Address by PM Fuad Siniora at Wilson International Center for Scholars

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Ladies and Gentlemen,


It gives me great pleasure to speak to you today, and to share with you our perspective on recent developments in Lebanon and their broader implications for the region. But allow me first to take this opportunity to thank Congressman Lee Hamilton and to congratulate him for his outstanding stewardship of this distinguished institution.


Four years ago, almost to the day, the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri stood here at the Wilson Center and spoke about his hopes and aspirations for Lebanon and for the Arab world. He also spoke about the obstacles and challenges that lay ahead. A lot has happened since then, not least of which was the brutal, and premeditated, murder of Rafic Hariri on February 14 of last year. It was an earthquake that shocked and outraged the Lebanese people. It also proved to be the spark that ignited their strong and long- suppressed yearning for freedom, and for the restoration of Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence. The sight of ordinary Lebanese citizens from all walks of life, rising massively and peacefully last spring to reclaim their country, was undoubtedly an inspiration for people everywhere.


But where are we, and where is Lebanon, a year later? A year after the banners of white, red and green filled the streets of Beirut. What have we achieved of the great hopes that the young men and women of Lebanon proclaimed with great determination and confidence? What goals are yet to be accomplished? And what are the obstacles and challenges that stand in the way?



Ladies and Gentlemen,


The great historic transition that the Lebanese people started a year ago is by no means complete. I will speak about the challenges ahead in a few minutes- and there are certainly a number of serious challenges before us. But let me first start with what I believe are important strides that have already been made on the road towards the Lebanon we want- a self- governing, stable, democratic and more prosperous country.


For the first time in over three decades, parliamentary elections were held late last spring, without the usual heavy- handed interference and manipulation from outside our borders. The freely elected assembly gave a strong vote of confidence to a coalition cabinet made in Lebanon by the Lebanese and for the Lebanese. During the nine months since I became prime minister, we have succeeded in restoring a genuine separation of powers among the three branches of government; a fundamental principle of democracy that had been flagrantly ignored for many years. Moreover, the Lebanese people were again able to fully exercise their rights of speech and assembly without fear of state retribution. Put simply, the basic pillars of a democratic system- in fact and not only in name- have begun to take hold.


Second, after many years during which most major policy issues were being either managed by non-Lebanese or were in some cases considered taboo or too sensitive to tackle, the Lebanese started to engage in real and serious debate over all policy matters. The Conference of National Dialogue, which was initiated last February, was a clear expression of the readiness of all parties to address difficult national issues in a serious and peaceful manner. This process of national dialogue, which groups 14 representatives of all parliamentary blocks, has already achieved significant progress in reaching consensus on important matters such as the relations with Syria, the delimitation of all common borders between Lebanon and Syria including, first and foremost, the Shebaa Farms area, the policy towards Palestinians in Lebanon, as well as on the international investigation and judicial process relating to the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri. The significance of reaching an agreement on such issues should not be underestimated.


Third, the Lebanese people have shown remarkable resilience in the face of a systematic attempt to terrorize and intimidate them by means of bombings and the assassination of a number of pro-independence political figures and media personalities. This collective resilience has demonstrated that the Lebanese people have indeed moved a long way towards a strong, united and stable country; a country that cannot be easily fractured or intimidated.


Our journey towards a more democratic, liberal and independent Lebanon is hardly over. Major challenges remain. For about thirty years, Lebanon appeared as if it was confined to a wheelchair, stagnant and tied- down while the world moved forward.. For the first half of that period, until 1990, the country was immobilized by devastating domestic conflicts- conflicts that were fueled from inside and outside. Then after the domestic strife ended, and for another 15 years, the country- politically speaking- was kept in the wheelchair and was told that it had to stay that way because it could not stand on its own feet. The Syrian presence, though was initially helpful in ending the war and stopping the calls for partition, and in supporting the resistance against the Israeli occupation, overtime became a suffocating one for the political and economic life of the Lebanese. When Lebanon rose last spring and demanded that it be allowed to walk on its own, it was only natural for the early steps to be slow and somewhat tentative, after such a long time of being directed and pushed by others. The bumpy political terrain of a region in turmoil did not make it any easier. Add to that obstacles that were being deliberately put in our way to impede our development and show that Lebanon will always be in need of a guardian to steer it around. Hence, the fact that Lebanon is not yet running at full speed should not be a surprise. Actually, the fact that we are still up and determined to walk on our own is the more telling story.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is a major challenge to put Lebanese Syrian relations on the right footing. The scars left by the dramatic developments of the past 18 months, and the heavy- handed interference in Lebanese domestic affairs by the Syrian security establishment for many years, are not easy to heal. However, at the National Dialogue it has been unanimously agreed that the relations between the two sister countries should be strong and positive based on mutual respect, parity and non interference, and I personally strongly believe in that.


