The devastating consequences of corruption in Lebanon were rarely out of the news in 2020. The destruction, injury and terrible loss of life caused by the Beirut port explosion is just the most obvious example of systemic issues that have plagued the country for many years.
This shocking event did not occur in isolation. It came against a backdrop of ongoing political instability following the uprising of Lebanon’s people against corruption in October 2019. It is no surprise that Lebanon is a significant decliner on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), having dropped five points since 2012 to record a pitiful 25 out of 100, and making it a Country to Watch this year.
While some politicians and public officials have been called before the Financial Public Prosecutor, no major new corruption investigations have been initiated, and old investigations have not been continued.
Protests have, however, pressured Parliament to move faster on some anti-corruption legislation.
After almost 12 years of inaction, in September 2020, Parliament adopted Law No. 189, the Financial Disclosure and the Punishment of Illicit Enrichment Law. The draft law was first introduced in June 2008.
It replaces Law No. 154/1999 on Illicit Enrichment and ends immunity for Prime Ministers and Ministers on corruption-related crimes. A positive development, but vague provisions in the law mean it has to be tested in court before we'll know whether it will be effective, especially on the immunities level.
Parliament also adopted Law No. 175/2020, Combatting Corruption in the Public Sector and the Establishment of the National Anti-corruption Commission (NACC), first introduced 11 years ago in 2009. It outlines the mechanism for appointing the six members of the NACC and its jurisdiction.
Selecting the individuals who will serve on the NACC requires the entire Lebanese judiciary to elect two judges as members of the NACC, the most senior of whom automatically becomes President of the Commission. One lawyer, one accountant, one expert on banking or economics, and one expert on governance, public budget or anti-corruption, must be selected from three possible candidates chosen respectively by the Bar Associations, the Lebanese Association of Certified Public Accountants, the Banking Control Commission, and the Minister of State for Administrative Reform. The successful candidates will then be appointed by the Council of Ministers (CoM).
The law clearly states that these entities should perform their duties within three months of the publication of the law in the Official Gazette. Yet, so far, none of them have fulfilled their obligations. The High Judicial Council did call an election to select two judges in August 2020, only to then postpone the election until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. The Council rescheduled the election for 23 January 2021, but have again postponed indefinitely due to the same reasons.
The effective implementation of other anti-corruption laws, including the Access to Information Law, Whistleblower Protection Law, Transparency in the Oil and Gas Sector Law, and Financial Disclosure and the Punishment of Illicit Enrichment Law, requires a functioning NACC. The failure to establish the NACC poses serious questions as to whether the government, political parties and others are committed to addressing corruption.
More positively, a draft amendment to the Access to Information Law was prepared in consultation with civil society organisations, including the Lebanese Transparency Association and other stakeholders. The amendment fills legal gaps that provided a means for Public Administrations not to apply the law and make their information available to the public.
More than 10 years after it was initiated, the National Anti-corruption Strategy was adopted by the CoM in May 2020. The Strategy outlines the causes of corruption in Lebanon and specifies it as both political and administrative. This means corruption in Lebanon is systemic and needs solutions that take this as a starting point. The objectives of the strategy are to establish transparency and activate accountability and to prevent impunity by limiting the public administrations’ discretionary powers.
Yet, without the political will to make this anti-corruption framework effective, people’s lives will continue to be blighted by corruption. Political schemes are often used to block effective anti-corruption measures, but this is not the only challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic has paralyzed the proper implementation of laws and policies, while inadequate transparency and oversight of the government’s response to the crisis, including managing private donations, has been inadequate and inefficient.
The explosion that tore through Beirut on 4 August, 2020, highlights one major challenge to combatting corruption. There are strong indications that negligence and corruption contributed to the disaster, yet five months later the investigation by the Judicial Investigator is not encouraging. Transparency measures are limited, public information on investigation developments is only made available periodically, and journalists rely almost solely on leaks, further undermining the credibility of the investigation. High Judicial Council statements on the matter are often vague, merely outlining that the Judicial Investigator is performing their duties independently and professionally.
Lebanon’s dire economic crisis is a further enabler of corruption. Fuelled by 15 years of political challenges, corruption in the public sector, a high public debt, a huge deficit in the power sector, a monetary crisis, the smuggling of subsidized goods into Syria, and tax evasion all undermine good economic governance.
Lebanon’s citizens are raising their voices as never before, but progress is painfully slow. There is a critical need for structural reforms to tackle corruption on the systemic level. Political integrity and political will must be encouraged to enforce the laws already adopted, and to adopt new legislation necessary in the fight against corruption.