Lebanon has long been a model of relative stability in the Middle East, but with economic, political and security strains on the country, Sigrid Kaag, United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon (UNSCOL), said that stability is very fragile.
“I often get very worried when we applaud and recognize Lebanon’s resilience,” she said, speaking at a March 15, 2016 event entitled “How to Keep Lebanon Stable in an Unstable Region.” “That doesn’t mean we can take our eye off the ball for a very split second.”
The international community, and Europe in particular, cannot ignore the mounting crisis in Lebanon, as it is a keystone of regional stability, she said.
She emphasized the importance of investing in Lebanese institutions. “If you do not want further problems to come your way, invest… in Lebanon’s stability and security, including through assistance for refugees, but not only,” she said. “Take stabilization as an ambitious agenda and build that.”
Ten years on from UN Security Council Resolution 1701 on Lebanon, Kaag emphasized that unlike previous UN mandates, which had only given the UN authority in the Southern border area, today, “We don’t split a country, we look at it holistically.”
“We’ve adopted, with the support of the Security Council, a whole of Lebanon approach, and that requires a whole of system support mechanism with international support,” she said.
With international attention for the Middle East primarily focused on the failure to find a political solution to the Syrian civil war, and the resulting refugee crisis, Lebanese leaders need to “focus on managing affairs of state by their own hands,” she said.
After nearly two years without a head of state, her first recommendation on stabilizing Lebanon at IPI March 15th 2016, was for the country to “elect a president without fail.” The parliament has failed 35 times to attract a quorum to hold a vote.
“We need to create all prospects for national elections in 2017,” she said.
And Lebanon needs to act on its own, she said. “Do not wait for anyone from the region, shield your own country from regional tensions.”
Without a chief executive, key aspects of Lebanon’s public sector cannot function, she explained. “Decisions do not get adopted, laws do not get passed, politics has become more and more fractured, and there is a delay in executive life of the state,” she said. “You can erode your own country without violence, and that’s what we see in Lebanon.”
The absence of a political process is making the population restive, she said. “As you know, the less you have elections, the more the gap between political elite and class,” she said.
Disenfranchisement of Lebanon’s large refugee community poses acute challenges, she said. Lebanon hosts approximately 50,000 Palestinian refugees, and an additional 1.3 million Syrian refugees followed last year.
“Refugees which came from Syria are twice or three times displaced,” when they reach Lebanon, she pointed out. “It is a repeat lifecycle of displacement.”
The UN Refugee Agency, (UNHCR), reported that with further refugee flows anticipated, the country’s “exceptional hospitality will be extremely stretched.”
Answering a question about Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees, she said, “The more marginalized you are, the less access you have to opportunities and assistance.”
While being careful not to make generalizations about any one ethnic or socioeconomic refugee group, she did acknowledge that the most desperate among these refugees might be prone to narratives that lead to thier radicalization by extremists.
Kaag said that the goals of addressing the refugee crisis, and improving stability in Lebanon, go together. However, to achieve both, there must be a shift in mindset.
“We need to look at creating employment opportunities for the Lebanese, and under certain conditions, the Syrian refugees,” she said. “Syrian refugees are an asset, they don’t have to be a liability. The more we invest in education, the more we can employ where possible, Syrian refugees.”
Reflecting on the failure of European institutions to meet the needs of the migrants flowing to the continent, Kaag praised Lebanon’s institutions for giving refugees rights and dignity in their country.
“There is no OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development)-DAC (Development Assistance Committee) country that could manage 400,000 children, as new school arrivals, [with] language deficits, and war traumatized, in a five-year period,” she said. “This is a tremendous achievement, with all the obstacles, but that is to be expected. The achievement is tremendous, and that is really to Lebanon’s credit.”
The event was held as part of IPI’s Special Representatives of the Secretary-General (SRSG) Series.
IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations, Warren Hoge, moderated the conversation.