A Swiss foundation and a Lebanese NGO on Monday sought to pressure western countries into imposing sanctions on Lebanese leaders by filing legal petitions at the US Treasury and two European Union bodies, three years into the small Mediterranean country's worst-ever economic meltdown.
“Sanctions requests have been levied against more than 10 Lebanese individuals who have undermined the rule of law in Lebanon after assessment of their direct responsibility in the crisis”, Zena Wakim a lawyer for Swiss foundation Accountability Now told The National.
Ms Wakim said that the names of the individuals targeted had not been revealed to “preserve the integrity of the legal process.”
Lebanon's economic crisis, which has pushed more than 80 per cent of the population into poverty, started in 2019 after decades of prodigal spending by a corrupt state.
The country has been in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for the past two-and-a-half years and to unlock billions of dollars in loans conditioned on crucial reforms, which Lebanese leaders have been unable to enact despite the severity of the situation.
This has led the World Bank to label the crisis a deliberate depression, orchestrated by the country’s entrenched elite, while a UN report in May criticised the central bank and the political establishment for its policies which it described as “human rights violations”.
Sanctions consist of asset freezes and travel restrictions from the issuing countries.
The two requests separately filed with the US Treasury and the EU Council “overlap”, Ms Wakim said.
The 120-page petition filed to the Council of the European Union and the European External Action Service (EEAS) in co-ordination with the Depositors' Union of Lebanon, an advocacy group for people with frozen bank accounts, “outlines legal justifications for sanctions against Lebanese politicians, civil servants and banking executives who have failed in their public service mandates by pursuing their own private interests”, according to a press release published on Monday and co-signed by the two organisations.
Accountability Now filed similar recommendations in the US, which also include Lebanese officials who have reportedly obstructed the stalled investigation of the deadly 2020 Beirut Blast, for which no senior official has been held accountable.
No EU consensus on sanctions so far
This is the first time that civil society organisations have used the dedicated EU framework adopted in July 2021 for targeted sanctions on Lebanese officials.
The framework provides for the possibility of imposing sanctions against persons and entities who are responsible for undermining democracy or the rule of law in Lebanon, but has so far not been used.
Lebanon has been governed by a caretaker government since May and has not had a President since the end of Michel Aoun's mandate in late October.
In mid-November, the European Council criticised the political vacuum in Lebanon and said that it did not rule out sanctions to unblock the stalemate.
Lead spokesman for foreign affairs at EEAS, Peter Stano, declined to confirm to The National that they had received the legal petition.
“I can only state that any relevant partner turning to the EEAS with a letter or note will receive an appropriate response via appropriate channels,” he said.
But Mr Stano added that “any information available about a behaviour that might fall under EU sanction framework can feed in the deliberations of the member states when they discuss the issue.”
EU listing must be agreed by the bloc's 27 members and will need to be based on evidence that can stand in court since sanctioned individuals or entities have the possibility to launch an appeal at the European court, said Mr Stano.
The 27 EU members have so far not able to reach a consensus on sanctions targeting Lebanese leaders, with some countries such as Hungary officially opposing them.
“Most western countries have not shown firm political will to implement serious sanctions against Lebanese politicians, even if they are aware of the Lebanese elite's corruption. They are not ready to pull the trigger for pragmatic reasons, in the absence alternative to replace the current leadership”, Karim Bitar, professor at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, told The National.