Address by H.E. PM Fuad Siniora at Chatam House - London, May 9, 2006

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

It gives me great pleasure to be with you today, and to share with you some of our thoughts and concerns as well as some of our hopes and aspirations. Our aspirations as Lebanese who have witnessed their small country become, over the past year, a focus of world attention, and a source of inspiration to many. And our aspirations as Arabs in a region where the quest for freedom, democracy and progress has been- for way too long- frustrated by turmoil, conflict and injustice.

 

But allow me first to take this opportunity to thank Baroness Williams of Crosby for her kind presentation and for moderating this event; I also want to congratulate the Chatham House for an outstanding work over the years and for invaluable contribution to constructive debate and dialogue and to a better understanding of international political, business and security matters.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

A lot has happened since that fateful afternoon on February 14 of last year, when the assassination of the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, which shocked and outraged the Lebanese people, also became the catalyst that ignited their strong and long-suppressed yearning for freedom, and independence; the catalyst that propelled Lebanon into a national transition of historic proportions.

 

But where are we today from the great hopes that the young men and women of Lebanon declared on the streets of Beirut with great determination and confidence- the hopes of a free, sovereign, united, and democratic country?

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

The great historic transition that the Lebanese people started a year ago is by no means complete. The challenges before us are many. Some old, some new. Some domestic, others external. The road ahead may be more difficult and perhaps longer than many Lebanese and friends of Lebanon had hoped. But one thing is certain. For the Lebanese people there is no turning back. They want to carry on with this great transformation. And we will.

 

But where are we now? And how far have we come?

 

First,the Syrian troops have left Lebanon. Their withdrawal a year ago was a major tuning point. As is well known, the Syrian presence in Lebanon, which had initially played an important and positive role in keeping the country together, and in ending Lebanon’s civil war, over time became a suffocating factor in Lebanon’s political and economic life.

 

What is also very significant is the fact that today no group or community in Lebanon – even those usually considered closest to Syria –wants or advocates or would accept a return of the Syrian army to Lebanon. That chapter is over; and we have to start a new chapter of strong health relations with Syria, which are based on mutual respect and equality.

 

Second,for the first time in over three decades, we now have a parliament chosen by the Lebanese people, and not the product of the heavy- handed manipulation that had turned elections largely into a charade in the past. We also have now a coalition cabinet which is accountable to parliament, and not to shadowy security officers, Syrian and Lebanese, who for a long time exercised undue influence and power over government institutions and decisions. We also now have a much clearer separation of powers among the three branches of government, a basic principle of any democratic system; a principle that had been largely ignored. In short, while a lot more needs to be done to strengthen our political system and our national institutions, the foundations and building blocks of an independent and democratic Lebanon are beginning to take hold.

 

Third: today the Lebanese people are able to fully exercise their rights of speech and assembly without intimidation by the sate or the security agencies. The Lebanese are also talking to each others. Sometimes the talking is a bit too hard. But it is straight talk. After many years of most major policy issues being either managed from the outside, or in some cases considered taboo or too sensitive, the Lebanese have started to engage in real debate over all national and policy matters. The Conference of National Dialogue, which was initiated two months ago, is a clear expression of readiness by all parties to address difficult national issues in a frank, serious and peaceful manner.

 

This process of national dialogue, which groups 14 representatives of all parliamentary blocks, has already achieved significant progress in reaching understandings on important matters such as diplomatic relations and border delineation with Syria, including in the Shebaa Farms area, the policy towards Palestinians in Lebanon, as well on the international investigation and judicial process relating to the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri. But the importance of National Dialogue lies at least as much in the process as in the specific outcomes or agreements it produces.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

Over the past year the Lebanese people have stood fast against deliberate and systematic attempts to terrorize them into abandoning their goals of national freedom and independence. This resilience in the face of intimidation has demonstrated that the Lebanese people have indeed moved a long way towards a strong and independent country.

 

But as I said before, our transition is not yet complete. A number of challenges still lie ahead.

 

 

A major challenge is to restore the authority of the state over all its territories and to enable the state to be the party solely responsible for the country’s security and for the protection of all its citizens and residents. In other words, to implement the provisions of the Taif agreement of 1989, which ended the civil war and provided the basis of Lebanon’s new constitution.

