Lebanon banks under fire as PM promises audit

Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati gestures as he speaks to the press at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon. (Reuters/File)
Short Url
Updated 21 September 2021

Lebanon banks under fire as PM promises audit

  • There are 63 banks operating in Lebanon with more than 1,000 branches and 25,000 employees

BEIRUT: The conduct of Lebanese banks amid the country’s worsening economic crisis has been defended by Salim Sfeir, head of the Association of Banks of Lebanon, who responded on Tuesday to criticism by MPs from the Hezbollah and Free Patriotic Movement blocs.

The condemnation of the country’s banks came during Monday’s vote of confidence.

In a response statement, Sfeir said: “Banks invested their surplus of liquidity in the Lebanese Central Bank. Banks demanded the adoption of a law that establishes capital controls while the multiple formulas offered by others aim to legislate cash withdrawals and international transfers.”

Lebanon was hit by an unprecedented economic crisis in 2019, leading to the collapse of its currency and an inability to pay its debts. The country’s political class was accused of looting the country’s local treasury, siphoning off middle-class wealth and exercising authority without responsibility.

In its statement, the ABL urged the Lebanese Parliament “to speed up the reforms required by the international community,” and called on the new government to “start serious work” to launch international aid packages and put the country back on the international map “by enhancing communication with Lebanon’s friends from Arab and foreign states.”

It said: “There is a pressing need to stop the collapse. Therefore, the government must immediately commit to its obligations in accordance with its ministerial statement that noted a prompt resumption of talks with the International Monetary Fund to address the negative impacts of previous policies.”

It added that the government must begin talks with debtors, reform the banking sector and approve a budget — “all of which are clauses that the ABL has demanded since the start of the crisis.”

There are 63 banks operating in Lebanon with more than 1,000 branches and 25,000 employees.

According to Sfeir, the banking sector constituted “an engine of growth in the country through loans that outgrew the size of the economy.” He added: “The formal banking sector’s taxes are some of the major public treasury income items.”

A group of Lebanon’s bondholders — that include some of the largest investment funds in the world — also urged the new government “to start talks to restructure the country’s debts as early as possible to help deal with the crushing economic crisis in the country.”

Lebanon defaulted on its external debt in March 2020, leaving it unable to service a debt burden that was then worth more than 170 percent of its gross domestic product.

The group said it “hopes and expects the new government to promote a speedy, transparent and equitable debt restructuring process. Such a process will need the government to engage meaningfully with the IMF as well as Lebanon’s international creditors.”

At the end of the vote of confidence, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said: “Discussions with the IMF have begun. The talks are not a picnic and the fund is not a charity. This issue is not an option but a mandatory passageway that must succeed in order to serve as the first foundation toward salvation and the right way for Lebanon’s revival.”

He urged Lebanon’s Parliament to act quickly to approve a capital control law as early as possible, and promised to carry out “a forensic audit of all institutions and ministries without any exceptions.”

Mikati was quick to note the importance of the banking sector in any economic recovery: “I wish there were any banks left in Lebanon to help them. Do you know the reality of the banking sector? There is no economic recovery without banks.”

However, the prime minister added: “More than $10 billion was spent in the past on subsidies for banks — money that could have been used to build power plants, treat waste and construct roads.”

Related


Lebanon’s Hezbollah says Israel mistaken to ‘act as it wants’ in disputed maritime border area

Updated 22 sec ago

Lebanon’s Hezbollah says Israel mistaken to ‘act as it wants’ in disputed maritime border area

BEIRUT: The leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday Israel was not free to start drilling for oil and gas in the disputed maritime border area between the two countries.
“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.
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 part in disputed areas.

Syria constitution talks stall at UN

Updated 2 sec ago

Syria constitution talks stall at UN

  • The government and the opposition traded barbs after the discussions, pointing the finger at each other for the lack of progress
  • “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.


France urges Iran to curb nuclear activity, resume talks

Updated 22 October 2021

France urges Iran to curb nuclear activity, resume talks

  • US envoy Robert Malley joined counterparts from France, Britain and Germany at meetings in Paris
  • Iran’s new government has hinted it will return to the nuclear talks in Vienna but has balked at setting a date

PARIS: France on Friday urged Iran to curb nuclear activities of “unprecedented gravity” as US and European envoys met to discuss efforts aimed at reviving the troubled 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
US envoy Robert Malley joined counterparts from France, Britain and Germany at the meetings in Paris, at what the French Foreign Ministry called a “critical time” in efforts to salvage the accord.
“It is urgent and crucial for Iran to end the activities of unprecedented gravity that it is conducting in violation of the (agreement) and to immediately resume full-fledged cooperation” with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anne-Claire Legendre said in an online briefing.
The IAEA is charged with monitoring the 2015 accord, which was aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions. The US pulled out of the accord under Donald Trump and re-imposed sanctions.
Since then Iran has stepped up nuclear activity and is now in violation of several aspects of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA.
Iran’s nuclear activity includes enriching uranium which Western nations fear could be used to build an atomic bomb. Tehran denies any such ambitions.
The US and European partners are ready to return immediately to negotiations with Iran “in order to swiftly conclude an agreement on Iran’s return to its commitments and the United States’ return to the JCPOA,” Legendre said.
Iran’s new hard-line government led by President Ebrahim Raisi, which took power in August, has hinted it will return to the nuclear talks in Vienna but has balked at setting a date.