Such relations require, first and foremost, an effort to reestablish confidence between the two countries and a genuine acceptance by the Syrian government of a truly independent Lebanon; and a genuine recognition that a free and sovereign Lebanon can have good relations with Syria and can serve the Syrian and the arab interests better. This is a challenge. In our view, a positive response by Syria on the steps agreed by all parties in the National Dialogue, including the establishment of diplomatic relations and delineation of the borders between the two countries including in the Shebaa farms area, will be an indication that the Syrian government is beginning to accept the idea that good relations are possible between Syria and an independent Lebanon. However long it takes, good relations between Lebanon and Syria on the basis of mutual respect will be achieved because they are in the interest of both countries.






Ladies and Gentlemen,


Since 1978 Lebanon has suffered from the Israeli occupation of large parts of its territory, which resulted in major destructions and dislocations. In May of 2000 Israel withdrew from most of the occupied territories with the exception of an area bordering Syria’s Golan Heights, which is referred to as Shebaa Farms.


For us, the liberation of this still- occupied Lebanese land is a priority national issue, and it is incumbent upon Israel to withdraw from it, hand over the Lebanese detainees in its prisons, submit the maps of the landmines it left in the South, and stop its infringements on Lebanese sovereignty. The delineation of the Lebanese Shebaa Farms area, and which Israel has continued to occupy even after its withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000, is important in this context because it has major implications on our ability to liberate it. Agreeing with Syria on the border line that separates the Shebaa farms from the Syrian Golan Heights will be an important step in subjecting this land to UNSCR 425, and redrawing the line of Israel’s withdrawal all the way to the international border as stated in the mentioned resolution. The Syrian government has already declared verbally that the Shebaa farms region is part of Lebanese territory. Accordingly, and in line with the Lebanese concensus on this matter, we have approached the Syrian government in order to delineate the border line in that region in order for both governments to deposit their border agreement with the UN who will draw the consequences regarding the full implementation of UNSCR 425. We still await a positive response from Syria.


Another government priority is the implementation of the policies towards the Palestinians in Lebanon through dialogue, as unanimously agreed to by all the National Dialogue parties. This includes discussions with the Palestinian side to end all armed presence outside the refugee camps within 6 months, and, subsequently, to address the issue of weapons and security within the camps – all in line with Lebanon’s sovereignty and the state’s obligation to provide security to all, throughout its territory. The government has also initiated a major effort to improve the living conditions of Palestinian refugees in cooperation with UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for the welfare of refugees, which embodies the responsibility of the international community towards those refugees who were forced out of their country Palestine. swhen Israel was established.




It is not a secret that, for many years, Lebanon’s relation with the Palestinian refugees on its territory has been difficult. In certain periods it was one of armed conflict. It is also a fact that the terrible living conditions in the refugee camps were deliberately ignored, if not made more difficult, thus in certain instances the camps were allowed to become breeding grounds and safe haven for various armed factions. We intend to do our utmost to help change the living conditions in the refugee camps in association with the international community and the donor countries. We have started discussions with the Palestinians to address economic and humanitarian needs, in addition to the issue of arms and security. We intend to press on all these fronts in the period ahead, especially with donor countries to give the necessary aid through UNRWA to improve the living conditions of the palestinian refugees in Lebanon until a final solution is reached for them in the context of the Peace Process and in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions and the arab peace initiative.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


In addition to implementing decisions already taken by the National Dialogue Conference, another challenge is to reach agreement on two remaining issues that are yet to be addressed. The first is the issue of the presidency of the republic. Currently, the majority in parliament considers the extension of President Lahoud’s term in September 2004 for three more years to have been the result of interference and coercion by Syria, which had great influence over the Lebanese parliament at that time, and against all advice discouraging them from such heavy- handed interference.


Today, Lebanon needs and deserves a forward looking President; a president who is freely and constitutionally elected, one who can help guide this historic transition while preserving national unity, a president who respects the constitution and works in conformity with it. Because the majority in parliament is not sufficient to constitutionally shorten President Lahoud’s extended term, thus paving the way for electing a new president, the issue has been referred to the National dialogue with the hope that a consensus can be reached. This has proved difficult so far. The National Dialogue will convene on April 28th to take up this issue again. Agreement on this matter remains a challenge.








Ladies and Gentlemen,


Another issue which will be taken up in the National Dialogue after it is resumed is Hezbollah’s weapons and their role in the defense of Lebanon. While there is consensus in the country on the important role that the resistance, spear- headed by Hezbollah, played in forcing Israel’s withdrawal from the south in May 2000, as well as on the fact that the southeastern corner of the country (namely the Shebaa Farms) remains occupied, the future role of Hezbollah’s weapons in defending Lebanon is a matter of national debate. This debate will be carried out in the context of an agreed upon strategy amongst the Lebanese on how best to defend Lebanon, against the backdrop of the provisions of the Taef Accord of 1989, the UN Resolutions regarding Lebanon, the continued occupation of the Shebaa farms, as well as the long history of incursions and violations of Lebanese territory by Israel. Reconciling these considerations with the natural obligation of the state to be the sole provider of security to all its citizens and residents, and the right of the state to have a monopoly over arms, is a major challenge to be addressed in the period ahead.





