UNITED NATIONS: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the international community to boost Lebanon’s economy and fortify the Lebanese Army during special talks Wednesday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings.
World leaders, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, met in New York to explore ways to help Lebanon maintain political stability and security and cope with the continuous flow of Syrian refugees in light of the raging war in Lebanon’s neighbor Syria.
Ban, who headed the inaugural meeting with Lebanon’s President Michel Sleiman of the International Support Group for Lebanon, highlighted the urgent need to boost the Lebanese economy.
The U.N. chief also called for fortifying the Lebanese military.
Ban addressed the growing threats to security within Lebanon and along its borders as a result of the Syrian crisis and admitted that the Lebanese Army was “insufficiently” equipped in the face of a myriad of challenges.
“The Lebanese Armed Forces are stretched and insufficiently equipped to address the myriad tasks. I welcome the adoption by Lebanon of a plan to ensure that the Armed Forces are equipped to respond effectively.”
Ban also acknowledged the critical role played by the Army in conjunction with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to help maintain calm along the Blue Line, the border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel.
Participants at the meeting reiterated that the U.N.’s commitment to stability in Lebanon lies at the heart of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 and other relevant resolutions.
Now collectively operated by a steering committee directly affiliated with the office of the U.N. secretary-general, the International Support Group for Lebanon is the brainchild of France.
In addition to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Wednesday’s meeting was attended by U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Arab League head Nabil al-Arabi and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
The primary mission of the International Support Group for Lebanon is to shield the country against the war in Syria through supporting Lebanese state institutions.
The group’s threefold objectives include supporting Lebanon’s tormented economy and the poorly equipped Army as well as helping Lebanon cope with refugee pressure.
The biggest challenge facing Lebanon comes from almost one million Syrians who have fled the fighting. The refugees are burdening the country’s health and education sectors and increasing demand for utilities, when the Lebanese already suffer through daily electricity cuts and water shortages.
The U.N. says over 750,000 refugees have registered or are awaiting registration in Lebanon.
The U.N. predicts that the number will rise to 1.6 million, or 37 percent of the country's pre-crisis population, by the end of 2014 - the biggest wave of refugees flowing into the smallest of Syria's neighbors.
Lebanese officials have complained that while international donors have helped fund the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, and other aid agencies in Lebanon, the country has received little direct international support to absorb the economic toll of the crisis.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced that his country would contribute more than $74 million to support humanitarian assistance efforts in Lebanon.
A senior U.N. diplomat told The Daily Star that Lavrov had pledged to Sleiman during a bilateral meeting Tuesday on the sidelines of the General Assembly a contribution of $6.5 million to help the government to accommodate the daily flow of Syrian refugees into Lebanon.
In a recent report, the World Bank estimates the war and resulting wave of refugees into Lebanon will cut real GDP growth by 2.85 percent a year between 2012 and 2014, double unemployment to above 20 percent and widen the deeply indebted nation's deficit by $2.6 billion.
The U.K. foreign secretary urged the Lebanese people to lead.
“They, like we, are now looking to Lebanon’s politicians to embrace the politics of consensus and coexistence, so that Lebanon’s proud heritage of democracy and tolerance is maintained,” William Hague said.
In the absence of an active government for nearly six months now, Lebanon’s response to the Syria crisis has been inadequate. An inability to deal with the sheer scale of the crisis has been exacerbated by a lack of coordinated policy-making and long and short-term planning.
Experts in handling refugee crises warn that trouble could lie ahead.
U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly told The Daily Star that “prospects for resettlement in third countries don’t look great.”