Beyond the Failure of Justice: Lebanon’s General Amnesty Law of 1991 and Access to Redress for Victims of the 1975- 1990 Civil War

Author:Sandra Geahchan
Beyond the Failure of Justice: Lebanon’s
General Amnesty Law of 1991 and Access to
Redress for Victims of the 1975-1990 Civil War
Sandra Geahchan
This article examines the elements of the general
amnesty law of 1991 promulgated in Lebanon a
year after the end of the civil war that extended
from 1975 to 1990. Through analysis of the
provisions and the language, it finds that the law
was drafted exclusively for the benefit of the new
political elite, former war belligerents, integrated
into the political sphere through the negotiation
of the Ta’if agreement at the end of the war. The
paper investigates the legal avenues for
overturning the amnesty law in a comparative
analysis with Latin American countries in an
effort to promote accountability. After finding
that legal accountability is unlikely to be reached,
the paper looks at the legacy of the amnesty law in
terms of truth and reparations for victims of the
war. It finds that in some contexts, recognition of
a crime has more weight that retribution, to
ensure a legacy of remembrance.
18 SLJ 6(1)
Introduction
This city is like a great suffering being, too mad, too
overcharged, broken down, gutted, and raped like
those girls raped by thirty or forty militia men, and are
now mad or in asylums because their families,
Mediterranean to the end, would rather hide than
cure . . . but how does one cure the memory?
1
The atrocities that took place over the course of the 15-year
Lebanese Civil War are unfathomable. It is through
contemporary Lebanese cultural pillars, through films, novels,
and music that the surviving Lebanese population can timidly
tap into a process of remembrance. Etel Adnan goes to great
lengths to undertake this responsibility to remember: ‘How
can I avoid writing about the Lebanese Civil War when I lived
it […] How can we turn our back on that?’.
2
Such eagerness to ostracise demons of the past through art is
emboldened in part by the inability of transitional
governments to lead the country into peace and to account for
the gross, total, and indiscriminate human rights violations
which gripped Lebanon over the better part of two decades.
While academic texts about the Lebanese war indeed exist, one
cannot read an unbiased, formal and state-sanctioned account
of the past, delivered in official history books taught in schools
and without the threat of subjectivity. To truly understand the
1
Etel Adnan, Sitt Marie Rose (The Post Apollo Press, 1982).
2
Aftim Saba, ‘Etel Adnan’s There, A Meditation on Conflict’ 4
Al-Jadid (1998).
Lebanon’s General Amnesty Law of 1991 19
war, one can only resort to experiencing it through the
uninterested eyes of Sitt-Marie Rose,
3
the boldness and
impetuosity of Tarek and Omar in the movie ‘West Beyrouth,’
4
and the poignant lyrics of Fairuz.
5
This is an article about
access to redress for gross human rights violations in post-
conflict Lebanon, where a blanket amnesty law applies. The
end of the civil war was negotiated in the Saudi town of Ta’if
in 1989,
6
brokered between the surviving members of the pre-
war parliament into a renegotiated confessional power-
sharing formula between Christians and Muslims. It
formalised the demobilisation of combatants and the
surrender of their weapons to the Lebanese Armed Forces, and
further cemented the Syrian presence on Lebanese soil.
7
A year
and a half later August 26, 1991, the Lebanese Parliament
voted a general amnesty law for all crimes perpetrated before
March 28 of that same year.
8
This article still examines at length perpetrator responsibility
and access to justice as possible means of redress. The primary
difficulty in this endeavour is discussing types of remedy
where an amnesty law prohibits the prosecution of war crimes,
restraining possible investigations.
9
Paradoxically, in the
3
Adnan (n 1).
4
Ziad Doueiri, West Beyrouth (Movie, 1998).
5
Fairuz, Li Beirut.
6
Hannes Baumann, Citizen Hariri: Lebanon’s Neoliberal
Reconstruction (2016, Hurst & Co) 41.
7
ibid.
8
General Amnesty Law no. 84/91, Lebanon.
9
Law No. 84/91.

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