Keeping the Peace: Lebanon

Two steps are generally required to stop an on-going conflict through diplomacy at the United Nations. When combatants become convinced that they have more to gain from peace than continued fighting, some sort of cease-fire agreement can be brokered. Then, once the parties agree to a ceasefire, the United Nations can put into place mechanisms to enforce the ceasefire. While the former depends on political will of the Security Council, the achieving the latter often requires the skill of diplomats in the General Secretariat.

In the summer of 2006, this process was on full display when the United Nations worked out a ceasefire between Israel and militant forces in Lebanon.

On July 12, Hezbollah militants killed eight Israeli soldiers stationed near the Lebanon-Israel border and captured two others. The Israeli Defense Forces retaliated with incursions into southern Lebanon and bombed targets throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands of civilians in the region were displaced as Hezbollah rockets rained down on northern Israel and Israeli bombs rocked southern Lebanon.

After thirty four calamitous days the parties to the conflict agreed to a ceasefire negotiated through the Security Council. Resolution 1701, which passed unanimously, called for the cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanese soil, and the deployment of a large peacekeeping force to help the Lebanese national army exert control over southern Lebanon. However, out of expediency the resolution left some key issues for later negotiations. The ceasefire held, but conditions on the ground remained deeply volatile. Resolving these outstanding problems required the intervention of someone regarded as an honest broker.

With historic powers unable or unwilling to step up, Secretary General Kofi Annan embarked on a frantic shuttle diplomacy to shore up the resolution. In eleven days, Annan traveled to Belgium, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Syria, Qatar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Spain. He faced the daunting task of convincing regional actors to support the ceasefire. Further, Israel had insisted that it would only withdraw troops from Lebanon and lift its sea and air blockades once a peacekeeping force was in place. This did not sit well with Lebanese President Fouad Sinora, who was eager to see it lifted. A credible peacekeeping mission needed to be deployed–and it needed to happen fast.

The United Nations has had a peacekeeping force deployed to Lebanon in some form since 1978. Per the Security Council resolution, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was to be drastically expanded and given a new mandate. But as with every peacekeeping mission, it is up to member states to actually contribute the troops. Convincing member states to commit troops, and then setting up the logistics of the actual deployment is often a laborious task. To complicate matters, Israel demanded that the peacekeepers only come from countries that have sophisticated military capabilities and diplomatic relations with Israel. But in the interest of balance, local sensitivities, and to avoid the appearance that UNIFIL would be an occupying force, the peacekeepers would have to be complimented by soldiers from Muslim countries as well. These political demands left precious few countries from which to draw troops.

In the end, France and Italy contributed the bulk of peacekeepers to UNIFIL. While in Ankara, Annan was also able to convince Turkey, which has relations with Israel, to contribute to the force. And following Annan’s trip to Jerusalem, the Israeli government softened its position and consented to Indonesian contributions to UNIFIL. (Indonesia does not have formal relations with Israel.) During the trip, Annan was also able to orchestrate the lifting of the Israeli blockade. Working the phones, he secured French and German commitments to patrol the Lebanese coast and serve as border control agents at Lebanese airports. This is particularly significant because Germany, for historical reasons, has been reluctant to deploy troops to peacekeeping missions involving Israel.

Within weeks of Annan’s trip, the first contingent of peacekeepers set foot in Lebanon. In fact, between the resolution and the deployment, only seventeen days lapsed, a remarkably fast deployment. This shows that when the political will is there, peacekeeping missions can get off the ground quickly. Today, there are currently over 13,000 uniformed personnel in Unifil. They continue to augment the Lebanese National Army in southern Lebanon. Troops also support other UN initiatives throughout Lebanon, such as removing unexploded ordinances, rebuilding and other humanitarian efforts.

Thanks to the quick intervention of the Secretary General, backed by crucial political support of member states, the ceasefire still holds in Southern Lebanon. Now the major task before the international community is to help establish a lasting comprehensive peace in the region.