UN secretary general António Guterres met on Monday with Lebanese Christian and Muslim religious leaders and visited Beirut’s port, where he paid respects to the 218 people killed by the devastating 2020 explosion that stunned the country and deepened its politico-economic crises.
The clerics confirmed their “commitment to openness, tolerance and coexistence as the essence of Lebanon’s identity and stability” at a time the political elite is squabbling and the population is under serious stress. The prelates pledged to unite their communities and resolve disputes through dialogue.
On arrival on Sunday, Mr Guterres declared that “the UN stands in solidarity with the people of Lebanon” but he also scolded its politicians who, he said, “do not have the right to be divided and paralyse the country. [Lebanese] expect their political leaders to restore the economy, provide an effective government and state institutions, put an end to corruption and preserve human rights.”
Critics blame Lebanon’s crises on nepotism, clientism and corruption among politicians who emerged after the 1975-90 civil war.
Due to factional disputes over the judge investigating the port blast, the cabinet has not met since mid-October, making it impossible for Beirut to meet international conditions to secure $21 billion (€18.6 billion) to rescue the economy.
In the view of the World Bank, Lebanon has suffered the worst economic meltdown of any country since the 1850s. The currency has lost 90 per cent of its value.
The UN estimates that 78 per cent of the populace lives below the poverty line and food prices have risen by 628 per cent, creating widespread hunger. Power blackouts are days long, fuel for generators and vehicles is in short supply, and medicines have become too expensive for middle- and working-class families.
Mr Guterres said parliamentary elections scheduled for March would be a “key” to recovery and that the Lebanese people “must be fully engaged in choosing how the country moves forward”. But that is easier said than done.
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese staged a failed revolt in 2019-20 against their politicians and the sectarian model of governance specifying that the president must be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliamentary speaker a Shia Muslim. Deputies also represent sectarian interests.
Mr Guterres’s objective is “to discuss how we can best support the Lebanese people to overcome the current economic and financial crisis and to promote peace, stability and sustainable development”. He called on the international community to contribute to the UN’s emergency response plan, which is just 11 per cent funded.
Before departing on Wednesday, he will meet civil society agencies and tour the south where UN peacekeepers, including Ireland's 336-strong contingent, are charged with maintaining the ceasefire between Lebanon and Israel.