There is only one Arab seat on the 15-member United Nations Security Council, which rotates every two years among the 22 Arab states. That means Lebanon is offered the seat only once every 44 years. It can only be called serendipitous, then, that when the most sweeping change in the modern era came to rock the Arab world in early 2011, Lebanon was in this seat. Nawaf Salam, the permanent representative of Lebanon to the UN, sat down with Lebanon’s Executive Magazine in New York to discuss what it was like being privy to, and influential in, the international power plays that took place in constructing the collective global response to these historic times in our region.
Q: You have acted as the Lebanese ambassador to the UN during very exciting times, when political and economic powers have been shifting worldwide. What can you tell us about the changes you have witnessed?
A: They are, indeed, exciting times. At first, it was a big challenge. You may recall the Lebanese political establishment was divided as to whether we should go for the seat in the Security Council or withdraw our candidacy. Not running at the last moment would have sent the worst signal, I think, that we are incapable of making decisions and that we are a “failed” state. I was supported by President Sleiman and [Fouad] Siniora, who was then prime minister, to see this as an opportunity to prove to the world that we are a state that is recovering and rebuilding its foreign policy, and also to project a different image of Lebanon, far from the images of a battleground or a divided country.
Second of all, the exciting times were mainly because of the Arab Spring, and I was on the council when it started in Tunisia and the subsequent fall of the Egyptian leadership [shortly thereafter]. In both cases, the council did not interfere, but in Libya, where the council played a critical role, Lebanon, being the only Arab member, was the most critical country.
Third, we had to present, as the only Arab country in the council, the Palestinian case for membership in the UN, and so we had to develop the legal and political briefs in defense of Palestinian statehood and the right to be a full member in the UN.
Finally, we had to handle [the situation in] Syria. I think the lessons to be drawn from the handling of Syria are in the disassociation policy we ended up adopting and are important to the future of Lebanese foreign policy.
Q: You represent a Lebanon, whether on the council or not, that is divided into extremes. How do you manage this equilibrium when it comes to, for example, the ousting of former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qadhafi?
A: Qadhafi was easy for the world, easy for the Arabs and easy for Lebanon. Syria was much more difficult. Yemen was not very easy either. Qadhafi was easy because he managed to antagonize everyone: the Americans and the French; even the Russians were not very happy with him. He also isolated himself in the Arab world to the point where it was really easy for the Arab League to decide to suspend Libya’s membership.
Domestically, the unity against Qadhafi was easy, despite his Arab alliances, mainly because of the Musa Sadr affair. Libya is actually a good example as it shows you that when you have a united domestic front, your margin to maneuver becomes significant, and we were really able to play a leading role on the Security Council and in the Arab group because I had the clear support back home.
On other issues, yes Lebanon is divided, but we are not an exception as many countries are divided – take Belgium and Bosnia as examples among many other, meaning that we are not a unique case. However, because the situation was so polarized in Lebanon, we had a much more difficult time than others, but the general rule is the following: despite the outcome of unity, you see in positions of any state, foreign policy is the result of two processes, domestic negotiations and international talks.
Within each and every state, there are different domestic players with different interests who seek to influence the decision of their country. For example, with regard to Iran, where Lebanon was divided, I voted for abstention, though the country was divided on that file and we were not alone in abstaining. Our main agenda is to protect the interest of our country, to preserve our national unity and maintain domestic stability. These are the most important factors for us, and there is no shame in that. The Lebanese are not used to thinking like that. We always think of the interests of other countries, but the unity of this country is the most important.
Q: How difficult was taking a stand in Egypt compared to Libya and Tunis?
A: We did not have to take a position in the council regarding Egypt as it never reached the council, ending as it did in 18 days with the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. By contrast, Libya was a harder case in several places. It was the first time that the responsibility “to protect [innocent civilians]” involved the use of force. Qadhafi was heading to Benghazi, so how do you stop him? The use of force was authorized by all members. The Russians and Chinese abstained. What turned it into an operation was that NATO took the lead.
In the referral to the International Criminal Court, we were seeking to influence Qadhafi’s entourage more than Qadhafi himself. However, here we had Qadhafi and his son Saif, who said they would show “rivers of blood”. It was not a hypothetical issue and the end game is now known to all.
Q: The reaction of the international community after the assassination of Lebanese security chief Wissam el-Hassan seemed to show a determination to preserve the then government of Najib Mikati and that it is not our turn for change, until Syria's situation is over. Are there winds of change coming toward Lebanon?
A: There are winds of change blowing in the region. They are good winds because they shook the stagnation that has been there for so long. However, what has really changed between before – former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak – and after Ben Ali and Mubarak? Under them, it was more of the same and there was no perspective whatsoever; nothing was possible. Now, everything has become possible, post-Mubarak and Ben Ali. These transitions are going to see ups and downs, of course, but you now have real empowerment of the people and this is irreversible; the genie and people are out of the bottle, so to speak. They may not get it right from the beginning or consistently, but there is a mechanism that will auto correct.
Q: You witnessed the Palestinian quest to become a member country in the UN and the powers within the UN voting for and against that bid. What are the lessons learned?
A: It is true that I followed the bid for statehood from day one. I spent hours with them and they were both unprepared and facing a tough lobby. However, on a big scale, it shows that though slowly and in an incremental way, the question of Palestinian statehood and its recognition, and ultimately its membership in the UN, has been put on the right track and it is very difficult to stop from now on.
Even though it is a state under occupation, it is still recognized as a state. It has all the requirements of statehood: people, territories and government. The problem is that it is a state under occupation, but that does not undermine its statehood. Instead, it places a burden on the international community to end its occupation and grant it a full membership in the UN.
I think that the elements of a final solution are known, whether what to do with the settlements or frontiers (the 1967 borders, more or less). Jerusalem will remain united, but will have to be the capital for two states and with a sort of internationalization of the holy land.
There is more than one formula to address the refugee issue and the right of return to Palestine. There are two things missing: the appropriate package of frontier and security, and international guarantees to the two parties. The only player that can do this is the American administration; they have to show leadership. They need an end-game package deal approach. Step-by-step confidence building will take us nowhere today.
Putting the parties on the same table and getting them to talk to each other will lead to nothing as they have been talking since Madrid, for 20 years now, and yet nothing has really happened to close the deal. Without the US, this will not be achieved and yet Washington, left to its own devices, will not do it. So, here you need the European community and you need greater Arab involvement to pressure the Americans. I really believe in this.