Lebanon seeks to position itself as “no country of asylum.”
Penned in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2003, the phrase has, in recent years, been repeated in many political and humanitarian settings relating to refugees, most notably in the joint UN-Lebanon response to the country’s Syrian refugees.
But a closer look at the evolution of Lebanese officials' handling of this issue reveals an approach to asylum that is surprisingly more progressive, inclusive and rights-focused.
As part of my research, I have closely studied the history of the United Nations drafting the main international law instruments covering asylum and refugee protection during the 1940s-1960s, which are still in use today. Since its inception, Lebanon has been involved in setting the global norms and institutions of asylum and refugee protection.
This approach contrasts sharply with current statements. Lebanon’s representatives at the UN worked hard to make the case that all “persecuted individuals without distinction should have a right to asylum.”
Compared to many other countries, Lebanese diplomats stand out due to the high level of engagement over time in the drafting processes. While Charles Malik is the better-known figure of the Lebanese delegation, Karim Azkoul — a professor of history, Arab and French literature and philosophy — played a crucial role in creating the norms and institutions of asylum and refugee protection.
At the time of drafting what is now Article 14 on the Right to Asylum of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), asylum was primarily seen as an expression of state sovereignty – a right of states to grant. Seeking to challenge this narrow understanding, Malik and Azkoul fought wholeheartedly for asylum to be recognized more broadly as a full-fledged “human right of individuals.” Their proposal was progressive and went far beyond what made it into the final draft of the UDHR.
Essentially, the Lebanese delegation advocated for the article on asylum to be made up of two notions: that of “seeking” and that of “being granted” asylum. Malik and Azkoul repeatedly emphasized that a right to seek asylum must be accompanied by a corresponding duty to provide that asylum. “Everyone has the right to seek and to be granted asylum during persecution,” Azkoul proposed.
During the 1940s, such propositions were quite radical, and the approach of the Lebanese delegation proved to be that of a minority view. Eventually, Azkoul felt obliged to withdraw his proposed amendment because, as he stated reluctantly, the discussion had shown “that the Committee was not prepared to proclaim unconditionally the right to asylum.”
This setback did not stop the Lebanese delegation from continuing to advocate for an inclusive and broad understanding of asylum. When the USSR proposed an amendment to restrict the granting of asylum to certain categories of persons, Azkoul voiced his strong opposition, stating that “even the least distinguished person, merely by reason of the fact that he was a human being, had … a right to escape from persecution.”
To the dismay of the Lebanese delegation, the UDHR fell short of formulating a concrete right to asylum. Today, Article 14(1) states that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries.”
The meaning of “to enjoy asylum” has long been debated, but it is certain that its content falls short of what Malik and Azkoul meant by “to be granted asylum.”
The Lebanese delegation also advocated for the development of a specific instrument dealing with the right of asylum in more detail. Following the adoption of the UDHR, efforts to establish an international instrument that enshrined the right to asylum were thus renewed, eventually resulting in the 1967 Declaration on Territorial Asylum. The progressive and rights-focused ideas around asylum, similar to those promoted by the Lebanese delegation decades earlier, were to a large extent also furthered in this process.
While both the UDHR and the Declaration on Territorial Asylum were envisioned as essentially non-binding instruments of international law, the historical reading of their respective drafting process offers central insights into Lebanon’s engagement with the question of asylum.
If nothing else, it is a clear demonstration that Malik and Azkoul were ahead of their time. While their advocacy for asylum as a human right was considered by many of their contemporaries to be far too progressive, today this understanding of asylum is laid down in a number of regional – and legally binding – human rights instruments.
Lebanon’s passionate advocacy for a progressive understanding of asylum as a human right for all of the world’s persecuted people is an important part of its history. It shows that the Lebanese approach to asylum has not been static, nor has it always been as deterring as today’s “no country of asylum” approach might suggest.
More than anything else, exploring this alternative history brings about vital insights into how we can – and perhaps should – engage with the often very difficult questions of asylum and persecution today and in the years to come.
Maja Janmyr is a Professor of International Migration Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo. She is also an Associate Fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut.