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Lebanon: Interview with outgoing UN Special Coordinator Derek Plumbly

Lebanon has seen a measure of stability over the last few years, but the current presidential vacuum is having a negative impact, Derek Plumbly told Politically Speaking in a final interview as United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Special Coordinator for Lebanon (UNSCOL). 

On 16 January 2015, Mr. Plumbly stepped down from the position he held since January 2012, representing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on all political and coordination aspects of the UN’s work in Lebanon. His responsibilities included focusing on the implementation of Security Council resolution 1701 (2006), an agreement that ended the conflict of that year between Israel and Hezbollah.  

On a recent debriefing visit to UN Headquarters, Mr. Plumbly reflected on his three years at the helm of UNSCOL, and the current political and security factors impacting daily life in Lebanon.

1.         What do you see as your key accomplishments during your time in Lebanon?

The key accomplishment of the past three years in Lebanon has been really that a measure of stability has been maintained to the benefit of the people of Lebanon, both across the country and across the Blue Line  with Israel. I’m not saying that this is a particular accomplishment of mine, though I think that my mission has played an important part. Really, it’s an accomplishment of the Lebanese people who have been determined, I think, to avoid becoming collectively embroiled in the civil war in Syria and to sustain calm across the Blue Line. This is tremendously important. 

2.         What were some of the main challenges that UNSCOL faced in the past three years?

The greatest challenge that we’ve faced really has been coping with the consequences of the conflict in Syria. Despite this resistance expressed in a policy of disassociation and a declaration of all the political leaders which we strongly supported and encouraged, which was blessed by the Security Council, with the Baabda Declaration to keep out of affairs in Syria, there has inevitably been spillover in the form intimate of terrorism. There’s been inevitably political polarization because people have different views as to what’s happening in Syria. And there has been the largest refugee influx proportionate to population in the world. The greatest number of Syrian refugees presently is in Lebanon. So these are enormous impacts and those are the challenges which for most of the time, not exclusively, there were other challenges, too, which we can come to, but those are the ones which have exercised us most. 

The Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly with Syrian displaced in Arsal. September 2012. UNIFIL / Pasqual Gorriz.

3.         There are now more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon – the equivalent of one-quarter of the resident population. What has been your role in supporting Lebanon’s ability to accommodate this growing group?      

I and my deputy [Ross Mountain], who is the humanitarian coordinator, as well, have been deeply involved on this front and the political role is of course one of advocacy more than anything else, but advocacy with donors, advocacy with the Lebanese authorities. During the course of 2013, we encouraged, I encouraged with the World Bank, an impact assessment which fed into then the first meeting of the international support group for Lebanon which the Secretary-General convened in September 2013, and out of that came, I think, a greater understanding that we had to help the host communities because these refugees are distributed across all of Lebanon in every municipality effectively, not in camps. And a multi-donor trust fund was created, again the World Bank and the UN working together, getting that off the ground proved difficult actually. There was Lebanese bureaucracy as well that had to be addressed and dealt with but it is now funded and up and running. And this past year, of course, we’ve been trying to build on that against new pressures basically as people realize that this refugee presence is changing in its character. I mean, the needs are greater; the educational needs of the children, the secondary health care needs of the population, because they have been many of them now two or three years and any resources they had have dried up. 

4.         The security situation in Lebanon remains a concern. How do you see the current implementation of SC Resolution 1701?

Mr. Plumbly visits the UN Interim Force in Lebanon and the Blue Line. December 2012. UNSCOL/Pasqual Gorriz 

If you’d asked me the question a week ago or so, I would have said very clearly that the headline for the past eight years is, that calm has been maintained across the Blue Line and, 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. And if you look at the state of reconstruction and the development that has taken place in these areas, you’ll see just how important it is. Obviously there are reasons for concern, partly because there are these outstanding issues and because there are still underlying tensions, obviously to watch now are the events in the Golan and how they may impact on the broader area because some of the players are the same. 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. And it is part of our role, part of my role, in contact with all parties on both sides 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.

“It’s an accomplishment of the Lebanese people who have been determined… to avoid becoming collectively embroiled in the civil war in Syria and to sustain calm across the Blue Line.”


 5.         What more could the international community do to support the Lebanese army? 

It’s a very important subject actually. We, early in my time, 2013, worked with the army to put together a five-year plan, a capabilities development plan, because the

Mr. Plumbly addresses the International Support Group for Lebanon at their inaugural meeting during the sixty-eighth session of the General Assembly. Also pictured are Major-General Paolo Serra (left), then Force Commander of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson (right.)

25 September 2013. United Nations, New York. UN Photo 

army traditionally has played the role of an internal security force. It hasn’t had quite all the functions, all the capabilities, which an army might entail. Accordingly, the army would have and has been challenged by terrorism and incursions at the border.

