Lecture to the Lebanese American University Students
Remarks by the UN Deputy Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Najat Rochdi
Young students, the Future of Lebanon,
It’s an enormous pleasure to be with you today, even if it’s just virtually.
I was only seven years old when my father - at that time the president of the Moroccan Red Crescent - used to wake me up early to take me with him to visit the Operation Centers. I recall the faces of young people hovering in the Center, attending to people’s urgent needs and hurrying up to save lives. I knew that day that my life journey will be charted towards one purpose: help those in need.
My story with humanitarian work and international coordination in conflict and post-conflict areas goes back to many years of diligence and hard work in the service of vulnerable groups residing in societies in Central Africa and the Middle East that have suffered from poverty, inequality, widespread injustice, oppression and other aspects of discrimination and exclusion.
So what really defines my career to this day is the people themselves: listening to their concerns and aspirations, to their overriding needs and rights … trying to induce positive change in their lives, create a glimmer of hope in the middle of darkness, enhance their sense of resilience and rebuild their confidence in a fairer future and their capacities to rebuild it themselves. It is these people who give true meaning and strong momentum to my work whether as UN leader or as a Political leader and Professor at the University, back in my country Morocco.
Across these engagements, I have seen not only the plight of the people affected, but also the central role of women in alleviating suffering and in forging peace… Women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in achieving and sustaining peace is indeed a priority for the UN, essential for successful peacebuilding, peacekeeping and for the prosperity of communities and nations.
Research has proven that when women are included in peace processes, there is a 20% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least two years and a 35% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least 15 years. Meanwhile, when peace processes failed to include women, the peace agreement would crumble within five years.
Recognizing the importance of women’s engagement in peace and security, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted on 31 October 2000 the landmark resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. This resolution, with its four pillars of prevention, participation, protection and peacebuilding and recovery, has galvanized worldwide efforts as the key instrument to engage women in peace and security deliberations.
In September 2019, the Government of Lebanon endorsed its first National Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (NAP 1325). This commitment was reinforced in January 2020 in the Ministerial Statement issued by Diab’s caretaker Government. The NAP 1325 provides a comprehensive national framework for the long-term stability and security of Lebanon and a building block for the attainment of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. It sets out priority actions on socio-economic protections, the prevention and protection from gender-based violence, inclusive politics, conflict prevention, and economic recovery. The NAP 1325 also recognizes that women’s engagement in peace and security deliberations are vital to the country’s stability and security.
The implementation of NAP 1325 is underway although it faced major delays. But its passage has so far contributed to key noticeable results that cannot be overlooked. I will name few examples, such as: (1) the significant increase of women into the 2020 intake class of Lebanese Armed Forces military cadets, which included 43 women out of 128 candidates (34%); (2) the recent Cabinet decision to form the National Commission for the Missing and Forcibly Disappeared of which 4 out of 10 members are women; and (3) the substantial increase of women’s participation in the political life, with a record number of six women ministers in Lebanon’s Cabinet (first Lebanese and Arab woman appointed as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense), and the record number of 113 women candidates in the 2018 Parliamentary elections, although only six made it to the Parliament.
But the 2019 October popular protests brought many demands to the forefront, including from women, to request enhanced opportunities for participation, to sustain peace in Lebanon and work again on healing the wounds of the violent past.
We must therefore understand that women’s leadership is not a favor to women; it is essential to peace, stability and progress for all. We cannot hope to achieve transformational change, reduce social divisions, or achieve sustained peace without the full contributions of all of society. Women’s leadership in all spheres will be critical to finding the fastest and safest route to building a more peaceful future.
As Lebanon continues to suffer from the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history, while grappling with the COVID-19 outbreak as well as the detrimental effects of the Beirut port explosions and a political deadlock, we are now in a race to help Lebanon recover from its multi-faceted crisis, be it through humanitarian support, reconstruction efforts, reforms requirements and good governance. And your role as youth, as agents of change and messengers of hope, is now more important than ever!
You have shown commendable leadership and unity in the immediate response to the horrendous Beirut blast: You were the first to clean up the streets of Beirut from debris, and among the main supporters to humanitarian actors (including the UN) in the provision of life-saving assistance in the healthcare, food, water, shelter and other sectors to those most in need. You dedicated freely your time, your passion and skills for the sake of people. Your power of influence was tremendous!
Over the years, we have also seen the remarkable success that many youth leaders of Lebanon have had in championing environmental initiatives, in responding to emergencies, in influencing political change. But the individual and collective efforts of youth alone is not enough! This confirms an obvious truth: Governments work better when they are guided by a social contract that takes the voices of all groups of societies into account.
As Lebanon continues to struggle against unprecedented simultaneous shocks, a new social contract appears to be the country’s path for a much-needed transformation. People want their fundamental rights and freedoms to be respected. They want a say in decisions that affect their lives.
Creating a new social contract in Lebanon will provide a binding force of mutual rights and duties between the Lebanese State and the Lebanese society at large, where transparency, accountability and citizenship are at the heart of this mutual commitment.
