UN helps Lebanon recover, as Europe returns to peacekeeping
On 12 July,when Hezbollah launched an attack on Israel, killing three Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two,both Lebanon and Israel were thrown back into a degree of conflict, death and destruction that their citizens had been spared in recent years. For the next 34 days the people of Lebanon and northern Israel experienced the worst fighting there for decades.More than 1,100 Lebanese were reported killed, mostly civilians, while more than one million were displaced within Lebanon or across its borders to neighbouring States. In northern Israel, dozens of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands slept in bomb shelters or headed south as thousands of Hezbollah rockets hailed down during the conflict. It was widely feared both in the region and internationally that if the conflict was not resolved quickly it could expand beyond the borders of Lebanon and Israel.The United Nations had to act fast to stop the loss of innocent life and prevent the violence from spreading.
In response to the crisis, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and dispatched a high-level delegation to the region comprised of his special political adviser, Vijay Nambiar, his Special Envoy for the Implementation of Security Council resolution 1559, Terje Rød-Larsen, as well as the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Alvaro de Soto. The troika travelled to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel to talk to the parties in a bid to find ways to defuse the crisis. This was the first of several diplomatic missions to the region undertaken by senior UN officials which culminated in the Secretary-General’s own visit in August.When not physically present in the Middle East, the Secretary- General and his aides remained engaged via intensive telephone diplomacy with leaders from both within and outside the region.
For its part, the Security Council also began intensive negotiations on the issue. On 14 July, the Council backed the Secretary-General’s decision to send a diplomatic mission to the region. However, its Members could not agree to call for an immediate cessation of hostilities. It took the Council five more weeks of negotiations before its members agreed to do so.
As the conflict dragged on, the Secretary- General became increasingly concerned over the violence marked by Hezbollah’s deliberate targeting of Israeli population centres and Israel’s disproportionate use of force resulting in large numbers of Lebanese civilian casualties. The Secretary-General repeatedly implored the Security Council to take steps to address the situation and stressed that “all members of the Council must be aware that its inability to act sooner has badly shaken the world’s faith in its authority and integrity.”
On 11 August, the Council adopted resolution 1701,which called for an immediate cessation of hostilities; a significantly expanded and more robust United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) with an authorized strength of 15,000; the deployment of Lebanese troops to southern Lebanon; and the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the same area. The resolution also called for the release of the captured Israeli soldiers, the creation of a weaponsfree zone in south Lebanon, and the ban on sales or supply of arms to Lebanon except as authorized by its Government. Furthermore, the resolution called for the delineation of Lebanon’s international borders and full implementation of the relevant provisions of the Taif Accords and of resolutions 1559 and 1680, that require the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese State.
Welcoming the resolution’s adoption, the Secretary-General paid tribute to UN personnel who worked through the conflict to help the affected population. “Indeed, UNIFIL's tenacity has made possible the diplomatic solution you have just forged,” he told Council members. He also urged continued global attention to the situation: “In order to prevent yet another eruption of violence and bloodshed, the international community must now be prepared to offer sustained support and assistance for the political and economic reconstruction of Lebanon, and also to address the broader context of crisis in the region.”
While the Security Council and the Secretary- General worked intensively to find a diplomatic solution, the UN peacekeepers on the ground courageously and professionally carried on with their duties. Officials from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) planned for contingencies.
Prior to the conflict erupting, UNIFIL had 2,000 soldiers in South Lebanon, and was tasked with maintaining a ceasefire along the 70-mile (121 km) Blue Line between Israel and Lebanon, by patrolling, observing, reporting violations and liaising with the parties to maintain calm. UNIFIL’s military contingents hailed from China, France, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Poland and Ukraine. Some 50 military observers from the Observer Group Lebanon (OGL), part of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), rounded out the peacekeepers’presence. The mission kept the Security Council informed of the situation on the ground – including the presence of armed militia; the regular violation of Lebanese airspace; attacks across the Blue Line; and the upsurge in volatility.
After the conflict erupted, UNIFIL continued to fulfill its core mandate of observing and reporting despite the high level of insecurity. However, UNIFIL’s ability to conduct patrols and occupy all observation posts was curtailed and its continued presence was threatened by a lack of critical supplies, including diesel fuel. Nonetheless, UNIFIL continued to support the work of the UN humanitarian agencies and carry out its own limited humanitarian activities in support of the local population.
Unfortunately, UNIFIL’s continued efforts came at a high cost as peacekeepers were often trapped by exchanges of fire between the two sides, and were occasionally directly caught up in fighting. In the most deadly incident, four military observers were killed when an Israeli laser-guided weapon struck the OGL’s Observer Post in Khiyam. The patrol base – obliterated in the fatal strike – had been clearly marked, easily distinguishable through visual recognition and in place for more than 30 years. The Israeli authorities – who had failed to heed repeated calls from senior UN officials about the closeness of earlier strikes – ultimately assumed responsibility for the fatal attack. A civilian UN staff member and his wife were killed and a number of UNIFIL troops and OGL observers injured in separate incidents.
