An anti-government protester puts up a poster accusing corruption in Lebanon's state judiciary on Adlieh roundabout near the offices of Lebanon's tax authority, on November 6, 2019 in Beirut, Lebanon. (Photo by Sam Tarling/Getty Images)

New laws, same old practices? Lebanon passes anti-corruption laws, but questions persist over their efficacy

07/01/2020 . By Kareem Chehayeb

Lebanon is ill-famed for its corruption and financial mismanagement. Ranking 137 out of 198 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the country’s systemic corruption is among the most crucial challenges facing Lebanon.

Lebanon has been grappling with a catastrophic fiscal and economic crisis since late September 2019—seen as arguably the worst since its foundation; about 60 percent of the population could be living below the poverty line by the end of the year. In addition to widespread unemployment, the compounded socioeconomic impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic has further exasperated the situation, leaving about 75 percent of the Lebanese in need of aid.

With a shortage of U.S. dollars, declining tourism and remittances, and with the country’s industrial sector being on life support, Lebanon began to witness a currency crisis, causing banks to restrict withdrawals and leading to an inflation in the costs of goods. Lebanon’s deteriorating economic conditions sparked mass protests across the country on October 17, 2019. The Lebanese government has since launched formal negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in mid-May, seeking a $10 billion bailout over the next five years. Lebanon is also hoping to unlock $11.1 billion in loans pledged by over 50 donor states and organizations in a Paris conference back in 2018.

But in order to unlock financial assistance, Lebanon will need to undertake a laundry list of economic reforms. The international community has also pushed Lebanon to promote anti-corruption mechanisms to make its economy viable. An IMF audit conducted during the summer of 2019 stated that Lebanon’s “high level of corruption” has severely impacted governance— and was seen as a key impediment to economic viability. “Further concrete steps should also be urgently taken to reduce corruption,” the report indicated.

The Lebanese government subsequently passed an economic rescue plan on April 30, 2020, which was presented to the IMF ahead of its first round of talks on May 13. The plan included anti-corruption legislation as a key element of its reform plan, promising an “ambitious national anti-corruption strategy, addressing the roots of a major impediment to growth and social justice and allowing for retrieving the largest possible part of the ill-gotten and stolen money.”

Anti-corruption framework has been on Lebanon’s political agenda for quite some time, but its implementation remains in process. Lebanon acceded to the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) on April 22, 2009, and passed since then three anti-corruption laws, all during the last three years. Civil society organizations like the Lebanese Transparency Association played a pivotal role advocating for such laws. At the same time, the international community has repeatedly warned Lebanon that it would not receive financial aid without structural reforms not receive financial assistance without structural reforms that include accountability, transparency, and anti-corruption laws.

Access to Information Law

Lebanon passed the Access to Information Law on January 19, 2017, nearly a decade since the draft law was first introduced. This was considered a significant breakthrough, allowing journalists, researchers, and others to request and access documents and data from Lebanese ministries, municipalities, and other state institutions and administrations. Administrations are given up to 15 days to respond to information requests, with the right to extend that period for another 15 days if the request is complex. The law also advises state administrations to share information, including decrees, annual budgets, and other data indicative of their work and performance. The right of access to information, according to the law, includes all data except for documents related to state security, personal data, and confidential diplomatic information.

Three years after its passage, however, Lebanese authorities have largely failed to effectively implement the Access to Information Law. Upon its ratification, the law was not widely promoted to the Lebanese public through media and awareness campaigns—which remains the case to this day. In addition, many municipalities do not have websites to share data publicly, and many state administration websites are poorly managed.

Civil society and non governmental organizations thus mobilized to fill in the gap. The Gherbal Initiative, a Lebanese group founded in 2018, visualized public data collected from access to information requests, evaluated the implementation of the Access to Information Law, and even built websites for some municipalities.

A 2019 report published by the organization revealed that of 140 administrations contacted for data, only 33 fully responded to their request.

Human Rights Watch echoed similar sentiments in a statement published late September 2019. The watchdog organization said that out of the 72 information requests filed, they received only 18 “substantive responses,” 10 of which came within the stipulated 15 day period.

When access to information requests are rejected, state institutions primarily claim the following reasons: the absence of an effective implementation decree from the cabinet and the fact that the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the designated body to oversee the law’s implementation, has not been formed. As a result, Lebanese authorities claim the law is not yet in effect.

