Statement of Daniel
Before the United States House of Representatives Committee on International Relations
June 25, 1997
My name is Daniel Nassif and I am testifying on behalf of the Council of Lebanese American Organizations (CLAO). The Council is a federation of local, regional and national organizations representing the aspirations of three million Americans of Lebanese descent. The Council works to further the cause of freedom and sovereignty for Lebanon commencing with the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of Syrian occupation forces from Lebanese territory. The Council acts to promote ties of friendship and cooperation between the United States and Lebanon based on the principles of democracy and human rights.
With this brief background information, please allow me to outline our concerns and suggestions for this Committee. The situation in Lebanon continues to be a matter of very deep concern to all American Lebanese. The international community has allowed the dignity of Lebanon to be subjugated to Syrian hegemony and tyranny for the past twenty one years. Yet this occupation has failed to prove itself as a factor of stability, normalcy or moderation. To the contrary, the Syrian regime has turned Lebanon into a free zone for political machinations, military provocation, drug trafficking and terrorist activities.
Lebanon has a constructive role to play in the Middle East peace process. It can only do so when it is free, sovereign and governed by a truly representative government. Only the Lebanese people, free from occupation, can provide genuine peace and security to all of their neighbors. Lebanon must be allowed to reclaim its right to negotiate peace with Israel free from the destructive influence of Syria. Lebanon is obviously no longer an independent country. More than forty thousand Syrian troops control ninety percent of its territory, and Syrian installed officials occupy all positions of authority within Lebanon's government, parliament and military. The country's domestic and foreign policies now reflect Syrian objectives, not Lebanese needs. The Lebanese are not the real players on the political scene. No decision can be taken without authorization from Damascus. The situation is best summarized by a prominent Moslem Shiite lawyer who was quoted in the 37-page Human Rights Watch report dated May 1997, entitled "Syria / Lebanon: An Alliance Beyond The Law," as saying the following:
"Our government is not a government. Syrian intelligence forces are controlling this country. We are moving toward a police state. Here in Lebanon, there are masters and servants. Lebanese government officials are the servants of Syria."
As the principle umbrella organization representing the vast majority of American Lebanese, we feel it is time to call your attention to some of the deep concerns expressed within our community regarding Lebanon's role in the peace process and the ultimate fate of Lebanon's freedom, independence and sovereignty. It is certainly no secret that all free voices in Lebanon have been effectively silenced by Syria and its surrogates. Consequently, Lebanese popular will is not being represented in the ongoing peace negotiations. For this reason, we fear that these long-awaited peace agreements will eventually be concluded at the expense of the basic rights and freedom of the Lebanese people.
Our concerns are as follows:
There seems to be no attempt to address the basic issue of Syrian occupation of Lebanon or even Syria's supposed scheduled withdrawal from the country. While official US policy remains fixated on supporting the full implementation of the so-called Taif agreement, the clauses in that document pertaining to Syrian re-deployment to the Bekaa Valley, as they have been interpreted by the State Department, are all but being ignored. Numerous major international and local human rights organizations have repeatedly documented and published findings concerning systematic violations of the rights of innocent Lebanese civilians by Syria and its underlings. These incidents, too numerous to mention here, including murder, rape, torture and illegal detention, belie the facade which has been created for the outside world and provide a hint of the real inner-workings of the Syrian police state.
The 1996 State Department annual report on human rights recounted some of these abuses. Remarkably, the US government has failed to translate its knowledge of these violations into specific policy measures requiring Syria to modify its behavior in Lebanon and desist from engaging in further repression. The Syrian-installed government reigned in Lebanon's once-free broadcast media, bringing them into line with censorship and government control. A law that took effect in November 1996 bans broadcasts by all but five private television outlets. The surviving stations are owned and controlled by prominent government officials. Already it is illegal to print pamphlets and brochures without a license and the Syrian-controlled parliament plans limits on the formation of associations. A disturbing phenomenon in occupied Lebanon today is the increased militarization of the judiciary. The military courts are literally out of control. In 1996 alone, eleven thousand cases were judged in these courts. In one notorious instance, a judge boasted that he had tried three hundred and fifty cases in the course of one day. So pervasive is the military court's jurisdiction that if an ordinary Lebanese civilian has a traffic accident with a minor security employee they both go before the military tribunal. Wajdi Mallat, the Chief Judge of the High Constitutional Court, Lebanon's equivalence of a Supreme Court, resigned last April stating boldly that excessive interference by the Syrian-controlled authorities in the execution of his duties led him to his decision.
