BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun addressed the effects of the Syrian crisis as well as the global terrorism and its ripple-on effects in the Middle East and the world Thursday in his speech before the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly.
“Lebanon is a small country, densely populated, with limited resources,” he added.
Prior to his address, Aoun had been expected to speak on Lebanon’s growing humanitarian crisis. The Syrian war has forced over 1 million registered refugees across the border, according to the United Nations refugee agency. The Lebanese government, however, has estimated that the figure is much higher.
“I would like to point out that more than half of our public schools operate on a double shift basis, in the morning and in the afternoon, to accommodate and educate the Syrian children,” Aoun said, praising the hospitality of the Lebanese people as hosts.
“The role of Lebanon, and indeed its mission, is a war against the ideology of terrorism. Being characterized by its pluralistic society, Lebanon is the antithesis of the unilateralism represented by Daesh and its peers,” Aoun said.
“[Lebanon] managed to avoid falling into security deterioration by preserving its national unity despite the existing acute political divisions ... Our army has successfully achieved recently a great victory in its final battle along our border with Syria against the terrorist organizations Daesh and Nusra [now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham] and has eliminated their military presence in Lebanon,” Aoun said.
While the Army claimed victory against extremists in the northeastern border towns of Ras Baalbek and al-Qaa, seven soldiers were killed in the “Fajr al-Joroud” operation.
Despite this success, Aoun emphasized the toll of the Syrian Civil War on Lebanon’s infrastructure, economy and security situation, calling the attendant burdens “heavier than this country can bear.”
The President began his speech by paying tribute to the victims of the infamous terror attacks in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. He went on to deliver an address that touched on the refugee crisis in Lebanon, the social and economic issues plaguing the Middle East, and Lebanon's potential to be a hub for pluralist dialogue.
“Our memory will certainly drag us 16 years back, to remember when terrorism struck this city [affecting] thousands of victims,” Aoun said at the podium in New York City. “This tragic event was the start of an international war against terrorism that shortly ... lost its goals and ignited fires in many countries, especially in the Middle East, where its effects reached all the region’s countries.”
The president spoke of the reach and ruthlessness of international terrorism, noting its merciless cruelty, and its indiscriminate targeting of all civilians regardless of race, age and religion.
“Terrorism has then extended its activities throughout the five continents, striking them in the most terrible and deadliest ways thereby violating all the international laws, norms and conventions,” he said.
Honing in on the terrorist threats faced in his own country, Aoun made note of the Lebanese Army’s recent victory against Daesh (ISIS) – in spite of the deteriorating situation in Syria.
Moving on to the decades long Arab-Israeli conflict, Aoun brought attention to Israel’s continued violations of Lebanese territory, which he said occurred at least 100 times a month. He lamented the international community's failure to prevent Israel's continued construction of illegal settlements on occupied territory – a measure forbidden by Article 4 of the Geneva Conventions.
“Israel’s approach to the solution has always been based on military force and violation of rights. Lebanon is the best witness to this matter,” Aoun said, pointing to a recent Israeli fly-over of the southern city of Sidon and the recent Israeli bombing of Syrian territory from Lebanese airspace.
“These seven decades of war with Israel have proved that the cannon, the tank and the plane do not result in any solution or peace. There is no peace without justice and there is certainly no justice without respect of rights,” Aoun said.
The president stressed that moves to weaken the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon (UNRWA) was nothing more than a step towards naturalizing Palestinian refugees in the country. He added that Lebanon would not allow this to happen “at any cost.”
“This crime of expelling Palestinians from their land and displacing them cannot be rectified by another crime against the Lebanese by imposing naturalization thereon and against Palestinians by denying them the right of return,” he said.
Aoun said that the continuous specter of war in the region had left “deep wounds in the society” and had “destroyed conscious social thinking,” entrapping the Middle East in a cycle of poverty, which in turn bred extremism and has spurred growing crises.
Due to the central role that poverty plays, Aoun said that “any solution should be accompanied by economic and social measures that can achieve growth and improve social conditions of the people in the region in order to ensure a decent and stable life.”
In order to achieve this, Aoun suggested that U.N. member states should “seriously consider establishing a joint eastern market to ensure a living, in the shadow of freedom.”
The president went on to praise Lebanon’s historic multiculturalism, stretching from the Phoenician and Roman civilizations of the past to the Muslim and Christian inhabitants of the present, saying that Lebanon “can be an oasis where the world can meet and engage in dialogue.”
Aoun then rhetorically asked the Assembly whether the U.N. had achieved its founding goals of peacefully addressing disputes between countries. “This explosive world is the best answer,” he said.
“World War Three has taken a new form; it is no more a war between nations but rather a devastating internal war. Numerous are the countries in which wars have erupted from within for religious or ethnic reasons due to extremism and rejection of the other's right to exist,” he said.
Aoun denounced the division of states along ethnic or sectarian lines, saying the true solution to conflict could come only “through intellectual and cultural change ... [thus] the need for an institution dedicated to providing peace education has become crucial.”
Aoun suggested that Lebanon should be a permanent center for “dialogue between different civilizations, religions and races, as a United Nations organ,” adding that he hoped member states would support the move.
President Aoun’s speech before the U.N. Thursday marked the first time in three years that Lebanon has been represented by a head of state at the Assembly, given the two-and-a-half-year political vacuum in the country.
Aoun met Thursday with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres.