“Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.” UNESCO’s 1995 Declaration of Principles on Tolerance.
In 1996, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 51/95 proclaiming 16 November as International Day for Tolerance.
This action followed the adoption of a Declaration of Principles on Tolerance by UNESCO’s Member States on 16 November 1995. Among other things, the Declaration affirms that tolerance is neither indulgence nor indifference. It is respect and appreciation of the rich variety of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance recognizes the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others. People are naturally diverse; only tolerance can ensure the survival of mixed communities in every region of the globe.
In 1995, to mark the United Nations Year for Tolerance and the 125th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, UNESCO created a prize for the promotion of tolerance and non-violence. The UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence rewards significant activities in the scientific, artistic, cultural or communication fields aimed at the promotion of a spirit of tolerance and non-violence. The creation of the Prize has been inspired by the ideals of UNESCO’s Constitution that proclaims that “peace, if it is not to fail, must be founded on the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind”. The prize is awarded every two years on the International Day for Tolerance, 16 November. The Prize may be awarded to institutions, organizations or persons, who have contributed in a particularly meritorious and effective manner to tolerance and non-violence.
MESSAGE FROM THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL
“At a time when extremism and fanaticism are unleashed too often, at a time when the venom of hatred continues to poison a part of humanity, tolerance has never been more vital a virtue.”
— Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO on the occasion of the International Day for Tolerance
Each Government is responsible for enforcing human rights laws, for banning and punishing hate crimes and discrimination against minorities, whether these are committed by State officials, private organizations or individuals. The State must also ensure equal access to courts, human rights commissioners or ombudsmen, so that people do not take justice into their own hands and resort to violence to settle their disputes.
2. Fighting intolerance requires education:
Laws are necessary but not sufficient for countering intolerance in individual attitudes. Intolerance is very often rooted in ignorance and fear: fear of the unknown, of the other, other cultures, nations, religions. Intolerance is also closely linked to an exaggerated sense of self-worth and pride, whether personal, national or religious. These notions are taught and learned at an early age. Therefore, greater emphasis needs to be placed on educating more and better. Greater efforts need to be made to teach children about tolerance and human rights, about other ways of life. Children should be encouraged at home and in school to be open-minded and curious.
Education is a life-long experience and does not begin or end in school. Endeavours to build tolerance through education will not succeed unless they reach all age groups, and take place everywhere: at home, in schools, in the workplace, in law-enforcement and legal training, and not least in entertainment and on the information highways.
3. Fighting intolerance requires access to information:
Intolerance is most dangerous when it is exploited to fulfil the political and territorial ambitions of an individual or groups of individuals. Hatemongers often begin by identifying the public’s tolerance threshold. They then develop fallacious arguments, lie with statistics and manipulate public opinion with misinformation and prejudice. The most efficient way to limit the influence of hatemongers is to develop policies that generate and promote press freedom and press pluralism, in order to allow the public to differentiate between facts and opinions.
Intolerance in a society is the sum-total of the intolerance of its individual members. Bigotry, stereotyping, stigmatizing, insults and racial jokes are examples of individual expressions of intolerance to which some people are subjected daily. Intolerance breeds intolerance. It leaves its victims in pursuit of revenge. In order to fight intolerance individuals should become aware of the link between their behavior and the vicious cycle of mistrust and violence in society. Each one of us should begin by asking: am I a tolerant person? Do I stereotype people? Do I reject those who are different from me? Do I blame my problems on ‘them’?
5. Fighting intolerance requires local solutions:
Many people know that tomorrow’s problems will be increasingly global but few realize that solutions to global problems are mainly local, even individual. When confronted with an escalation of intolerance around us, we must not wait for governments and institutions to act alone. We are all part of the solution. We should not feel powerless for we actually posses an enormous capacity to wield power. Nonviolent action is a way of using that power-the power of people. The tools of nonviolent action-putting a group together to confront a problem, to organize a grassroots network, to demonstrate solidarity with victims of intolerance, to discredit hateful propaganda-are available to all those who want to put an end to intolerance, violence and hatred.
Tolerance holds different meanings for different people.
For some, it means not being prejudiced. For others, it’s the ability to endure the existence or behaviour of those they disagree with.
According to the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), it’s a conscious decision to recognise people’s fundamental rights and the inclusion of their diversity.
In some parts of the MENA region, tolerant societies remain a work in progress, according to London’s 2018 Legatum Prosperity Index, which measures the wealth and well-being of 149 countries.
