AFRICANGLOBE – At the Beirut headquarters of the International Human Rights Commission, the diamond baron stood behind an imposing desk. He smiled as he gestured toward a handful of gems that were strewn across his workspace. A picture of an African youth smoking a cigarette and wading through the mire of a diamond mine hangs near the entrance to his office above a plush leather couch and flanked by garish vases.
The diamond baron is among a number of Lebanese businessmen with investment ties to Africa named as an ambassador to the International Human Rights Commission, a shadowy self-styled intergovernmental organization.
Some of them have questionable histories: The diamond baron, for one, was previously named in a report by the Belgian diamond investigating unit as being involved in a money-laundering scheme, and his family was cited by the United Nations Security Council as operating a “distinct criminal organization” in Africa. He vehemently denies any wrongdoing, and says the matter was settled with the Belgian police. His Lebanese-British brother-in-law, another ex-IHRC ambassador with oil and mining contracts across Africa, was also named by the Belgian authorities.
Questions about the legitimacy of the International Human Rights Commission arose last month after a herbalist, Zein al-Atat, was named as a goodwill ambassador to the group. Unable to confirm that the IHRC conducted any legitimate projects related to human rights, the organization was roundly denounced in the Lebanese media as fraudulent.
Taking two drags from a slim cigarette before extinguishing it, the diamond dealer exhaled and admitted that the IHRC does no human rights work. “It’s 100 percent fake,” he said.
While he claims to have left the organization months ago, he remains listed as the deputy supreme chairman and an ambassador to the European Union for IHRC.
A dubious, self-professed inter-governmental organization, the IHRC’s vision of peace and stability, as listed on their website, is directly plagiarized from the well-regarded group Human Rights Watch. The United Nations recently denied any affiliation with IHRC. Some members of the group are also under investigation by the Justice Ministry.
If the façade of IHRC has begun to slip, some Lebanese individuals retain valuable souvenirs from their time with the group: diplomatic passports issued by the African nation of Guinea Bissau.
Presenting themselves as human rights ambassadors, a number of Lebanese individuals affiliated with IHRC have received diplomatic passports from the West African nation in recent years. They used the passports to facilitate travel and further business interests on the African continent.
Guinea Bissau is among the poorest nations in the world. Plagued by persistent instability and underdevelopment, the country has recently become a major drug and arms smuggling hub in West Africa. The situation in the country became dramatically worse after a military coup in 2012 when the World Bank froze development projects and the nation was temporarily suspended from the African Union.
In December 2013, the global analytics group Maplecroft listed Guinea Bissau among the countries showing “the worst deterioration” in human rights over the previous year.
Guinea Bissau “needed investors badly,” said Vincent Foucher, a senior West Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group. Following the 2012 coup, “It was very isolated and desperate.”
Between 2013 and 2014, IHRC’s Pakistani chairman, Mohammad Shahid Amin Khan, and an envoy of the group’s Lebanese officials promised to link the country with foreign investors and to provide humanitarian aid to the people. In return, they were given diplomatic passports.
“The fact that someone in the [Guinea Bissau Foreign] Ministry issued passports implies that there was some payoff, actual or expected, for the person issuing,” said Russell J. Hanks, a former American diplomat who served as a Foreign Service officer to Guinea Bissau in 2012.
While Lebanese came in, made promises and left with diplomatic passports, the promised capital never came to Guinea Bissau.
A wealthy Lebanese ship owner and his rakish son, both former IHRC ambassadors, were among those who received diplomatic passports from Guinea Bissau during this period.
In his mid-20s, the son cuts a plump figure and has an appetite for the opulent. A playboy of sorts, his Instagram is littered with pictures of lavish meals, gold watches and fancy cars. Spliced in between are photos of his trip to Guinea Bissau.
At an upscale restaurant in Downtown Beirut, he recounted the trip between bites of gourmet sushi. The young man shamelessly mimed the appearance of African women he met on his trip and joked about creating a new deodorant scent for the continent: “It’s 20 days without a shower and Gillette!” he said, mirthfully.
His father, he claimed, is a Cyprus-based shipping mogul with close business ties to Vladimir Putin.
After being introduced to the Bissauan political elite through someone affiliated with IHRC, the father-son team traveled to the country with “gifts” including iPhones, laptops and iPads.
After promising to invest in local infrastructure, the government appointed the father as an honorary counsel to a European country and the son as his deputy. They left with diplomatic passports in hand. The son showed his passport, littered with stamps to European countries. He has not been back to Guinea Bissau since.
The Lebanese-British oilman named by the Belgian authorities acknowledged that while he was recently given a diplomatic passport after a trip to Guinea Bissau, he doubts he will do business there because of the “war … and poverty.”
He has, however, benefited from his diplomatic passport. No longer requiring visas to visit other countries in Africa where he may actually do business, the passport “facilitates some business … in Africa,” he told reporters by phone.
Foucher, of the International Crisis Group, said that Guinea Bissau is no stranger to “dodgy businessmen” who use diplomatic status to “look credible.”
Guinea Bissau recently said it would crack down on the issuing of diplomatic passports after acknowledging that more than 1,600 were held by people “who have no connection to our diplomacy.”
Amin Sleiman, the honorary consul of Guinea Bissau in Beirut for more than a decade, said that a number of Lebanese people connected to IHRC have already had their passports annulled.
The IHRC has been involved in Lebanon for a number of years, and its charismatic leader, Khan, has been photographed with prominent politicians ranging from former President Emile Lahoud to General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim.
The IHRC’s Facebook page is littered with proud proclamations of Khan’s commitment to the cause of human rights and world peace. However, very little evidence of action on the ground is visible.
Khan denied a request for documentation of IHRC’s global philanthropy work following advice from his legal team. Khan is in the process of suing the Lebanese media for defamation.
The subsequent fallout resulted in IHRC posting a note terminating the services of “all appointed officials from Lebanon,” on March 17.
By: Elise Knutsen And Mazin Sidahmed