Transcript – Remarks of UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis During Meeting with Press Syndicate, 5 February 2020 (edited for style)
Following opening remarks and questions, delivered by Joseph Kosseifi - Head of the Press Editors Syndicate, focusing on the work of the UN in Lebanon and the world
Thank you very much for the invitation. For me, it’s the first opportunity to meet the Syndicate and I have expected discussion on a number of issues, notably with regards to the work of the media in the country, information about how you are organized, information that would perhaps provide more details of the challenges, because I am aware of a lot of challenges that you face.
It will help the United Nations and myself, to be even when more active in discussing what the UN has in its mandate and what we see as important when supporting Lebanon and its people, when supporting the stability, security, and development of this beautiful country.
In my previous missions, I learned to highly value the work of the media and journalists, and to protect and promote their rights to work freely without intimidation of any kind, but also to look at the legal norms that are there to protect them and to implement the relevant frameworks in courts if there are issues. To understand what is happening, whether they are pressured by media owners, by their own political audience to take sides, notably in the situation of Lebanon that is facing numerous and very critical challenges. At the same time, Lebanon is now hopefully in the phase of opportunities and can start effectively addressing those challenges.
For the leaders of the country to be able to play their role and be respected, one needs free media, one needs protection of the work of the media, and of freedom of expression. The media is not only a litmus test of democracy, but it can be a factor of change. And I’m very happy that here in Lebanon the media plays this role and can be a catalyst of change.
The UN role is not just to follow and report. In case of need, we raise our voice in protection of journalists, in protection of the media. My colleagues and I are active through statements, through positions, but also as necessary raising issues with the respective authorities of the country in case something wrong is happening to the media.
I hope that you have noticed that this is the way the UN in Lebanon works on the whole range of other issues. We are active, we are not only monitoring and reporting, but we are trying to play a certain role, of course in full respect of the noninterference principle, in full respect of working with the country and respecting its sovereignty on the issues and processes that are internal matters of the country.
But let’s not forget, Lebanon is a founding member, one of the founding fathers of the United Nations as you yourself mentioned, Mr. Chairman. Lebanon is an active member of the UN and many other international organizations. Lebanon is a party to many legal conventions, and is obliged to follow certain norms, rules, principles, commitments and obligations. We will never hesitate to raise either the compliance or noncompliance of Lebanon with authorities of this country, as it is the case with any other country in case there are issues or problems. But also we come with advice on how to do better.
This is in response to a number of questions you have raised, Mr. Chairman. We don’t just sit and observe but we help Lebanon in trying to move forward, help achieving the necessary change. This is the essence of the activism United Nations. This is our indispensable mandate, be it globally or, in this case, in Lebanon. It’s manifested through numerous bigger and smaller activities.
The work of one of the largest peacekeeping operations, UNIFIL, has contributed notably since 2006 in a massive way to maintaining calm, peace, and stability in the south of the country, along the Blue Line. This is something that has been acknowledged highly by representatives of Lebanon and Israel. Of course, there are many issues with regards to the situation and implementation, or lack of implementation of different norms and resolutions of the Security Council, notably its Resolution 1701 (2006), by both sides.
It is not for me to give an assessment of the work of UNIFIL. This is for the Security Council and the Secretary-General. If you would like to have more information about the assessment and the positioning of UNIFIL, please read the reports of the Secretary-General and you will have many examples about the implementation, but also non-implementation of this and other resolutions. Read statements of the Security Council including the last Resolution 2485 (2019), that will provide answers with regards to your questions. I believe that then you all will have more clarity about what UNIFIL is doing and how open we are about both achievements but also issues and problems.
You asked about the activities and work of the UN here in the country, and I’m happy to see that you acknowledge the work of the whole UN system, including a number of UN agencies, funds and programs that are active in many areas, including providing assistance to refugees but also more and more to Lebanese that are suffering from increased poverty in the country due to the deep economic and social crisis that the country is facing, so far without the appropriate response of the authorities.
I can affirm that we are not only mobilizing ourselves, but the broader international community to provide more assistance to the Lebanese society, to whole groups and segments of Lebanese that are increasingly sliding down towards poverty. We understand the situation, and our development and humanitarian colleagues and partners are ready to increase assistance.
