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Lebanon’s Crisis on Top of a Crisis: Our Latest Podcast Episode

A day after the devastating Aug. 4, 2020 blast in Beirut’s port, one ship in the maritime section of the UN mission in Lebanon was damaged, injuring naval peacekeepers, some of them seriously. Here, the Bangladeshi contingent prays on Aug. 5 near the scene. PASQUAL GORRIZ/UN PHOTO

The devastating series of explosions that rocked Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, on Aug. 4, killed nearly 200 people, injured thousands of others, destroyed most of the city’s port, flattened surrounding neighborhoods, damaged six hospitals and more than 20 health clinics and wiped out 120 schools.

Five days later, on Aug. 9, the international community united to help Lebanon, with countries rushing to pledge more than $300 million to support Lebanon’s most-urgent needs as well as its reconstruction, in a conference hosted by France and the United Nations. On Aug. 14, the UN and humanitarian partners launched an additional $565 million appeal to help Lebanon. The UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, told reporters that the UN hoped that some of the Aug. 9 pledges “will go to the appeal.”

In New York City, however, the UN Security Council is not united so far over the future of the UN mission in Lebanon, called the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, or Unifil.

On this week’s new UN-Scripted podcast episode, we report on the international efforts to rescue and restore Lebanon amid the pandemic and whether the blast will affect the renewal of Unifil’s mandate. To hear more details from the Lebanese experts who were interviewed, download the episode from SoundCloud and Patreon as well as from Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn or Google Play.

In this episode, you’ll hear from Amal Mudallali, Lebanon’s permanent representative to the UN, who weighs in on the political future of her nation as its government collapsed after the blast. She also has plenty to say about the global efforts to help her country.

Karim Makdisi, an associate professor in international affairs at the American University of Beirut, who was in the city during the blast, was also interviewed for the episode. He describes his feelings about the uncertainty of his country, which was already economically precarious before the blast and fending off Covid-19, and the likelihood of a change for Unifil. France and the United States, permanent members of the Security Council, hold divergent views on Unifil’s purpose in Lebanon.

The US is the largest financial contributor to the mission, and France is the penholder, responsible for drafting Council documents related to Unifil’s operations. France wants to renew the mandate as is for another year, while the US is reportedly pressuring the Council to expand the mandate in some ways and reduce it in others. A vote on it is scheduled for Aug. 28.

“There’s a kind of balance between these three [forces],” Makdisi told PassBlue, referring to the rescue efforts and the US demands on Unifil, “the bottom up protesters, this kind of traditional French initiative now to bring back the international diplomacy to try to stabilize the country a little bit but without any particular radical changes that people have been demanding, and this kind of American punitive pressure, where this administration basically view Lebanon solely and completely as an extension of Iran and controlled by Hezbollah.”

Mudalalli’s viewpoint was softer — diplomatic — than Makdisi’s. “You hope that people are trying to help for the sake of helping, not because they have a strategic interest,” she said in a phone interview with PassBlue, “only because everybody does something for strategic reasons too. So far, everybody is trying to help, just because the humanitarian situation is very, very bad. But in the end, it’s going to be up to the Lebanese [to decide] how much people interfere in your affairs or not and how much you let people take advantage of you or not.”

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Jeffrey Feltman, a former UN under secretary-general for political affairs and a US ambassador to Lebanon, offered advice as to how Unifil could survive infighting in the Security Council between France and the US over the mission’s role:

“My impression is that the U.S. tried to change the mandate last year and blinked,” he told PassBlue in an email, “and that this year there is no intention of blinking: something will have to change to avoid a U.S. veto. I don’t think the explosions soften the U.S. determination on this. The easiest thing to do would be to cut the troop size from an authorized 15,000 to something around 10,000 — UNIFIL has never deployed up to the full 15,000 authorized level. I think the current numbers are between 10,000 and 11,000. So surely the French could “give” on this.”

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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.

Kacie Candela is an assistant editor for PassBlue and a news anchor and reporter with WFUV, a public radio station in the Bronx, N.Y., where she covers the UN and other beats. Her work has won various awards from the New York State Associated Press Association, New York State Broadcasters Association, PRNDI, and the Alliance for Women in Media.

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