Expected Council Action
In May, the Council is expected to hold two meetings on Lebanon in closed video teleconference (VTC) format. The first meeting will be a briefing on the latest Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 1701, which called for a cessation of hostilities between the Shi’a militant group Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. This meeting was originally scheduled to take place in March but was postponed because of the impact of COVID-19 on the Council’s working methods. The Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Ján Kubiš, and Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix are expected to brief the Council.
In the second meeting, the Council is expected to receive the semi-annual briefing on the Secretary-General’s latest report on the implementation of resolution 1559. Adopted in 2004, resolution 1559 called for the disarmament of all militias and the extension of government control over all Lebanese territory. Under‑Secretary‑General for Political Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo is expected to brief the Council.
The mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) expires on 31 August.
Key Recent Developments
Lebanon continues to experience uncertainty amid a persistent economic crisis and growing popular unrest, which were compounded in the past two months by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Protests that erupted in October 2019 led to the resignation of the government of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri on 29 October 2019. Hassan Diab, whom Lebanese President Michel Aoun designated as the new prime minister, formed a new government on 21 January, vowing to implement sweeping reforms to address the countries’ economic and political straits.
Lebanon is currently in the midst of its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, which is characterised by a deep recession, a sharp rise in unemployment, and escalating inflation. Large fiscal deficits accumulated since the end of the civil war have resulted in Lebanon having the world’s third highest ratio of debt to gross domestic product (GDP). In addition, Lebanon failed to make a $1.2 billion Eurobond payment that was due on 9 March, harming its creditworthiness. It was the first time the country has defaulted on sovereign bonds in its history. The dire economic spiral was exacerbated by the halting of economic activity caused by the nationwide lockdown instituted in Lebanon since 15 March in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19.
On 15 April, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted that Lebanon will experience a 12 percent contraction of its economy in 2020. On 16 April, Diab announced that the Lebanese government had reached out to the IMF to seek its advice on an economic rescue plan. At the time of writing, the proposed plan was still under discussion by the Lebanese cabinet.
The rise in unemployment rates—which had been precariously high before the COVID-19 pandemic—has sparked concerns among aid agencies that large swaths of society in Lebanon will face food insecurity. Lebanese government officials have estimated that approximately 75 percent of the population is in need of assistance because of the spread of the virus. On 27 April, popular discontent about the steep surge in food prices and the sharp depreciation of the Lebanese national currency led citizens in several cities across the country, including Beirut and Tripoli, to ignore the lockdown measures by gathering in public to protest their grievances towards the government. According to media reports, some of the protests turned violent, with protestors vandalising banks and clashing with government security forces, leading to the injury of 81 security personnel and the death of one protestor.
As of 27 April, Lebanon had 710 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 24 fatalities from the virus. Concerns have been raised about the possibly devastating effects the virus could have in the densely populated refugee communities in Lebanon, which is host to approximately 1.5 million Syrian and Palestinian refugees. At the time of writing, only one case of COVID-19 had been reported among the refugee population. During a 6 April meeting of the International Support Group for Lebanon (ISG)—comprising the UN; the governments of China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the UK and the US; and the EU and the Arab League—Special Coordinator Kubiš expresssed the UN’s support for the steps taken so far by the Lebanese government to address the spread of COVID-19 while stressing the need to ensure that it will “offer the same level of services to all patients, regardless of their legal status and nationality”.
During late March and early April, there were numerous security-related incidents along the Israel-Lebanon border. However, no major escalation of violence threatened the relative calm in UNIFIL’s area of operations. In a 3 April letter, the Permanent Representative of Lebanon said that three Israeli warplanes entered Lebanese airspace on 31 March and fired missiles at Syrian territory. In a 16 April letter, Lebanon alleged that on 15 April Israel again violated Lebanese airspace to carry out an attack on Syrian territory, this time targeting a vehicle at the Judaydat Yabus crossing on the Lebanon-Syria border. According to media reports, a senior Hezbollah official was in the vehicle but escaped injury. A 19 April letter from the Permanent Representative of Israel said that Hezbollah violated resolution 1701 in two incidents—on 26 March, when Hezbollah reportedly launched a Tactical Remotely Piloted Aerial Vehicle from southern Lebanon into Israeli airspace, and on 17 April, when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) detected three locations where Hezbollah had allegedly breached the security fence along the Blue Line, a border demarcation between Israel and Lebanon.
The Secretary-General’s 10 March report on resolution 1701 noted that while UNIFIL’s freedom of movement was generally respected during the reporting period, several incidents of restricted movement occurred. The most serious incident took place on 10 February in Bar’ashit when a UNIFIL patrol was blocked by 15 individuals, who then attacked four peacekeepers, one of whom sustained minor injuries. The Secretary-General further expressed concern that UNIFIL has not been able to access areas north of the Blue Line in connection with its investigations into the events of 1 September 2019, in which Hezbollah launched several missiles targeting the IDF south of the Blue Line, and into tunnels crossing the Blue Line in contravention of resolution 1701.
