Syrian Embassy, Beirut
The case for Syria applying the essential legal principle and pillar of bi-lateral international relations, Reciprocity, in order to encourage Lebanese officials to meet their international legal obligations and thereby spare the lives of countless Syrian and Palestinian refugees being denied life-saving refuge at Syria-Lebanon borders is a strong one. Legally and morally.
The use of reciprocity in international relations is considered an instrument for achieving relations of mutual trust and long-term mutual obligations, and an incentive for compliance with international standards. Likewise, it is considered a fundamental principle for the interaction of states to effectively manage crises.
The legal status of those fleeing from the crisis in Syria is mostly governed by Lebanon's national laws concerning foreign nationals. But international standards, including the principle of nonrefoulement still apply, and all countries have an obligation to not to block from entry or to force return person's whose life would be threatened. This obtains because nonrefoulement is part of customary law, a set of rules which are binding on all states, even if a country has not signed a specific convention outlining this law.
Both are applicable to the current situation at Lebanon's border crossings, and Syria, if it takes the bold action and invokes reciprocity, has the opportunity to immediately strengthen this international legal standard, promote international humanitarian law and grant a life-saving reprieve to her country's refugees facing a possible death sentence at the Masnaa border crossing. Syria is within its right to refuse particular treatment to Lebanon if the latter refuses to take an attitude similar to that of the former and or violates international humanitarian law.
Along the 365 km (226.8 miles) Syrian-Lebanese border there are 5 official border crossings: Aarida (between Homs and northern Lebanon), El Aabboudiye (between Tartous and northern Lebanon), Qaa Baalbek(at the northern end of the Bekaa valley) Al Masnaa(between rural Damascus and Bekaa) and Wadi Kahled (between northern Lebanon and Homs).
Since the 1943 establishment of Lebanon, historically part of Syria, when exiting their country for Lebanon, Syrians are provided with a Return Coupon and exit stamp by the Syrian authorities. On the Lebanese side of the border, an individual holding a valid national Syrian identity card or a valid passport receives an Entry Coupon (also called Return Coupon) with an entry stamp. This stamp allows him/her residency for a period of 6 months and can be renewed free of charge for another 6 months at any regional office of the General Security. This procedure granted Syrians the possibility of residing in Lebanon for one year without any fees. After this period, Syrians would be allowed to apply for a 6 month residence permit for a fee of 300,000 LL (US$ 200), renewable free of charge for another 6 months.
Reciprocity is a universally accepted principle of international law that normally many Lebanese politicians love. In fact they have misapplied if for six decades as a means of depriving Palestinian refugees in Lebanon of even the most elementary civil rights, including the right to work and to own a home. With sad faces, some of them regularly explain to this observer that they would love to grant Palestinians civil rights but they are prevented from doing do because Lebanese law currently requires that in order to receive rights here in Lebanon, the home country of the refugees must grant the same on the basis of reciprocity to Lebanese refugees. And, appearing very sad still, some politicians here explain that since there is no state of Palestine, these refugees are out of luck.
But this month, the mutually beneficial arrangement has been unilaterally changed by the government of Lebanon. Lebanon's side of the above noted entry points have been sealed and they now bar Syrian and Palestinian refugees fleeing for their lives. This is because on New Year's Day, Lebanese officials announced a new policy requiring half a dozen types of visas for Syrians wanting to enter this country who are not refugees fleeing for their lives. Refugees fleeing the killing in Syria are blocked formally, as most of them have been informally for over a year.
Some Lebanese officials, including the Speaker of Lebanon's Parliament, apparently ever dismissive of the intelligence of their subjects, use double-talk in explaining to the public that the visa requirement is not really a real visa. Rather it's more like a 'permit to enter." (!) Interior Minister Nouhad al-Mashnouq has also stated that the Lebanese government has decided to stop the influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon.
The new visa requirement for Syrian refugees is causing additional hardship and much panic to civilian victims of war who are exactly those that a whole body of international humanitarian law seeks to protect. Lebanon's latest refugee targeting measures are also a flagrant violation of several Lebanese-Syrian bilateral agreements.
On 1/11/14 Syria's Ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, reiterated his country's rejection of new Lebanese entry restrictions, which many human rights organizations claim constitute a politically motivated attack on Syrian refugees. "I cannot find a justification for what is happening today (regarding Syrian refugees being blocked at Lebanon's border), and logic says that the decision should not be enforced." Some analyst's inferred from the Ambassador's remarks that if the Lebanese Ministers of Interior and of Social Affairs do not cancel the new visa requirement, this could lead, in the words of Ambassador Ali, to "an escalation of bad relations."
Personally, I have not been asked by the Syrian Lawyers Syndicate, where I occasionally spend some time discussing legal issues, including US sanctions targeting the civilian population of Syria for the purely political purpose of regime change, how to quickly fix this problem. But were my opinion to be sought, my legal memorandum would surely include the following brief recommendations.
One historically effective remedy with respect to similar violations of international humanitarian law that the Syrian government could immediately employ is for Syrian authorities to take retaliatory action, under standards of reciprocity, by closing the transit borders between Lebanon and Syria. This simple measure would also block Lebanon's shipments of its products to regional countries. A sort of tit for tat arrangement, until Lebanese officials, some deeply anti-Syrian for a variety of reasons, reconsider their violations of the 1951 Refugee Convention which prohibits their latest measure. Even though Lebanon has refused to sign the Refugee Convention, the country is nonetheless bound by all its provisions because this treaty's' provisions, signed and ratified by 164 UN member states is subsumed into international customary law, which binds all countries on refugee issues, regardless if they refused to formally adhere to its provisions.
If Lebanon has not lifted the visa requirement within 24 hours of being notified by Syria's Ambassador, Syria should issue a reciprocal visa requirement for all citizens of Lebanon.