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Frances GuyAmbassador to the Republic of Lebanon, Beirut
Those of you in Lebanon will have noticed that the Prime Minister was in London last week. It was my privilege to accompany him. The profile of Lebanon in Whitehall was raised in a positive way. I don't pretend that there is no concern about the fate of Lebanon these days. Of course there is. And much newspaper ink has already been spent on fruitless and unhelpful speculation. What I mean is that by meeting leading British politicians, the Lebanese Prime Minister was able to add a human touch. Those few words in a short meeting can make all the difference in the long run.
But attention on Lebanon was not confined to the two Prime Ministers. Last week also saw a fund raising event for LIVE LEBANON, an important UNDP initiative to help raise funds from expatriate Lebanese to fund deserving development projects throughout the country. Check it out . And next week the Arab Bankers Association will host a Lebanese banking day.
Arab culture reaches even further though. In pensive mood late one night last week, I came back in the Tube from saying my goodbyes to the Lebanese delegation. As I came out of the station the melodic sound of the oud resonated up the street. A small crowd had gathered to listen because this was a talent well beyond the run of the mill busker. This was real Arab talent. It seemed appropriate somehow. I gave generously. I don't suppose he was Lebanese, possibly an Iraqi refugee, but he cheered many lost souls that night and will I assume continue to do so.
That was the simple slogan the French Embassy used to introduce a seminar on the death penalty on the world (and European) day against the death penalty. It was effective as was the testimony of two former condemned but innocent people. Therein lay a tale of political manipulation, political accusation and outright torture. Despite all todays traumas it made you realise how some things in Lebanon have begun to change. Access by the ICRC to places of detention being one.
The Minister of Justice was brave, it takes courage in today's political climate demanding retribution for Israeli spies to stand up against the death penalty. He said publicly what he has said before in private that he himself will never sign the order for an execution. There are two proposals in parliament for abolition; one which simply calls for straight abolition of the death penalty, the other which includes the need to revise the penal code completely. Some panelists expressed concern that revising the penal code, however necessary, would take too long. Members of the audience pressed for urgent discussions in parliament. Aha but therein lies a different tale. With 313 bills before parliament, and none of them for the moment making it to the floor of the house, how is anyone going to get abolition made a priority? Good old fashioned campaigning? maybe .. but what seems to have made a difference in the UK was the action of one MP. Maybe that can still happen in Lebanon. Members of the Parliament's Human Rights committee are certainly motivated.
As Amnesty International so eloquently puts it "The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights. It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state" Time to end this barbaric practice everywhere.
The Egyptians are famous in the Arab world for their sense of humour, the Lebanese less so but it is always refreshing to be able to laugh at yourself in a clever way that takes your spectators with you. It is very daring to do that at an official concert in the Prime Minister's office - the Grand Serail - in front of an audience of dignatories and diplomats put on in collaboration with the Spanish Presidency of the European Union. But that's what Charbel Rouhana, famous Lebanese Oud player (www.charbelrouhana.net) did last night. He played some classical Lebanese pieces, as no doubt he had done for the King of Spain a month ago, and then he lightened the atmosphere with a dig at the diplomats by singing a song about visas, how badly the Lebanese were treated - with the conclusion, you can search me, you can hassle me, you can refuse me a visa, but at the end of the day life is better in Lebanon! Quite! It reminded me bizarrely of Scottish melodies lamenting the necessity of emigrating but concluding that there is nae place like home. And then Charbel went one further and laughed at the Lebanese habit of mixing languages. "Hello, Kayfak, Ca va" can be found on t-shirts at the airport in Beirut. When you first come to Lebanon from somewhere else in the Arab world it seems farcical. Which was sort of the point of Charbel's song - what's wrong with Arabic? are you laughing at your language? But soon you get caught up in it. Merci is as ubiquitous as Shukran. Quickly you start doing the same.. my kids tease me when I say Kayfak Ca va? but now it just happens without thought. I had to laugh too listening to a Lebanese scientist being corrected on the BBC Arabic service the other day because he couldn't find the Arabic word for some complicated operation. Don't get me wrong - the Lebanese facility with languages is to be admired, and the ease with which many switch between Arabic, English and French is astounding but it is also good to be reminded by top Lebanese poets and musicians now and again that it can sound bizarre to outsiders and that there are alternatives! Thanks Charbel for giving us a laugh in such style.