It is common knowledge today in occupied Lebanon that only a fraction of the huge amounts of revenues collected by the government through indirect taxation in the form of higher prices on all basic commodities (fuel, electricity, water, telephone service, custom duties, etc. ) actually make it into the government coffers to be spent on reconstruction and other beneficial projects. The bulk of the remainder ends up in the secret bank accounts of a handful of Syrian and Lebanese officials. The fact of the matter today in Lebanon is that the State itself is the largest Mafia in the land. In a revealing article on April 16, 1997, the Christian Science Monitor exposed the roaster of corruption plaguing Lebanon today. "Daily life is becoming ever more frustrating as corruption permeates the Lebanese bureaucracy," wrote the article. It spoke of a rampant "telephone Mafia" where the periodic extortion of cutting and reconnecting lines for a bribe are commonplace. Bribery surfaces everywhere, even in the domain of education where those wishing to pass government examinations habitually pay for that privilege. "A small clique of government employees was caught selling Lebanese University diplomas earlier this year," wrote the Monitor. None of these employees have ever been prosecuted. Needless to say, Lebanese and Syrian officials live above the law, which in any case is applied haphazardly. Such an unreliable legal umbrella has made many potential foreign investors reconsider opening any business in Lebanon, and those who are already in the country are thinking seriously of pulling out. The Monitor quoted an MCI communications official as saying that they are unable to continue providing direct access phone service to the US due to widespread racketeering.
Behind all the hype about Lebanon's economic recovery and reconstruction is a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign by the Syrian-controlled Hariri government to obscure the reality of Lebanon's miserable economic and political situation. The occupation regime has only succeeded in raising taxes on an already impoverished Lebanese population. The purchasing power for the average Lebanese has decreased by more than 40% in the last three years. The middle class in the country has all but vanished. The majority of Lebanese now live below the poverty line and in constant fear, while 1.2 million illegal Syrian workers (a number equal to one third of Lebanon's population) transfer an average of 300 million dollars of badly needed currency to Syria each month. Consequently, the Lebanese unemployment rate has been driven up to a record of thirty-five percent.
Government projects and contracts are mostly awarded to Syrian-installed officials, their associates or Syrian companies. A large portion of the funds allocated to these contracts end-up in the pockets of corrupt government officials and their Syrian patrons; typically less than half actually goes toward funding of the intended projects. The Wall Street Journal in a front page article on July 19, 1995, quoted Lebanese merchants as complaining that "the layer of Syrian authority that hovers over most transactions has increased their costs. This 'Syrian component' as one calls it, must be factored into everything, from commissions on large public-works contracts to customs duties." Top Government officials have been afforded their own special pools of public money to dispense as they please without oversight. These huge slush-funds are a major reason Lebanon's public debt has ballooned to more than fourteen billion dollars, compared to only one billion in 1990. Lebanon's budget deficit is currently running at more than fifty percent of government revenues. An incredible 42% of the 1997 budget is being used to service the public debt.
The 1992 and the 1996 Syrian-orchestrated parliamentary elections in Lebanon were an unprecedented exercise in fraud on a massive scale. Flagrant violations of the electoral process, such as voter intimidation, and ballot and vote rigging were commonplace. The Council emphasizes that no election in Lebanon will be acceptable under the present circumstances of total Syrian control over Lebanese affairs. The conditions for any free and fair elections are as follows:
1. A complete and unconditional withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanese soil, in compliance with UN resolutions 425 and 520 and in accordance to the standards of international law;
2. The effective disbanding of all military groups, Lebanese or foreign, independent or surrogate, currently in Lebanon, with the exception of the legitimate national armed forces;
3. The formation of an interim government of National Salvation, comprised of leaders of the main political groups who reflect the popular will of the country. Their primary task would be to manage the election process with the assistance and supervision of the international community;
4. The deployment, throughout the country, of UN observers alongside the Lebanese Army to ensure and monitor the election process;
5. The creation of a mechanism by which all displaced persons, refugees and exiles, are allowed to return to their homes and villages without fear of retribution and repression;
6. The occurrence of scheduled parliamentary elections under international supervision in which all Lebanese citizens, resident or exiled, are allowed to participate in the political process as voters or as candidates. Within a predetermined timetable, the newly elected parliament will elect a president who will form a cabinet. Those institutions, namely the Presidency, the Parliament and the Government will begin the process of reconstruction, engage the Lebanese people in debate over the issue of reforms, conduct peace negotiations with Israel and work to settle any outstanding issues with all neighboring countries.
The Council has strongly supported the recent amendment to the Foreign Operations Authorization Bill in the 1998 budget that the House voted upon overwhelmingly (410 against 15) on June 10, 1997. The amendment calls on the State Department to consider applying to Syria sanctions which are currently enforced against Iran and Libya under the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 if the government of Syria does not eliminate its dangerous and destabilizing policies in Lebanon and the Middle East. We all know that nothing fundamental changed in South Africa until sanctions were tightened. We feel that the United States has no business playing "business as usual" with the Syrian regime.
Both the Council and I appreciate
the opportunity to express our concerns and suggestions before this Committee. We strongly
urge you to consider our suggestions and incorporate them in your decisions and
deliberations regarding US policy toward Lebanon.