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Last Updated: 05/30/2014
Three Challenges to Peace in Lebanon
Vanessa Bassil

Vanessa Bassil argues that social divisions and state failures pose significant, but surmountable challenges to peace in Lebanon.


The Global Peace Index shows an overall regression of 5% over the last 6 years, suggesting that although the world is witnessing growth and development on multiple levels, it is on the other hand, becoming less peaceful. In the Middle East, the recent uprisings in several Arab countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria) affected the overall peacefulness of the region, as the so-called Arab Spring has been followed by a rise of violence and crimes, especially in Syria where the violent conflict between the army and opposition became a “civil war”.

The Syrian war affects the neighboring countries directly. Lebanon, which shares borders with Syria, is among the most affected. Regional consequences can be divided into three broad categories: humanitarian, with almost two millions refugees (unofficial number); political, 8 Alliance is affiliated to Syria and Lebanese people who belong to Hezbollah army are fighting in Syria along with the regime; and security, as the Sunni-Shiaa conflict intensifies regionally.

However, Lebanon has always witnessed conflicts and wars even before its creation as a state by French mandate in 1920. Both its old and recent histories mark several periods of civil wars. The last one lasted for 15 years. Although twenty-three years have passed since the last civil war has ended, Lebanon is one of the least peaceful 20 countries in the world (GPI 2013). Lebanese people are actually living in a “negative peace” (Galtung, 1985), far from reconciliation, development, and well-being.

In this essay, I will expose three of the factors I find challenging to achieve Peace in Lebanon: absence of a common definition of peace, structural violence, and the Lebanese state as a state-killer.

A- Absence of a common definition of “Peace”

It is clear that peace is an essentially contested concept, as Richmond (2008) points out from the perspective of international relations. It is even more controversial in Lebanon, characterized by a diverse, divided, and politicized society. In such a society, issues of justice and reconciliation become particularly complicated and sensitive.

Lebanon is composed by 18 confessional communities, deriving mainly from Islam and Christianity; 18 confessions over only 4 million inhabitants, sharing only 10 452 km2. Their Peace view is thus determined by their different historical, political, social, cultural and religious backgrounds. Their beliefs and identities affect their attitudes towards everything they share, or they are supposed to share, including decisions of war and peace in the same country they live in. Peace is defined according to their relative interests, identities, power and resources (Richmond, 2008). Peace is a “virtue” as Spinoza describes it, but in Lebanon Peace is “politics”.

Some Muslims accuse Christians of having “imported” their concept of peace from the West as part of their great influence by Western culture and lifestyle, and it hides thus an agenda that is mainly aiming for “normalizing” the presence of Israel’s state and establishing “peace” with it; an idea that it is completely rejected by many Arabs and Lebanese.

On the other hand, some Christians refer to the Quran verse “Tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye” to justify their opinion about “violence” in Islam, or the verse “Islam is a religion and a state” to support their position towards the “intolerant” Muslims and justify why they think coexistence is so hard.

Stereotypes, fear of the “other”, reciprocal accusations, and most of all, lack of dialogue, are among the main reasons for the failure of different groups in Lebanon to agree on what “peace” they want and how they want to achieve it. They don’t look at the many common interests that unify them, choosing instead to focus on their divergences; a fact that causes continuous conflicts and “violent” disagreements on what makes them live happily and peacefully.

Richmond (2008) talks about several peace(s), mentioning three main orthodox theories, which can be found relatively in the Lebanese society: “[Realistic Lebanese] offer an elite and negative peace based on inherency; [Liberals] offers a one-size-fits all progressive framework of mainly elite governance with little recognition of difference; and [Marxists] offers grassroots emancipation from determinist structures of the international political economy via violent revolution”.

Actually, Lebanese people have spent a lot of money, time, energy and vast resources not in what we call “problems of Peace”, but rather in threatening and making war on one another (Barash & Webel, 2002).

B- Structural violence

Galtung (2000) brought attention to the presence of “structural violence”, often hidden and unperceived, but often a main factor of conflict. Barash and Webel (2002) consider structural violence to be present when a society “forcibly stunts [the] development [of its members] and undermines their well-being, whether because of religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, or some other social reason”. This usually has the effect of denying people important rights, such as economic well-being; social, political, and sexual equality; a sense of personal fulfillment and self-worth (Barash & Webel, 2002).

In the Lebanese case, the major social institutions responsible for perpetuating such structures are the religions, and more precisely their branches, that are called confessions. We can see that the violently sectarian nature of Lebanese society negatively affects the dynamics of the confessional communities’ relations, as well as relations between individuals. A Lebanese person is actually represented by his or her community.[i] As a result, Lebanese people generally identify themselves by the sectarian identities they hold, rather than the common identity of being Lebanese. Therefore, they are not equal as citizens and do not have a common sense of belonging. They are not equally Lebanese, and respected as individuals, but unequally sectarians, identified as collectives within the larger society.

It matters in Lebanese society which community are you coming from and therefore what political party you support, since confessions and political parties are inherently related in this country. This reality could affect getting or not a job, entering or not a school, being accepted or not in a different community, being elected or not in syndical, municipal or parliamentary elections.

In addition to sectarian violence, we can find gender-based violence built into the structure of Lebanese society, where women are undermined and underestimated and kept away from peace processes, by neglecting or simply ignoring the particular abilities, including the negotiation of conflict (Babcock, Linda & Laschever).

