Interview with the Lebanese Ambassador to Germany, S.E. Dr. Mustapha Adib-Abdul-Wahed


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Interview with the Lebanese Ambassador to Germany, S.E. Dr. Mustapha Adib-Abdul-Wahed

Compared to other Arab countries, the Lebanon enjoys extensive democratic and constitutional achievements. However, the domestic situation is not stable, not only because of sectarianism but especially due to the incidences in Syria, which traditionally has strong ties with the Lebanon. Concerns are being voiced that the Lebanon could be dragged into the war of its neighbour. In the meantime the „Land of Cedars“, which has a population of only four million, is accommodating one million registered refugees. In an interview with Diplomatisches Magazin, Ambassador H.E. Dr. Mustapha Adib-Abdul -Wahed spoke about the immense demands on his country as a consequence of the situation in Syria and how the Lebanon is positioning itself politically.

Compared to other Arab countries, the Lebanon enjoys extensive democratic and constitutional achievements. However, the domestic situation is not stable, not only because of sectarianism but especially due to the incidences in Syria, which traditionally has strong ties with the Lebanon. Concerns are being voiced that the Lebanon could be dragged into the war of its neighbour. In the meantime the „Land of Cedars“, which has a population of only four million, is accommodating one million registered refugees. In an interview with Diplomatisches Magazin, Ambassador H.E. Dr. Mustapha Adib-Abdul -Wahed spoke about the immense demands on his country as a consequence of the situation in Syria and how the Lebanon is positioning itself politically.

Excellency, more than any other country in the Middle-East, Lebanon is characterized by a mix of elements from Oriental and European cultures and different religions. Is there, nevertheless, a common identity? What is it like?

Since its very beginning, Lebanon, Phoenicia at that time, has been at the crossroads of East and West, a melting-pot and a bridge between cultures; the Phoenicians have given the world its first alphabet. Since then, Western and Oriental cultures have kept interacting closely and mutually enriching each other. As a consequence of its being a land of tolerance and a safe haven for minorities, Lebanon is now indeed a mosaic of 18 different religious communities. In Lebanon, all the children are raised in a bilingual system and three languages (Arabic, French, and English) are used commonly in everyday life. So, there is definitely a common identity: an open-minded multi-cultural one. And there is clearly a “Lebanese model” we are proud of: being Lebanese is being able to work together within the country, whatever the other’s faithor background, based on a shared belief in strong social values such as tolerance and mutual understanding. As Pope John-Paul II put it: “Lebanon is not just a country; Lebanon is a message.”
It is true that, at the time of Independence, in 1943, there has been a debate about what the Lebanese identity really was. The agreement entered into between the two main components of the Lebanese society – and enshrined in what is historically referred to as the “National Pact” – was that Lebanon is an independent, sovereign state, Arab in its affiliation no longer in need of French protection, and therefore free from western subordination. After the long protracted civil war, all Lebanese reaffirmed in the Taef Agreements, in 1989, Lebanon’s common Arab identity. The problems Lebanon is currently facing are not identity-related; they arise from the political upheavals and the winds of change blowing across the Middle-East and the Arab world.

Lebanon has been a republic since 1926. Currently it is a parliamentary Democracy. Due to confessionnalism, the domestic situation in Lebanon is very complex and sometimes not very stable. For example, several high-ranking politicians were murdered during or after their term of office. What is being done to stabilize Democracy practically? What is the role of the “negotiating table“?

The Lebanese Republic is based on a unique system in which the political power is shared between the main communities. For example, the 1943 “National Pact” states that the President of the Republic must be a Maronite, while the Prime Minister must be a Sunnite and the speaker of the Parliament a Shiite. 50% of the MP’s are Muslim and 50% Christian. The same applies for first-tier civil servants. Actually, the system – based on consensus between the various communities – does work, albeit sometimes lamely.
What causes instability in Lebanon is the complex and volatile regional situation. This unique system, which in a way can be defined as feudal-confessional actually amplifies the consequences of foreign crises. And it must also be mentioned that international stakeholders have always interfered with the Lebanese politics in order to advance their agenda.
The current instability is mainly a product of two regional crises: the long-standing Palestinian problem, and the recently ignited Syrian conflict. The “national dialogue” brings together the main forces in Lebanon, under the auspices of the President of the Republic, around the crucial issues of national security, defence strategy, and other specific topics of critical importance to the country. One of its major outcomes has been the “Baabda Declaration” in June 2012, in which all political groups agreed that Lebanon would dissociate itself from the Syrian crisis. Although it has gone through highs and lows and despite the ongoing debate between the two main political blocks (the so-called “8th of March” and “14th of March”) on the issues to be discussed, the “National Dialogue”
is key to national unity, which is why President Michel Sleiman has been relentlessly calling for the participation of all the political forces in the dialogue.

