29 March 2011
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon

 


With no real movement towards forming a Government in Lebanon following the collapse nearly three months ago of Saad Hariri’s administration, United Nations envoy Michael Williams today called for an end to the political polarization in the Middle Eastern country so that both the security and development priorities of the people could be met.    


“We look forward to the early formation of a Government that can address the priorities of the Lebanese people, said Mr. Williams, Special Coordinator for Lebanon, during a Headquarters press conference immediately following his briefing to the Security Council on the situation in that country and on implementation of resolution 1701 (2006), which ended the 2006 war in Lebanon between Israel and Hizbullah.


Before updating the press on his talks with the Council, he first expressed concern over the apparent abduction of seven Estonian cyclists in the Bekaa Valley late last week.  “It has now been several days since their disappearance and I would like to take this opportunity to appeal for their immediate release from whoever is holding [them],” he said, adding that no purpose was served by their continued detention and he hoped the matter could be resolved soon.


Returning to the matter at hand, he said “enormous shifts and upheavals” were under way in the Middle East, and everywhere demands were being made for representative Governments.  At the same time, the situation in Lebanon remained high on the Council’s agenda while efforts continued in that country to form a new Government under the leadership of Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati.


In his meetings over the past several months with Mr. Mikati and others, he had made it clear that the United Nations expected that any new Government would continue to respect its international obligations, especially those derived from 1701.  He had been reassured by statements from Lebanese officials to that effect.


“On the Blue line itself, the cessation of hostilities continues to hold, and I am confident that this will remain the case in the coming period,” he said, adding that he had also expressed his satisfaction to the Council that the Tripartite Mechanism, led by the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), was continuing its important work.  “This is really quite a remarkable group,” he added, paying tribute to the commitment of UNIFIL, the Lebanese army and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to that important mechanism.


Continuing, he said, however, that all stakeholders seemed to feel the need to see more progress towards full implementation of resolution 1701, and he had reiterated in the Security Council his call on Israel to halt the “almost daily incursions of Lebanese airspace” and to withdraw from the northern part of the village of Ghajar.  “In this regard, we have had ongoing discussions with senior Lebanese and Israeli officials, and I hope that following the formation of a new Government in Lebanon, that we can proceed with this issue and see the withdrawal of the Israeli army from this pocket of Lebanese territory,” he said.


Mr. Williams said he had also told the Council that, inevitably, political polarization in Lebanon had affected implementation of the resolution.  He had expressed regret that, for example, the national dialogue had been in abeyance for some time now and had not met since early November.  He hoped that under the auspices of President [Michel] Suleiman that the dialogue’s participants could meet again after the new Government was formed.


“I feel [the national dialogue] plays an important part in addressing differences and tensions,” he said, adding in particular, that its role was vital to make progress on the development of a national defence strategy that would address arms outside the control of the State. 


He said he had also expressed the hope in the Council that a new Government, once formed, would reinvigorate its engagement to improve its management and control of the country’s borders.  During the Council’s consultations, Lebanon’s representative, a non-permanent member of the 15-nation body, had raised the issue of maritime borders and the exploration and exploitation of natural resources.


Lebanon had approached the United Nations for assistance with the delimitation of its maritime boundaries, he noted.  Inevitably, such a request required a decision by both Lebanon and Israel.  Israeli authorities had expressed to him that Israel did not envisage a role for the United Nations in that regard.  Nevertheless, they were anxious to avoid another area of conflict, and, as that was the case, the United Nations would continue to consider ways to keep the issue from becoming a source of friction.  “That is the last thing we need,” he added.


Taking a question on weapons smuggling to Syria, Mr. Williams said that the Secretary-General had made several statements during the past week expressing his concern, above all, about the loss of life there in the wake on ongoing anti-Government protests.  He believed the Secretary-General had also spoken to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to underline that concern.  What was happening in Syria could not be seen in isolation “from this extraordinary wave of revolt that has swept from the Maghreb to the Gulf, encompassing so many countries”, said Mr. Williams. 


