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US, EU: Take note, protect Bitar and Lebanon takes a step to overcome its crises

Hanin Ghaddar

Published: Updated:

The clashes that took place in Beirut’s neighborhood Tayyoneh last Thursday exposed tensions about Judge Tarek Bitar’s investigation into the Beirut port blast and its revelations. Guns are now being used to stop the path for truth and justice.

Unswayed by the violence, Bitar is holding his ground and is supported by the public’s popular opinion. But, he is at serious risk of physical harm.

Hezbollah object to his appointment and remit, claiming he is biased. The terrorists will block the search for accountability at every opportunity.

The situation and call to arms will escalate.

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In the foreground to this, it’s clear that Bitar does not have proper protection, aside from generic statements of support. What are words when bullets start flying?

The support of the Lebanese public, and the trust and backing from the committee of the families of the port blast victims can offer Bitar the moral support he needs, but not the protection.

In a statement the European Union condemned the use of violence in Thursday’s clashes, and expressed its condolences to the families of the victims and called for restraint. “The EU reiterates that the investigation into the 4 August 2020 Beirut Port blast needs to be completed as soon as possible,” the statement affirmed, but there was no mention of any diplomatic or punitive measure to protect Bitar.

Meanwhile, the United States urged for calm with US State Department spokesperson Ned Price calling for a “de-escalation of tensions.”

At the moment two opportunities have presented themselves that can offer protection to Bitar, or at least push local authorities to aid his personal security and that of his investigation.

 Lebanese security forces react to gunfire during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. Armed clashes broke out in Beirut Thursday during a protest against the lead judge investigating last year's massive blast in the city's port, as tensions over the domestic probe boiled over. (File photo: AP)
Lebanese security forces react to gunfire during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. Armed clashes broke out in Beirut Thursday during a protest against the lead judge investigating last year's massive blast in the city's port, as tensions over the domestic probe boiled over. (File photo: AP)

While the clashes were taking place in Tayyouneh, US Under-Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was in Beirut where she had a press conference stating that the United States will offer an additional $67 million to support the Lebanese army. The LAF has become dependent on US security assistance to maintain its unity and mission.

The US could use this as a leverage to pressure the army and its leadership to protect Bitar and make sure the victims’ family members are not harmed.

Earlier in the year the EU adopted a legal framework for sanctions that can target Lebanese individuals and entities. The EU said that the new protocols will provide the ability to impose sanctions on those responsible for undermining democracy or the rule of law in Lebanon. This can include travel bans and asset freezes, with EU persons and entities now forbidden from making funds available to those listed.

The criteria in place that permits the application of sanctions includes corruption, obstructing efforts to form a government, financial misdeeds and human rights abuses. A deadline of “end of the summer” was given to the Lebanese political establishment with the impetus for them to start making the reforms required.

Nothing meaningful has happened.

It is time to introduce these sanctions against those undermining democracy and accountability, and those attacking and defying the rule of law in Lebanon. Applying targeted sanctions can support protection of Bitar and the port blast investigation.

The EU’s policy towards sanctions has always been to consider their use as a last resort, and when every other strategy has failed. Their need now is in little doubt.

There are many positives to take from offering proper protection to Bitar. Obviously his personal safety is the priority, and then along with securing the safe passage of the work he is carrying out.

But going beyond the port investigation, allowing the public to witness a judicial process and people being held accountable for their actions, without fear or favor, will begin to rebuild trust in state institutions.

Bitar is brave, but by pursuing the rule of law of the country his fearlessness will help the public to understand that what appears as a series of insurmountable challenges facing Lebanon, can in fact be solved.

From parliamentary elections falling apart, to the fear of assassins with a list of new targets not being held to account, keeping Bitar safe will bring hope to the people. A strong judicial system can deal with many problems.

Strengthening state institutions, accountability, and Lebanon’s overall stability fall under all of the goals set by the EU and US, to bring the country out of the dark. It does not have the luxury to wait. The country is facing the worst collapse – political and economic – since its inception. It is time for action, and protecting Bitar will emphasize to the Lebanese people that the wheels are finally in motion, and he will make groups and individuals accountable for their actions.

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