 

Another challenge is to restore Lebanon’s sovereignty over the Shebaa Farms area of South Lebanon, which is still under Israeli occupation under the unjustified pretext that the area is part of Syria’s Golan Heights and therefore subject to UNSCR 242, and not to UNSCR 425 that governs Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. This, despite the fact that Syria has repeatedly declared that that is not the case and that the area is indeed part of Lebanon.

 

A related challenge is for the Lebanese to reach agreement on the role of Hizbollah’s weapons in the defense of Lebanon in conformity with the Taif agreement and constitutional role of the state.

 

The Lebanese have agreed to address the issue of Hizbollah’s weapons through the process of national dialogue. At the same time, the government has approached both Syria and the United nations to assist in the process of delineating the borders between Lebanon and Syria in the Shebaa Farms area.

 

 

 

 

Border delineation is important because it has direct implication for our ability to liberate the Shebaa Farms area. Agreeing with Syria on the border line that separates Shebaa farms from the Syrian Golan will be an important step in redrawing the line of Israel’s withdrawal under Resolution 425, all the way to the international border as stated under the Resolution. The Syrian government has already declared that the Shebaa farms region is part of Lebanese territory. Accordingly, and in line with the consensus within Lebanon on this matter, we have approached the Syrian government in order to delineate the border line in that region. We are still waiting for a positive response. We are also seeking UN clarification of the steps needed to document Lebanon’s sovereignty over the Shebaa Farms area.

 

Another issue which the National Dialogue is currently discussing is that of the presidency, which has been in a state of crisis since the forced extension of president Lahoud’s term in 2003 and the resulting inability of the presidency to play its role fully and effectively. The required two thirds majority for ending president Lahoud’s term is not there. Until this issue is resolved the constitutional processes are being respected by me as prime minister and by the cabinet. But the cost of a protracted presidential crisis is heavy on Lebanon as a whole, in terms of the balance that a fully functioning presidency would provide.

 

 

 

 

 

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 heel. However, in the National Dialogue it has been unanimously agreed that the relations between the two countries should be separated from the investigation into the Hariri assassination and other attacks, and to work on rebuilding strong and positive relations between Syria and Lebanon on the basis of mutual respect and non interference.

 

Such relations require, first and foremost, 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. 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, 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

Yet another challenge is the implementation of the Lebanese government’s policy towards the Palestinians in Lebanon, as unanimously agreed by all representatives of the parties participating in the National Dialogue parties. This includes discussions with the Palestinian side to end all armed presence outside the refugee camps within six 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, as stipulated in the Taif accord. The government has also initiated a major effort to improve the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees in cooperation with UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for the welfare of refugees. We are also mounting an effort towards the international donor community to increase its financial assistance to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

 

It is well known that, for many years, Lebanon’s relation with its Palestinian refugees has been a difficult one. In certain periods it was one of armed conflict. Unfortunately, some countries in the region have at times sponsored and financed various armed Palestinian groups, such as the ones currently present outside the refugee camps. It is also a fact that the terrible living conditions in the camps were deliberately ignored, if not made more difficult; in order to keep the camps as 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. 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.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

Another major challenge before us is to successfully implement our plans for institutional and economic reform.

 

The Arab donor countries and the international community- led by a core group of countries, including the UK and international financial institutions –have expressed clear readiness to support Lebanon’s economic and reforms and to help ease its heavy debt burden. In our meetings with UK officials over the past two days we heard strong expressions of support for our efforts. The economic team within the Lebanese government has already made significant progress in elaborating an economic policy agenda. This reform and debt service reduction plan is currently being debated in the council of ministers and with various domestic stakeholders to secure wide acceptance and ownership.

 

The economic program has two main objectives:

  • The firstis to liberalize the Lebanese economy, and thus promote levels of private investment, growth, 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.

 

  • The secondobjective of our economic plan is to ease the debt servicing burden that had accumulated over the years- including international financial support. Once the domestic debate on policy reforms is completed and the program is approved an International Conference for the Support of Lebanon will be held in Beirut. We expect the UK along with other friends of Lebanon to play an important role in the success of the planned Conference and in supporting our reform efforts in general.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

In today’s world no country is an island. For a small country like ours, with a high degree of openness and communal diversity, the impact of what happens in the region around us is often great. And as you well know, ladies and gentlemen, our region has been in deep and protracted turmoil. In recent years the level of turmoil, and the feelings of anger and frustration in the Arab and Muslim worlds, have clearly risen.

