Expected Council Action
In November, the Council expects to receive a briefing in consultations on the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 1701, due on 11 November. Adopted in 2006, resolution 1701 called for a cessation of hostilities between the Shi’a militant group Hezbollah and Israel. Briefings are expected from the Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Ján Kubiš, and Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix.
The mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) expires on 31 August 2021.
Key Recent Developments
The situation in Lebanon remains difficult, as pre-existing political and economic challenges have been compounded by the effects of the 4 August Beirut port explosion and the increasing spread of COVID-19. Lebanese ruling elites struggled to form a new government after the 10 August resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who stepped down following widespread anti-government protests in the aftermath of the Beirut blast. On 26 September, Mustafa Adib—whom Lebanese President Michel Aoun designated as the new prime minister on 31 August—announced his resignation, citing his failure to form a government. It appears that disagreements arose between governmental factions, as Lebanon’s dominant Shi’ite Muslim parties—Hezbollah and the Amal Movement—reportedly insisted that the minister of finance be a Shi’a Muslim.
On 22 October, Aoun designated Saad Hariri as Lebanon’s next prime minister. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim politician, has held the premiership three times, and resigned from the role most recently on 29 October 2019 following widespread protests calling for better living conditions. Hariri vowed to implement the political and economic reforms contained in the roadmap presented by French President Emmanuel Macron during his 6 August and 1 September visits to Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Lebanon continued to suffer from the effects of a deteriorating financial and humanitarian situation. The Beirut blast killed 192 people, injured at least 6,500—including some 1,000 children—and left hundreds of thousands in need of shelter. The unemployment rate, which stood at 30 percent in June, has increased, as over 150,000 workers are estimated to have lost their jobs either temporarily or permanently because of the explosion. Between 27 September and 23 October, UNIFIL provided assistance in Beirut, including in clearing debris and reconstruction. This was done in line with resolution 2539, which was adopted on 28 August and renewed UNIFIL’s mandate for a year. The resolution authorised the mission to undertake “temporary and special measures” to support Lebanon in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion.
The UN-coordinated response plan to the Beirut port explosion is seeking $355 million to assist 300,000 people in need. As at 20 October, close to 29 percent of the plan has been funded.
The recent months have witnessed accusatory rhetoric from Israeli and Lebanese officials, as well as incidents on the Lebanon-Israel border that have increased tensions in the area. On 27 July and 26 August, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) opened fire towards Lebanese territory, claiming it was responding to an infiltration attempt by Hezbollah operatives and to small arms fire aimed at IDF troops, respectively. At the time of writing, UNIFIL had yet to announce the conclusion of its investigations into both incidents.
During his 29 September speech to the UN General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that Hezbollah is storing arms in a residential area in Beirut’s Janah neighbourhood. Netanyahu asserted that the arms depot is located near a gas station, thus putting civilians in danger of another potential blast. In a televised speech, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah denied Netanyahu’s allegations, adding “we know very well where we should place our missiles”.
On 14 October, Israeli and Lebanese officials held an initial round of negotiations on the delineation of the maritime border between the two countries. The meeting was facilitated and mediated by the US and hosted under UN auspices. The parties meet regularly in a tripartite mechanism consisting of UNIFIL and the two countries to discuss security issues along their shared land border, but the maritime negotiations mark the first talks between Lebanon and Israel on civilian matters in 30 years.
The maritime dispute between Israel and Lebanon revolves around approximately 330 square miles in the Mediterranean Sea that both countries claim as part of their Exclusive Economic Zone. The contested area reportedly contains potentially lucrative natural gas fields. Media reports estimate that Lebanon’s decision to accept the American mediation framework after having refused similar offers for over a decade was prompted by its need to alleviate its dire economic condition, which has worsened following the Beirut blast. A second round of negotiations took place between 28 and 29 October.
On 29 October, the Secretary-General issued the first elements of an implementation plan for the recommendations contained in his 1 June assessment report on the continued relevance of UNIFIL’s resources, in accordance with the Council’s request in resolution 2539.
Key Issues and Options
A major concern for the Council is the economic and political instability engulfing Lebanon, which has the potential to undermine the already fragile security situation in the country. Council members also remain concerned about the lack of progress in implementing the main objectives of resolution 1701, including a permanent ceasefire and disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon.
A key priority for the Council is to protect the integrity of UNIFIL’s mandate and to provide the force with the means to carry out its tasks. Council members may choose to endorse the Secretary-General’s plan for the implementation of the recommendations of the 1 June assessment report and request the Secretariat to initiate deliberations with the parties and troop-contributing countries on the matter. Members may wish to convene an informal meeting with a Secretariat official to ask questions about the implementation plan, similar to the meeting the Council held on 17 June with Lacroix to discuss the assessment report.
As the Council has not issued a statement on Lebanon since February 2019, it may consider a presidential or a press statement to call for the urgent formation of a new government in Lebanon and the swift implementation of reforms necessary to avert a humanitarian crisis. Such a product may also welcome the start of negotiations on the delineation of the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon and call on the sides to undertake further confidence-building measures.
There is a strong consensus among Council members in their support for Lebanon’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and security. While most Council members are concerned about the maintenance of arms outside the control of the Lebanese state, there is a difference in tone on the issue of Hezbollah, the most heavily armed militia in the country.
The US views Hezbollah as a major threat to the stability of the region and has advocated for stronger action by UNIFIL to tackle the problem of the militant group’s stockpiling of arms. However, some members, such as Russia, claim that Council discussions should not focus on Hezbollah since the group is a member of the Lebanese government. Several Council members, in their national capacity, have recently expressed a more critical view of Hezbollah. On 22 October, Estonia imposed sanctions on members of Hezbollah, barring their entry into the country. In addition, during a 27 September press conference, French President Macron criticised Hezbollah for its role in Prime Minister-designate Adib’s failure to form a new government. He asked the group to clarify whether it is a political party or whether it proceeds “in a logic dictated by Iran and its terrorist forces”.
Differences of view on UNIFIL’s role were evident in the difficult negotiations on resolution 2539. The US entered the negotiations advocating for provisions aimed at facilitating UNIFIL’s access in its area of operations, as well as for a reduction of its troop ceiling. However, most Council members believed that UNIFIL should maintain its current mandate and troop strength. In an apparent compromise, the resolution reduced the force’s troop ceiling from 15,000, as set out by resolution 1701, to 13,000. Following the adoption of resolution 2539, the US stated in its explanation of vote that if the resolution’s provisions do not improve UNIFIL’s access or help the force tackle Hezbollah’s maintenance of arms, it would seek further action on the matter during next year’s UNIFIL mandate renewal negotiations.
France is the penholder on Lebanon.
UN DOCUMENTS ON LEBANON
|Security Council Resolutions|
|28 August 2020S/RES/2539||This resolution renewed the mandate of UNIFIL until 31 August 2021.|
|11 August 2006S/RES/1701||This resolution expanded UNIFIL by 15,000 troops and expanded its mandate.|
|14 July 2020S/2020/710||This was the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 1701, covering the period from 19 February to 16 June 2020.|