What's In Blue

Posted Sun 29 Aug 2021

UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL): Vote on Mandate Renewal*

Tomorrow (30 August), the Security Council will vote on a draft resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for one year, until 31 August 2022. The draft text in blue retains UNIFIL’s core mandate and tasks, which were most recently set out in resolution 2539 of 28 August 2020.

In a 24 June letter to the Secretary-General from Lebanon, Zeina Akar, Lebanon’s Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, requested the extension of UNIFIL’s mandate for another year, “without amendment to its mandate, its concept of operations and its rules of engagement”. In response, the Secretary-General recommended in a 4 August letter the expansion of UNIFIL’s mandate for a period of one year.

The penholder on Lebanon, France, shared a first draft of the resolution with Council members on 18 August and convened one round of virtual negotiations on the text on 20 August. A revised text was circulated on 25 August and was put under silence until the morning of 26 August. China and Russia subsequently broke silence. A second revised version was circulated later on 26 August and put under silence until Friday (27 August) morning. After silence was broken again by China and Russia on the morning of 27 August, a third revised draft was put in blue that afternoon.

While challenging, the negotiations on the draft text in blue appear to have been less difficult than the negotiations on last year’s draft, which was adopted as resolution 2539. Last year’s negotiations proved contentious, as the then-US administration initially demanded that UNIFIL’s mandate be adjusted to allow the mission to play a more active role in confronting actors such as the Shi’a group Hezbollah and the proliferation of weapons in southern Lebanon. The US insisted on reducing the troop ceiling, failing a modification of UNIFIL’s mandate. As the US position to reconsider the mandate did not find support, a compromise was found on the reduction of UNIFIL’s troop ceiling to 13,000 troops from the 15,000 established by resolution 1701. This year, it seems that there has been no discussion of reconsidering UNIFIL’s mandate or altering the mission’s configuration.

It appears that the main point of friction this year was language introduced in the initial draft requesting UNIFIL to support and assist the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) on a temporary basis for one year with the provision of additional non-lethal material and logistical support. The initial draft as proposed by France already contained qualifiers specifying that UNIFIL’s support was to be provided “within existing resources”, “in the framework of the LAF-UNIFIL joint activities”, and that it should comply with the UN Human Rights Due Diligence Policy. (This policy requires UN entities to be consistent with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and to comply with and promote international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law when providing support to non-UN security forces.) The proposed language was ultimately retained in the final draft, although with further qualifying conditions.

The LAF’s difficult material conditions and concerns over the effects of Lebanon’s multidimensional crises on the LAF’s ability to maintain security in southern Lebanon are issues which have been recurrently brought to the attention of the Security Council during recent Council meetings on Lebanon. In his briefing during closed consultations on 22 July, UNIFIL Head of Mission and Force Commander Major General Stefano Del Col apparently reported that the LAF have been suffering from shortages of basic items, including fuel, medicine and food. In his 4 August letter, the Secretary-General notes that the presence of the LAF in UNIFIL’s area of operations has been reduced as they “respond to a growing number of demonstrations and roadblocks in the country related to the sweeping economic crisis”.

While the LAF’s need for international support was seemingly not contested by Council members, several members had reservations about the language proposed by the penholder. These members voiced doubt about whether UNIFIL was an appropriate channel for the LAF to receive support and expressed concerns about the potential of creating a precedent in which other peacekeeping missions would also be required to provide support to national armies, that the addition would significantly change the mission’s mandate and about the possible budgetary implications.

While it appears that the European members of the Council were broadly in favour of including the paragraph on UNIFIL support for the LAF, other delegations were only persuaded to accept it after the addition of qualifying language. China and Russia demanded the deletion of the paragraph on several occasions during the negotiations and broke silence over the matter twice. As a result, the draft text in blue states that the temporary special measures “should not be considered as a precedent” and that the provision of logistical support and of non-lethal material (described as “fuel, food and medicine”) should be limited to a period of six months. The revised paragraph is further accompanied by the specification that the temporary measures are to be provided “while fully respecting Lebanese sovereignty and at the request of the Lebanese authorities”.

Language on women, peace and security was also debated during the negotiations. A reference to resolution 2538 of 28 August 2020 on women in peacekeeping operations was added to the draft text in blue, and “equal” was added in two instances to language already included in resolution 2539 on ensuring women’s “full, effective and meaningful participation”. It seems that at least one Council member sought to add language requesting UNIFIL to support and engage with women’s civil society organisations, which was based on a recommendation made by UN Women during a 25 May Informal Experts Group meeting on Lebanon. However, this suggestion was not included in the final draft text.

The initial draft also included new language requesting UNIFIL to assist the Lebanese authorities in ensuring women’s participation in the “2022 elections and in the security sector”. It seems that some members were not comfortable with having language that was perceived to be prescriptive towards Lebanon’s internal political processes, especially in a resolution aimed at renewing the mandate of a peacekeeping mission. Therefore, the draft text in blue only retains the reference to women’s participation in the security sector. New language calling on the Lebanese authorities to “ensure the conduct of elections in 2022 according to the planned schedule” also generated similar reservations, but was eventually retained.

While the draft resolution in blue includes new references condemning attempts at restricting UNIFIL’s freedom of movement, and harassment and intimidation against its personnel, it appears that proposals for strengthening language on accountability for these actions were eventually not included in the draft text in blue. Proposed language that would have condemned the violations of Lebanese airspace by Israel was also not included.

Further additions to this year’s text include language urging the Lebanese political leadership to form a government and stressing the need for “a swift, independent, impartial, thorough and transparent investigation” into the August 2020 Beirut port explosion.

Tomorrow’s vote takes place amid a period of persisting political and socio-economic crises in Lebanon. As the Lebanese political leadership continues to struggle to agree on a government following the resignation of former Prime Minister Hassan Diab in the aftermath of the Beirut blast, the population continues to suffer from hyperinflation and shortages of key staples, including medicine and clean water.

Tensions along the Blue Line, a border demarcation between Israel and Lebanon, have also marked the period preceding the adoption. On 4 August, three rockets were fired towards Israel from north of the Blue Line, to which the Israel Defense Forces responded with artillery fire. On 5 August, following further rocket fire towards Israel from sites in Lebanon, the Israeli air force struck the rocket launch sites. These constituted the first Israeli airstrikes in the territory of Lebanon since 2014. Throughout this period, UNIFIL remained in contact with both parties, urged restraint and worked towards a de-escalation of the tensions.

*Post-script: On 30 August, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2591, which extended the mandate of UNIFIL for another year until 31 August 2022.