Based on our humanitarian obligations but also on your, Lebanon’s commitments and obligation based on the international humanitarian law, we provide as part of the international community assistance to refugees, Syrian refugees, but also through UNRWA to Palestinian refugees. Honoring the international humanitarian law, we actively seek, as the UN system, all avenues to facilitate safe, dignified and voluntary return of refugees back to their home. That concerns not only the Syrian refugees but confirms the right of return for the Palestinians as well. These are the norms of the United Nations and have been stated very clearly by the Secretary-General in his latest statements.
To be able to do our work in Lebanon and for Lebanese, we need a partner, we need a government, that is managing the country on behalf of the people of the country. But, hopefully, and this is what we have been urging, in line with the aspirations and vision expressed by the people of the country. In Lebanon’s case, those that are protesting but also those who share a number of the concerns but are not in the street. Listen to the voice of the people. This has been the message of the UN since the start of the 17 October uprising. What kind of government that is your internal business, but we hope very much that the ministerial program of the government in the making will reflect the intent to listen and take on board the critical needs and demands of the people, will promote and provide a clear roadmap with benchmarks necessary for action and accountability, and will provide the UN the opportunity to support reforms, starting with addressing the economic, financial, fiscal and social crises that the country is facing.
Question - Syndicate Chairman: We thank your contribution Mr. Ambassador., especially as you have shed the light on important issues. Your Excellency’s role should not be confined to discussing a single issue. We are aware of the UN’s commitment to the role of the media, and we are also working on achieving the same goal. We hope to learn from you how can the United Nations help the struggling media? We are facing many challenges, either related to freedom of expression and in dealing with the authorities and protesters, but we also have financial and logistical problems. Lebanese media played a prominent role in the region’s freedom of expression, and we wish to learn about how we can cooperate with the UN in this regard. We also hope to have your generosity by allowing our colleagues to ask you several questions. You have a special role on the Lebanese political scene. It is normal that when you show up, we’ll have all these questions. You are a focal point for all political actors.
Answer: I represent the UN, but I am not the whole UN. My colleagues and I are in constant touch with the political and constitutional leaders, but also with civil society, with experts. We try to garner their opinions to discuss with them their visions. I myself attended several meetings and my colleagues are in constant dialogue, including with those who are protesting, with different experts that are providing ideas for solutions, for change. Based on all of this, we sometimes also suggest ideas and proposals, based on our mandate. We can speak about and contribute to solutions for many things: anti-corruption, justice, elections, …etc.
Question: Lebanese newspapers are shutting down one after another. Yesterday, we had The Daily Star, and before we had Al-Safir, Al-Anwar… Does the UN play any role to support sustaining the media? On another hand, many reporters are being physically abused by either security forces or protesters. What mechanism can the UN adopt to ensure the protection of reporters in the streets?
Answer: I’ll start with the second question. We follow the protests by watching the TV – some of my UN colleagues are in the streets watching what’s happening there – and I know from your reporting that there are cases of abuse against journalists, coming from many corners. You can bring this kind of cases to our attention provided it is something you consider as necessary. First of all to authorities, but bring them to our attention as well. We do have instruments, and if we have more details – not only from the press or from us watching the things –we would be able to more effectively intervene on the grounds of freedom of expression, freedom of the media, and of course protecting the rights of journalists. We have a UN Human Rights office. They are very active and ready to assist. We have my deputy, who is responsible for UN activities in the humanitarian realm, but also in development and human rights. And I would be ready to assist as well.
On the first question, we are not an organization that can fund the media, because from what I’ve understood the pressure is mostly economic. But we are unhappy when we see the disappearance of any media. I can raise this issue with individual countries and respective institutions, because they may have funds and facilities. We are not happy to see any suspension of activities or disappearance of this or that media, regardless of what opinion they present, even if they have very partial, very partisan positions. Freedom of expression must be respected. Notably here in Lebanon where your role is extremely important as a catalyst and factor of change.
Question: Do you have any positive indications from the International Support Group for Lebanon? How can they help Lebanon and what are the conditions?
