Lebanon to resume IMF talks, begin reforms, draft policy statement says

New Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government will also resume negotiations with creditors over a restructuring of public debt on which Lebanon defaulted last year. (Reuters)
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Updated 15 September 2021

Lebanon to resume IMF talks, begin reforms, draft policy statement says

  • New government will also resume negotiations with creditors over a restructuring of public debt
  • The draft said the government was committed to resuming talks with the IMF for a short- and medium-term support plan

BEIRUT: The Lebanese government will resume negotiations with the International Monetary Fund while beginning reforms demanded by donors, according to a draft policy program that aims to tackle one of the worst financial meltdowns in history.
New Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government will also resume negotiations with creditors over a restructuring of public debt on which Lebanon defaulted last year, the draft seen by Reuters on Wednesday said.
The government was agreed on Friday after more than a year of political conflict over seats in cabinet that left the country rudderless as more than three-quarters of the population fell into poverty and shortages crippled normal life.
The cabinet is due to meet on Thursday to approve the draft, which will then go to a vote of confidence in parliament.
Underscoring the gravity of the situation, the policy program was drawn up in a matter of days, much faster than the weeks the process has taken in the past.
The draft said the government was committed to resuming talks with the IMF for a short- and medium-term support plan.
Donors want to see Lebanon enact reforms, including measures to tackle the corruption and graft that led to the economic collapse, before they will unlock billions of dollars of assistance already earmarked for the country.
Talks with the IMF broke down last summer when Lebanon’s political elite and banking sector objected to the scale of financial losses set out in a recovery plan drawn up by the previous government.
The draft program said the Mikati government would renew and develop the previous financial recovery plan, which set out a shortfall in the financial system of some $90 billion — a figure endorsed by the IMF.
The government will also draw up a plan to “correct the situation of (the) banking sector,” which has been paralyzed since late 2019, the draft said.
Lebanon’s financial system unraveled in late 2019.
The root cause was decades of profligate spending by the state and the unsustainable way in which it was financed.
As dollars dried up, depositors were frozen out of their accounts. The value of hard currency savings has plummeted by up to 80 percent since then, with the Lebanese pound collapsing by 90 percent from a peg that had existed for more than two decades.
The program draft said the government was committed to all the articles set out in a reform initiative drawn up by France, which has been at the forefront of efforts to help Lebanon.
The government will work with parliament to pass a capital control law, the draft document said.
It also said parliamentary elections due next spring would be held on time.

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Evacuation flights for migrants start again in Libya

Updated 2 min 42 sec ago

Evacuation flights for migrants start again in Libya

CAIRO: The United Nations said on Friday that it has resumed humanitarian evacuation flights for migrants stranded in Libya after authorities suspended them for several months. The announcement comes after a massive crackdown on migrants by Libyan security forces.
The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a statement that it had evacuated 127 people to Gambia from the Libyan city of Misrata on Thursday. It said the Gambian migrants were among thousands more who are waiting to go home through the organization’s voluntary return program.
Evacuation flights for migrants have operated sporadically amid Libya’s conflict, and been periodically suspended because of fighting. The latest suspension came from the country’s ministry of interior on Aug. 8, according to the IOM.
Libya was plunged into turmoil by the NATO-backed 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The North African nation has since emerged as a popular, if extremely dangerous, route to Europe for those fleeing poverty and civil war in Africa and the Middle East. Many set out for Italy, packed by traffickers into unseaworthy boats.
Earlier this month, Libyan authorities started a massive crackdown against migrants in the western coastal town of Gargaresh, detaining more than 5,000 people over the course of a few days. In response, many turned to a community center operated by the UN’s refugee agency’s office in nearby Tripoli, camping outside and asking to be evacuated.
On Friday, the UNHCR refugee agency said that there are still 3,000 vulnerable people staying outside its community center for fear of government raids. The agency said it had suspended the center’s operations for security reasons but was still able to offer some limited provisions to the migrants there. It welcomed the resumption of humanitarian flights, but also called on the government to urgently address the needs of asylum-seekers and refugees in a “humane and rights-based manner,” especially those who cannot return to their countries of origin.
Detained migrants in Libya have been held in overcrowded detention centers where torture, sexual assault and other abuses are rife. UN-commissioned investigators said Oct. 4 that abuse and ill treatment of migrants in Libya could amount to crimes against humanity.
The migration agency has operated evacuation flights for those wanting to return home since 2015 and since then returned some 53,000 migrants. The program receives funding from the European Union and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Migration Fund, according to the IOM statement.

