One of the main factors that complicate the enforcement of rules and regulations in Lebanon are the overlapping jurisdictions of governmental entities. While most of these entities have a clear legal mandate the reality on the ground is rather ambiguous.
The Red House in Hamra is a case in point. Last January, the family living in an old 18th century building, known as the Red House, in Hamra was evicted. The eviction sparked protests from activists and concerned citizens as they were worried the Red House would be demolished to make way for a new real estate development. In February, the Ministry of Culture refused to grant the owners a demolition permit. The Ministry of Culture tasked archaeologists to assess the building and determine if its heritage value merits it a spot on the country’s Public Inventory List. The assessment found historical significance in the building and its architecture and concluded that it should be protected.
Earlier this month, before the building was granted protection status, the Shura State Council overturned the Ministry of Culture’s decision and permitted the demolition of the house. The rationale was that the decision infringes on the private property rights. Directly after this ruling, some minor demolition works on the building commenced. The following day, the Governor of Beirut and Mount Lebanon ordered the halting of the works based on the Ministry of Culture’s decision.
The Ministry of Culture’s mandate is to protect Lebanon’s cultural heritage. Law 37 of 1998, the Cultural Protection Law, states that “an archaeological artifact made and found on Lebanese territory regardless of its origins, must be protected if it is deemed to have historical, artistic, architectural, or anthropological value by a scientific committee created by the Ministry of Culture. Once considered valuable, it is placed on the list of protected sites, unless removed through the same aforementioned process.” The Shura State Council is the highest judicial authority of Lebanon and aims to “control the legality of administrative work executed by the public authorities in Lebanon.” In other words, it is meant to ensure that public institutions operate within their legal responsibilities. While a government body dedicated to overseeing oversight in other public institutions is essential, this case highlights how this can be counterproductive.
The decisions of two government entities were overturned: the Ministry of Culture’s demolition ban by the Council and the latter’s decision by the Governor. The demolition ban was premature and did not take into consideration the archaeological assessment of the site. The Cultural Protection Law stipulates that once a site is put on the protection list, the ownership is transferred to the public (with proper compensation given to the owner). The Ministry of Culture was in the process of carrying this out when the Council overturned their decision. Therefore, the Council’s argument that the Ministry of Culture’s action did not respect private property does not make sense.
This was not the first time these two government entities clashed over construction permits. In 2014, the Council overturned a decision by the Ministry of Culture to demolish a building in Gemayze. In 2012, the Council suspended the decision of the Culture Minister’s decision to allow construction at the Roman Hippodrome in Beirut. The Minister’s decision overturned his predecessors’ decision causing protests until the Council suspended the construction.
There have been many cases of archaeological sites being demolished in Lebanon. These cases are not only specific to Beirut; it is widespread from the South to the North of Lebanon. The current institutional set up has failed in preserving many sites and it is high time a clearer, more transparent system be put in place to ensure that Lebanon does not lose its archaeological and heritage assets as a result of either political bickering or for private individual profit.