Traditionally, Lebanon and Syria are closely linked in political and social terms. Therefore, Lebanon’s current political situation is affected by the events in Syria. In early January, concerns have been voiced in the media that the war in Syria may spill over into Lebanon. A few days later, several residents were killed in the Lebanese border city of Arsal during a missile attack from neighboring Syria. What is Lebanon’s position on the topic?

Of course, the political situation in Lebanon is affected by the Syrian crisis. Since the crisis onset, Lebanon’s decision has been to dissociate itself from it, a policy confirmed by the “Baabda Declaration” on June 11, 2012. Taking sides would only result in splitting our country along the two sides of the issue, without any advance on the peace front. Regarding what is happening at the borders, the Lebanese Army is doing its best to control the borders within the limit of its possibilities, which are being further strengthened.
Unfortunately, the consequences of the Syrian conflict are not limited to the humanitarian ground but also impair our security, as shown by the recent car bombings. Due to the Syrian civil war, Lebanon has provided for many refugees since 2011. Meanwhile, the population has increased by more than 37 percent. The country’s infrastructure – electricity, water, schools – is not geared toward absorbing such a large number of people. The number of schoolchildren from Syria already exceeds the number of schoolchildren from Lebanon. The World Bank estimates that the war caused a doubling of the unemployment rate and an increase of foreign debt by 2.6 billion US dollars.

What is Lebanon’s strategy to tackle this challenge? Is international aid coming in?

Among all the countries that try to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, Lebanon bears the heaviest burden. Lebanon alone hosts 36% of the Syrian refugees a figure which has now neared 1 000 000 persons duly registered at relief agencies, including 50,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria; these figures are in addition to a preexisting Palestinian refugee population of 280 000 and of Syrian nationals of 300,000. To these numbers, we must add 50,000 Lebanese nationals who have returned back from Syria, and need to be re-integrated into the Lebanese economic structure. And in the absence of a political solution to the Syrian conflict and other measures to alleviate the flows of displacement, as the number of refugees keeps on growing at an unprecedented rate, Lebanon’s total population size, including the displaced persons, is expected to rise to over five million people in 2014.
Let us remember that the Lebanese resident population itself is about 4 million persons. At some point during the coming year, more than 1 in every 3 persons on the Lebanese soil will be a refugee. These numbers are the highest among all countries who host Syrian displaced persons, both in absolute and in relative numbers. Let us just stop a moment and imagine what it would be like if the United States experienced a sudden inflow of 100 million refugees… It sounds enormous, but it is exactly – in relative terms  – what Lebanon is experiencing at the moment. And Lebanon already has the highest population density in the region.
In addition, most of these persons – the majority of which are women and children – flee with only the clothes they wear, while the ones who do have some resources see these diminish very quickly. They need everything from shelter to food, to healthcare, to schooling and, while the services provided by State institutions have been stretched to the point of breaking, Lebanese poor citizens are now also, because of that, deprived of proper assistance. In addition, 83% of the refugees tend to install themselves in areas already inhabited by the poorest Lebanese populations, especially near the borders – in the East of the Bekaa and Akkar in the north. At the very moment when theLebanese government had started to implement programs to alleviate poverty and promote local development, these programs have been overwhelmed by the impact of the crisis. One of the most negative consequences of the large influx of refugees and consenquently the massive increase in labor supply, is that, as they are willing to accept any working conditions, wages tend to become lower for the Lebanese population too, which resulted in the unemployment rate more than doubling over the last 3 years. Predictably, this fosters tensions between the displaced and local populations.
Let us face it: this situation is NOT sustainable, at least not without urgent and massive international assistance. The Lebanese government, together with international agencies and local and international NGO’s has devised a unified plan to deal with the consequences of the Syrian crisis. Priorities have been carefully selected to both fulfill the refugees’ needs and mitigate the impact on the Lebanese population. So far, 840 million dollars were committed against this plan, that is 69% of the sum stated in the 5th report and we would like to thank the international donors for that. However, in the coming year, as already mentioned, the number of refugees is expected to reach 1,5 million and the number of Lebanese nationals directly affected by the afflux of refugees 1,5 million too. These are not madeup or pessimistic figures. 3,000 refugees cross our borders daily. An assessment conducted by the World Bank shows that over the period 2012-2014 alone, the Syrian crisis will be costing Lebanon’s treasury 3,6 billion USD in direct expenses and 1,5 billion in loss of State revenue. This is in addition to a foregone economic output of close to US$7.5 billion over the same period. Lebanon has chosen to keep its borders open to all those in need of protection but it is now collapsing under the resulting burden. This is why I call on the international community to assist us in dealing with this crisis. Lebanon simply cannot do more than it does now or even sustain its current effort. 1 billion 850 million USD are now needed to provide urgent humanitarian assistance and relief to 4 population groups: Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees from Syria, Lebanese Nationals back from Syria, and the already poor Lebanese populations directly affected by the crisis.
We are grateful to the donor countries who have committed funds to assist us in dealing with the humanitarian side of the Syrian crisis, during the second Kuwait Conference held on January 15. I’d also like to thank Germany for welcoming 5,000 Syrian refugees on their soil and promising to host 5,000 more. However, without urgent action from the international community, the humanitarian and economic crises Lebanon is currently facing will translate into a security crisis that will not stop to Lebanon. Despite the cease-fire that was signed in 2006 during the Lebanon war as the result of the Resolution 1701 of the UN Security Council, Lebanon is formally still at war with Israel.

