the civil war. Two years later, he published three further articles detailing his life, beginning with the anti-Muslim indoctrination of the Christian community when he was a child, joining the militia, various extrajudicial killings, and the role of the church in the weekly absolution of Shaftari’s and his comrades’ sins. In 2008, Samir Jaja, the leader of the Lebanese forces, followed suit with a far more restrained and self-forgiving apology, but these did not result in any further rapprochement.
The reconciliation and peace building efforts of the UN and NGOs have seen more success. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had been active during the war providing medical relief, and with the end of the war looming in 1989 saw an opportunity to work with Lebanon’s youth, finally removed from the oversight of their parents. So began its ‘Education for Peace’ programme which attempted to bring youths as young as seven from different communities, including Palestinians, together for summer camps simply to interact and play, and thereby defeat the various derogatory myths and suspicions the youths’ families instil in them. UNICEF focused on two intertwined objections. First, teaching the various groups to coexist by imagining a common future, and second, expanding the youths’ awareness of their rights under the UN’s 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). ‘Education for Peace’ proved to be an immediate success and UNICEF’s two objectives remain the cornerstone of NGO-led peacebuilding initiatives in Lebanon.
The advantage of focusing on youth in peace building has been reinforced from research into the use of child soldiers in recent African civil wars which showed that youths are the ones who make the transition to peace the quickest and in the most holistic manner. This is especially true in Lebanon where children were not used as soldiers; consequently, their prejudices and fears are less rational than that of their parents, not being grounded in experiences, and therefore the most practical to be overcome.
The Sustainable Democracy Center (SDC), a Lebanese NGO, is one such charity continuing UNICEF’s work and aptly shows the potential of the Lebanese to become leaders in the field of peace building and youth empowerment. Having established a number of clubs across the country involving every confessional group, SDC taught its youths advocacy, communication, leadership and conflict negotiation skills. They then launched a pioneering inter-generational dialogue with their parents, school teachers, and leaders at the municipal level, breaking the hitherto taboo subject of the civil war. SDC recently won international praise for taking youth participation to its logical conclusion by both creating a Child Board to work alongside the Board of Directors, and allowing its clubs to function entirely autonomously, referring back to SDC only when requiring assistance. Although the immediate target group is small, SDC has placed a strong emphasis on peer-to-peer education to allow its youths to disseminate their knowledge and experiences as broadly as possible.
Independent schools have likewise become leaders in their field. In the late 1980s, a school of thought called ‘Humanistic Education’ developed in which the curriculum focuses on human values as much as traditional academic subjects. The Wellspring Learning Community, established in 2007, seeks to develop the independent critical thinking of its students. Specifically, Wellspring teaches its students from the onset of formal education to think about Lebanon’s confessional system and encourages them to write about how they believe coexistence would be possible in the future. The approach has been a pronounced success. When the author spoke to children aged between ten and thirteen at Wellspring, attempting to start a dialogue about Rashid Karami, Bashir Jemayel and Walid Jumblatt – a Sunni, Christian and Druze leader respectively – he was stunned when a girl of twelve promptly stood up and declared that she will not talk about politics because it will only result in arguments with people who she otherwise considers as close friends. It is entirely inconceivable for children of that age in, for example, the UK to give an answer of a similar calibre when discussing recent political issues.
These are exceptional gains compared to the state of inter-confessional relations two decades ago; however, progress in peace building and youth participation is a long and arduous process, facing specific domestic and broad international hurdles alike.
In Lebanon, not only does society view children from the ‘should be seen and not heard’ perspective, but their marginalisation is also legally reinforced. An Ottoman law from 1909 forbids a person under 20 years of age from participating in, or being a member of, any association, be it political or otherwise. This is in direct opposition to Article 15 of the CRC, which grants freedom of association for persons under 18 to which Lebanon became a signatory in 1991. Thus, not only must NGOs such as SDC strive to reverse 35 years of social radicalisation, they must lobby a government perpetually in crisis to change an antiquated law.
At the international level, peace building initiatives from Sierra Leone to Sri Lanka have faltered from a lack of funding. Peace building is not a high-profile component of international development. Many fragile countries emerging from a civil war relapse within five years, destroying years of work in a matter of days, and unlike infrastructure and other building projects, such as roads, hospitals or schools, peace building offers no tangible successes that one can present to donors or the general public to elicit their further financial support.
Successive Lebanese governments have clearly failed to move the country forward socially. Its leaders pursue their own agenda and are virtually unaccountable to their constituents due to the political system. Moreover, with Lebanon’s never-ending crises – at the time of writing the country has been without a government for over four months – it is extremely unlikely that a situation will arise whereby a government has sufficient cohesion to address resolutely the legacy of the civil war.
Civil society presents a viable alternative. Theirs is a unique experience, struggling against the state and the country’s leaders at every turn and empowering youth to take the lead. The latter have risen to the challenge. Furthermore, with the notorious role of youth in African civil wars, and their rise as an independent class of social stakeholders, the Lebanese truly have an opportunity to impart their knowledge and experience onto other countries emerging from a protracted civil war.