Interview with Independent Arabia
UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon: Government Promises Alone not Enough for Lebanon
The international and Arab position seems more united than ever regarding the economic and financial crisis sweeping Lebanon in an unprecedented way in its history. Although there are some slight divergences over its political crisis that emanated as a result of the alliances that shaped its political decision, due to the intersection of regional interests with internal factors related to the country’s power system.
Ambassadors of major powers unanimously agree that Lebanon’s ability to overcome the crisis sparked by the popular uprising against the ruling political class is also unprecedented. The solution is in the hands of the Lebanese, after the country’s politicians became used to requesting foreign assistance to address the imbalances of its public finances during the past decades, without fulfilling reform promises.
A single expression
“No blank cheque” for Lebanese authorities, pending the demonstration of its seriousness in implementing reforms to halt squandering and corruption that resulted from sectarian and partisan quotas, especially in the past few years. This is the expression repeated by all ambassadors in Beirut.
The clearest evidence of the unity of the international and Arab position regarding Lebanon’s crisis is the latest statement of the International Support Group for Lebanon – which includes the five permanent UN Security Council members, in addition to Germany, Italy, the United Nations, the European Union, and the Arab League – following the formation of the new government headed by Hassan Diab. It recalled the roadmap it put forward on 11 December 2019, less than two months after the outbreak of the popular uprising and the resignation of Saad Hariri’s government, in an event attended by representatives of major Arab countries.
Tips for Diab
The ambassadors of the International Support Group have made it clear that official Lebanese reform promises are not trusted, and concrete measures are required.
In parallel, the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis has reiterated in the recent months a message he delivered to senior officials in Lebanon. Diplomatic sources told “Independent Arabia” that he offered advice to Prime Minister Hassan Diab on what the ministerial statement must include in terms of reform plans, in response to protesters in the streets and the international community, and based on the latest ISG statement, in terms of disassociation from regional conflicts, the implementation of Security Council resolutions and reforms, and the importance of setting timeframes for that.
“Independent Arabia” has met with the renowned diplomat who previously mastered crises like the one Lebanon is experiencing, and who realizes the intertwinement between Lebanon’s crisis and the complexities of the region, especially since he previously worked in Iraq and delved into the evolving regional situation.
He commented on the remarks of United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres about the importance of the stability of Lebanon for the stability of the region and about what can be done by the UN to maintain this stability. “The stability and security of Lebanon for the UN, the region and the Lebanese people should be of crucial importance because it is a positive factor, just as instability is a negative factor in a difficult, fragile and conflict-stricken region. The position of the Secretary-General confirms this, and he reaffirms the commitment of the UN to work for the stability and security of Lebanon. This is a positive indication that highlights the position of the entire international community, not only the UN. I can confirm that this position stems from the meetings of the Security Council and the ISG.”
“How can this be achieved? You will find the answer in the Security Council, ISG and Secretary-General positions and resolutions, that is, through the quick, clear, and decisive implementation of a set of proposed reforms to address the reasons that led the country towards its deep economic, financial and social crisis. The socioeconomic factor is now the main component of the crisis and should be addressed to preserve stability and make the country safer too. I hope that the government will focus in its program on economy and social needs. I also hope it will set concrete goals, steps and standards in a way that enables both the government and the political forces that will back it in Parliament to be held accountable for delivering on the reforms or not. This is important regardless of whatever the program is and whoever will back the government. I hope that this will be the solution for the government’s program and first steps. I expect the government’s intentions to be quickly implemented and translated into an action plan, standards, goals, timeframes, that can allow the people to judge the commitment to the pledges, because words and promises are not enough. The programs of previous governments included many unfulfilled promises. Now, transparency, responsibility and accountability are crucially important for the government’s credibility.