Israel designates six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorists

Updated 22 October 2021

Israel designates six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorists

  • The designations authorise Israeli authorities to close the groups' offices, seize their assets and arrest their staff in the occupied West Bank
  • Israel's defence ministry said the six Palestinian groups had ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

TEL AVIV: Israel on Friday designated six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorist organizations and accused them of funnelling donor aid to militants.
The charge was rejected by human rights watchdogs who said the move will stifle monitoring of potential abuses.
The designations authorize Israeli authorities to close the groups’ offices, seize their assets and arrest their staff in the occupied West Bank, watchdogs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said in a joint statement condemning the move.
Israel’s defense ministry said the six Palestinian groups had ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP), a left-wing faction with an armed wing that has carried out deadly attacks against Israelis.
“(The) declared organizations received large sums of money from European countries and international organizations, using a variety of forgery and deceit,” the defense ministry said in a statement, alleging the money had supported PFLP’s activities.
The groups include leading Palestinian human rights organizations Al-Haq and Addameer, who document alleged rights violations by both Israel and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule in the West Bank.
Asked for comment, an official with PFLP, which is on the European Union’s terrorism blacklist, did not outright reject ties to the six groups but said they maintain relations with civil society organizations across the West Bank and Gaza.
“It is part of the rough battle Israel is launching against the Palestinian people and against civil society groups, in order to exhaust them,” PFLP official Kayed Al-Ghoul said.
Al-Haq did not immediately provide comment. Addameer and another one of the designated groups, Defense for Children International — Palestine, rejected the Israeli accusations as an “attempt to eliminate Palestinian civil society.”
The other three groups listed did not immediately provide comment.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said the “decision is an alarming escalation that threatens to shut down the work of Palestine’s most prominent civil society organizations.”
They added: “The decades-long failure of the international community to challenge grave Israeli human rights abuses and impose meaningful consequences for them has emboldened Israeli authorities to act in this brazen manner.”
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians seek the territories for a future state.


127 Gambians fly home in first Libya evacuation in months

Updated 22 October 2021

127 Gambians fly home in first Libya evacuation in months

  • 127 Gambian migrants were assisted to voluntarily return to The Gambia yesterday
  • Libya has become a key conduit for migrants, mainly from African countries south of the Sahara, seeking to reach Europe by sea

TRIPOLI: A group of Gambian migrants stranded in Libya have been repatriated, the United Nations’ migration agency said Friday, the first such evacuation flight in months.
“127 Gambian migrants were assisted to voluntarily return to The Gambia yesterday after IOM’s Voluntary Humanitarian Return program received clearance to resume humanitarian flights from #Libya,” the International Organization for Migration said in a tweet.
Rocked by a decade of lawlessness and war, Libya has become a key conduit for migrants, mainly from African countries south of the Sahara, seeking to reach Europe by sea.
But many end up becoming stranded in Libya, where they face grave abuses, according to international rights groups and UN agencies.
The resumption of humanitarian flights came as Tripoli hosted an international conference to seek support for stability in Libya.
The UN’s vice-head for political affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, used the conference to urge authorities to speed up repatriations and release migrants in detention.
Libyan authorities faced international outcry earlier this month after carrying out sweeping raids described by Doctors without Borders as “violent mass arrests” that left at least one person dead.
Days later, guards had shot dead six migrants at the Al-Mabani detention facility in Tripoli, while at least 24 others were wounded, the IOM said.
Some 2,000 migrants escaped in the chaos.
The Libyan interior ministry said a “stampede” had left an “irregular migrant” dead and wounded others as well as several police officers.
The United Nations has in the past offered flights for migrants voluntarily seeking repatriation.
Its refugee agency, the UNHCR, organized one such flight to Rwanda in July with 133 asylum seekers on board — the only one authorized by Libyan authorities this year.
The UNHCR on Friday welcomed the resumption of humanitarian evacuation flights but warned that “it is not enough.”
“This is a positive development for some of the most vulnerable refugees, who have been waiting anxiously for many months to depart,” its regional envoy Vincent Cochetel said in a statement.
“But we also need to be realistic: resettlement or evacuation flights will only benefit a limited number of people.”
The UNHCR urged the Libyan government to “immediately address the dire situation of asylum seekers and refugees in a humane and rights-based manner.”
More than 1,000 vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers are currently prioritized for humanitarian flights and awaiting their resumption, it said.

Related