By Ghassan Karam
Although the idea of personal liberty and freedom has preoccupied humans for millennia the notion as we presently know it was best clarified by the work of John Stuart Mill and later on Isaiah Berlin. What was initially stressed by JS Mill was the important concept that liberty carries within it two essential meanings; the liberty to act when one wills and the conditions whereby one is free from coercion. Berlin however took these two ideas and elaborated on them as to show that liberty has two components; positive liberty and negative liberty. These two ideas are not the same. It is possible to have one without the other.
Positive liberty is when individuals are offered the right and the ability to commit an act such as the opportunity to apply for a job vacancy. This kind of liberty is essential and very much appreciated but not as much as its negative counterpart whereby individuals will be protected from the arbitrary exercise of authority, it is our safety valve against tyranny.
A vibrant responsible democracy is structured so as to offer its citizens protection against abuse by discriminate application of the law. Civil society cannot thrive without a total respect for the rule of law and an unconditional rejection of the rule of men. Unless we are all equal and accountable to the same sets of rules under a perfectly transparent judicial system then none of us is free.
It is paradoxical that the most vocal critics of the Bush-Cheney administration in the Middle East rely , and rightly so, on the US administration’s total disregard of the rule of law and binding international conventions when each of these regimes outdoes the Bush-Cheney administration by a factor in their own abandonment of the rule of law. This is not meant to be a defense of the offensive and serious crimes committed by Bush-Cheney but instead are meant to highlight the sorry state of affairs under which we have to live.
Remember when arrest warrants were issued against three young men who had exercised their positive liberty to right but who were intimidated by the authorities who did not take lightly to being criticized? And then what about the Al Akhbar journalist who was arbitrarily detained by the military for an article that he wrote? I will not bore you by naming the hundreds, possibly thousands, of examples of arbitrarily detained individuals, redacted articles, banned films and songs whose only crime is that they offended the personal sensibilities of certain powerful individuals.
All of the above pales in importance to the continuous non enforcement of constitutional prerogatives. By elections that are supposed to take place in a month sometime go unfilled for much longer, National Constitutional Council is expected to always be ready to hear cases about the constitutionality of developments does not meet for over a year and does not pass a judgment on what is arguably the greatest constitutional violation; to elect a President who is proscribed from that position.
In light of the above political culture that acts as if there is no concept of what is the rule of law do we have the right to expect young well meaning individuals to devote their full time and energy to promote human rights, justice, rule of law and constitutional behavior? Luckily enough for us there are a few of these idealistic energetic individuals who strongly believe in praxis, to live what they preach.
Nour Merheb is such an individual that we can all be proud of for his commitment and idealism to fairness, liberty and equity. Nour has been working diligently to promote his theories and ideas about the steps that need to be taken to transform society from its current political feudalism to responsible and accountable free and democratic society.
Nour was sentenced two days ago by a Military Court to two months in prison for a small altercation with an off duty army personnel. This is outrageous for the simple fact that Military Court in Lebanon have become ubiquitous, passing rules and issuing judgments in all areas. That is simply unconstitutional. A society is ultimately made up of its citizens. Politicians and leaders will strip away our freedoms and institutionalize abuse only with our consent. Make no mistake about it the American public enabled George Bush-Cheney to practice torture in Guantanamo, and Abu Ghraib but credit the US public with forcing a change once the facts became known. (Ultimately Bush-Cheney must be held accountable in a court of law).
The real issue facing us in this case is simply when would we show outrage? When would we act as the newscaster in Networks by saying: We are mad enough and we cannot take it any more”.
You might not agree with Nour Merheb on all the issues or even on any of them. That is not what is at stake. What is crucial is that his rights and dignity as a Lebanese citizen be respected. Nour has already declared that he would go on a hunger strike as soon as he is arrested. I would hope that his sentence be annulled but if it is not I would hope that many would declare solidarity with Nour in any way possible including the possibility of joining him in his hunger strike.
Nour and Wael Khair, the Executive Director of The Foundation for Humanitarian Rights , Lebanon held a press conference today that must be watched in order to appreciate the importance of this issue : nour merheb