Lebanese MPs meet for first time since blast, government resignation

Lebanese MPs meet for first time since blast, government resignation
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Lebanese anti-government protesters attack a vehicle belonging to a member of the parliament upon his arrival to the parliamentary session at the UNESCO Palace in Beirut, on August 13, 2020. (AFP)
Lebanese MPs meet for first time since blast, government resignation
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General view of the government palace before a protest following the blast in Beirut, Lebanon, August 10, 2020. (File/REUTERS)
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Updated 13 August 2020

Lebanese MPs meet for first time since blast, government resignation

Lebanese MPs meet for first time since blast, government resignation
  • Senior US official David Hale is expected in Beirut later on Thursday to stress the urgent need for financial and governance reformsman
  • Some 30-40 people are still missing more than a week after the blast

BEIRUT: Lebanese security forces deployed heavily in Beirut on Thursday, stopping protesters from reaching a conference center where MPs began meeting for the first time since the catastrophic chemicals explosion last week that killed 172 people.
Senior US official David Hale is expected in Beirut later on Thursday to stress the urgent need for financial and governance reforms, ending endemic corruption and bringing transparency, among other messages, the US Embassy said.
The Aug. 4 blast at a warehouse storing highly-explosive material in Beirut port injured some 6,000, left around 300,000 without habitable housing and wrecked swathes of the city, which was already in a deep financial crisis.
The authorities say the blast was caused by more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored for years without safety measures.
Roads to the UNESCO Palace on the southern outskirts of the capital, where parliament has met during the COVID-19 pandemic, were blocked with metal gates in anticipation of the protest by demonstrators furious at a political elite they blame for the blast.
“They are all criminals, they are who caused this catastrophe, this explosion,” said Lina Boubess, 60, a protester who was trying to reach UNESCO Palace.
“Isn’t it enough that they stole our money, our lives, our dreams and the dreams of our children? What more do we have to lose. They are criminals, all of them means all of them.”

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As two cars with tinted windows passed through one of the barricades toward the UNESCO Palace, a small group of protesters hit the vehicles with Lebanese flags.
Others angry at the lawmakers said they had stayed away from the building in anticipation of the security cordon.
Some 30-40 people are still missing more than a week after the blast.
Outrage at the explosion has fueled protests in which hundreds of people have been injured in confrontations between security forces and demonstrators. The government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned earlier this week.
The parliamentary session started with a minute of silence.
The agenda includes a discussion of a state of emergency declared by the government, said a senior political source. The resignation of eight MPs who quit after the blast are also expected to be confirmed.
But Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a pillar of the sectarian elite, also “wants to give a political message — that the parliament exists — despite all this talk about early elections and the resignations of MPs,” said the source.
Humanitarian aid has poured in but foreign countries have made clear they will not provide funds to help pull Lebanon from economic collapse without action on long-demanded reforms to tackle systemic graft, waste, mismanagement and negligence.
Authorities have estimated losses at $15 billion, a bill Lebanon cannot pay: it defaulted on its enormous sovereign debt in March, citing critically low foreign currency reserves.
The government’s talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout had stalled.
Politicians are in early consultations over forming a new cabinet, a complicated process in a country riven by political divisions and governed by a sectarian power-sharing system.
The government, which stays on in a caretaker capacity, came to office in January with backing from parties including the heavily armed, Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful party. Together with its allies, they have a majority of seats in parliament.
The United States proscribes Hezbollah as a terrorist group.
US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Hale “will underscore America’s willingness to support any government that reflects the will of the people and is genuinely committed to and acting upon such a reform agenda,” the US Embassy said.


UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts
Updated 23 January 2021

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts
  • Geir Pederson wants enhanced international diplomacy, and tighter focus on progress in drafting new constitution
  • The fifth session of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee begins in Geneva on Monday

NEW YORK: Geir Pedersen, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, on Friday called for “more serious and cooperative” international diplomacy as part of political efforts to improve the lives of the Syrian people and develop a vision for the future of their country.

Speaking ahead of the fifth session of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which begins on Monday in Geneva, he also urged committee members to focus their efforts and work more effectively to speed up progress on constitutional reform.

Pedersen expressed hope that much-needed international engagement with the peace process is now possible.

“After all, despite the differences, key states are continuing to reaffirm their commitment to Resolution 2254,” he added, referring to the UN Security Council resolution, adopted in 2015, that calls for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria.

Pedersen, who briefed the Security Council this week on the latest developments, highlighted the fact that five foreign armies are active in Syria and “violations of Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity (have been) going on for years.”

Although the ceasefire agreement reached by Russia and Turkey in the northwest of the country resulted in a de-escalation of hostilities, Pedersen warned that this relative calm remains fragile.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File) 

“All of these issues cannot be sorted out by the Syrians alone,” he said. (They) need an international cooperation (and) a real exchange of views (among all parties).

“If that political will is lacking it would be very, very difficult to move this process forward ... if you leave this to the UN alone, we will not be able to succeed.”

Top on the agenda on Monday will be discussion of the basic principles of the Syrian constitution. Pedersen said he has been meeting with the two co-chairs of the committee on a regular basis, and has also had intensive discussions with the “Middle Third” civil-society group, which includes society activists and experts and other independents from inside and outside of Syria.

His experiences during the past year, he said, lead him to believe there is potential for finding common ground. No single actor or group of actors can impose its will on Syria or settle the conflict alone — they must work together, he added.

The time has now come for the co-chairs of the Constitutional Committee to organize and focus its efforts by establishing “more effective and operational working methods,” Pedersen said, so that they can begin to move forward from preparing constitutional reforms to actually drafting them, and agreeing on clear agendas and discussion topics for future meetings.

“There needs to be more urgency (in) delivering progress in this process,” he added.

As he saluted the work of civil society groups and “all the Syrians who do what they can to improve the situation on the ground and support a political process,” Pedersen singled out women in particular for praise. He has been particularly proactive in seeking input from the Women’s Advisory Board.

“It is a priority for all of us to make sure that we have full participation of Syrian women in the political process,” he said. “(Promoting) their core constitutional rights is central for me, as the facilitator of the work of the Constitutional Committee.”

Asked about plans for large-scale prisoner swaps, Pedersen said that although this is not on the agenda for the talks in Geneva this week, it is always part of his own agenda. The disappointment over the lack of progress on the issue so far means “that we should work even harder” on it, he added.

“This is a file that really has an impact on nearly every Syrian family, and it needs to be addressed,” he said. “(I) have appealed (for) more information on the missing. (We) need to see the early release of women, children, the elderly and the sick, and I think (nothing) should stop that from happening.”

The members of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee are due to arrive in Geneva on Saturday, and Pedersen will consult with the co-chairs over the weekend before the main talks begin on Monday.

Asked whether he expects this latest round of negotiations to be a success for the UN, Pedersen said: “I really do not think this is the question; the question (is) whether it is a success for the Syrian people and (their) aspirations.

“My hope has been that the Constitutional Committee, if it is handled in the correct manner, could start to build trust and (be) a door-opener for a broader political process.

“But the (committee) cannot work in isolation ... we need political will from the different parties to be able to move forward.”

He added: “The (committee) is just one aspect, and it is not the one aspect that will solve the Syrian crisis. If we are to see changes in the situation on the ground, there are other factors that need to be discussed.”