posted on Fri 28 Aug 2020 11:38 AM
UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) Mandate Renewal

This afternoon (28 August), the president of the Security Council (Indonesia) is expected to announce the results of a vote on a draft resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for another year ahead of its 31 August expiry. The vote on the resolution takes place amid a turbulent period in Lebanon—as the country contends with political turmoil and a humanitarian catastrophe in the aftermath of the 4 August Beirut explosion—and against the backdrop of growing tensions on the Lebanon-Israel border.

The negotiations appear to have been difficult, mainly due to substantial disagreements between Council members about UNIFIL’s mandate and configuration. Ahead of the negotiations, the penholder France emphasised the need for Council unity in supporting UNIFIL and said that the mission plays a stabilising role in the region—one which is particularly pertinent in light of the fragile situation in Lebanon in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion which left at least 180 people dead and 6,000 injured and led to the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab. This was the prevailing view amongst most Council members, who said UNIFIL should maintain its current mandate and troop strength. The US, however, entered the negotiations asking for reinforced language aimed at facilitating UNIFIL’s access and guaranteeing its freedom of movement in its area of operations, as well as for the reduction of the troop ceiling of the force to 11,000 and the renewal of the mission’s mandate for a period of six months instead of a year.

The draft resolution in blue renews UNIFIL’s mandate for a year, without making any substantial changes to the mission’s mandate. In an apparent compromise, the draft text calls for a reduction of the force’s troop ceiling from 15,000–as was set out by resolution 1701 (2006)—to 13,000. As at 25 August, the force stood at 10,328 peacekeepers. The text stresses, however, that this provision would not preclude an increase to the force in the future if a “degraded security situation requires such [an] increase”.

The draft in blue includes new language on the Secretary-General’s 1 June assessment report on the continued relevance of UNIFIL’s resources, issued in accordance with resolution 2485, that took into consideration the troop ceiling and the civilian component of the mission.

The text in blue requests the Secretary-General to elaborate an implementation plan for the recommendations contained in the report, including timelines and modalities, and to present the plan to the Council within 60 days of the adoption of the resolution. The assessment report outlined the challenges to the implementation of UNIFIL’s mandate, including the limited ability of the Lebanese Armed Forces to deploy in the south of Lebanon, the continued violations of Lebanese aerospace by Israel, and restrictions on UNIFIL’s freedom of movement. It contained several recommendations to address these challenges, such as the use of smaller combat vehicles by UNIFIL and the consolidation of several of the force’s positions concurrent with the use of advanced technologies to enhance monitoring along the Blue Line. It appears that China felt that each recommendation should be examined separately and receive the support of the whole Council before being acted upon.

The draft in blue also authorises UNIFIL to undertake “temporary and special measures” to provide support to Lebanon in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion, within its existing capacities.

While the Security Council is generally supportive of UNIFIL, a divergence of views among Council members on the mission’s role in the region has become apparent in the past several years. The US had been expressing the position that UNIFIL should play a more active role in confronting the threat of Hezbollah and the proliferation of weapons in southern Lebanon. The US has argued that the mission’s role should be reconsidered, given that UNIFIL is unable to fulfil the entirety of its mandate because it lacks access to parts of its area of operations. Ahead of this year’s negotiations, US representatives have stated on several occasions that steps should be taken to either empower UNIFIL or barring that, to realign the mission’s configuration and resources to achievable tasks.

France put a draft text under silence on 21 August, following three videoconference (VTC) negotiation meetings between Council members which took place over the course of the preceding two weeks. It appears there were also several separate meetings among P3 members (France, the UK and the US) and the five permanent members of the Council to discuss the draft before it was presented to all Council members. The initial French draft called for a renewal of UNIFIL’s mandate, without making substantial changes to the tasks contained in resolution 2485 of 29 August 2019—which most recently renewed the mission’s mandate for a period of one year—and without changes to the force’s configuration.

China and the US broke silence over the first draft text, with the former expressing consternation over the language referring to the Secretary-General’s assessment report, and the latter maintaining that the draft text falls short in addressing the challenges to the implementation of UNIFIL’s mandate.