What is Lebanon’s current relationship to Israel? What are the prospects for a peace agreement?

Lebanon is indeed at war with Israel as Israel still occupies a part of Lebanon: the Chebaa farms and the Kfarchuba Hills. Moreover, violations of our land, air and maritime spaces occur on a daily basis, as reported by the UNIFIL, and in violation of the resolutions of the Security Council of the United Nations, especially resolution #1701. Our future relationships would depend, on the one hand, on the restitution of the occupied land, and, on the other hand, on a just peace with the Palestinian State. In this, Lebanon supports the King Abdallah Peace Initiative launched during the 2002 Beirut Arab Summit.

Compared to other Arab countries, Lebanon has made far-reaching democratic and constitutional achievements and has numerous NGOs that are active in the field of human rights. Nevertheless, there are violations of human rights and government interventions with regard to democratic freedoms. The Palestinian refugees that live in Lebanon since 1948 still have limited rights, although there have been improvements in 2010. How can this situation be improved even further?

Human rights violations occur everywhere, which is why civil societies must remain vigilant. This is the case in Lebanon, where the civil society is very active, and where the media are free and participate to public awareness. As a result of the civil war, there was a massive hindrance in human rights. The Lebanese government has been working steadily at improving individual rights by modernizing the law both in text and practice. For instance, significant progress has been achieved in the area of women’s rights and children’s rights. On the other hand, police forces and prison personnel have been trained, with foreign – mostly European – assistance towards better practices of respect and observance of human rights. So, Lebanon is definitely on the right track.

When taking into account the economic performance, Lebanon’s government debt is one of the highest in the world. Much of the debt results from the civil war, the cost of reconstruction and the consequences of the Syrian conflict. The country’s role as a hub for trade and services in the Middle East was permanently affected, the debt complicates the granting of private loans. How can the debt be reduced and how does the Lebanon position itself economically?

Obviously, the political situation, as well as the security events, have affected Lebanon and constrained the growth of its economy largely based on the security-sensitive services sector (tourism, trade, banking,…). But economic performance though well below its natural potential is not as bad as described abroad with growth still in positive territory (2,25% in 2013) and recession has been avoided. We are confident that, as soon as the security front gets quieter, our resilient economy will recover quickly, as it has always done. Our banking system is one of the strongest in the region and it is in perfect health. External financial flows into our banks have continued though at marginally lower rates than in the past. Banks are closely supervised by the Central Bank of Lebanon and remain fully in line with international requirements in terms of transparency, disclosure, and prudential standards of solvability, liquidity, credit quality …
The public debt is high indeed but has been over the recent past on declining trend in terms of its ratio to GDP. Given the important assets of the Lebanese banks (which have reached 157,8 billion dollars in October 2013), the large size of the public debt has not “crowded out” lending to the private sector which exceeds 100% of GDP – an impressive ratio for an emerging market economy while at the same time such private loans reflect a traditionally cautious approach to bank lending. Besides, our debt is mostly internally held; therefore it dampens the likelihood of rush or speculative behavior, and could be prudently managed and in time reduced, like in any country, by inter-alia streamlining public expenses and boosting investment and employment and the economy in general. This can be achieved provided that there is a stabilization of the political and security situations.

