Thursday, January 22, 2015

INTERVIEW: all parties want calm across Israeli-Lebanese border, says former UN envoy

22 January 2015 – While there are still outstanding issues and underlying tensions, all parties want to maintain calm across the so-called 'Blue Line' that separates Israel and Lebanon, according to a former United Nations official tasked with monitoring the issue.
Derek Plumbly, a former British diplomat with extensive Middle East experience, recently completed a three-year stint as the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon. Among his most important responsibilities at the helm of the Beirut-based UN political office in Lebanon (UNSCOL) was helping to implement Security Council resolution 1701.
The resolution, which ended the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese group Hizbollah, calls for respect for the Blue Line, the disarming of all militias in Lebanon, and an end to arms smuggling in the area. While UN peacekeepers patrol the south, UNSCOL's small civilian team pursues the political dimensions of the resolution.
"Although we failed to secure progress on some of the more difficult outstanding issues, and there are unimplemented parts of the resolution, the calm has enabled the people in the south of Lebanon and on the other side of the Blue Line to pursue their normal lives," said Mr. Plumbly.
"Obviously there are reasons for concern, partly because there are these outstanding issues and because there are still underlying tensions," he added in an interview this week with Politically Speaking, the online magazine of the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA).
"But I think there is a shared concern, frankly and it is very important to note this, on the part of all parties to sustain that calm across the Blue Line."
Mr. Plumbly, who was succeeded by Sigrid Kaag of the Netherlands, noted that it is part of the Special Coordinator's role to try to 'underline the benefits' of the calm and to ensure that people remain committed to a secession of hostilities across the Blue Line and to maintaining the achievements of resolution 1701.
Among the greatest challenges UNSCOL has faced, he said, has been coping with the consequences of the ongoing conflict in neighbouring Syria. Lebanon's Government has declared an official policy of 'disassociation' from the Syrian conflict. And under an agreement brokered in 2012 known as the Baabda Declaration, the leading political blocs have adopted the same commitment not to import the crisis into Lebanon.
However, Lebanon has felt the impact of the conflict in many ways. "In the shadow of the Syrian crisis, the threats to Lebanon have become more numerous," said Mr. Plumbly, citing spill-over in the form of terrorism, polarization of the population due to differing views on what is happening in Syria, as well as the large refugee influx.
There are currently some 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon (equal to a quarter of the resident population), making it the country with the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide, and putting increasing pressure on a host community that is already stretched to the breaking point.
While the influx of a million refugees would be massive in any country, the UN refugee agency says that for Lebanon – 'a small nation beset by internal difficulties' – the impact is 'staggering.'
Government formation and vacancies in top leadership posts have been recurring problems for the country, which has been without a president since last May.
Mr. Plumbly stressed the need for all parties to be flexible and to show a sense of urgency, adding that the vacancy in the presidency does have a negative impact.
"It's a complex political situation with a lot of quite difficult challenges," he stated, adding that this is why it is critical for the Special Coordinator to reach out to everyone and maintain contacts with all parties.
"There were no political players in Lebanon to whom we did not speak and that too on a very regular basis. And that, I think, is crucial."