Ladies and Gentlemen,


Yet another major challenge before us is to make progress in our plans of institutional and economic reform.


In my last visit to New York last fall, the international community- led by a core group of countries, including the US and international financial institutions- expressed clear readiness to support Lebanon’s economic reforms and to help ease its heavy debt burden. Since then, we have made significant progress in elaborating a comprehensive economic reform program. This reform and debt service reduction plan is currently being debated in the council of ministers and with various domestic stakeholders to secure the widest acceptance and ownership.


The economic program has two main objectives:

  • The firstis to liberalize the Lebanese economy, and enhance the role of the private sector in achieving growth and sustainable development, and job creation in line with Lebanon’s potential: a potential that for many years had been impeded by ineffective governance and stifling politically- motivated restraints on critical sectors, such as telecommunication and power. This will be coupled with other reforms aimed at fighting poverty and improving the public provision of social services, particularly to less privileged segments of the society.
  • The secondobjective of our economic plan is to ease the debt servicing burden that had accumulated over the years- including international financial support to augment the domestic effort and domestic contribution. In this connection, we will soon be in a position to call for an International Conference for the Support of Lebanon. We also expect the US to play an important role in the success of the planned Conference and in strongly supporting our reform efforts in general.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


In today’s world no country is island. For a small country like ours, with a high degree of openness and communal diversity, what happens in the region around us often has significant domestic consequences. However, it is also a fact that what happens in Lebanon can have a great impact on others that far exceeds its borders.


If we succeed in restoring our democracy; if we succeed in bridging our differences through peaceful dialogue and accommodation; if we succeed in building effective institutions, and restoring the necessary recognition and social value of the standards of efficiency, competence and merit; if we succeed in reforming our security institutions that protect peoples’ lives and liberties instead of infringing upon them; if we succeed in reforming our economy, and in raising our standard of living and creating jobs for our youth;; then we will be providing powerful examples for a region whose people are in dire need for hope.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


Our region is in turmoil. As Lebanese, and also as part of the Arab and Muslim worlds, we have every interest and responsibility to work against the forces of extremism and despair by addressing the reasons that lie behind them. We want to go back to the true principles of moderation and tolerance which characterized our region and the religions that emanated from it.


The governments of the region have a responsibility to work toward meeting the aspirations of our people by adapting to the requirements of a rapidly changing world. Adapting to the needs of a rapidly changing world does not mean altering who we are, or adopting prepackaged, off- the- shelf reform recipes. As someone once said, there are two ways to become homeless. One is when you lose your home and the other is when your home starts to look like everyone else’s. Universal or prepackaged reform recipes are unlikely to succeed anyway. We need to take into account our social and cultural traditions and not to try to emulate what may not work for us, or try to be that which we are not


Having said that, it is important not to reject or resist reform simply because it is labeled by some as imported, or as the product of some foreign conspiracy. We have a lot to learn from the experiences of others and adapt them to our needs, without ignoring the established rules of modern economy and good governance that proved useful over many years. The aspirations and expectations of different nations and different societies are much more similar than some people think or claim.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


The international community- and the west and the US in particular- also have an interest and responsibility to help the peoples of the region shake off the feelings of hopelessness and despair, and to help them make real progress towards building more democratic and prosperous societies. The increasingly widespread prejudice and stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims as violent or inherently hostile to the west, only feed into their pervasive sense of humiliation and anger. So does the failure of the international community, led by the United States, to correct the great injustice done onto the Palestinian people. This sense of grave injustice, spanning over six decades has undoubtedly contributed to the sense of helplessness and humiliation in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It has also provided fertile ground for extremist and violent minds to engage – in the name of religion – in activities against innocent people that contradict the principles of this religion. On the other hand, Israel continues to refuse the arab peace initiative thus maintaining the instability in the region and throughout the muslim world. Actually, if we can all cooperate and if the US mobilizes its strong influence in the region to achieve a just and comprehensive peace between the Israelies and Palestinians and the arabs, we would be as well contributing to the cause of democracy in Arab and muslim worlds.


 Ladies and Gentlemen,


Traditionally, Lebanon has been considered as a bridge between east and west. I like to think of it more as a beacon- a small but powerful beacon- for our region. We want it to be a beacon ushering the victory of tolerance over prejudice, of democracy over oppression, of hope over desperation, and of prosperity over deprivation and backwardness.


This will be our contribution. A lot is at stake. We are staying the course and we are truly determined to move ahead and will do our best to succeed.



Fuad Siniora

Prime Minister of Lebanon

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