The Right to Food Safety: Rights-Based Dialogue as a Springboard towards State-Building

The Right to Food Safety: Rights-Based Dialogue as a Springboard towards State-Building

Fish waiting to be cooked in a Lebanese restaurant
Fish waiting to be cooked in a Lebanese restaurant — Image Credits

The stances taken by Lebanon’s Public Health Minister Wael Abou Faour in November 2014 took the country by surprise. Departing completely from the norm, Abou Faour published lists of actual businesses that have persisted in producing or selling food unfit for consumption, or not conforming to health standards. Fellow Ministers and others from outside the cabinet criticized Abou Faour,[1] accusing him of adopting a policy of defamation that could have a negative impact on Lebanon’s economy. In response, Abou Faour argued that it was the state’s duty to warn citizens against looming threats, and therefore, to denounce those businesses even at the risk of ruining their reputation for the sake of public interest.[2] To support his approach, Abou Faour argued that, due to their practice of influence peddling some of these businesses wielded more power than the Lebanese state. This suggested that providing citizens with information that would allow them to avoid threats was the least that the state can do, given that its duty to protect them against such threats was a difficult task in the face of powerful vested interests. 

Criticism of Abou Faour receded after media and popular support for his initiative grew. He was emboldened and, along other public administration officials, moved from denunciation to taking practical measures; he shut down businesses and referred them to the public prosecution office. Support for his campaign grew and suspicion about his credibility or his ability to persevere receded.

Public support fed on Abou Faour’s ability to continue with his campaign and vise versa. Such a process could enable the state to regain some of its standing and sovereignty, after having been largely weakened and fragmented by the current political system – the regime of sectarian political leaders (zu’ama).

From such a perspective, regardless of Abou Faour’s intentions, his initiative sheds important light on the workings of Lebanon’s political system. It also allows for using “rights-based dialogue” as a means to rebuild a national public opinion. This in turn could represent a step towards rebuilding the state, at a time when authority and sovereignty have become widely sect-based and fragmented.

On November 29, 2014, this was implicitly expressed by Abou Faour after a streak of media successes. He said that he chose to engage in this campaign within the framework of a reasoned confrontation against a “vast network of interests”, on his part and on the part of his political party, the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP). At its core, such a confrontation relied on the support of the “Lebanese public opinion” as a “fundamental ally”. As a result of such support, he added, “our ambition has grown”, and the aim has become “to open a breach in the political system” and create “new horizons in politics”.[3]

Rights-Based Dialogue as a Gateway to Citizen Integration in State-Building

Abou Faour’s campaign led to the rare coming together of Lebanese media outlets of various leanings, in an effort to reflect the concerns and aspirations shared by all segments of Lebanese society, regardless of their sectarian or political affiliation. The unifying dynamic behind this confluence of coverage was the fundamental notion of citizens’ right to food security, or in other words, their right to life and health. Some outlets pointed out the [Health] Ministry’s selectivity in dealing with different regions with different sectarian makeup. Yet their efforts remained limited and failed to turn health reform into an object of sectarian bickering. In the past, fear of particular threats to public well-being had often taken on a sectarian dimension or fueled sectarianism. In contrast, the current fear, based on awareness of serious violations of the right to food security, is taking on unifying national characteristics.

The apparent immunity from criticism that Abou Faour enjoyed reflects the importance of the right to food security that was allegedly violated, and its precedence over any potential  harm as a result of the minister’s policy. One clear example was the major shift in stance of some cabinet ministers, who had at first opposed this campaign.[4] This signifies a reversal of social priorities since the rights of citizens are being placed above all other considerations, including the interests of influential parties. It also increases the legitimacy of the principle that “defamation”, or more accurately in this instance, public denunciation is a right when it becomes a duty. Notably, Abou Faour not only denounced businesses that committed violations, but also threatened to expose anyone who might intervene to protect them.[5]

The statement made by Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi during a cabinet session on November 27, 2014 which was carried by some media outlets, only reinforced this trend. Rifi said that he would instruct all judges to publish rulings connected to food safety, in order to make an example of violators. He also made it clear that the judiciary would continue what Abou Faour had started.[6] It should be noted that one public prosecutor, Samer Younes, has for years but to no avail, been reminding judges of the need to give precedence to food security over business interests no matter how powerful.[7]

This article makes the tentative argument that the Abou Faour campaign and how it unfolded has shown clearly, and on a large scale, the kind of impact public dialogue could have when it concerns a specific unifying right. Not only does such dialogue affect the formation of a national public opinion. It also influences social integration. In lieu of state atrophy or acute sectarian and political division forbidding or marginalizing such dialogue, the latter is in itself likely to strengthen the state and reduce such division. It would indeed lead citizens to unite around the state in confronting any minority, group-specific or economic influence.

