Lebanon (Tasnim) – A Senior UN official in Lebanon says that there’s a tendency in Lebanon to look to regional and international actors for solutions. However, the “Iron Lady” believes that ultimately solutions need to be identified and carried out by Lebanon itself.
Sigrid Kaag, the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon (UNSCOL), made the remarks in an exclusive interview with Tasnim News Agency in early October during an official visit to Tehran.
In the interview, the Dutch diplomat also discussed issues surrounding her previous tenure as the head of the joint Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations mission for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons between October 2013 and September 2014.
The following is the full text of the interview:
Tasnim: What is the role and areas of activities for the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon and what is the agenda and what are the limitations in this regard?
UN Envoy: First of all I’m delighted to be here in Tehran, as one of a number of regional visits I regularly undertake. The role of the Special Coordinator for the UN in Lebanon is that of the special representative of the Secretary General, and that means that I’m responsible for all matters related to peace and security, stability, humanitarian assistance and development, supported of course by a very wide United Nations team. At the moment we have 25 UN funds, programs and agencies, working in Lebanon on a varied range of portfolios, from humanitarian assistance for the Palestine refugees through UNRWA, or support for the Syrian refugees through UNHCR, but also UNDP, WHO, and many others. I also work very closely with the Force Commander of UNIFIL. The challenges are to help the Lebanese keep the country stable, preserve its territorial integrity, look for opportunities for sustainable development, but also deal with the many crisis situations that currently impact Lebanon. It’s a rewarding leadership assignment, for Lebanon is in a volatile region, and is facing multiple challenges, not necessarily originating from Lebanon. The UN is always seeking to assist Lebanon be preserved as a regional model of tolerance, diversity and co-existence. It’s important not just for Lebanon, but for the region.
Tasnim: Do you engage directly with people from different political parties in Lebanon, from al-Mustaqbal to Hezbollah? why and how often?
UN Envoy: I undertake a variety of meetings like any envoy or senior ambassador in a country, but the frequency is sometimes determined by the issues. Let’s say at the moment we are very much looking to follow up on the language of the presidential statement of the Security Council of 22 July, where there are a number of asks, which focus on the opportunity to establish a compromise on the political spectrum in Lebanon. Now, I have been asked and tasked to intensify contacts, so of course I would meet with all political leaders and representatives of movements and groups in the country – but also of course with allies of Lebanon in the region. Another big component is engagement with civil society, either on themes such as women in political life, or let’s say the organization that deals with democratic elections. There is a wide spectrum; and as you know Lebanon is very dynamic and diverse.
Tasnim: We have UNIFIL in Lebanon. What is the UNIFIL doing now in Lebanon and from what countries are its forces from?
UN Envoy: Actually there are 40 countries at the moment represented in UNIFIL; as you know UNIFIL is one of the largest UN peace-keeping operations, it’s also amongst the older ones. I think UNIFIL is very specific; it helps preserve calm in the south of Lebanon, across the Blue Line in the interests of Lebanon and Israel. In terms of furtherance and follow-up to the political components of Security Council resolution 1701, I am tasked, along with my mission staff, and I do that in collaboration with UNIFIL.
Tasnim: What is the root cause of the ongoing political crisis in relation to the presidential vacuum in Lebanon and how much of the role and share do you see for the foreign pressure or interferences?
UN Envoy: I think the call by the international community has always been very clear: That it is up to the Lebanese leaders to elect urgently and flexibly the next presidential candidate and to establish consensus. With the passing of time, 27 months, we have also seen that the institutions of state, including of course through the vacuum in the presidency, are being eroded. This, directly and indirectly harms Lebanon’s prospects socio-economically, politically, but also security-wise. So, there is a negative impact on the country’s stability.
It is important to look at compromise and the opportunity to establish compromise in the national interests of Lebanon. When you look at the possible future negative impact that could be brought to Lebanon resulting from continued volatility in the region, the call from the international community is also a call to action, and a call for national leadership accountability. As I mentioned, there’s a tendency in Lebanon to look very much to regional actors and internationally to find solutions. This is understandable, but ultimately solutions need to be identified and carried out by Lebanon. And there are positive trajectories. Speaker Berri, the speaker of the parliament, for instance, had initiated a series of consultations called “dialogue” in which a number of key themes around possible compromise from electoral law, decentralization, the Senate, presidency, but of course also the government, were tabled. The elements are known to all the players and all the political leaders; they’re very experienced, and it’s really time to establish compromises that can keep national consensus and the equilibrium.
Tasnim: What have you, as the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, done so far and what will you do in future in the field of contributing to Lebanese officials and politicians to end presidential impasse in the country?
UN Envoy: We are very engaged through the International Support Group, nationally within Lebanon, in contacts and dialogue and promoting ideas with the different parties. We are engaged through the Security Council very regularly. The Secretary General himself has been very engaged. As his envoy, I travel frequently within the region, Iran is one example. I hope to travel again to Saudi Arabia soon. I’m off to Moscow in October; I’ve been of course to Paris and London. I will go back to New York to the Security Council in November. So, it’s an ongoing continuous effort, in close coordination with other players. Hopefully the positive effect will be to keep the issues alive and present. I think the solutions are known to all the parties, but we are not Lebanese, it is not our right to determine. It is up to the Lebanese to go to the parliament and to vote.
Tasnim: What has the UN done to help Lebanon accommodate and take care of Syrian refugees in the country?