30 percent of the Lebanese population earns less than 4 US dollars a day and thus falls below the poverty line. What countermeasures are there?

There were in fact one million Lebanese, or 25% of the national resident population, who lived below the poverty line. As I have mentioned before, the government has been devising and implementing programs to tackle the problem of poverty in particular in targeting assistance and subsidies to the poorest areas of Lebanon. However, the Syrian crisis and the subsequent massive afflux of refugees has impaired these programs and drove further up the number of the poor . Once there is a stabilization of the security situation, Lebanon will be able to put in place employment programs.

One problem – not only for Syrians who fled – is the organ trade. Due to hardship and poverty kidneys or other body parts are being sold, also because the organ traders do not need to fear any government controls. How can this be countered?

I would like to stress that organ trafficking is totally illegal in Lebanon. There are controls in hospitals, health centers, and doctor practices. So, it can’t possibly occur in any health structure. Almost all our hospitals and health centers are affiliated to European and American healthcare institutions and comply with the highest standards of healthcare.

Before the civil war, Lebanon was a popular tourist destination. Since 2010, there has been good progress in the redevelopment of tourism. Since May 2013, however, there have been major attacks with many victims in Beirut, Tripoli and on the main road to Damascus near the Syrian border. In December 2013 a car bomb exploded in downtown Beirut. The German Foreign Office emphatically warns against traveling to northern Lebanon, to the Israel-Lebanon border area and to areas with Palestinian refugee camps where no Lebanese security forces are present. How can the security be guaranteed in the future?

Of course tourism, and a service economy at large, is highly sensitive to security concerns and political stability. Thus the decline in tourists flow, again is a consequence of the Syrian crisis. As soon as the situation stabilizes, Lebanon will regain its rank as the first tourist destination in the Middle-East. The bombings you mentioned are politically targeted declarations. They do not occur in tourist hotspots or tourist resorts and are not aimed at threatening tourists. Lebanon remains a dream destination for tourists, with wonderful resorts, a vibrant night-life, and a hot art scene, not to mention fashion and medical services which attract a lot of people from all over the world. The best proof of it is that tourism remains one of the pillars of our economy with more than 1.36 million persons visiting the cedar country in 2012.

This interview by Beate Baldow as well as a German version of it have also been published at the Diplomatic Magazine/Diplomatisches Magazin.

Excellency, more than any othe country in the Middle-East, Lebanon is characterized by a mix of elements from Oriental and European cultures and different religions. Is there, nevertheless, a common identity? What is it like?

Since its very beginning, Lebanon, Phoenicia at that time, has been at the crossroads of East and West, a melting-pot and a bridge between cultures; the Phoenicians have given the world its first alphabet. Since then, Western and Oriental cultures have kept interacting closely and mutually enriching each other. As a consequence of its being a land of tolerance and a safe haven for minorities, Lebanon is now indeed a mosaic of 18 different religious communities. In Lebanon, all the children are raised in a bilingual system and three languages (Arabic, French, and English) are used commonly in everyday life. So, there is definitely a common identity: an open-minded multi-cultural one. And there is clearly a “Lebanese model” we are proud of: being Lebanese is being able to work together within the country, whatever the other’s faithor background, based on a shared belief in strong social values such as tolerance and mutual understanding. As Pope John-Paul II put it: “Lebanon is not just a country; Lebanon is a message.”
It is true that, at the time of Independence, in 1943, there has been a debate about what the Lebanese identity really was. The agreement entered into between the two main components of the Lebanese society – and enshrined in what is historically referred to as the “National Pact” – was that Lebanon is an independent, sovereign state, Arab in its affiliation no longer in need of French protection, and therefore free from western subordination. After the long protracted civil war, all Lebanese reaffirmed in the Taef Agreements, in 1989, Lebanon’s common Arab identity. The problems Lebanon is currently facing are not identity-related; they arise from the political upheavals and the winds of change blowing across the Middle-East and the Arab world.