Regarding follow-up to the 1 June Secretary-General’s UNIFIL assessment report, it appears that China advocated for a more cautious approach in articulating timelines for the implementation of the recommendations contained in the report. It apparently claimed that the circumstances created by the 4 August Beirut explosion create a different reality than the one in which the recommendations in the assessment were elaborated, and that, as a result, there needs to be more discussion before steps can be taken towards their implementation. It appears that Russia and Tunisia supported the Chinese position. In addition, Indonesia sought to reflect the need for full and close consultation with the parties, particularly the host country, as well as with troop-contributing countries, on the implementation of the recommendations.

The US presented several proposals to the draft text, chief of which was aimed at facilitating UNIFIL’s access to sites where potential violations of resolution 1701 had occurred. The US proposals apparently included a suggestion that following a formal request by UNIFIL to the government of Lebanon to investigate a suspected violation of resolution 1701, the government would be required to respond to the request within a certain timeframe. These proposals encountered resistance from several Council members and are not contained in the draft text in blue.

UNIFIL’s access within its area of operations remains a sensitive issue for some Council members. UNIFIL continues to face restrictions on access to certain sites in southern Lebanon, including sites related to tunnels crossing the Blue Line in violation of resolution 1701 that were discovered in early 2019 and locations related to the 1 September 2019 rocket launch by Hezbollah into Israeli territory. While many Council members stress the need to ensure UNIFIL’s unrestricted movement, there are divergences in opinion on how to do this. While the US advocates a more proactive approach by UNIFIL to confronting possible violations of resolution 1701, other members seem to be more cautious on the issue of access, due, among other reasons, to their emphasis on upholding the sovereignty of the host country.

It appears that the US request to reduce the troop ceiling to 11,000 also encountered opposition from many Council members, particularly from troop contributors such as Indonesia, the largest troop contributor to UNIFIL. During last year’s mandate renewal negotiations, the US requested a lowering of the troop ceiling to 9,000—a provision which would have led to a reduction in the existing number of troops. Many members seem to feel that any troop reduction could have a negative effect on the situation on the ground and could jeopardise the relative stability that has been maintained in the area. However, they were willing to accept a troop ceiling of 13,000, which is still higher than the actual number of UNIFIL peacekeepers currently deployed. This apparent compromise to the US represents the first time the troop ceiling of the force has been reduced since the adoption of resolution 1701 in 2006.

A second revised draft text was put under silence on 25 August, but silence was broken again on the following day by China and the US, which felt that their concerns had not been adequately addressed. However, it seems that the US had by this point withdrawn its previous request for a six-month mandate renewal, instead supporting a one-year mandate renewal.

The third and final text was put in blue yesterday afternoon (27 August). It was modified to include a provision on the need for full and close consultations with Council members on the recommendations of the UNIFIL assessment report and language stating that these recommendations will be implemented “as appropriate”. This appears to have been done to address the concerns raised by China.

The text in blue does not contain the substantial requests made by the US aimed at facilitating UNIFIL’s access to sites in its area of operations. However, it does include strengthened language on UNIFIL’s freedom of movement, calling on the government of Lebanon to facilitate “prompt and full access to sites requested by UNIFIL for the purpose of swift investigation”.

Negotiations on the draft resolution took place amid an increasingly difficult and volatile period in Lebanon, as the Beirut port explosion compounded existing economic and humanitarian challenges in the country. The cause of the blast is still unclear and Lebanese authorities are conducting an investigation with support from international experts. Anti-government protests — which had been widespread before the explosion — intensified following the blast, as citizens expressed frustration over endemic corruption and government mismanagement, viewed by many as a contributing factor leading to the disaster. The government of Prime Minister Diab resigned on 10 August but remains in a caretaker function while negotiations on the formation of a new government take place.

Today’s vote takes place following several incidents on the Lebanon-Israel border which have increased tensions in the area. On 27 July, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced that it had foiled an infiltration attempt by Hezbollah in the Shabʻa Farms/Mount Dov area. According to the IDF, it had opened fire at a group of up to five Hezbollah operatives who crossed the Blue Line into Israeli territory. No casualties were reported on either side of the border. On 26 August, the IDF carried out airstrikes in Lebanon, close to the frontier area. Israel had stated that this was a response to small arms fire aimed at IDF troops in the Manara area in Israel which emanated from Lebanon. While Hezbollah had denied its involvement in the 27 July incident, it had not done so regarding the 26 August incident at the time of writing. UNIFIL launched investigations into both incidents; its conclusions on the 27 July incident have yet to be announced.