Smooth mandate renewal reaffirms UNIFIL’s crucial role in Lebanon

UNIFIL’s 2017-18 budget of $483 million decreased slightly to $474.4 million — just more than 2% — for fiscal 2018-19, entailing minor spending modifications.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Soldiers from the Italian contingent in the UNIFIL patrol the Blue Line in Lebanon’s southern border town of Naqura.                                                                                                         (AFP)
Keeping the quiet. Soldiers from the Italian contingent in the UNIFIL patrol the Blue Line in Lebanon’s southern border town of Naqura. (AFP)

BEIRUT - While US funding of certain UN activities is being reduced or severed, the mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was renewed without significant budget cuts.

UNIFIL’s 2017-18 budget of $483 million decreased slightly to $474.4 million — just more than 2% — for fiscal 2018-19, entailing minor spending modifications that do not affect the mission’s operations, UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said.

“Last year as well there was 2-3% reduction in the budget but our operation and activities stayed more or less the same; only things we can do without were eliminated,” Tenenti said.

He said flight hours by air patrols and, subsequently, fuel consumption were reduced, the mission’s Maritime Task Force of seven ships was downsized to six, vacant administrative posts that did not affect day-to-day operations were not filled and the lifespan of administrative equipment, such as computers, was extended.

“It is important that the mission is left with funding that is necessary to carry out its activities in a proper manner and for security to be maintained. For several years now the United Nations has been saying we need to do more with less,” Tenenti said.

The UN Security Council unanimously approved renewing UNIFIL’s mandate on August 30. France’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Anne Gueguen said the vote marked “a powerful signal of the collective support of the commitment to UNIFIL.”

UNIFIL was first deployed in southern Lebanon in 1978 following an Israeli incursion to maintain security on the volatile border. Its mandate was greatly expanded in 2006 after a 40-day war between Israel and Hezbollah. In addition to the original mandate, it would monitor the cessation of hostilities, accompany and support the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) deployed in southern Lebanon and ensure that no illegal weapons were found within a certain distance from the border.

The mission’s budget has changed accordingly.

“We used to have a much bigger budget,” Tenenti said, “In 2006, the budget was $708 million but we had almost 40,000 troops and a different kind of operation. Now, we have fewer troops and we are strategically positioned. We assist and help strengthen the Lebanese army in order that they take charge of the south.”

While the number of troops decreased, UNIFIL increased civil operations, “something the mission has been strong about because it is important that the relations with the people of the south are maintained,” Tenenti said.

“The south of Lebanon is probably now one of the quietest regions in the whole area not only in Lebanon. It is booming with visitors and tourists and it is now becoming more known for leisure than war,” Tenenti added.

UNIFIL, one of the most sensitive UN missions and the largest in the Middle East, ensures the liaison between the Lebanese and Israeli armies to defuse tensions and prevent possible escalations at the border.

“The tripartite meeting (sponsored by UNIFIL) is the only meeting in which you have IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) and LAF (Lebanese Armed Forces) officers sitting in the same room. It provides a kind of confidence-building mechanism,” Tenenti said.

“When you talk to the parties on the ground, you see that no one wants to escalate but they all want to preserve the stability that we are able to maintain in the south. Stability has been beneficial for both parties. It is a win-win situation for both.”

“Of course, the situation in southern Lebanon remains volatile and anything could potentially happen but, so far, we have been able to prevent violence through the tripartite meetings and by engaging immediately when there is a problem,” he added.

This year’s vote passed more easily than that of the year before, during which US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley lobbied for a change in the text of the mandate, accusing Hezbollah of stepping up its military presence in the embargoed zone.

UNIFIL subsequently reinforced its operations, increasing its joint exercises with the LAF by more than one-third and its foot patrols by 60%. In June this year, it initiated 36-hour patrols.

Retired Lebanese Army officer and military researcher General Hisham Jaber said UNIFIL’s importance was a sign of international commitment to Lebanon’s stability.

“It is true that UNIFIL could not prevent Israeli attacks and invasion in the past but [it] offered great services within their capacities. Though it did not have a big military power, its mere presence is important because it represents many states, including permanent members of the Security Council,” Jaber said.

“The slight reduction in UNIFIL’s budget will not affect its operations or its effectiveness,” Tenenti said. “Obviously there is still a big need for UNIFIL.”