UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL): Vote on Mandate Renewal*
This morning (31 August), the Security Council is expected to vote on a draft resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for one year, until 31 August 2024. The draft text in blue retains UNIFIL’s core mandate and tasks, as set out most recently in resolution 2650 of 31 August 2022.
The vote was initially scheduled to take place yesterday morning (30 August) on a draft text that was put in blue on Tuesday (29 August) by France, the penholder on Lebanon. However, due to continued disagreements, the vote was postponed shortly before its scheduled time and a revised text was placed in blue yesterday afternoon.
The negotiations on the draft resolution proved difficult. France shared a first draft of the resolution with Council members on 15 August and convened one round of negotiations on 17 August. A revised draft of the text was circulated on 21 August. After receiving comments from several delegations, France circulated a second revised draft on 24 August and put it under silence procedure until 25 August. Silence was broken by the US, followed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia, after which China, Japan, and the UK also sent comments. On 29 August, France put a third revised draft directly in blue, to be voted on yesterday. Following concerns apparently raised by the UAE and the US, yesterday’s vote was postponed; after further deliberations, an amended draft was put in blue and the vote was rescheduled for today. At the time of writing, it is unclear whether the changes made by the penholder will be sufficient to secure a unanimous adoption. Moreover, it appears that one member may ask for a vote on an amendment that it has proposed to the revised text in blue ahead of the vote on the entire draft resolution.
It seems that a significant area of discussion during the negotiations was language pertaining to UNIFIL’s freedom of movement. While Council members are generally supportive of the need for UNIFIL to operate effectively in its area of operations, some members’ views diverge on how the mission’s freedom of movement should be exercised and on how to address movement restrictions and challenges faced by the mission in accessing key sites. (For background, see the brief on Lebanon in our August Forecast.)
A key point of contention was language introduced by resolution 2650 saying that, pursuant to the Agreement on the Status of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (SOFA), which was signed between Lebanon and the UN in 1995, “UNIFIL does not require prior authorization or permission to undertake its mandated tasks” and that it “is authorized to conduct its operation independently”. Although during last year’s mandate renewal negotiations some members expressed concern that this language might go beyond what the SOFA established, or that it needed to be further clarified, resolution 2650 was adopted unanimously, and no reservations on this issue were ultimately expressed upon adoption. Nonetheless, this new language was not well received by some Lebanese actors, including the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which issued a statement shortly after the adoption saying that the resolution included “wording that does not conform to the framework agreement Lebanon has signed with the UN”, and the Shi’a group Hezbollah.
In a 26 June letter to the Secretary-General, Lebanon requested that the Council extend UNIFIL’s mandate “based on Security Council resolution 2591” of 30 August 2021, as opposed to resolution 2650, which in 2022 introduced the language that Lebanon disputes. In the run-up to this year’s mandate renewal, Lebanese media reported that caretaker Minister for Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Abdallah Bou Habib intended to request that the Council amend this language to require UNIFIL to “coordinate with the Lebanese Army”. It seems that this was Bou Habib’s central request during a recent visit to New York, during which he held meetings with Council members. On Monday (28 August), Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah referred to this issue in a speech, in which he reportedly opposed UNIFIL “moving around Lebanon without agreement with the army”.
In a 3 August letter requesting the Council to consider the renewal of UNIFIL’s mandate, the UN Secretary-General said that “[t]he mission’s ability to conduct patrols and activities independently must be maintained”, while also stressing that cooperation and coordination between UNIFIL and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) “remain crucial for the successful implementation of resolution 1701”.
During the negotiations, China and Russia apparently supported Lebanon’s position and requested the removal of language introduced in resolution 2650 on UNIFIL not needing prior authorisation to undertake its tasks and demanding that the parties guarantee UNIFIL’s freedom of movement, “including by allowing announced and unannounced patrols”. These members demanded the replacement of this text with language saying that “UNIFIL shall benefit from freedom of movement in coordination with the government of Lebanon”. While recognising that coordination between UNIFIL and the LAF is a valuable factor, it seems that the penholder and several other members held the view that coordination is not a precondition for UNIFIL to carry out its mandated functions.
The draft resolution placed in blue on 29 August attempted to bridge these diverging positions. Although it retained language reaffirming that, pursuant to the SOFA, UNIFIL does not require prior authorisation to undertake its tasks and that it is authorised to conduct its operations independently, the phrase “while continuing to coordinate with the Government of Lebanon, as per the SOFA” was added and the reference to “announced and unannounced patrols” was removed. However, it seems that the UAE was particularly unhappy with these changes, apparently leading France to reinsert the language on “announced and unannounced patrols” in the revised draft resolution put in blue yesterday. The reference to coordination with the Lebanese government “as per the SOFA” still appears in the revised text.