The UAE ranks 39th globally, the highest among Arab states on the list.
UAE TOLERANCE INITIATIVES
The emirates appointed a Minister of State for Tolerance in 2016, dedicated to promoting the qualities of acceptance and inclusion among residents.
The country also held its second National Festival for Tolerance this year.
The nine-day-event hosted multicultural activities and musical performances for UAE residents from more than 200 countries.
The festival highlighted inclusion and the accomplishments of people with disabilities. It also featured a cricket match in which foreign workers, primarily from the subcontinent, took part.
Abir Kazbour, an author and filmmaker originally from Lebanon, is a member of the UAE Champions of Tolerance program, which teaches residents methods to communicate the message of acceptance and understanding.
Kazbour is currently working on a short film to recreate a personal experience she had of a cultural misunderstanding when should would regularly extinguish her Indian flatmate’s candles.
Unknowingly, she was disrupting her fellow roommate’s prayer rituals and once the cultural clash was cleared up, the pair were brought closer together.
“When we talked and there was dialogue between us, we could understand and sympathize with each other,” says Kazbour, recalling the anecdote from her book called The Key of Tolerance.
For Kazbour, the issue of tolerance hit home at an early age in 1997, when she was visiting family in Tripoli, Lebanon.
“Most of them were from one sect,” she says. “So, when we said we were going to our neighbour’s, for example, they would say, “No! How can you go to them? They’re from a different sect, they hate us.”
This type of closed mindedness went some way to helping the author decide to live outside of Lebanon.
TOLERANCE & UNITY IN LEBANON
This October, Lebanese nationals came together and took to the streets in protest about the actions of the government.
Lebanon is governed by 18 different religious groups, which decide how citizens marry, inherit money and even how they’re buried.
Some believe this has contributed to the country’s social and economic malaise.
Beirut organisations like Adyan have been working to unify Lebanese people through education since 2008.
“What we need to do is to get people to live that diversity as an enrichment, and not as a fear from each other,” says Dr. Nayla Tabbara, the director of the Institute of Citizenship and Diversity at Adyan.
POTENTIAL REMEDIES FOR EXTREMISM
Dr. Tabbara says that in addition to unifying people and encouraging positive societal change, practicing tolerance can also help prevent isolation and radicalism.
“We see a direct connection actually between extremism and tolerance,” she explains. “Extremism is, by definition, when you don’t accept difference – a different point of view.”
Forces which also make people vulnerable to extremist groups include a lack of economic incentives and sense of belonging, according to Hedayah, a global counter-terrorism centre in Abu Dhabi.
In partnership with the European Union and other groups, Hedayah works to create educational programs for youth in Kyrgyzstan.
Together they’ve developed ways to inform young people about the importance of having a strong sense of identity and belonging within their communities.
They cite that cultural and recreational activities can help young ones, especially in rural areas, follow the right path.
SEEN ON SOCIAL MEDIA: CELEBRATING TOLERANCE
Prince from India captured this moment at the National Festival of Tolerance in Abu Dhabi, saying it reflected the joyful mood of the event.
William Beckerwriting this article titled ‘Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility’ could be taken as a pertinent illustrator of the sort of times related to dilemmas and traumas. Democracy at best of times associates with higher human capital accumulation, lower political instability, and higher economic freedom that are quasi-impossible to go for nowadays and before the advent of that smart techno hard and software. In any case, Can democracies survive social media?
Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility
Abraham Lincoln is credited with one of the most enduring statements in American history: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Unfortunately, nearly all Americans have been fooled by this. The first person to utter the statement was actually the showman P.T. Barnum.
Barnum didn’t know about the Internet or social media, of course. He’d be amazed at computers, and even more amazed that anyone could use it to send virtually any statement anywhere in the world, unfiltered and instantly. This extraordinary power allows us to fool millions of people in real time, but it also allows them to fool us. Unfortunately, there are individuals, organizations, and even nations that use social media for precisely that purpose.
The misuse of social media to spread disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and outright lies is raising questions in democracies about how free freedom of expression should be. Social media are caught constantly between freedom of speech and social responsibility in democracies around the world. “There is an ongoing debate about where to draw the line between freedom of speech and offensive comments,” the authors of the 2020 World Population Review report. “Especially in the age of social media, concerns have arisen over whether freedom of speech is causing more harm than it is good.”
