15 MAY 2008

While Beirut was almost burning, there were no signals of vivid interest or active role by the U.N. Secretariat. Mere statements of concern by the Secretary General in New York, however very well intentioned, seemed almost irrelevant; they were routinely reported amongst other statements. The Security Council kept a close look. It took resolutions and displayed serious interest. But the Secretary General's role is different. Complimentary to the Council; in close co-ordination with the Council, in line with Council resolutions. But uniquely different.

The absence of visible live U.N. political presence is not only eroding its established role and undercutting the credibility of the Secretary General. It is also one negative factor in a deteriorating situation with obvious impact on other U.N. operations -- notably UNIFIL.

You cannot run a volatile situation by remote control. Outgoing Special Representative Geir Pedersen played a constructive and helpful role. But after he left in March, no immediate action was taken to fill a glaring void. Though Ambassador Verbeke was designated, he has not taken over yet. Word is that he would like to preside over the Security Council in August before proceeding to Beirut! By then no one knows what would have happened in Beirut -- and whether the Belgian diplomat would make it in time for any meaningful assignment.

Already, the U.N. Secretariat was suffering from an accusation by some that recent reports of the Secretary General had been submitted to the Security Council by an envoy who did not even visit Lebanon or meet with Lebanese parties on the ground. The fact is that Mr. Terje Larson was not welcome in Lebanon, is persona non-grata in Syria and the Palestinian territories, had been partially compensated by the active physical presence of Mr. Pedersen in Beirut. Now the U.N. Secretariat is not only vulnerable to accusations of bias, but to a perception of indifference. Over the last three years, Lebanon has been hit by a series of political earthquakes and hurricanes. The terrorist murder of Prime Minister Hariri in broad daylight; the sudden withdrawal of Syria troops while maintaining other elements of its presence in the absence of real national leadership; the 2006 Israeli war against Hezbollah which hit all Lebanon; the impact of U.S. military invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein; an overall Iranian political paramilitary offensive starting with Iraq passing through Syria and reaching a peak in Lebanon. The cross-currents in the region and the irresponsible attitude of political adventurers are placing increasing pressure on a country built on understanding, consensus and peaceful co-existence.

Clearly, all that will impact on U.N. presence in that country. Over the last thirty years, UNIFIL has been one of the most successful U.N. field operations. Despite changes in contingents and shifts in contributing nationalities, it has been generally perceived by the local population of South Lebanon as a valuable asset for stability and a basic element in the normalcy of their daily lives. The level of inter-marriages since 1978 is obvious proof. The relative atmosphere of local peace -- as opposed to regional conflict -- has been unique.

There are now, however, indications of a tense shift. UNIFIL is accustomed to being cornered -- or sandwiched -- between armed, yet generally controllable elements on the ground, and the Israeli forces across the nearby border. Effective liaison by the Force Commander with official -- and unofficial -- parties helped to keep troops out of harms way. New elements injected into the potentially volatile situation include the following:

  1. Direct threats to UNIFIL by Al-Qaeda number two Dr. Ayman Zawahiri. Although South Lebanon is an unlikely base for a paramilitary Sunni group (populations are mostly Shiite and Christians), the risk is that some elements in the neighbourhood would be "contracted" to carry that threat, as what happened against some Spanish soldiers last year. Supposedly, there are some isolated, yet readily available militants in the North and Eastern mountainous regions.
  2. Rising tension in Beirut while two Arab countries with special influence in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria (dubbed locally as the SS obstacle), are slugging it out through proxies as two other regional adversaries, Iran and Israel (also with influential proxies) raise the level of their rhetorical exchanges. Israeli accusations that UNIFIL is not publicly reporting about Hezbollah military activities and Hezbollah accusations that some UNIFIL elements were attempting to "spy" on the population drives its soldiers to be more on the defensive; stunned, extra cautious and nervous -- which almost paralyzes its ability to operate effectively.
  3. An untimely vacuum in U.N. Political and Communications presence allows for inaccurate and obviously unfair interpretation of its current role. A case in point was the mostly negative impact of the latest report which came out under the name of the Secretary General. While Mr. Ban still enjoys a semi-neutral standing by mostly curious internal parties, there has been a string of accusations against at least his envoy Terje Larsen, who seems to enjoy being unpopular there. (Perhaps its helps here where he thinks it matters more.) We will not go into much detail on this, but the Secretary General's office may wish to review various remarks and statements coming out of Beirut the last week of April.

UNIFIL and the U.N. have a solid reliable ally in Prime Minister Seniora and in Army Commander General Suleiman. They could always be counted upon to extend crucial support. UNIFIL Commander General Grazzanio is highly regarded by all factions. But he, with the help of all U.N. supporters, can only do so much when engulfed by wider tension.

It is important, therefore, for U.N. Headquarters to help the Lebanese authority and UNIFIL command in the most practical way -- and not add to their problems with positions or statements that inflame the situation beyond their control. Even more important, the Secretary General needs practical support and informed advice to strengthen his hand in dealing with an increasingly delicate situation in Lebanon, with an unpredictable yet obvious impact on UNIFIL.

No one side, no one party can win in Lebanon. It is a country based on mutual agreement. As Pope John Paul once described it, it is like a dove that flies with its two wings. No military clashes, nor foreign intervention, can change that equation for long. Despite all the goodwill from outside, only the Lebanese can accomplish their own reconciliation. The role of the U.N. Secretariat is to help them in peaceful national dialogue and reconciliation. It should be seen publicly doing so. A glaring absence is neither helpful to Lebanon nor good for the U.N. standing.