Iran nuclear talks ‘on life support’ as Tehran drags feet

Updated 33 min 21 sec ago

Iran nuclear talks ‘on life support’ as Tehran drags feet

  • Talks to curb Iran’s nuclear program have stalled since supreme leader ally Ebrahim Raisi assumed the presidency
  • Tehran dragging feet in returning to talks because of ‘internal paralysis,’ expert says

LONDON: Talks to rein in Iran’s nuclear arms program are on the verge of collapse, an anonymous source from a government involved in the negotiations has told The Independent.

Talks that had been continuing in Vienna earlier this year ground to a halt when Iran elected its new president, Ebrahim Raisi, who is a religious and political hard-liner and a close ally of supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Since then, Iran has failed to return in earnest to the talks and has instead ramped up production of enriched uranium and other measures that bring it closer to having a nuclear bomb. 

The JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), agreed in 2015 between Iran, the US, China, Russia and other world powers, curbed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, but the deal later broke down.

Now negotiations for a return to the JCPOA are on the verge of collapse, The Independent has reported.

“The deal is not totally dead, but it’s on life support,” said an official of a government involved in the talks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

The US has accused the Iranian side of dragging its feet in returning to the table for talks. State Department spokesman, Ned Price, told reporters “this is not an exercise that can go on indefinitely.”

Israel’s finance minister, Avigdor Liberman, warned this week that “a confrontation with Iran is only a matter of time, and not a lot of time.”

Raisi’s team has claimed they need time to settle into their new government and that is why there are delays, but the official involved in the talks said: “If they’re just playing for time while expanding their program, we’ll have to recalibrate our approach.” 

Some suspect Iran is enriching more uranium and ramping up its production capacity to gain more leverage if it chooses to rejoin the talks.

Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Iran program at London-based think-tank Chatham House, told The Independent: “They are struggling to build a strategy and build consensus. Their foot-dragging can be seen as a leverage-building exercise, but it’s also a reflection of internal paralysis.”

She continued: “Their thinking is they can survive whatever is to come because they have survived everything thus far. But it’s a dangerous calculation. They’re always strategically on the razor’s edge. The outcome domestically could be dangerous in the long run. Yes, they have the monopoly of violence. Yes, the economy is bandaged, but the poverty level is increasing. Debt is increasing.”

The insider source told The Independent: “If the Iranians really wanted to take their time, why continue to escalate their non-compliance?

“Why not freeze their non-compliance? If they walk away, the options aren’t good. It would be a miscalculation to think everyone would just shrug their shoulders.”


Lebanon’s Hezbollah warns Israel against drilling in disputed maritime border area

Updated 47 min 18 sec ago

Lebanon’s Hezbollah warns Israel against drilling in disputed maritime border area

  • "If the enemy thinks they can act as they please before reaching a solution to this issue they are wrong," Nasrallah said in a televised speech
  • Israel already pumps gas from huge offshore fields

BEIRUT: The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah on Friday warned Israel against drilling for oil and gas in the disputed maritime border area between the two countries until the issue is resolved, and said the Iran-backed group would take action if it did so.
“If the enemy thinks they can act as they please before reaching a solution to this issue they are wrong,” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech.
Lebanon’s cabinet had raised the question to the United Nations permanent representative and others in the international community after Israel granted US oilfield services group Halliburton an offshore drilling contract in the Mediterranean, asking to clarify whether the drilling would take place in disputed areas.
Lebanon and Israel are in dispute over the delineation of their territorial waters and negotiations between the old foes could lead to Lebanon being able to unlock valuable gas reserves amid its worst-ever financial crisis.
Israel already pumps gas from huge offshore fields.
The two countries have been holding on-off US mediated talks since October to try to resolve the issue.
“I will not state any positions on this as I don’t want to complicate the negotiations but for sure the resistance in Lebanon at the right time through following this issue when it finds that Lebanese oil and gas is in danger in the disputed area it will act accordingly,” Nasrallah said.
The US mediator for the indirect talks, Amos Hochstein, visited Beirut this week and said a period of shuttle diplomacy would proceed any return to indirect talks between the two countries similar those held in October 2020 at the United Nations’ peackepeers base in Lebanon’s Naqoura.

