Civil Marriage Struggle in Lebanon Back to Square One

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Civil society activists protest in Martyr's Square in downtown Beirut for the right to have civil marriage on February 4, 2013. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Under the pretext of “fighting extremism” by “eliminating excuses,” Minister of Interior and Municipalities Nouhad al-Machnouk is determined to return the issue of civil marriage to square one, reversing all the progress made by non-sectarian forces. Former interior ministers Ziad Baroud and Marwan Charbel confirm that the procedures they followed to cross out confessional identities on civil registry records, and allow the registration of civil marriage contracts in Lebanon, were entirely legal, and that the reluctance to implement (or desire to annul) them is tantamount to stripping a segment of Lebanese citizens of their civil rights.

Interior Minister Machnouk’s statement began: “First, the minister of interior and municipalities supports the principle of optional civil marriage, but...” The root of the problem is evident in the opening of the statement. The issue is not with civil marriage itself, but rather with how the official state departments work. The minister reassures us that he supports civil marriage. Excellent: but what does that mean?

Why should we care whether the minister is for or against civil marriage? The law permits Lebanese citizens to have a civil marriage on Lebanese soil. Thus, the minister’s opinion does not matter, unless we accept the novel idea that laws and regulations change or become invalid based on the views and whims of cabinet members, as seems to be the case today in the Ministry of Interior.

“This is further evidence of the collapse of the state and the absence of institutions,” says Talal al-Husseini, a prominent activist advocating the right to civil marriage. Meanwhile, the Civil Authority for Freedom of Choice intends to sue Susan al-Khoury, the director-general of the Directorate of Personal Status, for obstructing marriage contracts, as well as causing moral and material damages against the persons involved.

The group called for a rally at 10.30 am on Wednesday in Riad al-Solh Square, which coincides with the holding of the cabinet meeting, to object to the resumption of discussions over the legitimacy of civil marriage in Lebanon.

Machnouk, a few weeks ago, recommended that citizens wishing to have a civil marriage go to Cyprus since it is “not far.” On Monday, he said that these citizens should refer to civil courts, which are eligible to consider the legality of these contracts. Today, at the cabinet meeting, Machnouk said that he will propose the issue of conducting civil marriage in Lebanon and registering contracts at the Lebanese Ministry of Interior to take the appropriate action. We cannot predict where Machnouk will soon be sending “civilians,” who he believes are “breaking the law.”

The interior minister's reluctance to sign civil marriage contracts made on Lebanese soil is a blatant violation of basic human rights, because the minister is denying citizens with no confessional affiliation the right to marry. Notary Joseph Bishara explains that “citizens who have crossed out their confessions from civil registry records can only get married through a civil marriage, because their communities deny them the right to have a religious marriage. Thus, the reluctance to approve the registration of civil marriage contracts is tantamount to stripping them of their right to marriage, which is a serious precedent that deprives citizens of a given right.”

The second violation of civil rights, and the very role of state institutions, is manifested in Lebanese officials disregard for acquired rights and their results, thus for citizens and their lives.

“Is it a game? We grant a right and later withdraw it?” says former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud. Baroud explains that “the registration of civil marriage contracts resulted in acquired rights. Families were built and had children after being granted the right to have a civil marriage. This means that these procedures cannot be annulled, as they affect the lives and future of the people involved. The registration of a marriage contract is an administrative measure; it does not grant the right to civil marriage, but enshrines and declares it to regulate its results.”

Legal scholar Talal al-Husseini says that “the ministry does not belong to a party, person, or sect, thus the minister is not entitled to annul the procedures, refrain from implementing them, or reconsider the validity of contracts.” Husseini notes that “the minister is only authorized to consider legal aspects of the contract, in case of the emergence of legal arguments or a financial situation, which has not happened.”

Machnouk’s statement relies on three legal arguments: First, civil marriage contracts conducted by a notary cannot be registered in the absence of a civil legal text governing civil marriage provisions. Second, Provision 60 l.r. allows for the formation of sects in accordance with ordinary [civil] rights if they obtain recognition, and a sect must present its internal system to the government, which has yet to happen.”

The third and most notable “edict” by Mashnouk is that couples with civil marriage contracts should refer to civil courts, which are authorized to consider the legality of contracts, issue the necessary court decisions, and transfer them to the Directorate of Personal Status to take the necessary legal action.

Former Interior Minister Marwan Charbel insists that Machnouk is not entitled to call for reconsidering registered contracts or questioning their legality. “The minister should explain to us how he approves the registration of a civil marriage in Cyprus and rejects the same contract in Lebanon, although the same methods were adopted in this regard,” he says.

Mashnouk’s arguments are inconsistent with the decisions of the Supreme Consultations Commission at the Ministry of Justice, which stated its view that “Lebanese citizens who do not belong to a certain sect have the right to hold civil marriage in Lebanon.”

Bishara notes that the absence of a civil law — according to Machnouk’s argument — does not deprive citizens of this right. If this right is not regulated under the law, we turn to general laws and international conventions. The commission has resolved the controversy, by allowing couples to choose the civil law they want. Concerning the second argument, Baroud asserts that Article 14 of Provision 60 l.r. stipulates that “sects under the ordinary law organize and conduct their affairs freely within the bounds of civil law,” and do not need a license to form. The recognition of a sect — referred to by Machnouk — is optional, and aims to regulate real estate, property, and place of burial. Baroud criticizes the discrimination between Lebanese citizens who have the same legal status, which violates the principle of equality, and thus allows the appeal of any decision by the administration to disapprove the registration of a civil marriage.

Machnouk is concerned about citizens who have crossed out their confessional identities from official records: how will they vote, or get employed, run for office, or even receive burial? The minister does not want to read the law, but Baroud assures him: The decision concerning the removal of confessional identities from civil records was issued in February 2009, and the elections were held in June 2009, in which more than 281 citizens who had crossed out their sects, took part. In April 2009, the Supreme Consultations Commission also announced its view that citizens with no confessional affiliation are entitled to run for any seat in the elections.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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