You expect too much. You can't ask the Lebanese to be like the Swiss. So said one of my diplomatic colleagues to me last week. It made me think. At one level I don't think it is to ask too much to expect some progress towards the implementation of the rule of law, the end to corruption and some basic infrastructural planning. But bizarrely it is this latter that in some ways causes the most problems. The point my colleague was making was that you can't expect the Lebanese to plan - it is not in their psyche - and this for good reason, given 50 years of conflict. And yet, sometimes it seems that this inability to dare to look to the future becomes an excuse for paralysis. Difficult to judge what is fair and what are realistic expectations.
I am supposed to be in the UK and am thus a (very minor) victim of the volcanic ash. So on Saturday instead of meeting my family at home, I go to meet the walkers on the Mountain Trail at Mtain. There is a big celebration with the Minister of Tourism, wonderful traditional dances, a decent crowd, a few speeches, and the triumphant arrival of the walkers. This was about celebrating the positive effects of the Mountain Trail, including some conservation of Mtain town square.
I mention this because on the way to Mtain we pass some spectacular scenery - all that makes Mount Lebanon special. In amongst the cedar trees are a considerable number of dilapidated buildings, complete with bullet holes. Why here in such beautiful places ? Then you remember that until 5 years ago the Syrian army occupied many of these hillsides, and many house owners left not daring to return while soldiers were squatting in their houses. Now slowly people are returning to do up their houses and others have sold them on to wealthier foreigners. There are positives and negatives in that and the danger that the area will be spoilt by new development. But the run down houses are a poignant reminder of why it is so difficult to plan. Do I expect too much? No, I don't think so. Just as it is positive to live every moment as though it is the last so it is positive to plan for the most optimistic outcome.
I went to prison this morning. Not for fun, rather to find out more about conditions inside Lebanon's biggest prison in Roumieh near Beirut. Roumieh is like many prisons round the world, very over-crowded. It was built for around 1,000 prisoners more than 50 years ago and now holds more than 4,000. I have visited many prisons in the countries I have served in; in Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen and Thailand. Some are worse than others. None of them was as over-crowded as Roumieh.
I have been to Roumieh once before to see a Lebanese adaptation of the play, "12 Angry Men" which some of the prisoners performed last February. Some of the actors are there today. They remember that they brought me to tears then. (I can't deny it.) The session today is organised by the producer of the play, and founder of the drama-therapy group in the prison, Zeina Daccache. The Norwegian Ambassador is there too as well as four journalists. We are all women. A point not unnoticed. We join in the therapy games. They help us understand better the situation of the prisoners and they give us time to get to know each other a little. We didn't get inside the cells. Perhaps we don't need to but to appreciate truly the overcrowded conditions it would help. When I ask how many of them share a cell, the prisoners cheerfully demonstrate how in a space of 2m x 1.6m (think about it.. the size of a decent-sized double bed) 5 of them try and sleep (and live). For people who share a bucket of cold water filled during the night when the water comes, they all smell of clean soap. It is hard not to empathise. Nearly 70% of the prisoners in Roumieh have not yet been tried. One of those in the session with us had been in prison for 5 years but was only going to court tomorrow. Others present were convicted murderers and admitted it. All of them agreed that Zeina had brought them dignity and had given them hope that the outside world understood their condition and had begun to treat them like human beings. They acknowledge the efforts of the Minister of Interior but they want to see some basic changes soon.
What can outsiders do to help? Keep supporting small projects that bring relief like Zeina's. Keep supporting wider projects like the EU's overall programme in the justice sector to try and improve the management of justice in Lebanon. Visit the prisoners. