Senior UN official warns of ‘erosion’ of Lebanese state institutions

Sunday 03/07/2016
Sigrid Kaag, UN special coordinator for Lebanon

BEIRUT - The time when regional and international powers used to rush to the rescue of Lebanon is over. Middle Eastern turmoil and raging wars have stolen the attention. Yet, the country’s political leaders do not seem to have grasped the new reality. Their failure to take matters into their own hands to manage Lebanese affairs and shield the country from regional tensions has only accentuated growing concerns over stability.
True, the international community has repeatedly praised Lebanon for remarkably holding on five years after the “Arab spring” revolutions broke out and helped plunge the region into chaos, and for hosting 1.1 million Syrian registered refugees who, along some 300,000 Palestinian refugees, make up almost one-third of the tiny country’s population.
However, international financial assistance and political support have barely helped Lebanon absorb the effects of the Syrian crisis on its economy, security and stability. Poverty is increasing, unemployment is on the rise while remittances are down and the economy is almost flat.
“I have a very sober assessment of the situation. Lebanon is asked to deal with a number of toxic challenges at different levels,” said Sigrid Kaag, UN special coordinator for Lebanon. “Lebanon is functioning still but barely in a very volatile region.”
“Our position is always of commending Lebanon for having held out for so long but I think one should not take the country’s stability for granted. It is very fragile,” Kaag said during an interview with The Arab Weekly.
What makes the situation more complicated and precarious are the internal political disputes that have left Lebanon without a president for more than two years, government and parliament almost paralysed, and the economy getting weaker by the day.
Kaag acknowledged that the challenges Lebanon was facing “are big and real” but emphasised that the international community cannot — and should not — make decisions on behalf of Lebanon.
“It is up to Lebanon’s leaders to rise to the occasion to take decisions in the national interests of the country and this means (among others) election of a president and preparing for the parliamentary elections,” she said.
The Lebanese parliament has convened 41 times since Michel Suleiman’s term as president ended in May 2014 but failed to elect a new head of state due to a lack of quorum caused by the failure of pro- Iran Hezbollah deputies and their Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement, to attend the chamber.
Unlike in 2008, when Qatar brought together rival Lebanese factions to end an 18-month political crisis and elect Suleiman as president, form a national unity government and have parliamentary elections, the Lebanese should not expect some “magical formula” from outside powers to break the Saudi-Iran dispute over Lebanon.
“It is neither wise nor reflective of the current developments in the region,” Kaag said, noting that Iran and Saudi Arabia have “other priorities” while the war in Syria, Iraq’s deteriorating situation, the risk of fragmentation and the Islamic State (ISIS) terror threat are by far more pressing issues.
The UN official warned that “the erosion” of Lebanon’s state institutions “is very clear and quite fundamental. I think it is a very dangerous tendency”.
She said now was the moment for “Lebanon to look after itself” and manage its own affairs and achieve a compromise “that enables to strengthen the country to function”.
In Lebanon’s recent political history, an approach has developed in which politicians grew more dependent on regional support, blaming external interference for their failure and reaching a point that they proved unable to run the state’s day-to-day affairs.
Concerns about Lebanon’s stability include another almost forgotten front: The southern border with Israel.
Relative calm has prevailed along the border since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah but many of the root causes of the conflict remain largely unaddressed, according to a recent report by the UN secretary-general on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 33-day war.
Kaag referred to “the risk of escalation or miscalculation that could produce escalation along the Blue Line”, a demarcation line drawn by the United Nations to verify Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.
“Ten years since the adoption of Resolution 1701, I think there is no room for complacency,” she said. “Neither side should assume just because the region has changed that the risks for Lebanon or the region have actually been addressed. With the current arms build-up within the region at large, one has to remain concerned.”
With Hezbollah more and more engaged in the Syria war, reports about the militant group acquiring advanced weaponry regularly surface. Israel is sparing no effort to target Hezbollah arms depots and convoys inside Syria and Lebanese border areas.
Another worrisome factor is the risk of terror and extremist groups recruiting Syrian refugees or poor Lebanese to carry out attacks to destabilise Lebanon.
“We know that there is a link between poverty, exclusion, marginalisation and risk to radicalise. We have to be very careful,” Kaag said, warning against labelling refugee camps as breeding terrorism spots, which “is very dangerous”.