Every country that guarantees freedom of expression already puts boundaries on it. In 2015, the Pew Research Center ranked the tolerance of free speech in 38 countries, scoring them between zero and eight, with eight being the most tolerant. No country earned a score higher than 5.73. That score was awarded to the United States. Pew reported that “Americans are more tolerant of free speech than other nationalities. They also are the most supportive of freedom of the press and the right to use the Internet without government censorship.”
But the world’s most tolerant nation is struggling with an epidemic of misinformation, outright falsehoods, hate speech, conspiracy theories, and deliberate attempts by foreign and domestic groups to undermine democracy. Social media providers such as Facebook and Twitter are being challenged by Congress to find that balance between freedom of expression on the one hand, and serving as conduits of hate and harm on the other.
The U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech.” Yet, federal statutes prohibit speech that incites harm to others or distributes obscene materials, for example. The constraints other countries have put on free expression include libel, slander, perjury, obscenity, sedition, incitement, the disclosure of classified information, the unauthorized use of copyrighted information, trade secrets, and speech that violates privacy, dignity, and public security. People in the European Union and Argentina are guaranteed the “right to be forgotten.”
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “the right to freedom of expression.” But it also sets boundaries against speech that damages the rights and reputations of others, jeopardizes national security, or threatens public order, health, or morals.
The Internet’s value
Another of America’s historic leaders, Thomas Jefferson, has been quoted, “If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, every American is responsible to be informed.” Ensuring that citizens are well informed is one of the Internet’s most important potentials. How close is it to fulfilling its potential?
The Pew Center for Research asked that question last July in the United States. It studied where Americans get their information and how their sources enhance their knowledge. Pew found that about one in five adults relies on social media for news and information, but 57% of them scored low when asked nine “knowledge questions.” Other researchers found a similar result for television news, probably because some of the most prominent news sources are biased in the United States.
Here is how it happened. Before cable television arrived, there were three dominant TV networks in the U.S. — ABC, CBS, and NBC. Because they used public airways to broadcast content, the federal government felt they had an obligation to public service. Each network had to obtain a broadcast license. In 1949, the federal agency in charge of licensing instituted the “Fairness Doctrine.” It required the networks to present both sides of controversial issues of public importance. Broadcasts had to be “honest, equitable, and balanced.”
Things changed when cable television came along. Cable stations didn’t use public airways. As their numbers grew, viewers could find both sides of controversial issues by channel surfing, if they took the trouble. The Fairness Doctrine fell into disuse and eventually was discontinued. Cable stations are subject to federal rules and local requirements, but their rules pertain mostly to the quality of cable services, rate structures, franchise fees, and so on. The few regulations about programming are much less strict than the standards applied to the major broadcast networks.
As a result, several cable networks began specializing in news slanted to support a political or ideological agenda. One network, Fox News, presents information in ways that appeal to and reinforce the beliefs of conservative viewers. It has proved to be a very successful formula. Fox is now the most widely watched news station in the U.S.
The Pew Research Center found that 60% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters rely heavily on Fox News, while 53% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters tune into CNN, a network that tilts slightly left. In 2012, researchers determined that people who relied on Fox for news knew less about current events than people who watched no news at all. Last July, a new study showed that the same is true for people who frequent the Fox News website.
News outlets like Fox (and conservatives would say CNN) contribute to the ideological rigidity and highly emotional polarization that plagues politics in the United States today. Outlets like these do less for “the responsibility of every American to be informed” than they do for each group’s conviction than it knows better than the other. The fortification of pre-existing biases and beliefs also happens on social media, which uses algorithms to diagnose a user’s beliefs and feeds back like-minded content. We come to the question again whether social coherence and goodwill require that the relationship between free speech and social responsibility should tilt toward responsibility.
It is a delicate and even dangerous question that begs more questions. How do we make sure that whoever sets and enforces the standards of free expression is not cultivating authoritarianism?
Even more worrisome, perhaps, is how we keep a democracy’s information channels open but safe from nefarious state and non-state interference? Cyber espionage, warfare, and crime are pressing issues worldwide beyond the scope of this article. More relevant are the activities by some nations to interfere with and manipulate the democratic processes of others.
Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are regarded as the nations that conduct most information warfare over the Internet. U.S. intelligence agencies confirm Russia’s manipulation of public opinion during the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. The same agencies report that Russia, China, and Iran are attempting to “hack” the 2020 election, too, in ways that favor either Trump or his opponent, Joe Biden. Experts say that other, smaller nations are working to acquire the same capabilities.