Answer: The conditions are reforms, reforms, reforms. You can get some indications from the statements of the International Support Group. They are pretty concrete and practical. More importantly, you can get indications from what the people of the country are asking, once again, those that are protesting, those that are not protesting, because their needs and requests are broadly shared and obvious. For example, it’s a shame to be without 24/7 electricity in Lebanon. So, I expect, I hope, that, for example, the new government will come with a clear action plan, how to address this, a plan that would provide for accountability. Not only intentions, but a clear action plan with deadlines, with timeframe, with responsibility and in a transparent way, including with the management bodies that are necessary to ensure the quality of the reform of the electricity sector, and this is just one issue. Then the international community is ready to assist. You will find such an attitude in many other areas, but now it starts with the new government, it’s still in the process of making, so I’m not making any more detailed statement on anything. We will wait, the developments of the coming days, the session of Parliament. But at the very moment, if we assume that there will be a vote of confidence, we, together with the rest of the friends of Lebanon, will be not only watching, but encouraging reforms. It’s obvious what the country needs, in which areas. And then, we will try to help, but it must start with the work of the government, and it must be the right set of reforms and their resolute implementation. If this is not going to happen, I’m sorry. If you don’t help yourselves, why do you expect assistance from the outside world?
Question: Why hasn’t the United Nations directed its power to respond to wars and economic crises resulting from U.S. embargoes. The Americans have adopted the approach of economic wars, and this is partly responsible for Lebanon’s current crisis. The United Nations is apparently not having its say on this. The same thing applies for the media. A major chunk of the media’s challenges today is linked to the digital revolution and social media firms, which have strongly affected and led to the bankruptcy of several media outlets. The United Nations should have intervened before these firms, because they are responsible for the bankruptcy of traditional media outlets. The United Nations must be revamped and develop its role.
Answer: Well, this is more of a statement than a question. I’m not sure that I would wish to respond to statements. It would grow into a sort of exchange of positions. As regards the UN, I can tell you that, although I would love to see the United Nations so strong as to be able to do all the necessary things that are prescribed by the Charter, and other norms, we are not in such position. We do, we report, we speak, and sometimes that’s it. But we go further than that whenever there is a space. Sometimes the space doesn’t exist. On major issues notably of peace and war, again, I’m referring to the paramount role of the UN Security Council, and, very often, it’s them that are giving us the mandate or create space to do or not to do. So, it’s a very complex situation. But I will say one thing, without the UN, the world would have been a much worse place. You would have had wars, conflicts, problems, without any mobilization of a concerted effort of the international community to stop or solve them, a world without norms, rules of the game, world that would be given to the mercy – 100%, uncontrolled mercy of different powers. You would not wish to be in such world.
Question: In addition to the challenges Lebanon is facing, a new challenge now is that of the Deal of the Century, or the U.S. peace plan. What is the role of the UN in this context, especially since we are talking about the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, and what role it will have to protect Lebanese interests, knowing that they will be consequently harmed, especially with regards to naturalization?
Answer: For us as the United Nations, the position is clear, and, again, it was expressed by the Secretary General several times after the announcement made in Washington. Allegiance to the respective body of the UN Security Resolutions, including allegiance to a two-state solution, and negotiations that are necessary between the parties, reference to the pre-1967 borders. Among the elements of these resolutions is clearly the right of return. This is the positions of the United Nations, as expressed many times by the Security Council, by the Secretary General. Also, I refer you to quite an elaborate press conference of the Secretary General yesterday, and there were questions to this extent, including questions related to Lebanon.
Question: You mentioned UN support to Syrian refugees. You certainly know that all the Lebanese agree against the permanent resettlement [of Palestinians] and support the return of Syrian refugees, especially because they have access to most aid, and they receive it in hard currency, and they are competing with the Lebanese [in the job market]. Most of them are pro-Syrian regime and can return, and many areas have been liberated and are now safe. What can the UN do to help Lebanon, especially because refugees are sharing with the Lebanese the infrastructure?
Answer: Well, there are several elements in your question. One, and I would like to confirm that we really help Lebanon to face the heavy burden of the long-term presence of refugees, starting a long time ago with Palestinians, but now, as of the last many years, with Syrian refugees here. We are aware of the heavy impact on the job market, on the infrastructure. We therefore plan to accelerate assistance for more and more of the Lebanese, including communities which are hosting refugees now that the situation is getting worse and worse. Secondly, we are committed to safe, dignified and voluntary returns. We will not go against these principles. We as the UN are working with the respective Lebanese and Syrian authorities, and we register that there is maybe a small but nonetheless an increase in the number of those that are expressing their wish to return back. We will facilitate that, if that’s their wish. If you would like to learn more about details, I will refer you to my deputy, who is also the Humanitarian Coordinator, and he can give you a much more elaborate response to these questions. I’m also protecting his mandate, because usually, we try to keep some separation between the political mandate that is mine and the humanitarian mandate that is his.