Such a tentative argument faces several objections:

One objection is the claim that the present example remains, to a large extent, an isolated one. Other attempts to give precedence to one right or another, the objection goes, were less effective. Examples include the cessation of public dialogue over the right of workers to fair wages, initiated in early 2012 by former Labor Minister Charbel Nahas who later resigned, and the limited influence of human rights groups working in Lebanon. The latter have indeed remained unable to shape and steer public opinion, or confront the prevailing political system.

As important as it might be, this objection seems to be based on weak assumptions. The Abou Faour experience might prompt a reexamination of these assumptions about former efforts of a  similar nature, rather than the latter serve as grounds to undermine Abou Faour’s efforts.

Did the Nahas experience with regard to workers’ right to fair wages truly come to an end with his resignation? Would it not be too hasty to make such an assertion without looking at its contribution to raising the awareness of this right among workers and within public opinion at large? Would it not be difficult to isolate the movement of public sector employees and teachers to demand the promised wage increases, including the massive protests and marches they held in 2013 and 2014 from the Nahas experience? What about the struggle of private sector employees? The most prominent of these was the campaign by the employees of the Spinneys supermarket company in 2012 to establish an independent union which shaped legal and media practice and discourse. Regardless of the results achieved by those various movements, does the mere fact that they took place in the wake of the Nahas experience not lead us to think of the cumulative effect and impact of such dialogue? Within such a context, every experience paves the way for the next, expanding and strengthening the framework of dialogue.

It would be a mistake to expect dialogue about the right to a fair wage to have an impact of the same magnitude as the current dialogue about the right to food security. By its very nature, the right to a fair wage allows for broad social division. Aside from the strong conflict of interest between employers and employees in this regard, society is also divided over the benefits of wage increases in terms of job opportunities and economic growth as a whole. Those representing capital-holders can always raise fears of companies going bankrupt and workers losing their jobs, if a wage increase were to be imposed during times of financial crisis. On the other hand, they cannot, in any way, shape or form, defend the right of restaurants to serve spoiled meat or engage in fraudulent practices. There is also the fact that employees are dependent on their employers. The desire to demand their right to a wage increase can therefore be balanced out by fear of losing their jobs. Such fears may indeed gain the upper hand when one considers the state of labor unions today, which have become constrained, controlled, and exploited in service of the prevailing political system. Naturally, consumers find themselves in a radically different position being, in principle, completely independent from traders and importers.

One could therefore say that the outcome of the Nahas experience does not invalidate the tentative argument made by this author. It rather enriches it. It is only natural for the ability of rights-based campaigns to have a unifying effect to grow in proportion to the solidity and broadness of the social base that supports them. In this context, the difference between the Nahas experience and the Abou Faour one, is one of the capacity to unify, not the nature of the right in question.

The same reasoning applies to the work of human rights groups. As significant as the capabilities of such groups might be, they cannot be compared to the massive capabilities wielded by the state. This is especially true as most of them work to promote rights that affect only certain segments of the population – such as women’s rights, the rights of people with disabilities, gay rights, etc. Yet in spite of this, it would also be a mistake to downplay the importance of these groups’ achievements in terms of social integration.

One of the most prominent examples is the growing public discourse about combating violence against women. In addition to the demonstration led by the NGO KAFA on March 8, 2014, the work done by individual judges displayed a profound involvement with this movement. Indeed, many of them issued landmark rulings immediately after the ratification of the Law on the Protection of Women and Family Members from Domestic Violence in April 2014. Public discourse about the right to the truth in the issue of the families of the disappeared, also had a significant impact. The government was ultimately forced to carry out the ruling issued by the State Council, and hand over the complete dossier of investigations on the fate of the disappeared to their families.

The second objection to the tentative argument I propose is that the most prominent factor affecting the Abou Faour experience is not the actual discourse that emerged about the right to food security, or the awareness of its importance. Rather, it is the feelings of terror this public discourse has given rise to, on account of the long lists published by Abou Faour and the variety of sectors involved. The effects of this initiative, the objection goes, are therefore likely to recede as soon as emotions subside and reassurances are made. According to this point of view, the momentum of interest in this issue may well turn out to be temporary, and ultimately tantamount to a publicity stunt.

This objection, like the preceding one, is likely to add to the tentative argument rather than undermine it. The Abou Faour experience teaches us that the impact of public discourse about a particular right increases, when awareness of its importance is accompanied by strong feelings of the consequences of violating that right, most notably, fear. This is reminiscent of what Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, famously said about combating regimes that are based on emotions and interests. According to Spinoza, in order to succeed one cannot rely on rational thought alone, but must make use of equally powerful emotions and interests as well.

This is the source of unifying force of Abou Faour’s initiative. Such an initiative relates to what is clearly and evidently a fundamental right that concerns everyone, and without exception. There can be no justification for violating such a right, and doing so in fact gives rise to fear and only boosts awareness of the importance of protecting it. Moreover, only the state can enable the momentum of this initiative to reach its full extent.

Rights-Based Momentum as a Means to Strengthen the State and Improve its Performance

As a result of the momentum created by public discourse about the right to food security, the state seems to have gained a greater ability to enforce its laws when confronting influential parties. His experience and its fallout have also had an impact on a number of cabinet ministers, who seem to have learned how to properly carry out their public responsibilities.