While resolution 2650 already condemned “all attempts to deny access or restrict the freedom of movement of UNIFIL’s personnel”, it seems that some members—such as the UAE, the UK, and the US—have, at different times during the negotiations and with varying degrees of emphasis, demanded or supported the inclusion of direct references to the organisation Green Without Borders (GWB).
The Secretary-General’s most recent report on resolution 1701, dated 13 July, mentions the presence of several containers and watchtowers north of the Blue Line and notes that some of these sites display GWB signs. It also reports that, on several occasions, UNIFIL experienced freedom of movement restrictions in proximity to these sites. (Lebanon says that GWB is an environmental protection organisation “registered in accordance with official Lebanese legal procedures”. Israel, on the other hand, maintains that GWB is a “fictitious organization” acting as a front for Hezbollah, which uses the containers as intelligence-gathering outposts and arms caches. The US, which holds a position similar to Israel’s, on 16 August sanctioned GWB and its leader for having “provided support to and cover for Hizballah’s operations in southern Lebanon” while acting “under the guise of environmental activism”.)
While during the 21 August open briefing on “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question” the US argued that the Council needs to address GWB’s activities as part of the discussions on UNIFIL’s mandate renewal, when the US broke silence on the second revised draft it apparently did not request language on GWB. However, it seems that it demanded, among other issues, that the Council request the Secretary-General to produce a stand-alone report identifying challenges to UNIFIL’s freedom of movement and the actors contributing to them. During the same silence break, the UAE apparently put forward a similar request, but one which differed from that of the US by asking that the report do so with reference to GWB activities. The draft resolution in blue does not include references to either the report or to GWB. However, it features new language calling on the Lebanese government to facilitate UNIFIL’s access to “all locations of interest”.
The first draft text included a new preambular reference “expressing concern at the continued occupation of northern Ghajar,” a village which straddles the Blue Line, “and an adjacent area north of the Blue Line”. This is in addition to operative language already contained in resolution 2650 urging Israel to expedite the withdrawal of its army from northern Ghajar. Although the UAE proposed “condemning” the occupation, it appears that this change was not made, while the term “occupation” was replaced by “the continued Israeli presence” to accommodate the US’ position on this issue.
Following requests by some members—including China, Russia, and the UAE—both references to northern Ghajar were changed during the negotiations to “northern Ghajar and an adjacent area north of the Blue Line, in the outskirts of the town of Al-Mari”, to reflect more closely the language preferred by Lebanon to refer to this area. While this language still appeared in the draft that was put in blue on 29 August, the reference to “the outskirts of the town of Al-Mari” was removed from the amended draft that was put in blue yesterday in a likely concession to the US, which had consistently opposed this language during the negotiations.
The issue of the temporary assistance provided by UNIFIL to the LAF, a key focus of recent mandate renewals, was less central this year but nonetheless remained controversial. Language contained in earlier drafts requesting UNIFIL to support the LAF with the temporary provision of fuel, which apparently enjoyed the support of several Council members, was later removed due to opposition from China and Russia. It seems that because this year Lebanon did not prioritise the renewal of the temporary and special measures, it was more difficult for members supporting the inclusion of this language to defend its retention.
Addressing recent developments near the Blue Line, the draft resolution in blue features new language “expressing concern regarding the installation of tents south of the Blue Line in the occupied Shab’a Farms”. (In a 12 July speech, Nasrallah reportedly said that Hezbollah had erected a tent “behind the withdrawal line”—that is, the Blue Line—to draw attention to Israel’s occupation of northern Ghajar.) The draft text in blue also contains new language expressing concern regarding “the electronic signature of the fire control radar of an F16 aircraft radar in lock-on mode on a UNIFIL Maritime Task Force vessel” on 26 April, and underlining that all parties must abide by their obligations to respect the safety of UNIFIL and all UN personnel. This language is apparently based on the Secretary-General’s 13 July report, which also noted that at the time of the incident six Israeli F-16 aircraft “and no others” were detected in the vicinity.
Language proposed by Switzerland on the implementation of the UN Department of Operational Support’s Environment Strategy (Phase II) appears in the draft resolution in blue. It seems, however, that a reference welcoming the establishment of the LAF Gender Department that was proposed by Malta and supported by several members, and language proposed by Switzerland calling on UNIFIL to consult with diverse women’s civil society groups, were not incorporated.
*Post-script: On 31 August, the Security Council adopted resolution 2695, extending the mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for another year, until 31 August 2024. The resolution received 13 votes in favour and two abstentions (China and Russia). It seems that yesterday (30 August) the UAE submitted an amendment to a paragraph in the draft resolution in blue to be voted on prior to the vote on the entire draft text. The UAE, however, apparently decided shortly before the vote to withdraw its amendment; the Council therefore only voted on the entire resolution.