SOS BEIRUT: What is the EU doing to support Lebanon

by André Francischetti Moreno

Lebanon, a country of seven thousand years whose capital was destroyed and rebuilt seven times. On August 4, a mega blast devastated Beirut once more, causing at least 220 deaths, 7,000 injuries, billions of dollars in property damage (including hospitals), and leaving 300,000 people homeless. The sequence of two explosions that destroyed half of the city was probably caused by the combustion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate – equivalent to around 1.2 kilotons of TNT– which were confiscated by the Lebanese government from an abandoned ship and remained stored at city port for six years. The disaster could not have happened at a worst time, while Lebanon faces one of the deepest economic crises in its history. All this is aggravated by the needed restrictions to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, and by a political crisis which made the Lebanese PM Hassan Diab (deemed by many as a Hezbollah’s puppet) resign only one week after the explosion. The European Union and international community already mobilized resources to help with the reconstruction of Beirut, to rescue the Lebanese economy and avoid the country to plunge into a deeper political crisis.  

Since October 2019, the Lebanese pound lost eighty percent of its value, 25% of its population is unemployed, and according to the World Bank, about half of the Lebanese people live below the poverty line. The causes of such an economic crisis lay on years of patronage fueled by a sectarian government, systematic corruption, and government mismanagement. Today, Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world and struggles to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund, which request deep reforms mainly in the basic services area. Highly dependent on imports, 90% of all grains come from abroad to the port of Beirut, whose destruction worsened a widespread food crisis. The closer ports in the region are in Israel, which has troubled relations with Lebanon, and Syria, which is at war since 2011. Furthermore, on the Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, Lebanon ranked 137th out of 180 countries (180 being the worst). After the mega blast, popular riots took to the streets of Beirut accusing the government of negligence when dealing with the catastrophe, calling for its resignation and demanding a massive political reform.

Following the devastating explosions, the European Union has activated all its emergency mechanisms, mobilizing €33 million to respond to urgent assistance needs in Lebanon and pledging an additional €30 million in aid. The EU deployed approximately 300 highly trained experts in search and rescue, chemical assessment, and medical teams. Not only that, but chemical protection suits and medical supplies were also sent to Beirut. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the bloc was ready to aid Lebanon with preferential trade and customs backing, as its Central Bank faces financial meltdown and has limited capacity to cope with the impact of the explosion. Additionally, French President Emmanuel Macron decided to take the lead to coordinate international assistance and sent emergency aid to the former French protectorate. On August 9, Macron coordinated an international donors conference, which counted with world leaders such as US President Donald Trump, and claimed for a quick joint action to support the Lebanese people as well an international pressure for a radical reform of the Lebanese political class. Other European nations that are making massive contributions are Germany and Britain.

The High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell stated that the EU attaches great value to the unity and stability of Lebanon which are key both for the country and the region. In fact, Lebanon is unique as it is the sole country in the Middle East whose presidency is always held by a Christian. Furthermore, it shelters the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, namely one out of six people is a foreigner in Lebanon, 98% of which come from Syria. 

Given this scenario, more protests are predicted to happen with further claims regarding the Lebanese political system, international pressure for a supra party national unity government will rise, Lebanon shall intensify the investigation of the causes of the mega blast, and a new government should be formed (although incumbent politicians are charged with indicating the new prime minister). Raoul Nehme, the Lebanese Minister of Economy and Trade, stated that it will be painful and long, but Lebanon will get out of this crisis. 

Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash


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What is happening in Yemen and where does the EU stand?

by Lea Schiller

The civil war in Yemen began five years ago in 2015, when Shiite rebels named Houthi took control of its capital city Sana’a after negotiations with the government failed. In March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and support by the United States launched air strikes against the insurgents. Since then, numerous attempts at installing peace – including peace talks facilitated by the UN – failed, and regional powers such as the Gulf states and Iran continuously intervene in the conflict.

Meanwhile, the toll on Yemen’s population has been enormous. According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “four out of every five people” need lifesaving aid, which makes the number of Yemeni people dependent on relief efforts 24 million in total. More than eight million directly rely on UNICEF for water, and their operations in Yemen are so short of money that some are at risk of being shut down, which would leave millions without soap and water. Additionally, the war has displaced millions from their homes, many of them fleeing to neighbouring countries such as Djibouti.

And not only do precarious sanitary conditions and floods increase the risk of older diseases like malaria, dengue fever and cholera, but COVID-19 now poses an even bigger threat to the population of Yemen. Since the country recorded its first case on April 10th, the number has risen into the thousands. But considering the low testing rates and the disorganised situation in the country, the real numbers are likely to be much higher – and according to Guterres, it is likely that community transmission has already begun in Yemen. Mortality rates are among the highest in the world, which is not surprising given that trying to improve the country’s health services (such as hospital’s supplies of electricity and oxygen) is difficult when half the population does not have access to clean water.

What Yemen lacks is about 2 and a half billion US dollars in aid. The EU has given almost 500 million in humanitarian aid to Yemen, mostly focused on food, healthcare and hygiene measures. Nevertheless, Yemen is still in dire need of lifesaving aid, and according to UN Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Lowcock, gathering the money necessary to deliver aid is the biggest problem. But what Yemen needs most is peace. In October 2018, after the death of Saudi-Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the European Parliament called on its member states to stop weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Germany responded with suspending all its arms exports to Saudi Arabia, but after pressure coming from the United Kingdom and France, where companies depend on German-made components to build their arms, the decision was revoked.

In the EU, the Common Position on arms export controls defines the criteria by which potential export licenses must be judged – including respect for human rights. But although it is legally binding, there is no mechanism to enforce it, and since defence policy lies with the member states’ sovereignty, it is often ignored in favour of commercial interests. And since EU-made arms have allegedly already been used in multiple strikes that involved civilian casualties and at the very least enabled Saudi Arabia to launch military intervention in Yemen in the first place, this begs the question how the EU can justify this next to its commitment to human rights and the rule of law. In France, minister Florence Parly first claimed that French weapons were not directly used in the war. When evidence of the contrary surfaced, she claimed there was no evidence that these weapons had been intentionally used against civilians. To hold onto its values and promote peace in the region, the EU needs to start enforcing its Common Position on export controls.

Bild von David Peterson auf Pixabay


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