Chief among such initiatives was Minister of Economy Alain Hakim’s decision to shut down a number of labneh (strained yoghurt) factories on November 24, 2014. He also pulled their products from the market for violating legal health conditions, and referred [all violations] to the public prosecution. Noteworthy as well were the decisions taken by local governors (muhafizin) to put a stop to certain activities, as requested by the Ministry of Health. Chief among those was the governor of Beirut issuing a decision to shut down the Beirut slaughterhouse on November 18, 2014.

More importantly, the Council of Ministers itself took charge of the issue of food security, forming a committee to coordinate the work of several ministries in this regard in its November 27, 2014 session. The government, it argued, cannot wait for an independent food safety commission to be formed, as should be the case following the ratification of the food safety law.

In terms of legislation, there is once again talk of the need to quickly ratify a food safety law. As public opinion recently discovered, a proposal and a draft law [on food safety] have been held up for years in the halls of parliament. The media covered the issue during this period, basing its news on reports by the head of NGO Consumers Lebanon, Zuheir Berro, and later on statements by cabinet ministers and MPs concerned.

Amid such momentum, Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb referred to the Council of Ministers an animal rights bill the ministry had drawn up years ago, in collaboration with NGO Animals Lebanon.[8] He did this merely a few days after a number of slaughterhouses were shut down, as if his ministry sought to gain some public interest for its bill by voicing similar concerns. This was also reflected in the statement made by Executive Director of NGO Animals Lebanon, Jason Mier, to Beirut’s daily al-Akhbar. Arguing that the bill had been drawn up for the sake of people’s health and the safety of their food, Mier urged for its ratification at the nearest opportunity. He stressed that this would represent a qualitative shift in the work of slaughter houses, farms and other facilities dealing with cattle .

Despite the importance of the examples listed above, these official initiatives have so far remained much more procedural than structural, and in the best of cases legislative in nature. Meanwhile, no initiatives have been taken so far on the part of public authorities, to strengthen consumer protection associations or improve their capabilities. Similarly, public prosecutors have so far issued no rulings to deter the owners of businesses that committed violations.

What are the Perspectives of Similar Initiatives Within the Lebanese System?

What comes next? Could institutional reform possibly achieve its goals? Could this rights-based momentum be used to enact the necessary legislation and activate the oversight apparatus on issues of public health? Could the standing and role of the state be thereby restored, as MP Mohammad Kabbani urged in a statement on November 20, 2014? Beyond this, could the issue possibly have a snowball effect? Could it lead the state to strengthen its oversight apparatus in other fields, in which it is no less needed, such as that of welfare institutions, for example? Or, on the contrary, will such discourse die down, even if after some time? Will the issue of food oversight end up being referred to committees that do not work, are prevented from working, cover up corruption, or are corrupt themselves? Will the impact of this momentum be merely temporary? Will it cause no structural change? Will it, at best, pave the way for future confrontations that may prove more effective?  

The second outcome is possible even if the food safety law is passed, as the legislative response is seldom sufficient on its own. The history of enforcing the consumer protection law, as well as every other social law, has always been undermined by the interests of traders and importers, which invariably lead to voiding such laws of much of their content. The fact that the cabinet minister who initiated this campaign, i.e., Abou Faour, is affiliated to a political faction almost organically linked to the network of interests that controls Lebanon’s food supply, increased the likelihood of such a [negative] outcome.

However, raising these skeptical questions misses the point, and perhaps reflects a muddled view of the way reform works. Whether or not the Minister of Public Health perseveres in his efforts is not the point. Much more significant is whether social forces can take advantage of the momentum to strengthen the citizens’ movement in support of food safety and ensure its survival. Despite the momentum of public discourse, the lack of any social initiative in this regard so far only increases the urgency of the issue.

The will and the intentions of those in power might be difficult to control, but what about ordinary citizens? How can they take advantage of rights-based momentum to develop their capabilities and their defiance, and thereby improve their chances of imposing their fundamental rights on those in power, whoever they may be?

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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[1] See: “Abou Faour Continues his Inspection of Raw Meats and Reactions Reject Defamation but Admit that Mistakes May Have Been Made”, al-Hayat website, November 14, 2014.

[2] See: Eva Shoufi’s, “Health Minister Exposes Additional Businesses”, al-Akhbar, November 14, 2014.

[3] See: al-Ahed news website, November 29, 2014. http://www.alahednews.com.lb/; Last updated on November 30, 2014.

[4] Most prominently the decision by the Minister of Economy to shut down yoghurt factories on November 24, 2014.

[5] See note 2 above, idem.

[6] See: al-Hayat, November 28, 2014.

[7] See: The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 24, January 2015.

[8] See: Bassam Kantar’s, “Agriculture Ministry Drafts Animal Rights Bill”, al-Akhbar, November 29, 2014.

 

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