The Secretary-General realized that while getting agreement on a resolution had proved difficult, getting the resolution implemented would be even harder. To build support for the swiftest possible implementation of 1701, including the deployment of a credible force to secure the fragile cessation of hostilities, he undertook an 11-day tour of Europe and the Middle East. Among his objectives were securing troop contributions; expediting the withdrawal of Israeli troops and deployment of Lebanese Armed Forces; convincing Israel to lift its blockade on Lebanon; and finding a mechanism to facilitate the release of the captured Israeli soldiers and Lebanese prisoners.
In Brussels, the Secretary-General worked with European leaders to generate the force necessary for South Lebanon. He left with a pledge of about 7,000 European troops – nearly half the total number of troops authorized under the enhanced UNIFIL. In addition to pledges of ‘boots on the ground,’ the Secretary- General also received a promise to put ‘boats in the sea’ through the proposed establishment of the UN’s largest maritime presence in its history.
Getting Israel to lift its blockade of Lebanon proved to be a greater challenge, but ultimately the Secretary-General’s persistence paid off. While Israel officials voiced concerns about the international community’s ability to cut the flow of arms to Hezbollah, the Secretary- General stepped up his diplomatic activities. Ten days later, after his meetings with regional leaders and phone conversations with world leaders and the parties involved, Israel finally agreed to a full lifting of the blockade.
Finding a mechanism to secure the release of the captured Israeli soldiers and Lebanese prisoners was also a high priority for the Secretary-General. After consultations with Israel and Lebanon, he appointed a facilitator to work with the two parties to find a mutually acceptable solution.
Throughout his trip, the Secretary-General stressed that he hoped his efforts towards stabilizing the situation in Lebanon, and relations between Lebanon and Israel, would also contribute to resolving other conflicts in the region – in particular the situation in Palestine and the Golan Heights.
While anticipating the Council’s decision on which kind of military force (UN-led or multinational) would be responsible for keeping the eventual peace, DPKO engaged in discussions with potential troop contributing countries about a prospective mission’s troop levels, requirements, and rules of engagement.
Once the decision was finally made that UNIFIL would be strengthened, the discussions intensified. It was obvious that UNIFIL’s rules of engagement must allow the forces to respond as required should the situation in southern Lebanon present any risk of a resumption of fighting. It was agreed that in addition to exercising the inherent right to self-defence, all UNIFIL personnel may use force to ensure that UNIFIL’s area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities; to resist attempts by forceful means to prevent UNIFIL from discharging its duties under the mandate of the Security Council; to protect UN personnel, facilities, installations and equipment; to ensure the security and freedom of movement of UN personnel and humanitarian workers; and to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence in its areas of deployment, within its capabilities.
UNIFIL’s Maritime Task Force (MTF) took over responsibility for supporting the Lebanese Navy in monitoring its territorial waters, securing the Lebanese coastline and preventing arms smuggling. With more than 1,600 sailors from Denmark,Germany,Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Turkey, the MTF is the largest maritime force ever to have served under the UN flag.
The unprecedented speed of the deployment of UN peacekeepers, from 2,000 to 8,000 in less than two months, with robust rules of engagement, enabled the withdrawal of Israeli troops and the deployment of the Lebanese Armed Forces all the way to the Blue Line – for the first time in decades. UNIFIL organized tripartite meetings between the parties – the first held in years – to ensure that this process went without any major hitches. Meanwhile, de-miners from UNIFIL and the UN Mine Action Service began work on ridding the area of unexploded ordnance – including cluster munitions – thus lowering the danger posed to the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who quickly returned to their homes in the south.
The Security Council’s decision to strengthen UNIFIL instead of replacing it with a different type of multinational force represented a vote of confidence in UN peacekeeping. In recent years the Security Council had often assigned high-profile international military peacekeeping operations to NATO or “coalitions of the willing,” instead of troops serving under the UN flag, – Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Timor- Leste serve as current examples. But when it came to South Lebanon, the Security Council realized that UN peacekeeping was the only viable option – proving once again that the Blue Helmets remain an invaluable tool for the international community to resolve crises that threaten international peace and security.
Europe’s decision to provide troops to the enhanced UNIFIL not only demonstrated the continent’s support for the people of Lebanon and Israel, but also signified that Europe was resuming a prominent role in UN peacekeeping. France and Italy drastically boosted their existing contributions to UNIFIL, and were joined by soldiers from 20 other countries both from Europe and beyond. Prior to this sizeable deployment of Blue Helmets to Lebanon, less than 6% of all UN peacekeepers serving globally had come from the continent – a considerable drop from the large number of European peacekeepers serving just a decade ago. In fact, the 7,000 troops pledged to Lebanon more than doubled the total number of military troops coming from European/NATO countries in all other UN peacekeeping missions.
In a unique arrangement, UNIFIL troop contributors have provided a total of 33 officers and staff to the mission’s strategic military cell at UN headquarters which provides military guidance at the strategic level to the forces on the ground.
The implementation of 1701 remains a barometer of the will of the international community and the parties on the ground to move ahead with a meaningful peace in the region.As the Secretary- General has pointed out, this new and welcome commitment must be matched by ongoing support and assistance not only to Lebanon and Israel, but to the wider Middle East region.
Prepared by the Peace and Security Section, United Nations Department of Public Information.
© United Nations 2007