Women, Peace and Security
In his latest report on the implementation of resolution 1701, the Secretary-General emphasised the leading role played by women during the protests “in de-escalating tensions and maintaining non-violence”. Following clashes between sectarian groups on 26 November 2019 in different parts of Lebanon, Christian and Muslim women on 27 November 2019 marched peacefully to show their rejection of sectarian strife. The cabinet of Prime Minister Diab has six female members—including the Minister for Defence (a first for both Lebanon and the Arab region), who is also the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Minister for Justice—constituting 30 percent of the government.
The “Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy 2018-2028” lays out the Secretary-General’s plan on how “to double the numbers of women in military and police contingents of UN peacekeeping operations”, according to resolution 2242 of 13 October 2015 on women, peace and security. As at 26 March, UNIFIL had six percent female uniformed personnel. In the UN Truce Supervision Organization, which serves with the Observer Group Lebanon under the operational control of UNIFIL, 11 percent of uniformed personnel were female. In his observations, the Secretary-General encourages troop-contributing countries “to increase the number of women among military personnel in UNIFIL”.
The Secretary-General’s report further says that UNIFIL and the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon had received no allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse.
Key Issues and Options
A key priority for the Council continues to be ensuring the stability of Lebanon in light of the economic and political turmoil engulfing the country. The main concern for the Council is how to address the political instability and prevent a deterioration of the security situation.
A main issue remains the persistent maintenance of arms by Hezbollah and other non-state actors in contravention of resolutions 1559 and 1701, which restricts the government’s ability to exercise full sovereignty and authority over its territory. Such a situation contributes to tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border, raising concerns regarding a possible uptick in hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah. While the situation in UNIFIL’s area of operations remains relatively calm, ongoing violations of resolutions 1701 and 1559 by both sides demonstrate the precariousness of the situation on the ground. The main priority for the Council therefore remains to work towards ensuring the full disarmament of armed groups in Lebanon and achieving a permanent ceasefire between the sides.
A new area of concern is the impact that COVID-19 on the fragile health and financial institutions in the country and on vulnerable groups such as refugees. Council members may therefore be interested in hearing from the briefers about the potential impact that COVID-19 might have on the stability of the country and on any challenges it might pose to the ability of UNIFIL to perform its duties. They may also ask for a briefing by OCHA on how the international community can further assist refugee communities in Lebanon in light of the conditions created by the spread of the virus.
Members could consider issuing a statement calling on the government to ensure an adequate response to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on all segments of the population while taking into account the needs of vulnerable groups such as refugees and low-income individuals. They may also want to echo the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire to combat the spread of COVID-19 while urging Israel and Lebanon to fulfil their obligations under resolutions 1701 and 1559.
There is a strong consensus among Council members in their support for Lebanon’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and security. The Council has also been united in repeatedly calling on all Lebanese parties to recommit to Lebanon’s policy of dissociation from the Syrian crisis and to desist from any involvement there. In this regard, some members might welcome the fact that the ministerial statement adopted by Diab’s government on 11 February vowed to uphold Lebanon’s dissociation from regional crises.
Council members have however expressed differing views regarding UNIFIL’s role in the region. The US has taken the view that the mission should play a more active role in confronting the threats the US considers most serious—those posed by Iran, Hezbollah, and the proliferation of weapons in southern Lebanon.
During the negotiations on resolution 2485, which most recently renewed the mandate of UNIFIL, the US argued that the mission’s role should be reconsidered, given that UNIFIL is unable to fulfil part of its mandate because it lacks access to parts of its area of operations. The resolution thus included strengthened language about the need for freedom of movement for the mission, as well as a call for the Secretariat to conduct an assessment of the mission by 1 June, taking into consideration the troop ceiling and civilian component of UNIFIL. Some Council members may choose to pose questions to the briefers about the expected assessment in the upcoming consultations.
Other members—including France and Russia—have emphasised that no changes should be made to the mission’s mandate. These members are cautious about changing the mandate because of the potential impact on the fragile calm that has been maintained in southern Lebanon for over a decade.
France is the penholder on Lebanon.
UN DOCUMENTS ON LEBANON
|Security Council Resolutions|
|29 August 2019S/RES/2485||This resolution renewed UNIFIL’s mandate for another year and asked the Secretary-General to conduct UNIFIL’s assessment by 1 June 2020.|
|11 August 2006S/RES/1701||This resolution expanded UNIFIL by 15,000 troops and expanded its mandate.|
|2 September 2004S/RES/1559||This resolution urged withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias, extension of the Lebanese government’s control over all Lebanese territory and free and fair presidential elections.|
|24 April 2020S/2020/329||This was the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 1559, covering the period from 15 October 2019 to 7
|10 March 2020S/2020/195||This was the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 1701, covering the period from 1 November 2019 to 18 February 2020.|
|15 October 2019S/2019/819||This was the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 1559, covering the period from 25 April to 30 September 2019.|