It was the first Sunday of August, and it was scorching hot. I was in Paris, visiting the Pompeii exhibition at the Grand Palais. The town that lay preserved under the ashes after Vesuvius’s catastrophic eruption in AD79 continues to educate archaeologists and fascinate the world today. What distinguished the show was its immersive aspect, and notably, its centrepiece, which was a three-dimensional video recreating the eruption. The imagery was so vivid and the sound effects so realistic that all of us gasped.
Two days later, in the formerly French-controlled state of Lebanon, another eruption happened, thanks to a lethal cargo of ammonium nitrate catching fire in Beirut that had been unsafely stored by Lebanese authorities.
I am an international dispute resolution lawyer. Over my 12-year career, I have represented individuals, companies and states in some of the most challenging territories in the world. I studied law because I believed in justice.
But do I believe in it any longer? Do I believe in it after Beirut?
After several assignments I have discovered that justice is a luxury mostly afforded to those in a position of financial or political strength. From drafting the Afghanistan Centre arbitration rules to representing Cypriot bondholders in a multibillion investor-state dispute against Greece, there is one common theme. That is, the truth is a malleable and costly commodity. In fact, it does not matter where the truth lies, or whether one is fighting for a noble cause.
Of more import is whose interests are at stake, and whether they have the power to protect them. Not just as a lawyer, but as a journalist, I find it concerning that since the 1970s, not a single high-profile political assassination in Lebanon has been solved. Many of the international statutes meant to guarantee our human rights, which are expounded at countless legal conferences I’ve been to, seem to be watchdogs without teeth.
Like most Arabs, I was devastated by what happened in Lebanon. Although its history cannot be compared with my native country of Iraq, which suffered an invasion and three decades of a brutal dictator’s regime, the grief of my Levantine neighbours is uncomfortably close. The country, which was once carved out to France under the secret Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916, has been plagued by many things, linked to the corrupt regime.
Even in 2016, when I was last in Beirut for a conference at the now-destroyed Sursock Palace, I recall the difficulty of going about one’s affairs in the capital. Every time we stopped at any hotel or public building, the boots of our cars were searched by suspicious guards with weapons. We got used to the electricity cutting out, sometimes several times an hour. Garbage was left rotting in the streets, going uncollected for months. Other basic services were lacking. We felt discomfort, and we were only there temporarily on business.
Is there a difference between war and accident, if the consequences are the same? The Lebanese explosion was emblematic of the nation state as failure. It represents the pinnacle of mismanagement by an unaccountable political class which is now potentially going to escape to tax-free jurisdictions while its population suffers.
I should have been uplifted by the disintegration of the Lebanese government on Monday 10 August, but I am jaded after Iraq. The situation still fills me with unease because of the turbulence of my region, which is geopolitically strategic but messy and divided. Also, we have learned from Iraq that even after a government is removed (or here, resigns), unless another more effective government has already been lined up in its place, chaos results. In Lebanon’s case, the government’s resignation is nothing but symbolic because, as some regional commentators have pointed out, many of the same people are likely to take roles in the transitional government that follows.
As a lawyer, my task is not to formulate political strategy but to enforce solutions. There is no short-term solution to this problem. My gut says it is too simplistic and naive to believe that the answer is to look to France as a saviour, when that same country had a hand in bringing about this state of affairs by instilling the “patron-client” governance structure.
I would advocate instead for the long-term plan of action. This includes putting in place a democratic system that is not merely a blueprint of what we understand it to be, but informed by the culture and history of the region, which is extremely secular. On the global level, it requires the strengthening of our international institutions (such as the enforcement mechanisms in human rights treaties and the jurisdiction of our criminal courts) so that leaders and governments can be brought to account for the wrongs inflicted on their citizens.
To be truly independent of any nation or religious or political faction, these institutions need to be privately, and not state, funded. But I am sure I am not the first to propose this, and it is easier said than done.
The Pompeii exhibition reminded me that lessons can be learned from our Roman ancestors. Pompeii remained frozen in time, waiting for us to uncover it exactly as it was. All the wealth and circumstance of empire signifies nothing. In minutes, it can be reduced to ashes. The Romans have a saying – “Credo che nui arimo piu bon taglieri.” It means, “We won’t share the same table anymore”, signifying the end of a friendship.
Now is the time to reconsider false bonds of friendship, and this does not just go for Lebanon, but much of the Arab world.
Noor Kadhim is partner at a law firm and author of ‘The Artvocate’ blog – TheArtvocate.blogspot.co.uk
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