Lebanon has been a republic since 1926. Currently it is a parliamentary Democracy. Due to confessionnalism, the domestic situation in Lebanon is very complex and sometimes not very stable. For example, several high-ranking politicians were murdered during or after their term of office. What is being done to stabilize Democracy practically? What is the role of the “negotiating table“?

The Lebanese Republic is based on a unique system in which the political power is shared between the main communities. For example, the 1943 “National Pact” states that the President of the Republic must be a Maronite, while the Prime Minister must be a Sunnite and the speaker of the Parliament a Shiite. 50% of the MP’s are Muslim and 50% Christian. The same applies for first-tier civil servants. Actually, the system – based on consensus between the various communities – does work, albeit sometimes lamely.
What causes instability in Lebanon is the complex and volatile regional situation. This unique system, which in a way can be defined as feudal-confessional actually amplifies the consequences of foreign crises. And it must also be mentioned that international stakeholders have always interfered with the Lebanese politics in order to advance their agenda.
The current instability is mainly a product of two regional crises: the long-standing Palestinian problem, and the recently ignited Syrian conflict. The “national dialogue” brings together the main forces in Lebanon, under the auspices of the President of the Republic, around the crucial issues of national security, defence strategy, and other specific topics of critical importance to the country. One of its major outcomes has been the “Baabda Declaration” in June 2012, in which all political groups agreed that Lebanon would dissociate itself from the Syrian crisis. Although it has gone through highs and lows and despite the ongoing debate between the two main political blocks (the so-called “8th of March” and “14th of March”) on the issues to be discussed, the “National Dialogue”
is key to national unity, which is why President Michel Sleiman has been relentlessly calling for the participation of all the political forces in the dialogue.

Traditionally, Lebanon and Syria are closely linked in political and social terms. Therefore, Lebanon’s current political situation is affected by the events in Syria. In early January, concerns have been voiced in the media that the war in Syria may spill over into Lebanon. A few days later, several residents were killed in the Lebanese border city of Arsal during a missile attack from neighboring Syria. What is Lebanon’s position on the topic?

Of course, the political situation in Lebanon is affected by the Syrian crisis. Since the crisis onset, Lebanon’s decision has been to dissociate itself from it, a policy confirmed by the “Baabda Declaration” on June 11, 2012. Taking sides would only result in splitting our country along the two sides of the issue, without any advance on the peace front. Regarding what is happening at the borders, the Lebanese Army is doing its best to control the borders within the limit of its possibilities, which are being further strengthened.
Unfortunately, the consequences of the Syrian conflict are not limited to the humanitarian ground but also impair our security, as shown by the recent car bombings. Due to the Syrian civil war, Lebanon has provided for many refugees since 2011. Meanwhile, the population has increased by more than 37 percent. The country’s infrastructure – electricity, water, schools – is not geared toward absorbing such a large number of people. The number of schoolchildren from Syria already exceeds the number of schoolchildren from Lebanon. The World Bank estimates that the war caused a doubling of the unemployment rate and an increase of foreign debt by 2.6 billion US dollars.

What is Lebanon’s strategy to tackle this challenge? Is international aid coming in?