In all cases, sadly, there had been “some loss of life”, he said, adding his hope that that would cease to continue, especially in Syria, which was Lebanon’s immediate neighbour.  He had seen press reports of arms smuggling from Lebanon, but had no knowledge of those activities.  At the same time, he added later that “there are far too many weapons in Lebanon”, particularly those not in Government hands.


To another question, he said events under way in North Africa and the Middle East could affect Lebanon both positively and negatively, but, overall, he believed that in the longer run, the fallout would be positive, both for Lebanon and throughout the region.


Connecting countries as far afield as Tunisia in the West and Bahrain in the East were popular protests affecting republics as well as kingdoms; countries that were pro-Western and those that might be seen as “more radical”, he said.  The events were based on demands for dignity and more representative forms of Government, and as that was the case, there might be positive ripple effects in Lebanon, which had a long tradition of more openness and freedom of the press than many of its neighbours.  However, there was always the possibility of increased tensions and violence, including sectarian violence, but he hoped that would not be the case.


Regarding the direct impact of the events in Syria on Lebanon, especially, said one correspondent, “since it’s no secret that Syria has a lot of leverage in Lebanese politics”, Mr. Williams reiterated his concern at the slow progress towards forming a new Lebanese Government.  Indeed, Saad al-Hariri’s Government had fallen in January, and there had been basically no movement since then.


He hoped that delay would not be much longer “but clearly there are difficulties.”  Recent talks between Syrian and Lebanese officials had been characterized by the view that it was in everyone’s interest that a sound Lebanese Government was formed as quickly as possible.  Yet, as the events in Syria were escalating, there might be further delays on the Lebanese side, he added.


To a query regarding the work and impact of the Special Tribunal set up to prosecute persons for the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, he recalled that, at the beginning of the year, the Prosecutor had passed the dossier to the pre-trial judge.  At that time, it had been estimated that indictments would be handed down in six to eight weeks.  But he believed that some of the indictments were being amended, and it was now being suggested that the delay could take up to a few months.


On the impact of the Tribunal’s activities, he acknowledged that the body’s work had contributed to political polarization in Lebanon, with some parties supporting it wholeheartedly and others expressing deep scepticism.  Personally, he believed “the more clarity, the better”, although he understood that “in some countries, legal issues had a tendency to drag out”, as seen with the investigations and trials regarding crimes committed during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.


“Can Lebanon survive without a Government?  Yes,” he continued, noting that there was a caretaker Government in place and that Ministers were in their offices and ministries were functioning “and functioning rather well”.  Yet, extraordinary events were sweeping the region, which could have an impact on Lebanon.  He very much hoped that, in the near-term, Prime Minister-designate Mikati, whom the United Nations fully supported, would be successful in his endeavours.


To a question regarding a rumoured visit by Security Council members to the region, he said he believed it had perhaps been decades since such a mission had been carried out in Lebanon.  Meanwhile, the mechanism of Council missions “is tried and tested” and had been very successful in Sudan and other places in Africa, as well as in Afghanistan.


Perhaps, given the nature of recent events in the region, “there is a greater purpose” to such a visit to Lebanon by the Council, he said, adding that “timing would be everything”, as always in such cases.  Moreover, in the background was the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  If the current round of face-to-face negotiations — on hold since early September 2010 — was to restart, gain momentum and then take hold, that would certainly do much to raise the hope of bolstering stability in the wider region.  The same held true regarding both Israel and Lebanon fulfilling their obligations under resolution 1701.


On the situation in Nahr al-Bared camp for Palestinian refugees, he said that despite worrying dismal conditions overall, he could report from a visit to the camp last November that real progress had been made towards reconstruction in the wake of fighting that had taken place in the area in 2007.  At the same time, he “bitterly regretted” the pace of refugee returns.  That process had been stalled by “many delays”, but lack of funding was a major hurdle.  There was a compelling humanitarian imperative for the situation in Nahr al-Bared and other Palestinian camps to be addressed.  As such, he appealed to the Council, to countries in the West, “and especially those in the Arab world to do more”.


“There needs to be greater will to take this process forward.”  He reiterated his overall concern about the situation in the camps, especially recent demonstrations against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and other agencies working to help the refugees.


* *** *


For information media • not an official record