Though the law itself stipulates that the National Anti-Corruption Commission’s role is to function as an oversight body for violations of the law—notably unjust refusals of access to information requests—it permits the State Council (also known as the Shura Council) to play this role in the meantime.

Furthermore, Ghassan Mkheiber, a former member of the Lebanese Parliament and a key lawmaker who sponsored the law in 2006 until its passage in 2017, argued that the law is in fact “in full force and effect,” describing the claims of Lebanese authorities as “false excuses.”

“It does not require any implementation decree to become obligatory, as is falsely believed in good or in bad faith, by citizens and administration alike,” Mkheiber said. “However, all should make sure that such a decree—albeit useful if properly drafted and enacted—should not modify or limit the very broad and powerful rights provided by the law.”

Anti-Corruption Law (with the Anti-Corruption Commission)

Lebanese lawmakers passed the country’s Anti-Corruption Law during a two-day parliament session in late April 2020, almost a decade since it was first introduced. The law lays the foundation for future transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption laws. It also sets an official definition as to what constitutes corruption, and determines penalties for bribery, including up to three years of imprisonment and a fine amounting to at least double the value of the bribe.

The law’s most significant provision, however, is the one creating the long-awaited National Anti-Corruption Commission, which would investigate allegations of corruption in the public sector, refer cases to the judiciary, and oversee the enforcement and compliance of anti-corruption laws—notably the Access to Information and Whistleblowing Laws. Yet, and despite its positionality as the blueprint for Lebanon’s efforts to combat corruption, the Anti-Corruption Law was passed years after the two aforementioned laws.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission consists of six individuals with six-year non-renewable tenures. Members of the commission must be between 40 to 74 years-old, be selected based on skills and qualifications, and have no history or involvement with politics or a political party.

The commission is composed of two retired judges, two financial experts, a lawyer, and an expert on corruption prevention in the public sector. Yet, the commission’s nomination process is not democratic. Nominees, depending on the position, are selected by their professional syndicates or by state administrations relevant to the position. The selection of the commission’s lawyer, for example, is solely based on nominations by both the Beirut Bar Association and the Tripoli Bar Association. Similarly, financial experts are selected by the Banking Control Commission of the Central Bank.

In an attempt to improve and further democratize the nomination process, Lebanese MP Paula Yacoubian proposed having two of the committee members elected, rather than selected. But her proposal was turned down.

Whether or not the commission will be effective and impactful is yet to be determined. Following its ratification in April, the Anti-Corruption L aw gave a three-month period for selecting commission members. Nominees are therefore expected to be submitted to the cabinet by late July. But given that Lebanon’s ruling political parties have interfered in syndicates and unions, and that Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system impacts the appointment processes for state institutions, it is questionable as to whether selections for the National Anti-Corruption Commission will ultimately be based on skill and qualifications.

Whistleblower Protection Law

Lebanon’s Whistleblower Protection Law was passed in October 2018, setting a legal framework for exposing corruption and misconduct in the public sector. Under this law, whistleblowers disclosing corruption information to the National Anti-Corruption Commission have the right to remain anonymous and are guaranteed legal and physical protection from the judiciary and security forces.

If a whistleblower faces retaliation by their employer—such as a demotion or dismissal—the perpetrators will receive a fine of roughly $3,000 to $33,000. Threats and physical retaliation come with additional charges. Smaller fines are also imposed on perpetrators if they do not cooperate with the National Anti-Corruption Commission’s investigation.

The Whistleblower Protection Law, despite only being limited to the public sector, is in principle an important step forward, especially since exposing corruption information in Lebanon could risk a libel and slander lawsuit.

This law, however, does not eliminate or override the country’s archaic defamation laws or address the rampant political interference in the judiciary system. There is also the question of whether activists and journalists would be safe exposing allegations of corruption and misconduct on their respective platforms or whether their safety is guaranteed only when doing so privately.

Despite being passed almost two years ago, the Whistleblower Protection Law cannot go into effect until the National Anti-Corruption Commission is established, due to its pivotal role as an oversight body.

 

While these laws address crucial issues that Lebanon has long ignored, there are clear gaps in the legislation, notably the exclusion of the private sector from the mandate of the laws and the undemocratic nature of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. More importantly is the question of whether these laws will be implemented effectively and impartially. This is especially relevant since Lebanon has yet to establish an independent and impartial judiciary, for which protesters and activists have been pushing. The mere passage of anti-corruption legislations therefore may not be adequate when effective implementation of these laws is up in the air.