Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil enjoys unlimited support from his father-in-law, President Michel Aoun, despite making one mistake after another. We in Lebanon have been floundering because of Bassil’s resolutions and positions, and he has become one of the most divisive characters in the country.
The latest thing that Bassil has come up with is that he wants to punish the UN because it is doing its duty by alerting Syrian refugees as to what they might be exposed to if they return to their dangerous home cities and regions. This is at the heart of the work of the international organization — namely protecting refugees from danger — yet he decided to stop the renewal of residency permits for UN High Commissioner for Refugees staff in Lebanon.
Bassil, who is a minister in the caretaker government, has decided that Lebanon should collide with the highest international body in the world. He has taken that decision alone, without consulting Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Bassil has been engaged in a demonization campaign against the UN by claiming that the UNHCR was obstructing the decision of the Lebanese state to return Syrian refugees to their home country.
What is shocking is not only that the minister has decided not to renew the residency permits of international staff, but also his announcement that the Lebanese state has decided to repatriate the refugees. This has not been announced by the government.
The demonization campaign against the UN by Bassil and his Free Patriotic Movement party — accusing it of working against Lebanon and trying to resettle the Syrian refugees where they are — is a kind of idiocy and villainy under the guise of alleged patriotism.
Bassil and his party deliberately ignore the fact that international law and institutions do not take into account sectarian viewpoints and reproduction rates in Lebanon and their impact on the demographic balance, for these are the calculations of a narrow-minded, right-wing group. This group, for sectarian reasons and under political pressure from its regional axis, wants one thing: That the refugees leave Lebanon, regardless of their fate and their endangered lives, and their host country’s political and ethical responsibility.
It is also no coincidence that Bassil’s campaign against the UN came just after the approval of Lebanon’s controversial naturalization law, which granted citizenship to some Syrian businessmen and financial figures who are close to the Assad regime. Bassil wants the poor refugees to return and perhaps die while, in contrast, he wants to restore and strengthen Beirut’s relationship with the regime that caused the displacement of these refugees in the first place.
Bassil is fighting his mean battle against the UN in the name of Lebanese “sovereignty.” But this so-called sovereignty is based on a specific sensitivity: Sectarianism and demographic balance. In other words, it is a campaign of hatred and intimidation against Syrian refugees, whose presence undermines the nation’s Islamic-Christian balance. Bassil wants to say to his Christian audience that he is a “strong” character, reflecting the slogan adopted by his political group: “Strong Lebanon,” which carries populist connotations based on an alleged force that is void of any moral values.
So Lebanon has decided to engage in a confrontation with the UN. Lebanon, whose sovereignty has been violated, which is unable to control its borders and has been forced to follow Hezbollah’s decision to fight alongside a regime that has killed and displaced the Syrians. Lebanon, whose economy is threatened and is steeped in the corruption of its political class. A nation that is incapable of controlling militants who have been wreaking havoc in its countryside and cities, and which is choking with a naturalization scandal, is taking on the UN.
This issue will be contained, of course, and the minister will provide the international staff with their residency permits, but the negative repercussions of this issue will remain for Lebanon as a state and a community, and will certainly affect the reputation of Lebanese diplomacy. This raises the question of whether Bassil really believed that the return of the refugees depended on his decision and not on a major settlement deal that is yet to be achieved in the region.
As a matter of fact, those who love Lebanon, including myself, who do not wish to see it involved in a new crime by causing the deaths of refugees, should call upon the UN to sanction and punish Bassil for the sake of both Lebanon and the refugees.
· Diana Moukalled is a veteran journalist with extensive experience in both traditional and new media. She is also a columnist and freelance documentary producer. Twitter: @dianamoukalled