Will the Lebanese state — with its executive as well as legislative power — be declared ineligible to manage public funds and unfit to collect or even spend even as little as a penny to add to its revenue and settle its obligations? Will the Lebanese wake up one day to discover that they have a judicial guardian of their state finances? The question is not purely theoretical, and it is about a lawsuit being filed, which is the first of its kind in Lebanon and perhaps in the world.
On Sept. 10, six Lebanese nationals filed a lawsuit against the government with the Shura Council of the Lebanese state, i.e., the administrative court, which is authorized to resolve any legal problem between any citizen and any governmental entity. The six plaintiffs are known. They hold or have held official responsibilities: Hussein al-Husseini, former head of parliament, Elias Saba and Charbel Nahas, two former ministers, Ghassan Moukheiber, current MP, Najah Wakim, former MP, and Ghada Yafi, professor at the Lebanese University and daughter of former Prime Minister of Lebanon Abdallah Yafi. The plaintiffs based their claims on the Lebanese constitution and laws, which provide for two basic points.
First, the Lebanese state, represented by its legitimate government, cannot carry out any financial step or action of a financial nature, except in accordance with the annual budget that this government prepares and submits to the parliament for ratification and validation. Once issued by the parliament, the Lebanese state’s annual budget law is the only law that allows the various state sectors, organs, ministries and public agencies to dispose of any public funds.
Without this budget law, no official body has the right to collect taxes from any taxpayer on Lebanese territory. Moreover, no official party is entitled to spend a penny in any area. Breaching this rule and collecting or spending public money in the absence of an applicable budget law is a clear violation subject to prosecution.
Second, the above-mentioned articles of the constitution and laws clearly state that the Lebanese parliament cannot approve an annual budget submitted by the government unless the latter submits to it a complete accounting inventory of how to apply the previous year's budget, i.e., full financial statements showing the complete collection and spending operations carried out during the previous year. These statements should be certified by the Audit Bureau, which is the financial authority in Lebanon. The parliament then acknowledges those financial statements and issues a law called "the statement of account" of the previous fiscal year, which allows it to approve the budget for the following year. Therefore, if the statement of account for any previous year was not legally ratified by the parliament or by the Audit Bureau, then the parliament cannot approve the state budget, nor can the state carry out its financial work normally.
Based on the two previous points, the plaintiffs cited in their case official facts and documents demonstrating how the Lebanese state, through successive governments, violated the clear and explicit constitutional and legal rules. Since 1993, it did not provide any legal statement of account ratified by the Audit Bureau. Furthermore, since 2005, it did not approve any annual budget in a constitutional and legal way. Therefore, it is circumventing the constitutional and legal rules by collecting and spending public funds in the absence of a legal budget. The validity and accuracy of its fiscal accounts have been the subject of questioning on the part of the fiscal judiciary of the Lebanese state for 21 years.
After presenting these documented and proven facts, the six plaintiffs called on the Shura Council to “take precautionary action to supervise and control the disposition of public funds and revoke illegal administrative decisions.”
What does this demand mean? One of the plaintiffs, Nahas, told Al-Monitor that in light of the current Lebanese situation — where there is no president of the republic and where no parliamentary elections were held after the term of the parliament ended in June 20, 2013, amid persistent and grave financial breaches — the Lebanese judiciary is the only party that one can resort to. Nahas revealed that the lawsuit is exceptional and unprecedented. He added that it may cause some kind of confusion and embarrassment to the judges. But the issue is not simple. There are official government bodies disposing of tens of billions of dollars, thus violating all rules. Amid the absence of any true controls, more than 95 trillion Lebanese pounds have been illegally collected from the Lebanese — more than $63 billion.
Moreover, the Lebanese have incurred public debt, also contrary to the laws, amounting to 135 trillion Lebanese pounds, or about $90 billion. What are the possible solutions? There are, practically, three, as per the plaintiffs: The Lebanese state stops collecting or paying any pound, a prospect that actually leads to a disaster. The second option is resorting to a legal settlement, which according to constitutional experts, requires constitutional amendments, albeit exceptionally and for one time only, an option which infers a greater catastrophe, since it allows violators to escape from prosecution and evade accountability. The third option is that the Shura Council forms a judicial, administrative body made up of highly competent people of integrity to oversee the financial management of the Lebanese government so that all previous anomalies can be addressed — so that a comprehensive financial audit of the Lebanese state accounts be completed for those 21 years.
The idea is surprising, according to Nahas, but it has become familiar, even internationally. Italy has experienced something similar to this judicial uprising, and in September, the president of Argentina spoke in the United Nations about the disastrous results of corruption. She even compared it to the terrorism practiced by the Islamic State (IS). Nahas concluded that everything is possible. Otherwise, collapse will linger on.
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