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Syria constitution talks stall at UN

Updated 22 October 2021

Syria constitution talks stall at UN

  • The government and the opposition traded barbs after the discussions
  • “The discussion today was a big disappointment. We did not manage to achieve what we had hoped to achieve”: Pedersen

GENEVA: Talks on a new constitution for Syria this week ended in disappointment, the United Nations mediator concluded Friday, and without a proper understanding on how to move the process forward.
The sixth round of discussions between 15 representatives each from President Bashar Assad’s government, the opposition, and from civil society, were held this week at the UN in Geneva.
The government and the opposition traded barbs afterwards, pointing the finger at each other for the lack of progress.
“It was ups and downs,” UN envoy Geir Pedersen told a news conference following the Syrian Constitutional Committee (SCC) talks.
“We had three days that went rather well and one day that was more difficult.”
This week, each delegation brought forward draft texts on different areas of the constitution: on Monday, the government on sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity; on Tuesday, the opposition on the armed forces and security; then civil society on the rule of law; and on Friday, the government on terrorism.
Pedersen wanted to wrap up Friday by striking a form of provisional agreement on the principles that had been discussed, either in part or in full — or if not, then agreeing on what the parties disagreed on.
“The discussion today was a big disappointment. We did not manage to achieve what we had hoped to achieve: that we would have a good discussion on how to reach forward for some kind of a consensus,” the Norwegian diplomat said.
“We lacked a proper understanding on how to move that process forward.”
Negotiations have not been held since January, when the fifth round of talks hit a brick wall.
No date was agreed for the next round of discussions.
The SCC was created in September 2019 and first convened a month later.
The tentative negotiations are aimed at rewriting the war-torn country’s constitution. It is hoped the talks could pave the way toward a broader political process.
Ahmad Kuzbari, the head of the government SCC delegation, said some opposition proposals were “far from reality and even reflected malign thought and aggressive agendas,” he told reporters afterwards.
He accused the opposition of “ceaseless attempts to lay obstacles and to make this round fail and lead it not to achieve any outcome.”
“Despite all that took place, our delegation reaffirms its will to carry on, to engage positively in the process,” he concluded.
Syrian opposition negotiations leader Hadi Al-Bahra said Kuzbari’s claims were “bare of any truth” and said the regime did not have the will to reach a solution.
“There were not even attempts to achieve a consensus,” he said.
Bahra said the opposition and the government’s position on Syrian independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity were interchangeable, “but still they are insisting that there is no consensus.”
But he said the talks in Geneva were the only international platform on which the Syrian opposition had a voice, so it was one “we must preserve.”
Pedersen said the participants “agreed that it could not continue like this,” but revealed that “a little bit of trust” had been established this week and he could “see that there are possibilities.”
Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011 after the violent repression of protests demanding regime change.
It quickly spiralled into a complex conflict that pulled in numerous actors, including jihadist groups and foreign powers. The war has left around half a million people dead.
Throughout the civil war, the UN has been striving to nurture a political resolution.


Pakistan’s opposition parties hold anti-government protest amid rising inflation

Updated 22 October 2021

Pakistan’s opposition parties hold anti-government protest amid rising inflation

  • The Pakistan Democratic Movement alliance arranged protest demonstrations in Karachi, Lahore, Sukkar and Larkana
  • The Pakistan People Party also highlighted the economic hardships of people in a separate rally in Karachi

KARACHI: The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of opposition parties, on Friday held protest demonstrations against the government in Karachi and other major cities in the wake of the rising petroleum prices and spiraling inflation in the country.
The opposition alliance kicked off its 15-day nationwide protest from Rawalpindi on Wednesday to highlight the economic hardship of people.
Hundreds of PDM workers gathered at the Empress Market in Karachi where a senior leader of the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam party (JUI-F), Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, led the protest.
Addressing the gathering, Haideri said the country had witnessed a sudden surge in prices during the last four months due to the “ineptitude of the rulers.”
“We will continue the protest till this selected government is dislodged,” Haideri said, adding the current administration had “mortgaged” the country to the International Monetary Fund.
The provincial president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party Shah Muhammad Shah and Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan’s Owais Noorani also addressed the rally.
Workers of the opposition parties also held rallies in Lahore, Larkana, Sukkur, Mardan, Jacobabad, Mohmand, Ziarat, Mingora and other cities of the country.
In Balochistan, PDM workers suspended traffic at the Quetta-Chaman highway for several hours.
In Lahore, PML-N members staged a protest near Jain Mandir.
The Pakistan People Party, which quit the the alliance earlier this year over differences with the JUI-F and PML-N, separately held a protest in Malir district of Karachi on Friday.
The protest was led by Sindh chief minister Murad Ali Shah who criticized the federal government and said it should spare the poor masses.
“The prices of essential and basic food items have increased to such an extent that people have been forced to come onto the streets to protest against the defective socioeconomic policies of the selected ruler inducted in Islamabad,” Shah said in an oblique reference to Prime Minister Imran Khan.
“The hunger and helplessness have forced the people to come out into the streets to send the selected ruler back home,” he said. “This poor country cannot afford such a naïve, inefficient and ineffective prime minister.”