The daunting task of fighting corruption in Lebanon

“There is hope. Even if we feel there is no hope, we have to create hope,” said Melhem Khalaf, Beirut Bar Association president.
Sunday 05/01/2020
Enough is enough. Beirut Bar Association President Melhem Khalaf.  (Courtesy of Melhem Khalaf)
Enough is enough. Beirut Bar Association President Melhem Khalaf. (Courtesy of Melhem Khalaf)

BEIRUT - Fighting corruption that permeates all public sectors in Lebanon — including the judiciary — is a formidable task that the new president of the Beirut Bar Association has vowed to take on after a landslide victory against the candidate backed by political parties accused of rampant malfeasance.

“Today the judiciary is in bad shape. The first thing we should do is to put an end to political meddling and manipulation of the judiciary,” said Beirut Bar Association President Melhem Khalaf. “We need to have an independent, honest and effective judiciary which is vital for fighting corruption. No nation can be built without justice.”

“Enough is enough we cannot go on like that. Politicians should understand once and for all that they have no right to interfere in the judiciary,” Khalaf said.

“The judges should be totally free from any influence and any pressure in order to be able to fulfil their mission properly. We have excellent judges but, in many instances, their hands were tied down.”

Khalaf, a former Red Cross volunteer and vice-chairman of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, is the first independent to head the association in recent years.

“We hope this day will renew democracy within Lebanon’s institutions,” he said after defeating Nader Gaspard, who was backed by the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces, Future Movement and Progressive Socialist Party.

Stressing the vital role of the Beirut Bar Association in regaining public trust in the judiciary, Khalaf said: “We will mobilise and push forward through parliament for the introduction of reforms and laws that would reinforce the independence of the judiciary.”

“This is our aim — strong and independent judicial authorities free from any political influence.”

Lawyers, backed by the bar association, have volunteered to defend anti-government protesters who were arrested during demonstrations that have swept Lebanon since October 17. Khalaf’s election in November was largely seen as a first win for the protesters who blame the ruling elite of bankrupting the country and shuttering the Lebanese economy.

“We have a national role in defending public freedoms, human rights and any issue that is raised by the civil society. People are resorting to us to get their rights. They feel that there is a party that is there to listen to them and their problems and to try to find solutions,” Khalaf said.

Effective separation of powers is what the state lacks to function properly, he said.

“We have to safeguard the state and its institutions by reactivating democracy in our political system through the separation of powers. The parliament should reassume its responsibility in monitoring the performance of the executive authorities, the government should stop being a small replica of parliament and the judiciary should be totally independent,” he said.

The pressing need for judicial reform in Lebanon prompted Lebanese magistrates and legal experts to establish the Lebanese Judges Association in October 2018. The independent NGO is meant to act as an advocacy group against political attempts to control the judiciary.

Judges demand the right to vote for all members of the High Judicial Council, the highest judicial authority in the country. The High Judicial Council includes ten judges: two elected from the Cassation Court, three designated members and the other five appointed by the executive branch, which is controlled by the political elite. Political bickering has often stalled appointments to the body for several months, crippling the judiciary.

The judiciary has often been smeared as being biased but Khalaf said he is against public slandering of the core institution of the state.

“Defaming the judiciary is not acceptable. Any investigation or purge of corrupt judges should be done from within the judicial system. The judiciary has its own mechanism of monitoring and accountability.  This is how you consolidate the judicial authorities,” he said.

Among Khalaf’s long list of things to do is restructuring the 100-year-old Beirut Bar Association.

“We have a huge internal reform workshop to do that includes automation, restructuring the committees, et cetera. It is our role to renovate the pillars for the next 100 years for the sake of our people. We will be reviewing our bylaws, which were set a century ago when the bar association had 3,000 members whereas today we count more than 13,000.”

Khalaf is co-founder of Offrejoie (“Granting Happiness”), an apolitical and non-confessional NGO that brings together volunteers from all faiths and regions, as well as friends of Lebanon around the world, to participate in community services.

Offrejoie has helped reconstruct two villages in southern Lebanon, rehabilitated eight prisons and renovated 14 schools. Since 2012, it is also located in Iraq.

Despite the difficult task awaiting him, Khalaf is assertive. “There is hope. Even if we feel there is no hope, we have to create hope,” he said.