Russian leaders use social media to undermine the American people’s confidence in democracy overall. This isn’t new. “Cyber is facilitating more advanced and more effective psychological warfare, information operations, coercion and intimidation attacks,” NATO’s security expert Jamie Shea warned in 2017. “We used to worry about [hackers targeting] banks or credit cards or inconvenience to customers, now we worry about the future of democracy, the stability and health of our institutions.”
Russia’s use of fake organizations and inflammatory ads on social media is challenging Twitter and Facebook to make concessions to social responsibility. Both were criticized for failing to police Russia’s use of their networks in 2016. This year, Facebook says it will block all new political advertising a week before the November 3 election to prevent misinformation.
Facebook’s chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, says that his company disabled 1.7 billion fake accounts between January and March. Twitter has begun labeling tweets that violate its policies against fake accounts and identities. Two years ago, it created a public archive of 200 million tweets to study them for attempted manipulation. Congress has called on Facebook, Twitter, and Google to explain what they are doing to prevent foreign interference in the 2020 election.
America’s lawmakers are also concerned about foreign and domestic sources misusing Instagram, YouTube, and other social media to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, possibly inciting the demonstrations, fights, and even violence the country has experienced because of government mandates to wear masks, observe social distancing, and close businesses where crowds congregate.
The Internal threats
Facebook and Twitter are taking steps to identify and/or eliminate “false facts” from inside the United States, too. The most frequent and blatant source is Donald Trump, the “Tweeter-in-Chief.” He pecks out messages on Twitter night and day to dominate the news, insult opponents, praise his own performance, and take advantage of unfiltered contact with the American people.
He set a personal record of 142 tweets during his impeachment trial in January and February, then broke it in June with 200 tweets and retweets on a single day. When Twitter began labeling Trump’s provably inaccurate tweets, the president retaliated with an executive order to regulate social media companies.
The problem is not only Trump and not only social media. “Whether it’s newspapers, television, Facebook, YouTube, or Google searches, someone is pulling strings (and) lobbying their own agendas because there are no consequences,” social media consultant Lon Safko points out. “You can say anything you want, and there are no consequences.”
Social media also is an important propaganda tool for dictators and unscrupulous leaders around the world. In 2019, researchers at the University of Oxford found evidence of organized social media manipulation campaigns in 70 countries. Twenty-six countries were using social media to “suppress fundamental human rights, discredit political opponents, and drown out dissenting opinions.” Government or political party “cyber troops” are using political bots to amplify hate speech, illegally harvest data, and mobilize “trolls” to harass political dissidents and journalists, the University reported.
“Despite the majority of adults surveyed in each country reporting that they used social networks to keep up to date with news and current affairs, a 2018 study showed that social media is the least trusted news source in the world,” says researcher Amy Watson of Statista, a statistics service. “Less than 35% of adults in Europe considered social networks to be trustworthy in this respect, yet more than 50% of adults in Portugal, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Croatia said that they got their news on social media.”
“Concerns about fake news and propaganda on social media have not stopped billions of users accessing their favorite networks on a daily basis,” she says.
So, can freedom of speech survive social media? Can Democracies? Can we find ways to balance freedom of expression with social responsibility? If the proper formula requires restrictions on speech, what should they be? If the government’s job is to protect democracy from cyber-subterfuge, how will it keep up technologies that emerge much faster than governments act?
I think about this a lot. My answers are the same as those we often hear from the world’s top experts and policymakers:
Only time will tell.
William Becker is an author and blogger in the United States. He writes about climate change and many other issues that strike his fancy.
Report reviews human rights in 19 MENA states during 2019
Wave of protests across Algeria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon demonstrates reinvigorated faith in people power
500+ killed in Iraq and over 300 in Iran in brutal crackdowns on protests
Relentless clampdown on peaceful critics and human rights defenders
At least 136 prisoners of conscience detained in 12 countries for online speech
Governments across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) displayed a chilling determination to crush protests with ruthless force and trample over the rights of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets to call for social justice and political reform during 2019, said Amnesty International today, publishing its annual report on the human rights situation in the region.
