Engaging students from Lebanese universities in peace building processes
“I became an ambassador of the ‘Right to know’ because the war did not end for the families of the forcibly disappeared, they are still living it and they have the right to know the fate of their loved ones”, said Mohammad Hamoud, a student from Saint Joseph University, at an event convened by the UN Human Rights (OHCHR) Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa (ROMENA) last December, gathering students and teachers from nine universities in Lebanon.
“Due to not having a common history, trans-generational Lebanese memory plays an important role in reinforcing sectarian affiliations. We are a generation without a past” added Vera Mouawad, a fellow student from Saint Joseph University, talking about her experience with the project.
Mohammad and Vera both participated in the human rights lab created by their university as part of a partnership with ROMENA. They had the opportunity to take elective courses on transitional justice and international criminal prosecution, on truth and reconciliation and to question their understanding of their past.
The regional office established a similar strategic partnership with nine universities across Lebanon to implement the “Dealing with the Past: Memory for the future” project. Decades after armed conflicts ended, Lebanon continues to face challenges in dealing with the legacy of the 15-year war that occurred between 1975 and 1990 and ended without a true reconciliation process between the conflicting parties and Lebanese citizens at large.
The project, supported by the UN Peace Building Fund, aims at promoting truth-seeking, fostering collective remembrance and, ultimately, moving towards reconciliation around the legacy of the civil war. The project was launched in 2020, two years after the adoption of Law No. 105 by the Lebanese parliament. Law No. 105 established for the first time a national commission for the Missing and Forcibly Disappeared, to clarify the fate of the missing persons in Lebanon since 1974.
The partnership with universities aimed at engaging youth in peace building by increasing their knowledge and building their capacities in engaging in such processes, including by establishing Human Rights Clubs in the universities and supporting them in advocating for the implementation of Law No. 105.
The activities implemented by the universities focused on the human rights of the families of the disappeared and on the role of youth and women in peace building. They were designed for the youth and with the youth to promote acceptance and counter hate speech.
“It is critically important to work with the academia and with the youth to build peace” said Roueida El Hage, OHCHR Regional Representative. “In order to raise awareness, to promote a culture of respecting the other and countering hate speech and respecting human rights in general, we must work hand in hand with academic institutions”
Partners and professors from the participating universities agreed that the Lebanese youth needed to explore their past in order to move forward towards reconciliation and to engage as key actors in peace building.
A survey conducted by Haigazian university revealed the limited knowledge of the youth on the war in Lebanon and its root causes. It also revealed unprecedented willingness of youth to leave the country due to the continuous instability.
Arda Akmekgi, Dean of Haigazian university told the OHCHR team that the grant motivated the students to conduct research about the past in Lebanon and about the root causes of the war. She said: “it is amazing how the students showed interest in documenting enforced disappearance cases and interview the families of the missing to assess the impact of the disappearance on them”.
Professor Eugene Sensenig from Notre Dame University explained how with the students they reflected on old and recent issues with a different perspective: "We tried to have a gender and youth perspective on dealing with the past, the present and the future. We did not only focus on the world of ideas when it comes to human rights and sectarianism but also on the material level” he said.
The universities succeeded in engaging their students in dialogue sessions, focus group discussions, online courses and webinars, competitions and research around human rights issues in Lebanon in general, and particularly hate speech and enforced disappearance and its impact on the families of the missing persons at different levels. In this way, the project facilitated a step forward towards reconciliation by increasing their knowledge and building their capacities.
Participating Universities: Saint Joseph University, Notre Dame University, La Sagesse University, Islamic University, Haigazian University, University of Balamand, Université Saint Esprit Kaslik, Lebanese American University, Beirut Arab University.