Among all the countries that try to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, Lebanon bears the heaviest burden. Lebanon alone hosts 36% of the Syrian refugees a figure which has now neared 1 000 000 persons duly registered at relief agencies, including 50,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria; these figures are in addition to a preexisting Palestinian refugee population of 280 000 and of Syrian nationals of 300,000. To these numbers, we must add 50,000 Lebanese nationals who have returned back from Syria, and need to be re-integrated into the Lebanese economic structure. And in the absence of a political solution to the Syrian conflict and other measures to alleviate the flows of displacement, as the number of refugees keeps on growing at an unprecedented rate, Lebanon’s total population size, including the displaced persons, is expected to rise to over five million people in 2014.
Let us remember that the Lebanese resident population itself is about 4 million persons. At some point during the coming year, more than 1 in every 3 persons on the Lebanese soil will be a refugee. These numbers are the highest among all countries who host Syrian displaced persons, both in absolute and in relative numbers. Let us just stop a moment and imagine what it would be like if the United States experienced a sudden inflow of 100 million refugees… It sounds enormous, but it is exactly – in relative terms  – what Lebanon is experiencing at the moment. And Lebanon already has the highest population density in the region.
In addition, most of these persons – the majority of which are women and children – flee with only the clothes they wear, while the ones who do have some resources see these diminish very quickly. They need everything from shelter to food, to healthcare, to schooling and, while the services provided by State institutions have been stretched to the point of breaking, Lebanese poor citizens are now also, because of that, deprived of proper assistance. In addition, 83% of the refugees tend to install themselves in areas already inhabited by the poorest Lebanese populations, especially near the borders – in the East of the Bekaa and Akkar in the north. At the very moment when theLebanese government had started to implement programs to alleviate poverty and promote local development, these programs have been overwhelmed by the impact of the crisis. One of the most negative consequences of the large influx of refugees and consenquently the massive increase in labor supply, is that, as they are willing to accept any working conditions, wages tend to become lower for the Lebanese population too, which resulted in the unemployment rate more than doubling over the last 3 years. Predictably, this fosters tensions between the displaced and local populations.
Let us face it: this situation is NOT sustainable, at least not without urgent and massive international assistance. The Lebanese government, together with international agencies and local and international NGO’s has devised a unified plan to deal with the consequences of the Syrian crisis. Priorities have been carefully selected to both fulfill the refugees’ needs and mitigate the impact on the Lebanese population. So far, 840 million dollars were committed against this plan, that is 69% of the sum stated in the 5th report and we would like to thank the international donors for that. However, in the coming year, as already mentioned, the number of refugees is expected to reach 1,5 million and the number of Lebanese nationals directly affected by the afflux of refugees 1,5 million too. These are not madeup or pessimistic figures. 3,000 refugees cross our borders daily. An assessment conducted by the World Bank shows that over the period 2012-2014 alone, the Syrian crisis will be costing Lebanon’s treasury 3,6 billion USD in direct expenses and 1,5 billion in loss of State revenue. This is in addition to a foregone economic output of close to US$7.5 billion over the same period. Lebanon has chosen to keep its borders open to all those in need of protection but it is now collapsing under the resulting burden. This is why I call on the international community to assist us in dealing with this crisis. Lebanon simply cannot do more than it does now or even sustain its current effort. 1 billion 850 million USD are now needed to provide urgent humanitarian assistance and relief to 4 population groups: Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees from Syria, Lebanese Nationals back from Syria, and the already poor Lebanese populations directly affected by the crisis.
We are grateful to the donor countries who have committed funds to assist us in dealing with the humanitarian side of the Syrian crisis, during the second Kuwait Conference held on January 15. I’d also like to thank Germany for welcoming 5,000 Syrian refugees on their soil and promising to host 5,000 more. However, without urgent action from the international community, the humanitarian and economic crises Lebanon is currently facing will translate into a security crisis that will not stop to Lebanon. Despite the cease-fire that was signed in 2006 during the Lebanon war as the result of the Resolution 1701 of the UN Security Council, Lebanon is formally still at war with Israel.

What is Lebanon’s current relationship to Israel? What are the prospects for a peace agreement?

Lebanon is indeed at war with Israel as Israel still occupies a part of Lebanon: the Chebaa farms and the Kfarchuba Hills. Moreover, violations of our land, air and maritime spaces occur on a daily basis, as reported by the UNIFIL, and in violation of the resolutions of the Security Council of the United Nations, especially resolution #1701. Our future relationships would depend, on the one hand, on the restitution of the occupied land, and, on the other hand, on a just peace with the Palestinian State. In this, Lebanon supports the King Abdallah Peace Initiative launched during the 2002 Beirut Arab Summit.

Compared to other Arab countries, Lebanon has made far-reaching democratic and constitutional achievements and has numerous NGOs that are active in the field of human rights. Nevertheless, there are violations of human rights and government interventions with regard to democratic freedoms. The Palestinian refugees that live in Lebanon since 1948 still have limited rights, although there have been improvements in 2010. How can this situation be improved even further?