In the shadow of the Syrian crises, the threats to Lebanon have become more numerous, basically. We put together a plan, which was the army’s plan but encouraged and supported by my office. And actually, I mean through the International Support Group, it got a lot of profile. It’s not just the work of my mission or the Support Group, but none the less, it helped to set the agenda. The response has been really impressive from Saudi Arabia and France, from the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, all who in different ways have contributed very significantly so I think the capabilities of the army and its presence on the border, and its ability to respond to the challenges as demonstrated both internally and in places like Tripoli in various instances that have occurred in the past year and a half or so. These capabilities are being greatly increased and I think this is one of the more important developments given the size of the threat that Lebanon faces.

6.         Given the current political climate in Lebanon, what do you see as some of the first challenges that your successor, Sigrid Kaag, will face?

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Click on the recording to hear an excerpt from the interview.

There is good news about the political climate in Lebanon in the spirit that I mentioned earlier of wishing to avoid Lebanon being sucked into conflict. The various political movements have throughout my time really been prepared to come together when things really look tough and difficult. They did so with the formation of the current government, the government of President Tammam Salam which we also encouraged and supported. At this present moment, Hezbollah and the future movement who represent the largest number of members of the Shia and Sunni communities respectively are in dialogue about security. They have a common view to a considerable degree as to the seriousness of the extremist threat which is present on the border. So that’s good news politically. I mean there’s unity there just as I think that there’s unity across the international community in support of Lebanon.

But equally, it has failed to deliver so far agreement on the election of a president. Last May President [Michel] Suleiman, his term expired, and so far the parliament has been unable to agree on a successor. This dialogue may help to stimulate further discussion. They say this will be one of the items on the agenda. It has helped to stimulate a dialogue between the main Christian parties, too, that has yet to begin; they’re talking about talks. And, of course, the president has to be a Christian, a Maronite Christian, so there is a process there which I know my successor will want to encourage. And not just her because we’ve worked very closely throughout this period with key Member State missions as well, members of the International Support Group, the representatives, the permanent members of the Security Council, and some of the main regional players — the Arab League, for example. So I think it will be a collective effort to encourage people to be flexible and to show a sense of urgency. But it has gone on too long frankly, the vacancy in the presidency does have a negative impact.

Mr. Plumbly meets then Prime Minister-designate Tamam Salam. April 2013. Photo/DalatiNohra

7.         You’ve talked about the different groups that you’ve worked with. Can you speak in more detail about efforts to reach out to women?

In Lebanon, you are looking at a middle-income country with a very vibrant public life and civil society, open, free. These are amongst the reasons why it’s so important to keep it safe. In the area of UNIFIL’s operations just recently, a survey was done of women’s views, how best to sustain peace and security in that area and long the Blue Line. Their inputs were collected and I and the UNIFIL Force Commander [Major-General Luciano Portolano] held a sort of day-long discussion with the representatives, the people who had been sitting in these dialogue sessions just six-weeks ago.

Mr. Plumbly visits a UN Development Programme (UNDP) supported women`s cooperative in Bint Jbeil, south Lebanon. June 2012. UNSCOL/Pasqual Gorriz 

Another point that I’ve always encouraged, actually, because we have an electoral support role is to ensure that women participate fully in politics. The truth is that Lebanon is a democracy, but one aspect in which there has been a shortfall is women’s representation in politics. There are only four women members of what is a 124-member Parliament, and that’s an element that we’ve spoken out about and encouraged people to think about and to see if, as they look at a new electoral law, ways can be found to encourage at least better representation of women.

“In Lebanon, you are looking at a middle-income country with a very vibrant public life and civil society, open, free. These are amongst the reasons why it’s so important to keep it safe.”

8.         More generally, how important is it for an envoy like yourself to be able to talk to all stakeholders?  How do you ensure that you have all the channels you need?

It is important that nobody was off-side. I mean that there were no political players in Lebanon to whom we did not speak, and that on a very regular basis. And that, I think, is crucial. In a country like Lebanon that has been, in the past at least, very much affected by the stances of regional players and the involvement of regional players, regional member states. It’s also important to engage with them, even though the situation has changed, of course, over time and many of these problems have Lebanese solutions. But the views of the main regional players are very important. I spent a lot of time working with the local representatives of the countries that had the greatest interest in Lebanon but also visiting their capitals and exploring opportunities for movement, for example at the time of the formation of the present government.

I would say that the most important thing is to be very, very concerned to reach out to everybody, to all of the parties – and in Lebanon you have a multi-confessional open society with many important players. And you really have to sustain your contacts with all concerned. You have to study the situation. It’s very complex. It’s a small country but with many, many players and it helps if you have the language. We have a very expert team in UNSCOL, and that degree of knowledge and that degree of access, which I have to say in Lebanon you are granted as well, it’s important. People are very open to contact and to that sort of discussion we might want to have. You need a sound factual base and sound inputs before you can identify the opportunity to engage and perhaps help to move things forward, as we did on one or two occasions during my three years there.

9.         What are your plans now post-Lebanon?

Lebanon is, as I was just saying, it’s a complex political situation with a lot of quite difficult challenges. I am getting to collect my thoughts for a time, take some time off and unwind.

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