Human rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Review of 2019 describes how instead of listening to protesters’ grievances, governments have once again resorted to relentless repression to silence peaceful critics both on the streets and online. In Iraq and Iran alone, the authorities’ use of lethal force led to hundreds of deaths in protests; in Lebanon police used unlawful and excessive force to disperse protests; and in Algeria the authorities used mass arrests and prosecutions to crack down on protesters. Across the region, governments have arrested and prosecuted activists for comments posted online, as activists turned to social media channels to express their dissent.2019 was a year of defiance in MENA. It also was a year that showed that hope was still alive – and that despite the bloody aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Libya and the catastrophic human rights decline in Egypt – people’s faith in the collective power to mobilize for change was revived Heba Morayef
“In an inspiring display of defiance and determination, crowds from Algeria, to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon poured into the streets – in many cases risking their lives – to demand their human rights, dignity and social justice and an end to corruption. These protesters have proven that they will not be intimidated into silence by their governments,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Director for MENA.
“2019 was a year of defiance in MENA. It also was a year that showed that hope was still alive – and that despite the bloody aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Libya and the catastrophic human rights decline in Egypt – people’s faith in the collective power to mobilize for change was revived.”
The protests across MENA mirrored demonstrators taking to the streets to demand their rights from Hong Kong to Chile. In Sudan, mass protests were met with brutal crackdowns by security forces and eventually ended with a negotiated political agreement with associations who had led the protests.
Crackdown on protests on the streets
Across the MENA region authorities employed a range of tactics to repress the wave of protests – arbitrarily arresting thousands of protesters across the region and in some cases resorting to excessive or even lethal force. In Iraq and Iran alone hundreds were killed as security forces fired live ammunition at demonstrators and thousands more were injured.In an inspiring display of defiance and determination, crowds from Algeria, to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon poured into the streets – in many cases risking their lives – to demand their human rights, dignity and social justice and an end to corruption. These protesters have proven that they will not be intimidated into silence by their governments Heba Morayef
In Iraq where at least 500 died in demonstrations in 2019, protesters showed tremendous resilience, defying live ammunition, deadly sniper attacks and military tear gas grenades deployed at short range causing gruesome injuries.
In Iran, credible reports indicated that security forces killed over 300 people and injured thousands within just four days between 15 and 18 November to quell protests initially sparked by a rise in fuel prices. Thousands were also arrested and many subjected to enforced disappearance and torture.
In September, Palestinian women in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories took to the streets to protest against gender-based violence and Israel’s military occupation. Israeli forces also killed dozens of Palestinians during demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank.
“The shocking death tolls among protesters in Iraq and Iran illustrate the extreme lengths to which these governments were prepared to go in order to silence all forms of dissent,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for MENA. “Meanwhile, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel’s policy of using excessive, including lethal, force against demonstrators there continued unabated.” The shocking death tolls among protesters in Iraq and Iran illustrate the extreme lengths to which these governments were prepared to go in order to silence all forms of dissent Philip Luther
In Algeria, where mass protests led to the fall of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after 20 years in power, authorities sought to quash protests through mass arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of peaceful demonstrators.
While the mass protests in Lebanon since October, which led to the resignation of the government, began largely peacefully, on a number of occasions protests were met with unlawful and excessive force and security forces failed to intervene effectively to protect peaceful demonstrators from attacks by supporters of rival political groups.
In Egypt, a rare outbreak of protests in September which took the authorities by surprise was met with mass arbitrary arrests with more than 4,000 detained.
“Governments in MENA have displayed a total disregard for the rights of people to protest and express themselves peacefully,” said Heba Morayef.
“Instead of launching deadly crackdowns and resorting to measures such as excessive use of force, torture, or arbitrary mass arrests and prosecutions, authorities should listen to and address demands for social and economic justice as well as political rights.”
Repression of dissent online
As well as lashing out against peaceful protesters on the streets, throughout 2019 governments across the region continued to crack down on people exercising their rights to freedom of expression online. Journalists, bloggers and activists who posted statements or videos deemed critical of the authorities on social media faced arrest, interrogation and prosecutions. Governments in MENA have displayed a total disregard for the rights of people to protest and express themselves peacefully Heba Morayef
According to Amnesty International’s figures, individuals were detained as prisoners of conscience in 12 countries in the region and 136 people were arrested solely for their peaceful expression online. Authorities also abused their powers to stop people accessing or sharing information online. During protests in Iran, the authorities implemented a near-total internet shutdown to stop people sharing videos and photos of security forces unlawfully killing and injuring protesters. In Egypt, authorities disrupted online messaging applications in an attempt to thwart further protests. Egyptian and Palestinian authorities also resorted to censoring websites including news websites. In Iran social media apps including Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube remained blocked.
