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Q&A-Nawaf Salam

Lebanon’s ambassador to the United Nations

by Yasser Akkaoui

There is only one Arab seat on the 15-member United Nations Security Council, which rotates every two years among the 22 Arab countries. 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 to come to the Arab world in the modern era began in early 2011, Lebanon was in this seat. Nawaf Salam, the permanent representative of Lebanon to the United Nations, sat with Executive 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.


You have acted as the Lebanese Ambassador to the Untied Nations during very exciting times, when political and economic powers have been shifting worldwide. What can you tell us about the changes you have witnessed?

They are indeed exciting times. 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, 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 battle ground or divided country. 

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Two: the exciting times were mainly because of the Arab Spring, and I was on the council when it started in Tunisia and the fall of Egypt. In both cases, the council didn’t interfere but in Libya, the council played a critical role and Lebanon, being the only Arab member in the council, was the most critical country in the council.

[Also], 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 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. 


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 al-Qadhafi?

Qadhafi was easy for the world, easy for the Arabs and easy for Lebanon. Syria was much more difficult. Yemen was not very easy. Qadhafi was easy because he managed to antagonize everyone: the Americans, the French, the Russians were not very happy. 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 of his Arab alliances… because of the Musa Sadr affair. Libya is actually a good example because 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 — Belgium, Bosnia… we are not a unique situation. 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 negotiations. 

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 Lebanon was divided on that and we were not alone in abstaining… our main agenda is to protect the interest of our country, to preserve our national unity and stability… These are the most important factors for us and there is no shame in that. 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.


How difficult was taking a stand in Egypt compared to Libya and Tunis?

We did not have to take a position in the council regarding Egypt as it never reached the council since it ended in 18 days and [President Hosni] Mubarak fell.

Libya was hard in several places. It was the first time that the responsibility to protect 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. But here we had Qadhafi and his son Saif who said they will show “rivers of blood”. It was not a hypothetical issue and the end game is known on his part. 


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 and that it is not our turn for change, until Syria’s situation is over. Are there winds of change coming toward Lebanon?

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. But what really has changed between before [former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali and 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. They may not get it right from the beginning or consistently but there is a mechanism that will auto-correct. 


You witnessed the Palestinian quest to become a member country in the United Nations and the powers within the U.N. for and against. What are the lessons learned?

It’s true that I followed the bid for statehood from day one. I spent hours with them and they are both unprepared and facing a tough lobby. But, 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. 

Even though it is a state under occupation, it is still recognized as a state. They have all the requirements of a statehood: people, territories, government… the problem is that it is a state under occupation but that does not undermine its statehood but 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 (two percent [of built-up area]) or frontiers (the 1967 borders, plus or minus). Jerusalem will remain united but the capital for two states and with a sort of internalization of the Holy Land. 

There is more than one formula to address the refugees and the right of return to Palestine… what is missing are two things: the right 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 will lead to nothing as they have been talking since Madrid, for 20 years, and yet nothing has really happened to close the deal… Without the [United States], this will not be achieved and yet the US, 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 US]. I really believe in this. 

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Yasser Akkaoui

Yasser Akkaoui is Executive's editor-in-chief.

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