By: Susan Korah and David Kilgour
Canada and Lebanon are historically close, with Lebanese being our largest Middle East cultural community and many Canadian citizens living in Lebanon. Since 2016, Canadian taxpayers have contributed about $250 million in aid to support national stability and its 1.5 million Syrian refugees.
Lebanon, moreover, despite major governance problems — hugely worsened by the recent catastrophic explosion — and a fifth of its people living in extreme poverty is one of few constitutional democracies in the Middle East, and one that, at least in theory, recognizes all its various religious communities as equal citizens.
Article 95 of its constitution requires that Muslims and Christians be represented equally in parliament, cabinet and the public service. But the system has not worked to Lebanon’s advantage, and the majority of Lebanese citizens are demanding an end to sectarian representation, asserting that it has become a tool for powerful elites to control the economy.
Already suffering from an economic meltdown, astronomical food prices, a crushing tax burden and the ravages of COVID-19, the Lebanese people blame government corruption, nepotism and incompetence as the root causes of their problems.
For decades, the same religious/political elite has maintained a stranglehold on power and lived in luxury, oblivious to the sporadic demonstrations since last October.
The port explosion triggered last week by 2,500 tonnes of confiscated ammonium nitrate reignited the protest movement, which was dormant during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Protests — ranging from peaceful to riots — demanding the resignation of political leaders have re-erupted, causing even more injuries. According to media reports, at least 728 people were wounded in clashes with riot police as thousands of protestors tried to storm Beirut’s parliament building.
Drastic change is needed, not only in the leadership but also in the political structures that have enabled leaders of religious communities to cling to political power against the wishes of their people.
The international community has responded compassionately. Led by French President Emmanuel Macron’s plea, “We must act quickly and efficiently so that this aid goes directly to where it is needed … Lebanon’s future is at stake…” international leaders gathered in a virtual donor conference to discuss how to help.
Earlier, Canada’s Minister of International Development Karina Gould announced the Canadian government is contributing up to $5 million in humanitarian aid by way of trusted organizations, including $1.5 million to the Lebanese Red Cross. The lack of trust implied in the Lebanese government is shared by other international leaders.
Immediate humanitarian help is indeed the most needed and it must circumvent government channels notorious for diverting taxpayer funds.
Lebanese people within the country and in the worldwide diaspora have expressed deep gratitude for the humanitarian assistance, but have cautioned that this is but a first step in healing the wounds that have been inflicted on the country for decades.
“We are deeply grateful to the Canadian people and government for their generous response to this crisis,” said Ahmad Araji, President of the Lebanese Club of Ottawa. “But there is no future for our people in Lebanon and there is great uncertainty where the country is going. The international community must intervene to save Lebanon.”
Indeed, the future of Lebanon is at stake and Canada and the international community must take every possible step to ensure that it doesn’t become a failed state.
Canada can endorse Macron’s call for transparency and an independent investigation into the cause of the explosion.
Furthermore, Canada can actively support U.S. Judge Mark Wolf’s proposal to set up an International Anti-Corruption Court, similar to the International Criminal Court. It would act as an incentive for domestic governments to establish adequate anti-corruption processes while ensuring corrupt leaders are held accountable where effective domestic processes don’t yet exist.
Canada can also investigate whether the ill-gotten gains of Lebanon’s kleptocrats have been stashed away in Canadian banks, and can leverage our Magnitsky legislation to freeze assets.
Lebanon’s ship of state needs a complete overhaul and the international community must help it achieve that goal.
David Kilgour is a former secretary of state for Asia-Pacific in the Chretien government.
Susan Korah is a freelance journalist who writes on Canadian and international politics.