 

Understandably, the concern about these tensions and frustrations is global, and so should be the responsibility to address them.

 

 

 

 

We, the governments of the region have a primary responsibility in this regard by working towards meeting the economic aspirations of our people, by adapting to a rapidly changing world, and by undertaking policy reforms that enhance growth and development, create real jobs and improve standards of living; as well as implementing political and institutional reforms that promote access and participation. Needless to say, in adopting political, institutional, or even economic reforms, 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.

 

But it is equally important not to resist or delay reform, simply because the few who stand to lose as a result of reform- that benefit the many- label policy reforms as foreign or not home- grown. The truth of the matter is that we have a lot to learn from the reform experiences of others. The problems, impediments, as well as aspirations of different nations and different people around the globe are much more similar than is often assumed. While the record of success of undertaking much needed reforms in our region is far mixed, the fact that all countries are feeling the domestic pressure to change, and are adopting the language and jargon of reform, are hopeful signs.

 

But it is not only the responsibility of governments to bring about desired changes. Civil society has a critical role to play in our countries, whether in stemming extremism or in pushing for democratic reforms. Here again, I see many positive signs of an Arab civil society, which is growing and becoming more effective in playing a role at the grass-root level. In my view, this is a very promising development.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

Joint regional institutions can play a significant and positive role. Unfortunately, so far, joint Arab institutions such as the Arab league have not fulfilled the expectations of the people of the region. They are largely seen as rather ineffective and unresponsive to the needs of the region, whether political needs, security needs, or economic needs... But here again, there are some signs of a stronger recognition emerging among Arab governments that more effective pan-Arab institutions are vital for meeting the political and security challenges that our region faces. We hope that this will soon translate into a substantive strengthening of our regional institutions.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

The international community- and the west 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.

 

 

 

 

 

In my view it is not an oversimplification to suggest that the failure of the international community to correct the great injustice done onto the Palestinian people is the single most important factor behind the pervasive feelings of helplessness and anger in our region. This grave injustice, spanning over three generation has undoubtedly contributed to the sense of helplessness and humiliation in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It has also provided a fertile ground for extremist and violent minds to engage- in the name of religion- in the kind of brutal violence that no religion would ever condone.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

What is needed is a bold new effort by the international community to end the tragedy in Palestine. The US and UK have special responsibilities in this regard, the first because of history, and the second because of its global leadership role and special relations with the parties concerned. Benign neglect of the Palestinian tragedy has proved very costly over the years: - to the Palestinians but also to the whole world. It can only be more so if nothing is done, and soon, to put an end this protracted conflict. A bold initiative is badly needed. As I said earlier, credible progress in resolving the Palestinian problem would have a positive impact throughout our region, including in Iraq, where another tragedy is being fueled by extremists who feed on the pervasive sense of anger and humiliation in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

 

 

 

Let me add in this connection that the current policy of major powers to boycott the elected Palestinian government is in our view counterproductive. Working with the elected government is more likely to promote moderation and to bring the Hamas government into accepting the Arab peace initiative, which was declared in Beirut in 2002, and which has the support of all Arab countries.

 

Another bold international initiative is needed to stop slide towards conflict between Iran and the US, which would have very serious implications throughout the region. Such an initiative should include a serious process to make the Middle East region- including Israel- free of all weapons of mass destruction. Even if it is currently feasible to block the ability of some countries to acquire such weapons by stemming the flow of technical knowledge, it will not be possible to do so for long, as technical know-how inevitably becomes, with time, easier to acquire. Alternative ways based on international law and equal treatment are much more effective in ensuring that the risk of proliferation is minimized.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

Let me conclude by repeating what I said earlier, that we in Lebanon are affected a great deal by what happens around us. So we have every interest in seeing our region become more stable, more peaceful, and more prosperous; and that our country Lebanon does not become a ball or a playing field for the geopolitical games of others.

 

But the influence is not only in one direction. Small as our country is, it can itself have a significant effect on the region. I believe it can be a great positive influence if we succeed in the historic transition we are undertaking towards a more democratic and prosperous Lebanon. Our experience can, and we are confident it will, provide a great example for a region whose people are in dire need of good examples.

 

Thank you

تاريخ الخطاب: 
09/05/2006