Sigrid Kaag was named Special Coordinator for Lebanon at a particularly difficult time for a country that has had to demonstrate great resilience in the face of a troubled recent history. Ms Kaag is not new to challenging missions: She assumed the role of Special Coordinator after heading the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Mission to eliminate the chemical weapons programme of the Syrian Arab Republic. She brings with her a wealth of experience in political, humanitarian and development affairs alongside her diplomatic service, including in the Middle East. Here she talks to Politically Speaking about her priorities in Lebanon, the crisis roiling the region and the country and the role of women in peace and security work.
Given the current political crisis in Lebanon, what are your 2015 priorities for UNSCOL?
2015, of course, is a year in the midst of number of years of crisis that have affected the region. And Lebanon has not been immune to that. When I took up this assignment the team met to look ahead and to build a strategic vision going forward over multiple years, really looking at how we can strengthen the work around the three pillars of the UN’s engagement in the country. As the Special Coordinator for Lebanon as well as the head of UNSCOL, I am the senior representative for the Secretary-General, and together with my colleagues of the country team, we address issues around peace and security, humanitarian and development challenges.
When it comes to the peace and security pillar, of course, the backbone remains progress on implementation of Security Council resolution 1701 (calling for an end to the 2006 war and Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon), with a particular emphasis on maintaining the stability and ensuring that we do not have a reversal of the stability in the South, the longest period of calm from 2006 till January this year. Equally so, given the crisis in the region, Lebanon has faced tremendous challenges and risks – risks of radicalization, proliferation of arms in country, as well as attempts by extremist groups to either be present in the country or to upset a fine balance. That is also of course part of peace and security, to maintain that and to assist the Lebanese authorities to maintain that and to make progress towards that.
The humanitarian and development side of our work, collectively as the UN, is very much aimed at helping the Lebanese authorities to cope and manage the influx of the Syrian refugees in particular, but also continue to work with UNRWA, for instance, on assistance to the Palestine refugees who have been here for more than six decades and to not forget and really focus on the needs of the vulnerable Lebanese host communities. So, there is a triangulation, and it’s really all about the pillars of work of the UN at a time where Lebanon is really in a volatile region, more than ever before, to make sure that Lebanon as a unique country, that is known for its religious and ethnic diversity, its tremendous openness of society, in a country that has also witnessed civil war, that has been impacted by conflict for a long period of its creation, but yet it has the potential to thrive. So, our vision is One UN for one Lebanon, mitigating the worst, but really looking for the best for the country and looking forward.
The security situation in the country remains a concern. How do you see the current implementation of Security Council resolution 1701?
Since 1701, the country has witnessed over a nine year period, a period of remarkable tranquility and calm and I think that can be attributed to a large extent to the impact of the resolution, the adherence by the parties, at least to the notion of the importance of stability. Equally so, of course, in every report of the Secretary-General, he has expressed his concern about a series of violations, also the risks that are associated with all the unresolved issues that are clearly stated in 1701. So our work is twofold: the minimum and extremely important of course, is to maintain stability, to avoid any escalation, or risk of escalation due to miscalculation, due to events or incidents. The incidents of the 28 January are such an example. And the immediate deployment of our good offices, close collaboration with UNIFIL, contact with all parties have hopefully helped to lower the tensions and helped contain the situation that otherwise could have been fairly dramatic, potentially. Equally so, it also showed that the situation is yet stable but also fragile. So we continue to work, I’ve travelled recently to Tehran; I’ve also been in Jerusalem to have other discussions.
We maintain open channels here with all parties, we work very closely with the Lebanese authorities to make sure that we remain not only on message but also focused, that we never take our eyes off the ball. 1701 needs to be sustained, needs to be implemented but we also need to look for opportunities where problems can be resolved.
What more could the international community do to support Lebanon and its people?
The fact that you have an enormous proliferation of arms in the region, the ascendency and presence, the proliferation of extremist groups with extremist intent weighs heavily on countries such as Lebanon. Lebanon is a symbol for the Christians of the entire region. The country has always had a Christian president. The diversity of the country is unique, yet it is not immune from any of the potential shocks or attempts to undermine that mosaic of the country. So, we work very closely and support the LAF and the other security forces to really implement the security plans needed, to reinforce their capacity to deal with possible extremist threats and to really help sustain Lebanon’s integrity but also Lebanon’s identity – as a democratic country, as a country where all can thrive and all citizens have a role to play regardless of their background or their socio-economic status.
There is lots to do on the socio-economic side, but when it comes to risk and threat, and stability and security, Lebanon is impacted and is being exposed to a number of risks due to developments in the region. I think the security apparatus and the Lebanese Armed Forces as well as the government are really doing their utmost, with the support of the international community, to really face those challenges. And that really comes back to your question: What more should or could the international community do? There are three things. The international community has been very steadfast in its early and continued support for Lebanon’s management and needs arising from the Syria refugee crisis. There is general support through the UN agencies; UNHCR has been leading of course on the refugee response. But many others are involved: UNDP, UNICEF, WFP, a whole range of UN agencies are working closely on managing the response in support of the government’s plan. Secondly, of course, there is a lot of international support that has been targeted at the enhancement of the capacity of the Lebanese Armed Forces precisely because of the security threats and the need for the institutions of state to be well equipped and able to respond to the challenges.
Of course, the more the refugee crisis continues and the longer a political solution to the crisis in Syria is being negotiated or discussed, and dependent on the scenarios in Syria and the region, we need to do a lot more to think of sustainable solutions, to help the Syrian refugees thrive whilst they are in Lebanon but also support Lebanese host communities. And that requires an entirely new debate. Humanitarian assistance is finite, is very specific and the impact of the refugee crisis on the economy, on the socio-economic mosaic of the country will be longer-term.
So, we need to think out of the box, be generous not just with our hearts but also with our pockets, because Lebanon is a country in particular that has hosted per capita the largest refugee case load, so to speak, from any other country in the world. And if you just look at the difficulties that a lot of the European countries are having in absorbing a larger number of refugees, when you contrast that with Lebanon, where 1.2 million registered Syrian refugees are on its soil - about one third of Lebanon’s own population - we really have to not only take our hats off to Lebanon, its people and the government, but also really be compelled to think what can be done to help sustain this, waiting of course for a political solution and the opportunity for the Syria refugees to go back home, well-equipped, trained, children educated, ready to rebuild their country.
What about the issue of greater participation of women in public life? (Video response)
You’ve met with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. How has UNSCOL been helping to support Lebanon’s ability to accommodate this group?
The United Nations, of course, and myself as Special Coordinator, we’ve done a lot on all fronts as I’ve mentioned: It’s humanitarian assistance, but it’s really also looking at pathways to enhance recovery, to build resilience, both for the Syrian refugees but also their vulnerable host communities. And that is a long-term journey.
Anything you would like to share about your experience thus far in Lebanon?
It’s a fascinating time to be in Lebanon. It’s also a moment of great responsibility, precisely because of the crisis. The unanticipated outcomes potentially of the crisis in the region – we’re looking at states that have completely been transformed, issues of governance, gross human rights violations in countries in the region, and yet Lebanon is still holding it together. So it is a special duty and privilege to make sure that Lebanon not only survives, can ride the tide, but can really be a model as a regional public good of how countries of the region can be rebuilt, with full respect, diversity, economic opportunity but also the ability to withstand pressures in an unprecedented manner.