The Lebanese seem determined to make sacred union around the fight against corruption. The protests in Beirut at the end of last year that led to the fall of Saad Hariri’s government highlighted the country’s financial problems. The protests have turned violent as the economic crisis deepens and, on Saturday, protesters tried to storm Parliament.
Corruption on all levels, the flight of capital, ill-gotten property — the list of the misappropriations that have for years plagued this country, which is also a favorite theater of regional conflicts, goes on and on.
On many occasions, at international conferences such as CEDRE in Paris in 2018, or as part of an EU policy, the international community has looked at the situation in Lebanon. However, Lebanon still struggles to have electricity 24 hours a day, every day of the week, and the roads are in a dramatic state. Mobile phone plans are probably the most expensive in the world.
All these reasons lead us to reflect on how to get the international community to come to the aid of Lebanon and its new prime minister-elect Hassan Diab. There is no question here of reprogramming any donor conference; it is a question of the Lebanese authorities taking concerted action to finally put an end to the widespread and endemic corruption.
Transparency International, in its 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index, ranked Lebanon 138th out of 180 countries studied, with an alarming score of 28 out of a possible 100. The same organization’s Global Corruption Barometer for 2019 showed that Lebanese people are outraged by this situation, with 68 percent of them believing that corruption increased in 2019, while 87 percent thought the government was failing to fight corruption and 89 percent believed that government corruption was a big problem.
The 2018 CEDRE conference aimed to raise funds to help stabilize Lebanon’s financial situation by reviving the economy and encouraging growth and employment. Financial support was offered with the promise of loans of $10.2 billion and grants of $860 million. The sums mentioned are astronomical and it is now necessary to apply the law using an anti-corruption task force that has the cooperation of international institutions and experts.
Laws and regulations do exist and they were reinforced by a text that was voted in last June. Law 154 from 1999 defines unlawful enrichment as the enrichment of public servants by corruption and the misuse of their prerogatives. To combat this, it provides that civil servants and public service officials at the third level and above must declare their assets at the beginning of their duties. Meanwhile, law 318/2001 aims to combat money laundering. This law kept the Lebanese banking sector away from money laundering operations and preserved secrecy on funds deposited with banks in Lebanon. It allowed the removal of Lebanon’s name from the list of countries not cooperating with the international Financial Action Task Force.
In 2008, an act increased the powers of the Special Commission of Inquiry that was established under law 318/2001, granting it the exclusive prerogative to freeze accounts and lift bank secrecy in accordance with conventions and laws aimed at fighting corruption.
In June last year, the Lebanese Parliament adopted a law on the fight against corruption in the public sector, which was undoubtedly a laudable initiative and a first step toward transparency and the consolidation of public spending. This was the result of the hard work of a group of parliamentarians who are against corruption, chaired by Ghassan Moukheiber, with contributions from civil society representatives and several experts.
This law tries to define the crimes to be placed under the label of corruption and the means to combat them, entrusting this fight to an independent commission of six members, made up of two judges, one jurist and three experts who are disconnected from political circles. The commission is to be supported by an administration that will work on the implementation of its decisions and directives, without replacing the control bodies that already exist. It is urgent that civil society, Lebanese experts and parliamentarians put these structures in place.
One case that is often cited in debates on corruption is an EU-funded waste treatment plant in Tripoli. No one can say to date whether or not public funds have been misappropriated, but the lack of control of the European taxpayers' money and the lack of evaluation of the needs are subject to investigations.
In Lebanon, as in France and many other countries around the world, civil society — nourished and supported by social networks — is rightly demanding transparency. France is not immune from criticism, as the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption last week called on Paris to implement better policies to fight corruption.
It would be interesting for Lebanon to get closer to the Council of Europe to benefit from its independent and recognized expertise on corruption, as well as institutions such as the Venice Commission, which advises on constitutional law. It would also be useful to consult the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Such a coordinated will would be an example for many other countries.
Lebanon’s social and financial stability concerns us all, for Lebanon is an essential part of the stability of the Middle East. This is why the international community must place itself at the disposal of the new prime minister and ensure, at the first request, the implementation of the new commission’s anti-corruption measures.