Activists ‘cautiously optimistic’ after formation of anti-corruption commission

The composition of this national body, created under a 2020 law, was completed by cabinet last week and the decree for its formation was signed Friday by President Michel Aoun.

Activists ‘cautiously optimistic’ after formation of anti-corruption commission

“Better late than never,” said Julien Courson, executive director of the Lebanese Transparency Association, while deploring the delay of almost two years between the entry into force of the law and the effective creation of the National Commission for the Fight Against Corruption. (Credit: pedrosala/Bigstock)

While Lebanon is regularly ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world in the corruption index conducted by the Lebanese Transparency Association, the Lebanese branch of Transparency International (Lebanon occupies the 154th position among 180 countries in the latest report published on Jan. 25), the National Commission for the Fight against Corruption has finally seen the light of day, after the signing Friday of the decree for its formation by President Michel Aoun.

Cabinet had in fact appointed four of the six members of the commission on Jan. 24. They are Fawaz Kabbara (a lawyer whose name was among those proposed by the two orders of lawyers in Beirut and Tripoli), Ali Bedrane (one of the accountants proposed by the union of this profession), Joe Maalouf (an expert in finance, whose name was suggested by the Banking Control Commission, among others) and Kleib Kleib (an economist and sociologist, chosen from among the names proposed by the Technical Commission in charge of monitoring the implementation of the national strategy for the fight against corruption, chaired by Minister of State for Administrative Development Najla Riachi).

The judiciary elected the other two members last June: retired judges Claude Karam (chair of the commission) and Thérèse Allaoui. It took 20 months for this body, provided for by a law enacted in May 2020, to come into being, even though its formation was one of the key reforms called for by the international community since the beginning of Lebanon’s multifaceted crisis more than two years ago. Expectations are now focused on the commission's ability to fully play its role in cleaning up the public sector.

The establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Commission is the culmination of a series of laws passed in recent years by Parliament to address widespread corruption. The commission is designed as a legal tool to enforce laws, including those on the right of access to information (2017), whistleblower protection (2018), hydrocarbon sector transparency (2018), illicit enrichment (2020) and public procurement (2021). To date, most of this legislation has not been put into practice.

Investigations, but no judgments

The new commission will be financially and administratively independent, and will focus on investigating violations of the above laws. It will be able to act on its own initiative or on the basis of complaints filed with it by any citizen or civil society organization. The requests must nevertheless be “serious and logical,” said a judicial source interviewed by L’Orient-Le Jour. This means that a complainant should be able to submit the documents and circumstantial evidence that give reason to suspect the person he or she wants to hold accountable.

The commission is not a court, which means that it investigates without making judgments. The decision to investigate is taken by a majority of its six members. This rule is criticized by the above-mentioned judicial source, who points out that the examination of a suspicious file may not be carried out when the commission’s votes are equally divided. The source advocates amending the law to allow the commission chairperson’s vote to prevail in such cases.

In the course of its investigations, the commission has the discretion to request documents from various local and international institutions as it deems appropriate, and its requests are binding. Once the evidence has been gathered, it will refer the case to the public prosecutor, the investigating judge or to a single criminal judge for prosecution, and will follow up on the trials.

The agency will also be responsible for receiving asset declarations from officials working in the public sector. Such declarations were previously submitted to the Constitutional Council. According to its remit, the Constitutional Council was only permitted to open the envelope containing a minister’s declaration at the end of that minister’s term in office. The new commission, however, may open such declarations at any time — for example, in the event of prosecution for illicit enrichment.

With respect to access to information, the commission will be able to assist the person or organization making the request in obtaining information on public expenditures by giving direct instructions to ministries and departments that are reluctant to provide such information.

The commission also has an information and education function. For example, it can organize campaigns to encourage citizens to denounce acts of corruption and submit requests for information, or request that a course on corruption prevention be included in schools’ curriculums.

For greater transparency, the commission will have an electronic site on which its data will be made available, excluding data on the content of its investigations.

Cautious optimism

In civil society circles, the announcement of the decision to activate the commission has been greeted with “cautious optimism,” in the words of Julien Courson, executive director of the Lebanese Transparency Association.

“Better late than never,” he says, deploring the delay of nearly two years between the law’s entry into force and the actual creation of the commission.

Mohammad Chamseddine, a researcher at the al-Douwaliya lil Maaloumat agency, attributes this delay to the “lack of seriousness of the state in its will to fight corruption.”

Courson, furthermore, believes that the political and judicial environment is not conducive to the implementation of the expected measures and sanctions, but he also believes that the “strategically independent role of the commission” is likely to foster confidence. He added that “it will soon be accompanied by a law on the independence of the judiciary.”

On this point, Chamseddine would have preferred “a strengthening of the judiciary rather than the creation of a new body whose members are appointed on a community basis.” However, Chamseddine gives all of the commission’s appointed members the benefit of the doubt, citing their good reputation in their professional circles.

Ethics and professionalism

Minister of State Riachi, however, is confident. “The six members were chosen on the basis of competence, independence and integrity, without any political or clientelistic considerations,” she says, adding that among the conditions for candidacy was not having engaged in political activities or been affiliated with a party during the last five years. Commission members must also refrain from practicing a profession during their six years of mandate with the commission. Its members must also be in possession of a postgraduate degree and have at least ten years of professional experience.

For Riachi, the fact that commission members are not subject to any structural or procedural hierarchy further enhances the commission members’ independence. “Since they are not subject to any authority, they do not risk being dismissed,” she said, so we are reliant on “their ethics and professional conscience” to do their job fairly.

As for the commission’s funding, Riachi said a budget of LL10 billion had been provided for in the 2020 law, but she acknowledged that this amount had been seriously reduced by the devaluation of the national currency. She assures that in any case, “we expect assistance from international partners, especially since Lebanon is a member of the United Nations Convention against Corruption.”

The United Nations Development Program and other UN organizations have promised to provide support, particularly for the rental of the commission’s headquarters, the installation of technical and electronic equipment, and the training of administrative teams.

This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour.

While Lebanon is regularly ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world in the corruption index conducted by the Lebanese Transparency Association, the Lebanese branch of Transparency International (Lebanon occupies the 154th position among 180 countries in the latest report published on Jan. 25), the National Commission for the Fight against Corruption has finally seen the light of day,...