Expected Council Action
In March, Security Council members expect to receive a briefing in consultations on the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 1701, due on 9 March. Adopted in 2006, resolution 1701 called for a cessation of hostilities between the Shi’a militant group Hezbollah and Israel. Briefings are expected from Deputy Special Coordinator for Lebanon Najat Rochdi and Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix.
The mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) expires on 31 August.
Key Recent Developments
Lebanon remains without a government, more than six months after the government of Hassan Diab resigned following widespread anti-government protests in the aftermath of the 4 August 2020 Beirut blast. Diab’s government serves in a caretaker position while Saad Hariri—whom Lebanese President Michel Aoun designated as the new prime minister on 22 October 2020—negotiates the formation of a new cabinet.
Hariri and Aoun have publicly disagreed over the formation of the new government. Hariri has insisted on appointing an 18-member cabinet of technocrats who will be able to carry out necessary reforms, such as those contained in the roadmap presented by French President Emmanuel Macron. Aoun, however, calls for increasing the number of ministers to 20 and for the two additional positions to be filled by Christian ministers. Hariri strongly opposes Aoun’s demands, which would grant veto powers to the president’s political bloc. (According to the Lebanese constitution, government decisions need the consent of two-thirds of the cabinet to pass; therefore, whoever controls more than a third of the cabinet will have blocking powers.)
The continual delays in government formation hinder progress in addressing Lebanon’s multifaceted economic problems. The Beirut blast and the lockdowns instituted to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the deep financial crisis that Lebanon has been experiencing since late 2019. The unemployment rate in Lebanon stands at more than 30 percent and the cost of living has risen more than 140 percent, making it difficult for many citizens to buy basic staples. In addition, close to 90 percent of the approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon are in need of humanitarian and cash assistance, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. International interlocutors emphasise that instituting reforms in Lebanon is a prerequisite to unlocking approximately $11 billion in financial assistance. International partners have, however, continued to provide humanitarian aid to Lebanon, with the World Bank announcing on 11 January the approval of a $246 million loan to assist impoverished families.
Against this backdrop, Lebanon has also been experiencing an increase in social unrest and heightened tensions between Syrian refugees and Lebanese citizens. In two incidents in November and December 2020, Lebanese citizens attacked Syrian refugees and burned their dwellings in the northern towns of Bsharri and Bhanine, leading to the displacement of 270 and 370 refugees, respectively. In addition, protests that erupted on 24 January in Tripoli and lasted for four days turned violent, leaving two dead and more than 400 injured. The protests were apparently sparked by the dire economic impact of the strict lockdown measures instituted in January to fight the increase in COVID-19 cases in Lebanon.
On 4 February, Lokman Slim, a Lebanese activist and an outspoken critic of Hezbollah, was found dead in the village of Addoussieh in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has denied responsibility, and Slim’s assailants remain unknown at the time of writing. Slim’s assassination was strongly condemned by many in the international community, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who urged Lebanese officials to hold the perpetrators of the attack to account.
Recent months have not witnessed any major incidents between Israel and Lebanon in UNIFIL’s area of operations, in contrast to the four-month reporting period of the Secretary-General’s latest report on resolution 1701, issued on 12 November 2020, which noted two breaches of the cessation of hostilities on 27 July and 26 August 2020.
The negotiations between Israel and Lebanon on the delineation of the maritime border between the two countries—which commenced in October 2020 with the mediation of US officials from the Trump administration—appeared to have stalled by December 2020 after the sides had met four times. At the time of writing, a date has not been set for additional meetings, and it is unclear to what extent the new administration of US President Joe Biden intends to support the maritime border negotiations.
On 18 January, the Secretary-General appointed Ján Kubiš, who had served as the Special Coordinator for Lebanon since 2019, as his Special Envoy on Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). At the time of writing, a new Special Coordinator for Lebanon had yet to be named.
On 10 February, the Secretary-General sent a letter to the Security Council, requesting a two-year extension of the mandate of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)—a UN-backed tribunal established in 2009 to hold trials of those accused of involvement in the February 2005 attack that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others—ahead of its 28 February expiry. The Secretary-General warned of a funding gap for the STL and expressed his intention to request a $25 million subvention from the General Assembly to fund the tribunal’s work in 2021. On 11 December 2020, the STL sentenced Salim Jamil Ayyash to five concurrent sentences of life imprisonment, following its 18 August 2020 verdict convicting Ayyash of participating in a conspiracy to carry out the attack.
Key Issues and Options
A major issue 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. The growing tensions related to Lebanon’s economic distress is a matter of concern. A 2 February International Crisis Group report suggests that the Lebanese security forces may increasingly struggle to prevent violence if the trend persists. Council Members may consider calling for international partners to increase humanitarian support to Lebanon and to consider deepening cooperation with different security agencies, which are also among suggestions contained in the report.
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. In this regard, Council members may be interested to hear from the briefers on progress in the implementation plan for the recommendations contained in the Secretary-General’s 1 June 2020 assessment report on the continued relevance of UNIFIL’s resources. In a 28 October 2020 letter, the Secretary-General presented the first elements of the implementation plan and described steps that UNIFIL is already taking, including initiating discussion with the parties on the use of new technologies such as cameras, as well as other steps that will be carried out in the 2021/22 budget period. While the Council has not officially endorsed the 1 June assessment report, it appears that many Council members have expressed support for its recommendations.
Council members may consider convening a meeting of the 1636 Sanctions Committee to hear a briefing about developments in the STL’s work. The committee has the mandate to register individuals designated by the government of Lebanon or the STL as suspected of involvement in the 2005 attack.
There is a consensus among Council members in support of Lebanon’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security. The change in the US administration and the five new elected members may affect the Council’s view on such issues as security dynamics in the region and UNIFIL’s role and configuration.
The previous US administration expressed the view that UNIFIL should play a more active role in confronting the threats posed by Iran, Hezbollah and the proliferation of weapons in southern Lebanon. Its advocacy for a reduction in UNIFIL’s troop ceiling resulted in the decision, by resolution 2539 of 28 August 2020, for the force’s troop ceiling to be reduced to 13,000 from the 15,000 set out by resolution 1701.
While the Biden administration’s position on Lebanon has yet to be publicly announced, it is possible that its attempts to re-start negotiations with Iran on the nuclear deal may have a bearing on its actions related to the Lebanon portfolio. It appears that thus far, the incoming administration has diverged from the previous administration’s practice and refrained from criticising Iran in Council meetings on issues such as Syria; it may do the same in meetings on Lebanon. However, the Biden administration may maintain a similar position regarding UNIFIL’s configuration, in line with a desire to promote the efficient use of resources in peacekeeping operations.
Incoming members India and Ireland are major troop-contributing countries to UNIFIL. They are likely to closely follow developments related to the implementation of the 1 June 2020 assessment report and may emphasise the need for close consultations with troop-contributing countries throughout the process. India, which has outlined as a priority the use of technology to increase the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations, is likely to be supportive of such initiatives with regard to UNIFIL.
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.|
|12 November 2020S/2020/1110||This was the latest Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of resolution 1701.|