How can peace be achieved, if the structure of the society is built upon differences that seen as valid reason for discrimination and conflict, instead of source of richness?

C- The Lebanese state: a state-killer

Van den Berghe (1992) has criticized the role of nation-state, and questioned its effectiveness in today’s world, as well as the effects of nationalism. In his opinion, the nation-state is responsible for an overwhelming amount of harm, that’s why he calls it as “nation-killer”.

The Lebanese state can be described as such, as its weakness in performing its duties towards its citizens is contributing in preventing the country from achieving peace. It is considered as a state-killer, in the sense that it fails to provide for human basic needs. Living in a “democratic” country where the people have the right to vote, but don’t have full access to water and electricity is a sad irony. The lack of public policies and good administrative management in Lebanon is present in communications sectors, infrastructure, public transportation, health care, and education – at all the levels that secure life’s dignity.

On the legal level, the Lebanese state has failed to ensure equality in its laws, specifically in the Personal Status Code that is unified, given the fact that each sect has its own law, and thus regulates the lives of Lebanese according to the sect they are born with (Middle East report, 1997). This legal reality that legitimizes the political sectarian system produces an unequal social reality between communities and between men and women.

On the political level, parties who rule and oppose are both failing in maintaining civil peace, if it ever existed. One of the most dangerous mistakes that political parties do, is calling or accepting external intervention, effectively “killing” all chances of peace in the country.

The reality is that external intervention has failed to bring positive improvements to the overall society. Actually, the political interests of the intervening states should be carefully considered, as they might not be compatible with national ones, and might even harm the internal process of peace and reconciliation. Lebanese politicians should recall Kant’s classic essay on “Perpetual Peace” which asserts that: “No independent states, large or small, shall come under the dominion of another state by inheritance, exchange, purchase, or donation”.

In fact, internal issues cannot be truly and lastly solved if not by Lebanese themselves. In a post-war society, the operating model that fits the needs and complexities of the situation should be carefully chosen, and the crucial negotiations are ultimately those between domestic parties, their constituencies and the affected populations (Ramsbotham, Oliver; Woodhouse, Tom and Miall, Hugh. 2005).

In addition to the risks inherent to external reliance in politics, a strong and peaceful state cannot be built on any kind of discrimination. The Lebanese state can never be a strong state while still operating within a sectarian political system that has proved incapable of providing peace and security since the 18th century. Without providing basic human rights, seeking justice and equality, eliminating sectarian, political and gender discrimination, the Lebanese state and society will continue being characterized by violence and unfairness.


The road to peace starts when Lebanese people and governors become aware of the importance of finding a common definition of peace among different political and sectarian groups, express a willingness to listen and communicate, and openly present their interests and needs.

Peace challenges will be overcome, when the war “in the name” of sectarianism becomes the war “on” sectarianism, when fears, doubts, assumptions and concerns are communicated by and with all communities, and when the process of working to find a common ground is set and followed-up. As Pruitt & Kim (2004) have pointed out, for negotiation and reconciliation to begin, all sides must be ready to abandon the further escalation of conflict and try something different. They must, to some degree, be optimistic.

[i] These include Christians (1. Maronites 2.Catholics 3. Greek Orthodox 4. Greek Catholics 5. Armenian Orthodox 6. Armenian Catholics 7. Syriac Orthodox 8. Syriac Catholics 9. Assyrians 10. Chaldeans 11. Evangelicals 12. Copts), Muslims (13. Sunnis 14. Shias 15. Druzes 16. Ismailis 17. Alawites), and Jews.


Babcock, Linda and Sara Laschever. Women Don't Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation - and Positive Strategies for Change. New York: Bantam Books.

Barash, D & Webel, C. 2002. Chapter 1: The Meanings of Peace in Peace and Conflict Studies, London: Sage.

Foucault, M. 2003. “Society Must Be Defended.” New York: Picador.

Global Peace Index Report 2013, Institute for Economics and Peace.

Johan Galtung and Carl G. Jacobsen, Searching for Peace: The Road to TRANSCEND, London: Pluto Press, 2000.

Johan Galtung, 1985, “Twenty Five Years of Peace Research: Ten Challenges and Responses”, Journal of Peace Research.

Kant, I. 2003. To Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.Pruitt, D. & Kim, S.H. 2004. Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement. 3rd Edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Middle East Report, Spring 1997, “Secularism and Personal Status Codes in Lebanon: Interview with Marie Rose Zalzal Esquire”, in Lebanon and Syria: The Geopolitics of Change, Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), No. 203, pp. 37-39. Can be accessed from:

Ramsbotham, Oliver; Woodhouse, Tom and Miall, Hugh. 2005. Contemporary Conflict Resolution. Second Edition; Cambridge, UK:

Richmond, O. 2008. Peace in International Relations. London: Routledge.

Van den Berghe, P. 1992. “The Modern State: Nation-Builder or Nation-Killer?” International Journal of Group Tensions.

Vanessa Bassil is the Founder & President of MAP- Media Association for Peace, the first organization in Lebanon and MENA region dedicated to work on Peace Journalism. She is a Lebanese journalist and peace activist. She holds two Bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political and Administrative Sciences, an on-going Master degree in Information and Communication Sciences from the Lebanese University, in addition to a MA in Media, Peace and Conflict studies from the UN Mandated University for Peace, Costa Rica.