Widespread violations of public spaces call for a new law to protect citizen’s rights

Tue, 09/30/2014

The violation of public property in Lebanon goes on unabated in the absence of a formal law which would protect public property and ensure that they are equally accessible to all citizens. Alas, public property in Lebanon clearly continues to be hijacked by politicians who are entrusted to protect it.
According to the provision of decree 144 dated 10 June 1925, public property is defined as all things reserved for public use and for public benefit and that cannot be sold or purchased. According to that same decree, the state may license its public property on a temporary basis and according to a certain fee. In this case, licenses for public work may be granted for a one year renewable on condition that public rights are preserved. Although there is a law to define public property and legislate its usage, however, the law does not stipulate how to protect it or rationalize its use, hence the manipulation of the letter of the law, at all official levels, and the co-opting of public property and its transfer into private property at nominal cost.
Violation of public property is not a new phenomenon but started during the civil war and continues to date although in different forms. During the war, with the proliferation of armed militia and given the weakening of the authority of the state, the power that be during these times confiscated citizen’s property as well as public property. Buildings were erected unlawfully within the vicinity of the Beirut International Airport and even the railway tracks were occupied. As a result of the prevailing chaos, violations became a fact of life and many a citizen took part in this trend by appropriating street sides where coffee shops were erected and valet parking services were planted.
Many thought that the era of chaos will subside as militias were being disbanded and unlawful encroachment on public and private property were being regulated. However, and quite to the contrary, violations persisted but this time under a legal guise as public officials’ hold on public property were legalized. A glaring reminder is how the city centre was appropriated after the war and how its original residents were kicked out and evicted when the Solidere company was set up. Similarly and in a clear sign of discrimination, the Ministry of the Displaced provided compensation to some of the displaced people and none to others.
Currently, the Rawcheh area of Beirut is going through the same fate as a private company has appropriated it and is evicting its original residents. In an attempt to highlight these gross violations of the rights of citizens, a number of citizens’ initiatives emerged, namely Nahnu, Mashaa movement, “this sea is mine”, the campaign to open Horsh Beirut, the Civil Campaign to Safe-guard Dalia Rawcheh. These civil actions were able to visibilise diverse issues such as the Beirut Park and how citizens are not permitted by the Municipality of Beirut to access it, the appropriation of the Rawcheh area and of the Ramleh el Bayda beach, etc. However, and despite these widespread violations of public rights, the overall majority of population seems unmoved. This may be because of the complex economic, social and political crisis, where citizens no longer feel concerned with issues of public interest. To be noted that, despite their genuine efforts, none of the aforementioned actions was able to halt or seriously challenge the political authority which is supported by business interests.
In conclusion, it is important to reiterate that only a citizen’s state enjoying the rule of law can protect public property and citizen’s right and can penalize violators and enforce on them fair and due compensation to the state treasury. However, this seems a far cry as long as the unholy alliance between politicians and financial interests prevails.