Some governments also use more sophisticated techniques of online surveillance to target human rights defenders. Amnesty’s research highlighted how two Moroccan human rights defenders were targeted using spyware developed by the Israeli company NSO Group. The same company’s spyware had previously been used to target activists in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as an Amnesty International staff member.
More broadly, Amnesty International recorded 367 human rights defenders subjected to detention (240 arbitrarily detained in Iran alone) and 118 prosecuted in 2019 – the true numbers are likely to be higher.
“The fact that governments across MENA have a zero-tolerance approach to peaceful online expression shows how they fear the power of ideas that challenge official narratives. Authorities must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally and stop harassing peaceful critics and human rights defenders,” said Philip Luther.
Signs of hope
Despite ongoing and widespread impunity across MENA, some small but historic steps were taken towards accountability for longstanding human rights violations. The announcement by the International Criminal Court (ICC) that war crimes had been committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and that an investigation should be opened as soon as the ICC’s territorial jurisdiction has been confirmed offered a crucial opportunity to end decades of impunity. The ICC indicated that the investigation could cover Israel’s killing of protesters in Gaza. The fact that governments across MENA have a zero-tolerance approach to peaceful online expression shows how they fear the power of ideas that challenge official narratives. Authorities must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally and stop harassing peaceful critics and human rights defenders Philip Luther
Similarly, in Tunisia the Truth and Dignity Commission published its final report and 78 trials started before criminal courts offering a rare chance for security forces to be held accountable for past abuses.
The limited advances in women’s rights, won after years of campaigning by local women’s rights movements, were outweighed by the continuing repression of women’s rights defenders, particularly in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a broader failure to eliminate widespread discrimination against women. Saudi Arabia introduced long-overdue reforms to its male guardianship system, but these were overshadowed by the fact that five women human rights defenders remained unjustly detained for their activism throughout 2019. Governments across the region must learn that their repression of protests and imprisonment of peaceful critics and human rights defenders will not silence people’s demands for fundamental economic, social and political rights Heba Morayef
A number of Gulf states also announced reforms to improve protection for migrant workers including promises from Qatar to abolish its kafala (sponsorship system) and improve migrants’ access to justice. Jordan and the United Arab Emirates also signalled plans to reform the kafala system. However, migrant workers continue to face widespread exploitation and abuse across the region.
“Governments across the region must learn that their repression of protests and imprisonment of peaceful critics and human rights defenders will not silence people’s demands for fundamental economic, social and political rights. Instead of ordering serious violations and crimes to stay in power, governments should ensure the political rights needed to allow people to express their socio-economic demands and to hold their governments to account,” said Heba Morayef.
Lebanon pushed to the brink, faces reckoning over graft after allies, investors, protesters press for change in the country as per Jonathan Spicer, Tom Perry and Samia Nakhoul, Reuters News in this ECONOMY‘s article dated 21 October 2019.
BEIRUT – Lebanon is closer to a financial crisis than at any time since at least the war-torn 1980s as allies, investors and this week nationwide protests pile pressure on the government to tackle a corrupt system and enact long-promised reforms.
Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri‘s government on Thursday hastily reversed a plan, announced hours earlier, to tax WhatsApp voice calls in the face of the biggest public protests in years, with people burning tyres and blocking roads.
The country – among the world’s most indebted and quickly running out of dollar reserves – urgently needs to convince regional allies and Western donors it is finally serious about tackling entrenched problems such as its unreliable and wasteful electricity sector.
Without a foreign funding boost, Lebanon risks a currency devaluation or even defaulting on debts within months, according to interviews with nearly 20 government officials, politicians, bankers and investors.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said in a televised speech on Friday that he gave a paper at an economic crisis meeting in September saying Lebanon needed “an electric shock”.
“I also said that what little remains of the financial balance might not last us longer than the end of the year if we do not adopt the necessary policies,” he said, without describing what he meant by financial balance.
Beirut has repeatedly vowed to maintain the value of the dollar-pegged Lebanese pound and honour its debts on time.
But countries that in the past reliably financed bailouts have run out of patience with its mismanagement and graft, and they are using the deepening economic and social crisis to press for change, the sources told Reuters.
These include Arab Gulf states whose enthusiasm to help Lebanon has been undermined by the growing clout in Beirut of Tehran-backed Hezbollah, and what they see as a need to check Iran’s growing influence across the Middle East.
Western countries have also provided funds that allowed Lebanon to defy gravity for years. But for the first time, they have said no new money would flow until the government takes clear steps toward reforms it has long only promised.