This new social contract will give YOU – the young generation- and those who have taken to the streets or who feel marginalized, the opportunity to rethink and shape Lebanon’s future and to make sure that their concerns and needs are addressed. It will enable you to live in dignity; It will ensure women have the same prospects and opportunities as men; and will protect the sick, the vulnerable, and minorities of all kinds. Most importantly, it will help re-establish trust in the political system and national institutions and break the vicious cycle of corruption.
Your voices are needed, your presence and contributions are at the forefront of a reinvigorated social contract, to ensure power is equitably redistributed and help create a better Lebanon where all citizen have equal rights and equal representation in public and private policymaking as clearly stated in the constitution. You must be a great enabler to this endeavor! You are also central to making the Sustainable Development Goals happen in Lebanon.
Undoubtedly, the recovery of Lebanon lies in the hands of the Lebanese State and depends heavily on its political will and commitment to implement significant reforms as soon as possible. I am talking about macro-political and economic reforms that will help people return to jobs and businesses, but I’m also referring to substantial sector reforms, which constitute pre-conditions to delivering on a smooth and effective recovery.
These reforms constitute the centerpiece of the Reform, Recovery, Reconstruction (3RF) framework that is currently underway, and which we closely crafted with the European Union and the World Bank. The 3RF is an 18-month costed response plan that prioritizes what needs to be done to support the recovery and reconstruction of Beirut across various sectors. It includes a call to the Government of Lebanon to form a new, fully empowered Government that can take immediate policy actions to enable a ‘people-centered’ recovery and undertake critical reforms to lead on the recovery and reconstruction.
This framework is fundamentally for the people, particularly the poor and the most vulnerable, and lays the groundwork for a much-needed social contract. It is about meeting people’s critical needs, restoring their livelihoods, safeguarding their basic rights and giving them a voice and a place in policy making. It provides a vision for Lebanon to ‘Build Back Better’, a plan to prevent Lebanon from sliding into a full-scale humanitarian catastrophe and another irreparable crisis.
The 3RF proposes a new way of working, with civil society – along with the government, the private sector and international partners - acting as full and equal partner in the 3RF implementation process. As we speak, an independent Oversight Body is being established, giving Civil Society -where many of you may be volunteers- a powerful voice and a substantial oversight and accountability role in Lebanon’s recovery, which reinforces local ownership while taking into account humanitarian principles and conflict sensitivity to ‘do no harm’ and ‘leave no one behind’.
I invite you to have a closer look at the 3RF on our UN Lebanon website (under publications).
Young Ladies and Gentlemen,
Allow me now to conclude with few thoughts on how to manage and preserve political diversity, a topic that is deemed crucial for your study course.
Lebanon has always stood out in this region as a beacon of democracy, coexistence, plurality and freedom of expression. It is a democratic heritage that must be safeguarded and renewed.
This includes disagreement. Rosa Luxemburg said once that “Freedom only for the supporters of one party is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for those who think differently.”
What is needed is a culture of debate, and I am glad that this is something that is being nurtured, taught and practiced here at the Lebanese American University (LAU). It is very important to maintain that civic space where people can speak out, where the uniqueness of Lebanon’s unity in diversity can flourish.
This is a heritage Lebanon can be proud of. But you must not take it for granted. I am concerned that we have seen signs of a strain on these traditions, such as violations or intimidation that seek to limit freedom of expression and hate speech. This is unacceptable!
Hate speech is intolerable, and it is dangerous. Countering it, questioning it, NOT spreading it, is something each of you can and must do through your behavior on social media.
Diversity, and the freedom to dissent, also means that people should be allowed to protest peacefully, in accordance with the rule of law. The voices of all Lebanese, including women and youth, must be heard to ensure that all citizens enjoy equal rights and opportunities.
Obviously, protecting Lebanon’s plurality requires the presence of a strong and effective State and State institutions that are in the service of citizens. This can only be achieved through the implementation of meaningful reforms that put an end to the corrupt practices of the past, an independent judiciary that ensures accountability, put an end to impunity and paves the way for a future where all the people benefit from social, economic, political and security stability.
Lebanon has several electoral timelines coming up next year! Elections represent a vital step in strengthening Lebanon’s state institutions and consolidating its democratic traditions because the people can choose and hold their representatives accountable.
If you are at the voting age, I encourage you to vote and to even run in next year’s elections, particularly women should step forward. The path for reinforcing democracy and reinvigorating the system can only happen through YOU, the youth.
Let’s then recognize that Lebanon’s diversity is a symbol of richness, not a threat; and consider more innovative ways to build bridges rather than create divisions. Your role as youth is imperative in this realm. You ARE the bridges of dialogue and reconciliation! And you can count on us to support your efforts.
St Exupéry said: “L’avenir n’est que du Présent a mettre en ordre, il ne suffit pas de le prévoir, il faut le permettre » and you are the FUTURE, so allow it !
I look forward to a dynamic and frank discussion with all of you.