BEIRUT: The government has paid Lebanon’s 2012 share toward the funding of the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Wednesday, in a move that was quickly praised by the United States and the opposition March 14 coalition.
The move came as the Cabinet approved Wednesday the draft state budget for 2012, stripping from it new taxes that were mentioned in the earlier edition.
The STL, which is trying to uncover the perpetrators of the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, confirmed that it had received the funding from the government for the 2012 budget and commended Lebanon’s ongoing commitment to the tribunal’s work.
“The full amount 26,927,270 euros [around $33 million], amounting to 49 percent of the tribunal’s budget, was transferred to the tribunal’s bank account [Wednesday] morning by the Lebanese government,” the STL said in a statement released in the Dutch town of Leidschendam where the tribunal is headquartered.
“The STL thanks the government of Lebanon for its 2012 contribution and its ongoing commitment to the work of the tribunal,” it added.
Speaking to reporters after chairing the Cabinet meeting that approved the budget at the Grand Serail, Mikati said Lebanon transferred its share toward the STL’s funding Wednesday morning in the same manner it did last year.
He said that Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi had included the item of the STL’s funding in the draft state budget, but that it was later withdrawn as the transfer of funds had taken place earlier in the day.
Mikati said the mechanism for funding the STL was identical to that of last year, and was not reliant on donations as in 2011.
“The funding [of the STL] took place this morning. Lebanon has honored its commitments through its contribution to the international tribunal,” Mikati said.
Lebanon’s 2011 contribution for the tribunal was paid from the budget of the state-run Higher Relief Committee, which operates under the prime minister’s office. Last year’s share of $32.6 million was donated by Lebanese banks.
The government’s decision to fund the STL was praised by both the United States and March 14 politicians.
“The U.S. welcomes Lebanon’s 2012 contribution to the STL, which represents an important demonstration of its respect for international obligations,” the American Embassy in Beirut said in a statement via Twitter.
“The work of the STL is a chance for Lebanon to move beyond its long history of impunity for political violence,” it added.
Beirut MP Ammar Houry, from former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc, said the government’s funding of the STL was “a victory” for the March 14 demands for justice and truth over Hariri’s death.
Recalling that Hezbollah and its ally Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun did not recognize the STL, Houry told The Daily Star: “The government’s decision implied a clear approval by Hezbollah, which had challenged the funding of the international tribunal.”
“Hezbollah and other members of the Cabinet could not stop the funding of the tribunal because they cannot confront the international community,” he said.
Houry said the National Dialogue conference, which held two sessions under President Michel Sleiman last month, had reaffirmed commitment to decisions of previous Dialogue sessions, including a pledge to the STL.
Beirut Future MP Atef Majdalani said the funding of the STL was the “only duty” the Mikati government had carried out. “On other important matters, the government has been in a coma,” he told The Daily Star. “The government is duty-bound to fund the international tribunal.”
Majdalani said the decision to fund the STL came “from Russia to Syria, which later relayed it to Hezbollah, which passed it on to Mikati.”
Fares Soueid, coordinator of March 14 Secretariat General, praised the government’s funding of the STL as “good,” but criticized the mechanism.
“The government’s move amounted to shirking its responsibility. The decision should have been taken inside the Cabinet, not outside,” Soueid told The Daily Star.
He said Mikati had come under “international pressure” to pay Lebanon’s share of the STL’s funding.
The news came as ministers endorsed the 2012 draft budget after stripping it of all new taxes that were mentioned in the earlier bill.
After weeks of debate among ministers, the Cabinet agreed to endorse the draft budget of LL21 trillion ($14 billion) with a projected deficit of LL5.6 trillion, or 26.6 percent.
A senior official at the Finance Ministry told The Daily Star that the new bill had not raised taxes on luxury items, and hoped to appease the private sector.
The bill calls for minor fees on fiscal stamps and a small fee on first class passenger tickets.
“These fees are quite small and will not have any effect on the public,” the source explained.
Economy and Trade Minister Nicolas Nahas told The Daily Star Tuesday that the draft budget would contain taxes on luxury items such as alcohol and tobacco.
But the government appeared to drop this option to avoid infuriating a private sector still reeling from a weak tourism season.
The Finance Ministry official said he expected a heated debate on the draft budget in the legislature this month.
“Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora will surely blast the new bill to discredit Mikati and his ministers. March 14 will seize this opportunity to deride the government in order to improve its standing,” the source said.
Mikati told reporters after the Cabinet session that the ministers went through all of the 105 items.
“We have approved some of these items, modified some and cancelled the rest. I believe that the government has fulfilled its promise and [have] endorsed all the final figures in the new draft budget,” Mikati said.
The prime minister stressed that the closing of accounts for the previous years will be thoroughly reviewed by the Finance Ministry to ensure their authenticity and accuracy.
The closing of accounts became a bone of contention between March 14 politicians and MP Michel Aoun’s bloc, which accuses Siniora and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri of manipulating these accounts and spending public money without any oversight.
The Finance Ministry official admitted that the draft budget was not very ambitious, as it did not contain any significant new elements.
“This bill is better than nothing. At last we can say we have an official budget after more than seven years,” the source said.
He added that the allocations for infrastructure projects such as electricity and dams are already available, and are already with the Central Bank.
Observers say that the rating agencies may be satisfied that the projected deficit at the end of this year is reasonably low, although they may be unhappy with the lack of new taxes.
They expect the bill to pass before the end of the month in Parliament, despite harsh criticism from MPs.