Pot Calling the Kettle…How’s the Crusade Against Corruption Going?

Friday, November 22, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

In the midst of the daily convulsions that now characterize political life in Lebanon, it’s refreshing and somewhat disheartening to enjoy a bit of cynical comedy brought to you by leaders who are considered by many to be part of the problem. Take, for example, the notion of corruption and misuse of public funds. While many on the outside see the misappropriation of government money and sinecures as criminal, it is common practice among the political groups in Lebanon to count on a certain percentage of government jobs as literally legal tender for securing benefits for their constituencies. This dependency is part of the fabric these patriarchs are counting on to sap the revolution of its energy as people start to realize that their livelihoods are part of the system sustaining a corrupt and dysfunctional government.

As indictments are brought, fairly or not, against former ministers and officials in Lebanon, perhaps to settle scores or have show trials, or both, one benefit might be that the current system is exposed and its roots vulnerable to change. More likely scenarios are that mud-slinging will rise dramatically and politicians will jockey to protect theirs by damning the other sides with innuendo, leaked stories, rumored conspiracies, or physical violence as was common in the latter part of the last century. But will anything change for the better?

This week, the Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, called for Parliament to review draft legislation on banking secrecy and returning stolen funds. Although Parliament has not met due to security concerns, maybe the demonstrators will relent and let them into the building, if there was a shred of hope that something worthwhile would be achieved.

Berri called for two parliamentary committees to hold a joint session on November 27 to discuss the draft laws, which echo demands of protesters who blame the country’s elite for rampant corruption and steering Lebanon deep into economic crisis. Parliament is slated to reelect members of various committees and discuss an amnesty law that would allow for the release of hundreds of prisoners, mostly demonstrators. Even this step is under question by the street who believe that it will be used to give immunity to members of the security services and party members who have used violence to counter or intimidate the demonstrators.

As currently proposed, many “ordinary” crimes are explicitly listed as not included for amnesty, but “a number of dangerous things are not mentioned, ” according to an article in Middle East Eye – among them environmental crimes, tax evasion, intimidation, and extortion, crimes which many Lebanese politicians stand accused of committing. Further mudding the concept is that there is a move by members of Parliament to have the judges appointed by the MPs, further diluting the notion of fairness.

The Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA) issued a list of anti-corruption measures that provide an agenda for realistically changing the current system, if Parliament needs a roadmap. It begins with implementing existing regulations and pending legislation that would include the “Right to Access to Information Law,” and the National Anti-Corruption Strategy, which has been in development for eight years. On the economic portfolio of reforms is immediate adoption of the Public Procurement Law for approval by Parliament, which would regulate how the government prepares and awards tenders; as well as the petroleum registry decree to transparently manage bids for the exploration of the gas and oil tracts.

Since the Parliament is vested with the key policy making role in the government, the LTA called on it to conduct relevant committee meetings recognized experts on a defined timetable to consider and pass critical legislation, much of it part of the agenda of the demonstrators. This would include regulations on:

  • Combating corruption in the public sector and creating a national authority against corruption;

  • Establishing a special court for the misappropriation of public funds;

  • Lifting banking secrecy on all present and former presidents, ministers, parliamentarians, and high ranking public officials;

  • Lifting immunity on the current and former ministers, parliamentarians and public officials who deal with public funds;

  • Illicit enrichment and asset disclosure;

  • Regularization of the Court of Accounts;

  • Amending the “Law on the Regularization of the Central Inspection Authority”;

  • Conflict of interests;

  • Asset recovery;

  • Strengthening the independence of the judiciary.

This agenda was reinforced by the international body, Transparency International, in its statement that “The Lebanese parliament must not move forward with proposed legislation that would grant amnesty for past corruption. This will only cause confusion and further outrage among citizens that have been protesting against corruption for the past month. Instead, the parliament must advance stalled anti-corruption legislation in accordance with international best practice and Lebanon’s domestic and international commitments.”

Key to these reforms is engaging professional and technical assistance, including those in the international community, with the expertise to provide model legislation and regulatory measures as well as representatives of civil society and academia who can provide input from the side of the Lebanese people. Of note, Transparency International ranked Lebanon 138 out of 175 countries in its 2018 corruption perceptions index, making the country one of the worst in the world.