Today, Lebanon has a huge $72 billion hole in its national finances. That number alone should mean by law, math or logic that Lebanese banks are out of business. But since the outbreak of the financial crisis, Lebanese banks and their alleged regulator, the Banque du Liban (BDL), have used a bizarre ontological argument to avoid paying back their depositors and going bankrupt.
Despite no official capital controls, more than 60 of the country’s commercial banks have adopted a policy that a US dollar is not a real US dollar if it was deposited in a Lebanese bank before the financial crisis. Instead, they claim, a pre-crisis dollar is equivalent to a Lebanese pound and can only be withdrawn at a heavily discounted rate – about 90 percent less than the current value of a US dollar on the black market.
But any U.S. dollars deposited in the same banks after the financial crisis would be “fresh” dollars, and so they could be withdrawn or exchanged for another currency at their true value at any time. In fact, Lebanese banks argue that not all depositor debts are created equal.
Of course, millions of Lebanese are not concerned with this.
After three long years of enduring this absurd policy, some desperate savers have taken matters into their own hands.
There are almost weekly to rob a bank across Lebanon, but with a twist: people have threatened to use violence in banks, not to steal other people’s money, but to access their own savings. Some believe, however justified the anger of the savers, threatening violence is a step too far. But when you consider how these people have lost their homes or are no longer able to provide for their families’ basic needs, including food, education and medical care, simply because a bank won’t give them access to their own money, it becomes It’s hard to compare these acts to “normal” bank robberies.
In any country with a functioning social contract, the banking industry’s coined distinction between “fresh” and “old” money would have gone to court and a sensible judge would have ordered the bank to pay or declare bankruptcy – but not in Lebanon . In Lebanon, the judiciary is so afraid of cracking down on the banks – many of which are owned by political elites – that they allow the bank robbery to continue, citing “exceptional circumstances”.
The bank robberies have already yielded some favorable results. Many savers who threatened the banks with violence have managed to recover large parts of their savings. And they also force the bank’s creative accounting claims into a legal corner. By taking themselves to court, savers have put a legal spotlight on banks’ indefensible policies and their complicity in what the World Bank deemed a “deliberate depression”.
The results of these tests are telling. Detained depositors have not yet faced any formal criminal charges for their actions, and most received lenient sentences in pre-trial negotiations. Judges have been lenient, and for good reason: after all, how can a judge deem it moral to punish someone severely for merely trying to take back what is legally theirs?
In response, banks have only been able to increase branch security and conduct strikes to incite the public against those who carry out robberies.
Beyond that, banks have few options because there is only one way they can solve the problems the delays are causing – by going bankrupt and liquidating their assets to pay their debtors (i.e. depositors). However, according to Lebanese Law No. 2/67 (also known as the “Intra Law”), which governs the insolvency proceedings of Lebanese commercial banks, a declaration of bankruptcy can lead to the liquidation of personal assets – yachts, cars, property – of bank executives and the elites who hold shares and management positions in these banks seem unwilling to take this risk.
It is not just Lebanese law that commercial banks are breaking by refusing to accept their liability to depositors and attempting to devalue their savings to save themselves. They also break international banking regulations developed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Even the International Monetary Fund has declared that in any bank restructuring process, small deposits (the vast majority of accounts) should be protected for their full value.
In addition, by arbitrarily seizing the savings of their depositors, these banks also violate international human rights law and directly violate the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and cultural rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. on civil and political rights.
Despite all this, the international community has taken no real action to prevent banks from exacerbating the suffering of the Lebanese people to their own advantage. There is no question that meaningful sanctions from the US or the EU would put pressure on the political elites protecting these banks to do the right thing and start the process of giving back to the Lebanese people what is rightfully theirs.
While bank robberies produced some positive results for those desperate enough to try, they also set a dangerous precedent – where vigilante actions go unpunished because the rule of law has already been undermined by illegal actions by banks. In times of desperation, this only encourages people to use violence to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.
If the international community and the Lebanese judiciary do not act quickly to bring Lebanese banks into line, the country will enter a cycle of violence that it will find difficult to break: there will be more bank robberies, more hunger, more cholera, more unnecessary deaths and perhaps even active conflicts.
If the international community, and the Lebanese elites responsible for this crisis, are to avoid this grim scenario, they must quickly develop a better ontological picture of who is stealing from whom when banks’ crimes turn desperate parents into armed activists.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.