UN Envoy: We’re doing an awful lot. But I would like to start by saying that the Lebanese are doing the most. From the beginning of the crisis, Lebanese citizens, institutions, NGO’s and of course also through ministerial state follow-up, there has been generosity of heart, spirit, but also in actual reception and hosting of the Syrian refugees. With the passing of time – today more than 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees are hosted by Lebanon, combined with approximately three hundred thousand Palestine registered refugees – it has become a very challenging, very difficult burden weighing heavily on Lebanon. What we’ve done from the beginning is to mobilize support, humanitarian assistance, temporary shelter, access to education, protection, healthcare through a range of programs – and of course this is to be financed. Over three and a half billion dollars have come to Lebanon, in support of UN-facilitated programs to assist with the reception, hosting and care of the Syrian and Palestine refugees, but also vulnerable Lebanese citizens; because we realize that there’s a potential consequence for social cohesion in the country, as well as for the socio-economic infrastructure of Lebanon.
Tasnim: Are you usually in touch with Iranian officials in issues related to Lebanon? You have paid a visit to Tehran, and you had previously also come here to talk with Iranian officials; and how often does it take place, and how were your recent meetings with the Iranian officials and who did you meet?
UN Envoy: I have regular contact with the Iranian officials be it in New York, when I’m there to brief the Security Council, or your permanent representative if I am in Geneva. But of course also in Tehran; this is my fourth visit or fifth, in a two and a half to three year time span. I’ve also visited when I was in charge of the joint mission to eliminate the declared chemical weapons program of the Syrian Arab Republic, so this is an ongoing dialogue; and of course I meet very regularly also with your ambassador in Beirut and sometimes with visiting delegations. We are equally in regular contact with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey and other countries in the region. This also includes regular consultations on Security Council resolution 1701 with regard to Lebanon and Israel. It depends on the issue; it depends on the level of engagement of the country with Lebanon and of course the types of relations. It is part of the Good Offices that any special representative of the Secretary General exercises and it’s very important to be in constant dialogue and contact with all possible parties because we need to establish not only what the common concerns are, but also where the solutions lie, when you look at it from the viewpoint of conflict prevention, collective security and stability.
Tasnim: How were your meetings with Iranian officials recently in Tehran?
UN Envoy: The meetings were excellent; it was my first opportunity to meet in his new capacity Deputy Foreign Minister (Hossein Jaberi) Ansari; I think we had very constructive discussions. I also met (deputy foreign) minister Araqchi. And it’s always very helpful and instructive and insightful to review issues in the region and also how they affect Lebanon, and of course it was an opportunity for me also to speak very much about the depth of the issues we see when it comes to Lebanon’s fragile stability and pass messages about our concerns for the country’s stability over time.
Tasnim: You were leading also the Joint Syrian mission of the UN. I’ve got a question: which job has been more difficult, leading joint Syrian mission of the UN and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons or being as special coordinator for Lebanon? Which is more difficult and why?
UN Envoy: It’s hard to compare because the joint mission was unprecedented and I don’t think such a mission will take place again. It also took place under a Security Council resolution with a very tight measurable deadline, removing and eliminating chemical weapons in a country at war. It was unique, it was a necessity and a must and I always like to believe it was a very modest, but enabling contribution to peace and security in the region. Lebanon is of course about political complexity, socio-economic challenges and it is about anticipating scenarios for the future and enabling success. The stakes are different. I think it’s hard to compare – on the one hand a time-bound mission versus an ongoing, changing, evolving political, socio-economic security scenario. So they’re equally validating and equally important, different points in time.
Tasnim: Why have you been called “Iron lady”?
UN Envoy: Iron lady was a name that my Syrian drivers gave me because they admired my stamina, and it comes back to the chemical weapons elimination mission; you see when you have a mission that is bigger than you are, than your individual being, when you have a duty, a duty to deliver and a duty of care, your body will carry many, many hours. So, I would come from New York, go straight to Damascus via Beirut of course, travel to Latakia, go back to Tartus, go back to Damascus; the Syrian drivers wondered out loud how I could do it, so there were two things: Syrian officials called me “more man than men”, and this was a gender compliment, and drivers said I was the “iron lady”, because I basically never slept; but I had no time to sleep, because as I would always say, the clock was ticking. That’s where that comes from. It’s not about my style, I think it’s about my discipline.
Tasnim: What’s the most difficult job you have ever done so far as a diplomat?
UN Envoy: As a diplomat, it’s hard to say. You know, difficulty is measured by the level of experience that you have. As you mature, as you gain experience and also you learn from the mistakes you made, or your misjudgements, I think difficulty changes in perspective. I know from the outside world, the elimination of Syria’s declared chemical weapon’s program is certainly one of the most challenging ones, and I believe, that is true. However, other assignments, be it in New York, when I was Assistant Secretary-General, having a senior role in a global system, was equally tough. But I think difficulties are overcome when you have a passion and a belief that this is the right course of action; so maybe I’m not giving you an answer, but I don’t look at what is difficult or not. I always try to find where solutions are, and I try to put my heart and my head – and head first – but with passion and compassion into helping establish new frameworks. I think principles and a belief in value systems are extremely important. And this can protect you from self-doubt, it can also guide you in an informed manner to withstand pressures.
Tasnim: What have been your sweetest and bitterest memories in Lebanon during your mandate?
UN Envoy: Well, I haven’t left yet. I think memories come when you leave. I was very impressed by the professional visit I made with the commander-in-chief, Jean Kahwaji; and the minister of defense, who is also the deputy Prime Minister, Samir Mouqbel to Arsal. I was also touched by a visit to an informal settlement of Syrian refugees who really have nothing and ask very little, but need our support; and equally so, when I visited a Palestine refugee camp – recently I went to Ein El-Hilweh – where the demand of refugees is access to jobs, education, better opportunities. So these are professional memories. When it comes to personal memories, it is having the opportunity to be with my children, take them to school or pick them up; being around helping my daughter get to her tennis class when I’m there, so trying to balance and compensate.
This report prepared by Tasnim News.