BEIRUT: Two major international NGOs are due to appear in court next week following a complaint by the Litani River Authority, in a dramatic development in a crackdown on pollution of the river, The Daily Star has learned.
After publishing a series of Facebook posts in late March accusing NGOs of polluting the Litani through poor management of latrines, the LRA filed a lawsuit against Intersos and World Vision. The two organizations are due to stand trial next Wednesday, according to Ali Ataya, the LRA’s lawyer, who added that preliminary investigations have been launched into 17 other NGOs.
Some NGO staff could be called before judges as early as this week.
The LRA’s anti-pollution campaign has so far targeted various actors it has alleged are responsible for the pollution, which is so bad that the agriculture sector is banned from using river water on crops.
An American University of Beirut policy brief published in March states that since April 2018, the LRA had issued more than 200 violation notices to factories and municipalities around the Litani River basin, alleging the dumping of waste on the river’s banks, discharge of industrial and municipal wastewater into the river, and construction violations.
The LRA has recently begun to shift its focus to refugee communities. Since the flooding of the river basin in January in which a young refugee died, the authority has pressured the UNHCR to relocate refugee camps away from the floodplains. This was followed by several large-scale evictions of refugees in the southern reaches of the river: 300 were forced from their homes in the Sidon area on April 1, one of the largest such evictions carried out as part of the LRA’s anti-pollution drive.
The decision to file a lawsuit against Intersos and World Vision is a dramatic escalation.
Politicians or government bodies have sometimes been known to verbally target international organizations working in the refugee sector, or take unilateral action against them. Last year, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil froze residency permits for UNHCR staff after alleging the organization had been discouraging refugees from returning to their homeland.
However, court action against NGOs is extremely rare. Ataya, the LRA’s lawyer, said that those responsible could receive a prison sentence.
Ataya said that the targeting of NGOs was “part of the anti-pollution campaign that started a year and a half ago. This is one of the steps of the campaign, along with getting rid of factories and other factors polluting the river.”
The lawyer added that the LRA had sent memos to the NGOs requesting meetings prior to taking them to court, but they had not responded. “We have pictures and video evidence that World Vision and Intersos, which work in the Bekaa, brought the latrines,” he told The Daily Star. “We can’t just accuse the Syrians. Who brought the latrines? Who put them there?”
Sanaa Maalouf, external engagement director for World Vision, denied that the organization had received any official correspondence from the LRA. Nevertheless, she said, World Vision was cooperating fully with the case, but added the issue was “not as simple as communicated.”
Conceding that latrines had been known to overflow on occasion, Maalouf said this was sometimes outside the NGOs’ control. Landlords, she said, didn’t always allow the organization to rehabilitate latrines. “Sometimes, refugees have added pipes from the tanks of the latrines to the canal,. It’s not that this is done by the organization consciously.”