Addressing the banking crisis begins at home
Asked about whether the international community will assist Lebanon in dealing with its liquidity crisis before the implementation of reforms to prevent a total collapse, Kubis says: “this is not the case. Previous governments requested help after gaining the vote of confidence. This time, we have to see the government’s first steps, its commitment to its obligations, accountability, good governance. Before that, there will not be many countries ready to offer blank cheques. What I hear is quite the contrary: no blank cheques. Regarding the availability of liquidity, this should be address by the government, the Central Bank, the banking sector, based on a clear plan that starts with transparency. There are many speculations about the available foreign reserves in the Central Bank. No one has a clear answer on that. If there is a will to solve the crisis, transparency should be the starting point, in order to have a clear idea about the country’s exact situation and prepare a comprehensive rescue plan to allow the government to start implementing its first steps. Only then, and not before that, Lebanese officials can come to their international partners and ask them for support in the implementation of their own part of the plan.”
International humanitarian aid
As he reiterated that there will be “no blank cheques,” Kubis stressed that “the stability of Lebanon is very dear to the international community, but they have had their own experiences at the same time. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the government and political forces of Lebanon to convince the Lebanese people first, then the international community, that what is happening is not business as usual, and that they are serious and have a vision, a plan, based on transparency and accountability for all, and that they really want to break with previous practices.”
However, Kubis was keen on affirming that “humanitarian assistance will continue. The UN is seeking to draw the attention of its partners that it is increasingly important to meet the needs of more and more Lebanese who are becoming poorer. There will be more mobilization at this level, and we, at least as UN, will provide more assistance to the Lebanese people in the coming period. But this only addresses the symptoms and consequences. The country needs radical solutions to the root causes of this difficult and existential crisis that Lebanon is facing.”
Everyone is fed up
Asked about the responsiveness of the officials he met with the need to listen to protesters and take their demands into account, Kubis said: “I don’t know. My message was ‘listen to the people, not only those who are protesting, but also those who are not protesting but share the same concerns and needs with protesters.’ Everyone is fed up with the lack of 24/7 electricity, unemployment, rampant poverty, lack of a social safety net, lack of proper healthcare for basic needs. These are concerns shared by everyone and not only protesters who are raising their voices.”
Therefore, Kubis considers that “the government’s ministerial statement will offer an early indication into its intentions, that should be quickly followed by concrete and clear steps, not only in the fields I mentioned but also in other fields as well. There are alarming priorities, including waste management that triggered the 2016 protests, and in which I think people have not witnessed significant progress. There are many issues on the agenda that need to be prioritized and translated into practical steps. Then, I would be able to answer whether the country’s politicians heard the voice of the people. It is up to them to support the government’s reform plan or not. If they fail to support the government’s plan and act as the driving force behind it – and this includes those who back the government and those who are in the opposition because Lebanon is at stake and it is not a mere political game – then I would be able to answer if they have listened to the voice of the people. At the time being, I only see a chance.”
The peace plan and Palestinian refugees
Assessing the implications of U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace proposal on Lebanon, Kubis said that “the plan was announced and many of its elements have been divulged to the public opinion, and many have been implemented prior to the announcement. I don’t have an answer at the time being, because there is an inclination to hold a Security Council meeting on this issue. We are monitoring what is happening in Israel following the announcement of the plan. Some countries – including some Arab countries – are encouraging the parties to engage in negotiations. For the UN, there is no need to repeat what the Secretary-General said regarding the total commitment to Security Council resolutions, the two-state solution, the respect of the pre-1967 lines, and this is the UN’s main approach. As for its implications on Lebanon, I hope that the issue will not be excessively politicized here, and that this will not turn against the interests of the Palestinians in Lebanon. I know that the situation is difficult for the Lebanese, and it is also difficult for the Palestinians. They have the right to return, and we understand that this is Lebanon’s position, along with the rejection of all naturalization attempts. But at the same time, I hope that this will not make things more difficult for the Palestinians where they are temporarily present, despite having been present there for a long time, and they should continue to live normally as part of the population of Lebanon.”