Their hope is to see it move towards fixing a system that sectarian politicians have used to deploy state resources to their own advantage through patronage networks instead of building a functional state.
A crisis could stoke further unrest in a country hosting some 1 million refugees from neighbouring Syria, where a Turkish incursion in the northeast this month has opened a new front in an eight-year war.
“If the situation remains, and there are no radical reforms, a devaluation of the currency is inevitable,” said Toufic Gaspard, a former adviser to Lebanon’s finance ministry and former economist at its central bank and the International Monetary Fund.
“Since September a new era has begun,” he added. “The red flags are large and everywhere, especially with the central bank paying up to 13% to borrow dollars.”
The first reform on Beirut’s agenda is one of the most intractable: fixing chronic power outages that make private generators a costly necessity, a problem many see as the main symbol of corruption that has left services unreliable and infrastructure crumbling.
Hariri, in a televised speech to the nation, said he had been struggling to reform the electricity sector ever since taking office. After “meeting after meeting, committee after committee, proposal after proposal, I got at last to the final step and someone came and said ‘it doesn’t work’,” he said.
Presenting the difficulties of implementing reform more widely, Hariri said every committee required a minimum of nine ministers to keep everyone happy.
“A national unity government OK, we understand that. But committees of national unity The result is that nothing works.”
Underscoring the pressure from abroad, Pierre Duquesne, a French ambassador handling so-called CEDRE funding, is traveling to Lebanon next week to press the government on the use of offshore power barges, a banker familiar with the plan said.
Duquesne wants the barges included in the electricity overhaul plan, the person said, requesting anonymity.
Duquesne could not immediately be reached for comment.
The contents of the 2020 budget will be key to helping unlock some $11 billion conditionally pledged by international donors under last year’s CEDRE conference. But a cabinet meeting on the budget set for Friday was cancelled amid the protests.
Hariri’s government, which includes nearly all of Lebanon’s main parties, had proposed a tax of 20 cents per day on calls via voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) used by applications including WhatsApp, Facebook FB.O and FaceTime.
In a country fractured along sectarian lines, the protests’ unusually wide geographic reach may be a sign of deepening anger with politicians who have jointly led Lebanon into crisis.
Fires were smoldering in central Beirut, where streets were scattered with glass of several smashed shop-fronts. Tear gas was fired on some demonstrators.
The newspaper an-Nahar described it as “a tax intifada”, or uprising. Another daily, al-Akhbar, declared it “the WhatsApp revolution”.
“With this corrupt authority, our kids have no future,” said protestor Fadi Issa, 51. “We don’t just want a resignation, we want accountability. They should return all the money they stole. We want change.”
As confidence has faded and dollars have grown scarce, new cracks have emerged between Lebanon’s government and its private lenders, according to several of the bankers, investors and officials who spoke to Reuters.
After years of funding the government with the promise of ever higher rates of return, the banks – sensing the country is approaching collapse – are pressing for it to finally deliver reforms to win over donors.
Most said Lebanon would likely feel more economic and financial strain in the months ahead but avoid haircuts on deposits or a worst-case sovereign default.
Yet Beirut’s years of failure to deliver reforms and the new determination among its traditional donors to press for them has left even top officials, bankers and investors divided over whether a devaluation is in store for the Lebanese pound.
“You need a positive shock. But unfortunately the government thinks reforms can happen without touching the structure that benefits them,” said Nassib Ghobril, head of economic research and analysis at Byblos Bank.
Lebanon must promote reforms to increase capital inflows, he said.
“We can’t keep going to the Emirates and Saudis. We need to help ourselves in order for others to help us.”
This month, Moody’s put Lebanon’s Caa1 credit rating under review for a downgrade and estimated the central bank, which has stepped in to cover government debt payments, had only $6 billion-$10 billion in useable dollars left to maintain stability.
That compares with some $6.5 billion in debt maturing by the end of next year.
The central bank says its foreign assets stood at $38.1 billion as of Oct. 15.
An official told Reuters Lebanon has only $10 billion in real reserves. “It is a very dire situation that has five months to correct itself or there will be a collapse, around February,” he said.
Hariri’s government may have only a few months to deliver fiscal reforms to convince France, the World Bank and other parties to the CEDRE agreement to unlock $11 billion in conditional funding.