Human rights violations occur everywhere, which is why civil societies must remain vigilant. This is the case in Lebanon, where the civil society is very active, and where the media are free and participate to public awareness. As a result of the civil war, there was a massive hindrance in human rights. The Lebanese government has been working steadily at improving individual rights by modernizing the law both in text and practice. For instance, significant progress has been achieved in the area of women’s rights and children’s rights. On the other hand, police forces and prison personnel have been trained, with foreign – mostly European – assistance towards better practices of respect and observance of human rights. So, Lebanon is definitely on the right track.

When taking into account the economic performance, Lebanon’s government debt is one of the highest in the world. Much of the debt results from the civil war, the cost of reconstruction and the consequences of the Syrian conflict. The country’s role as a hub for trade and services in the Middle East was permanently affected, the debt complicates the granting of private loans. How can the debt be reduced and how does the Lebanon position itself economically?

Obviously, the political situation, as well as the security events, have affected Lebanon and constrained the growth of its economy largely based on the security-sensitive services sector (tourism, trade, banking,…). But economic performance though well below its natural potential is not as bad as described abroad with growth still in positive territory (2,25% in 2013) and recession has been avoided. We are confident that, as soon as the security front gets quieter, our resilient economy will recover quickly, as it has always done. Our banking system is one of the strongest in the region and it is in perfect health. External financial flows into our banks have continued though at marginally lower rates than in the past. Banks are closely supervised by the Central Bank of Lebanon and remain fully in line with international requirements in terms of transparency, disclosure, and prudential standards of solvability, liquidity, credit quality …
The public debt is high indeed but has been over the recent past on declining trend in terms of its ratio to GDP. Given the important assets of the Lebanese banks (which have reached 157,8 billion dollars in October 2013), the large size of the public debt has not “crowded out” lending to the private sector which exceeds 100% of GDP – an impressive ratio for an emerging market economy while at the same time such private loans reflect a traditionally cautious approach to bank lending. Besides, our debt is mostly internally held; therefore it dampens the likelihood of rush or speculative behavior, and could be prudently managed and in time reduced, like in any country, by inter-alia streamlining public expenses and boosting investment and employment and the economy in general. This can be achieved provided that there is a stabilization of the political and security situations.

30 percent of the Lebanese population earns less than 4 US dollars a day and thus falls below the poverty line. What countermeasures are there?

There were in fact one million Lebanese, or 25% of the national resident population, who lived below the poverty line. As I have mentioned before, the government has been devising and implementing programs to tackle the problem of poverty in particular in targeting assistance and subsidies to the poorest areas of Lebanon. However, the Syrian crisis and the subsequent massive afflux of refugees has impaired these programs and drove further up the number of the poor . Once there is a stabilization of the security situation, Lebanon will be able to put in place employment programs.

One problem – not only for Syrians who fled – is the organ trade. Due to hardship and poverty kidneys or other body parts are being sold, also because the organ traders do not need to fear any government controls. How can this be countered?

I would like to stress that organ trafficking is totally illegal in Lebanon. There are controls in hospitals, health centers, and doctor practices. So, it can’t possibly occur in any health structure. Almost all our hospitals and health centers are affiliated to European and American healthcare institutions and comply with the highest standards of healthcare.

Before the civil war, Lebanon was a popular tourist destination. Since 2010, there has been good progress in the redevelopment of tourism. Since May 2013, however, there have been major attacks with many victims in Beirut, Tripoli and on the main road to Damascus near the Syrian border. In December 2013 a car bomb exploded in downtown Beirut. The German Foreign Office emphatically warns against traveling to northern Lebanon, to the Israel-Lebanon border area and to areas with Palestinian refugee camps where no Lebanese security forces are present. How can the security be guaranteed in the future?

Of course tourism, and a service economy at large, is highly sensitive to security concerns and political stability. Thus the decline in tourists flow, again is a consequence of the Syrian crisis. As soon as the situation stabilizes, Lebanon will regain its rank as the first tourist destination in the Middle-East. The bombings you mentioned are politically targeted declarations. They do not occur in tourist hotspots or tourist resorts and are not aimed at threatening tourists. Lebanon remains a dream destination for tourists, with wonderful resorts, a vibrant night-life, and a hot art scene, not to mention fashion and medical services which attract a lot of people from all over the world. The best proof of it is that tourism remains one of the pillars of our economy with more than 1.36 million persons visiting the cedar country in 2012.

This interview by Beate Baldow as well as a German version of it have also been published at the Diplomatic Magazine/Diplomatisches Magazin.

IFAIR

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