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Director of the Zahle Branch of the Lebanese University, Dr Akram YAGHI
Dean of the Doctoral School of Law, Political, Administrative and Economic Sciences, Dr Toni ATALLAH
Your Excellency Ambassador of Germany to Lebanon, Mr Martin HUTH
Representative of ALEF, Mr George GHALI
Dear Professors, Dear Students,
It is a real pleasure and honour to be a guest here at the Lebanese University in Zahle - in the city of wine and poetry, in the heart of a beautiful Beqaa valley.
I would like to start by expressing my gratitude to the Director, the Dean and the professors for their motivation to host the debate as well as to the students for their efforts to prepare for today's discussion. I hope that this exercise was useful in mastering your debating skills.
It is no coincidence that this debate is happening today - a day before the International Human Rights Day that is observed to raise public awareness on the importance of promoting the rights of each and every one of us. The European Union has been fully committed to human rights since its creation – protecting human rights is in Europe's DNA.
Human rights are violated around the world on a daily basis. And we need to react on a daily basis to those violations. No matter the status, gender, religion, nationality or age. Women, children, youth, elderly, people with disabilities, migrants and refugees, prisoners, human rights defenders should be able to express opinion without fear and to be protected by the laws on an equal and fair basis.
All over the world, there is still an unacceptable gap between the laws that people are granted and their actual protection. Even if countries have passed the laws guarantying rights, like Lebanon has, it doesn’t mean that they are implemented and respected.
Here I would like to congratulate Lebanon for all the work it has devoted to the protection of human rights. We were glad to see that the Lebanese Parliament passed the law establishing the independent National Human Rights Institute. We would also like to encourage Lebanon to take further steps in improving respect for human rights. The abolition of Article 522 of the Penal Code, which exempts the perpetrator of rape from punishement in case he marries the victim, will definitely be a step forward. We welcome the decision of the Parliament's Administration and Justice Committee that agreed to abolish the article. We hope Parliament will soon ratify this important decision. Lebanon has made a noticeable progress and should not take any steps back.
Last but not least, protecting human rights is not only a responsibility of governments. It is also about us: individuals and society not reacting, looking the other way when we witness human rights violations. This is why the EU joins the UN in calling upon people to stand for someone's right. Each of us has a responsibility to stand up for human rights. We can draw inspiration from human rights defenders and civil society organisations that protect those whose voice is not heard.
The European Union resolves to help create a space for civil society and to support its work. We are grateful to the civil society for a continuous cooperation, constructive feedback and guidelines. In Lebanon, we are assisting civil society in fighting torture and ill-treatment, in ensuring that rights of prisoners and detainees are protected, in promoting access to fair trial, in providing legal aid, in promoting rights of women and children, in ensuring access to education and in empowering youth.
The exercise you are about to undertake is also about your rights: to express your views and to be heard. I am very keen to hear your views on the role of civil society in your country, particularly in promoting two important rights: to elect your representatives and to speak freely.
Elections are an essential component of a functioning representative democracy and a tool for the people to assess the work of those who represent them. Civil society in Lebanon, with EU assistance, has been very active in taking actions in support of genuine democratic elections. Freedom of speech is also a precious right that societies all over the world have been fighting for since decades. This is why we cannot allow for any sort of limitation to this right.
Today's event at your university is a proof that you care about human rights and about your country. As the EU Ambassador, I am participating in many discussions, conferences and debates on a variety of topics, but trust me - hearing from young people like you is the most stimulating and pleasant. It gives me an idea about where the country is going to and what those who are the future of this country think about important issues.
I am very happy that we can get to know each other a bit today, and I am looking forward to hearing your honest and creative ideas.