The head of regional investments for a large U.S. asset manager said Lebanese officials are privately saying a plan that addresses short- and long-term electricity shortages will be announced before year-end, after which the government will raise tariffs.
But critics say no concrete steps have been taken despite energy ministry statements that the plan is on track.
Hariri left Paris last month with no immediate cash commitment after visiting French President Emmanuel Macron. Likewise this month he left Abu Dhabi empty-handed after meeting Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
Lawmakers in Beirut struggled to explain what happened in Abu Dhabi after Hariri claimed the United Arab Emirates had promised investments following “positive” talks.
EYES ON HEZBOLLAH
Investors, bankers and economists say at least $10 billion is needed to renew confidence among the Lebanese diaspora whom for decades have underpinned the economy by maintaining accounts back home.
But so far this year, deposits have shrunk by about 0.4%.
The government has sought a smaller cushion from Sunni Muslim allies to buy some time. But to secure funding from the UAE or Saudi Arabia, Beirut would likely have to meet conditions meant to weaken Shi’ite Hezbollah’s hand in Lebanon’s government, said several sources.
Hezbollah, which faces U.S. sanctions, is seen to be gaining more control over state resources by naming the health minister in January after last year’s elections brought more of its allies into the legislature.
Some say Saudi Arabia, UAE and the United States are motivated to hold out on Beirut as part of their wider policy seeking to weaken Iran and its allies which have been fighting proxy wars with Gulf Arab states on several fronts.
“Their tolerance of Iran and Hezbollah has lowered significantly. The ‘Lebanese exception’ is gone,” said Sami Nader, Beirut-based director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.
“The balance has tilted and we are now at odds with our former friends because Hezbollah now has the upper hand politically.”
The former regional head at a major Western bank put it bluntly: “People have lost patience with the corruption in which a frozen Parliament with no authority is simply divvying up the pie among politicians.”
“But at the end of the day the Lebanese political class usually succeeds in convincing allies that they should not let the system collapse and bring civil war again,” he added.
Lebanon, straddling the Middle East’s main sectarian lines, was historically the region’s foreign-exchange hub into which deposits flowed, especially since 1997 when its currency was pegged to the dollar at 1,507.5 pounds.
But after a reckoning in August and September in which the cost of insuring Lebanon’s sovereign debt surged https://tmsnrt.rs/2MORZfM to a record high, things have changed.
Depositors, including the diaspora drawn by rates much higher than in Europe or the United States, are pulling funds in the face of Lebanon’s swelling twin deficits, inability to secure foreign funding, and unorthodox central bank efforts to attract dollar inflows.
Among Lebanon’s 6 million citizens, trust has worn thin.
Depositors can no longer easily withdraw dollars, and most ATMs no longer provide them, forcing people to turn to so-called parallel FX markets where $1 is worth more than the official peg.
“I am with the protesters,” said Walid al-Badawi, 43. “I have three children, I am a taxi driver, I work all day to get food for my kids and I can’t get it.”
Gaspard, the central bank’s former research head, said foreign exchange was easy even through Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. There was also always a balance of payments surplus – until 2011 when deficits began to grow, reaching $12 billion last year.
LOST RESOLVE AT BANKS
Three events precipitated the crisis of confidence that for years seemed inevitable: a series of central bank efforts since 2016 to keep growing deposits with rates of more than 11% on large deposits; a public sector pay hike last year that raised the budget deficit to more than 11% of GDP; low oil prices in recent years that have weakened Gulf allies.
In a report on Thursday, the IMF described Lebanon’s position as “very difficult,” adding “substantial new measures” are needed to protect it and reduce large deficits.
As dollars have dried up, banks have effectively stopped lending and can no longer make basic foreign-exchange transactions for clients, one banker said.
“The whole role of banks is to pour money into the central bank to finance the government and protect the currency,” he said. “Nothing is being done on the fiscal deficit because doing something will disrupt the systems of corruption.”
The resistance from banks has been subtle but telling given their central role in financing the government.
When Beirut proposed a $660 million reduction in debt service costs in its 2019 budget, banks never signed up to the idea. They have also been less enthusiastic about subscribing to Eurobonds including a planned $2-billion issuance later this month, officials said.
Without reform, “banks agree we can no longer support the public sector,” said Byblos Bank’s Ghobril.
(Reporting by Jonathan Spicer, Tom Perry and Samia Nakhoul; Additional reporting by Yara Abi Nader and Ellen Francis in Beirut and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Hugh Lawson) ((email@example.com; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org @jonathanspicer))
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