Lebanon and the Origins of International (Refugee) Law

I’ve spent most of these past years researching the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, culminating in a series of recent articles which among others can be found here and here. Today, Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees in the world in proportion to its population size of about six million. Many of these live in deep social and legal precarity, with an estimated 60 per cent of Syrian refugees living irregularly in the country and thus subject to extremely harsh and marginalized conditions.

From an international law perspective, however, Lebanon is a fascinating country. It takes pride in its contribution to some of the earliest international human rights instruments, including the participation of Charles Malik in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and his chairing of the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1951-1952.

As a scholar of international refugee law—and in light of my findings on the perilous situation of Lebanon’s refugees—I was nevertheless perplexed to learn of Lebanon’s  role in the very foundation of this field of law. It was only one of twenty states that formed the committee appointed by the UN General Assembly in February 1946 to lay the basis of the International Refugee Organization (IRO). In December that same year, the IRO’s proposed mandate, drafted in part by Lebanon, was adopted by the General Assembly.

Following this, in 1949, Lebanon participated in creating the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Lebanon’s interest in the ‘refugee problem’ was furthermore mirrored in its partial participation in the drafting of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees—the very cornerstone of international refugee law as we know it today. In light of this engagement, it can appear surprising, then, to learn that Lebanon never ratified this Convention. In a recent article, I try to explain why.

Lebanon nevertheless became one of the first countries to join UNHCR’s Executive Committee. As an ExCOM member it is one of few non-parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention tasked to advise the High Commissioner for Refugees ‘in the exercise of his functions under the Statute of his Office’ and to approve the High Commissioner’s assistance programs.

The same year that Lebanon joined the ExCOM—1963—UNHCR also first established its presence on Lebanese soil. My research into Lebanon’s historical engagement with UNHCR shows how UNHCR only very seldom has made attempts at convincing Lebanon to become a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. It appears rather to have accepted Lebanon’s insistence that it is not a country of asylum, and therefore long focused on establishing an acceptable ‘protection space’ for the country’s refugees. In this approach, and as explained to me by a senior UNHCR official, it matters less if the country formally has acceded to the Convention as long as it ‘behaves as if it were’ a party to the Convention.

What is interesting to note, however, are the repeated attempts by other UN bodies to get Lebanon to become a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The UN Committees on the Convention on Ethnic and Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Convention on the Elimination on all forms of Violence against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) have for decades and in various ways worked towards this end.

And Lebanese political figures have indeed felt international pressure to accede to the Convention, as indicated by their remarks during the 2014 Berlin Conference on the Syrian Refugee Situation. At the time, local Lebanese papers reported how the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and Minister of Social Affairs ‘thwarted an attempt to push Lebanon towards signing the 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees’ According to the report, the draft outcome document of the donor conference included a clause stating that Lebanon should sign the 1951 Refugee Convention. The final document, however, included no such clause.

This blatant rejection of international refugee law by Lebanon without doubt places UNHCR and other refugee protection actors in a challenging position. UNHCR calls its own approach ‘pragmatic but principled’ which has entailed that it has not pressured Lebanon into ratification as long as the country provides de facto protection to refugees. This raises interesting questions for future research when it comes to the actual benefits of treaty ratification for strengthening refugee protection in Lebanon and other non-party refugee-hosting states. Not the least it begs the question of whether or not signatory states actually offer better practice than non-signatory states?




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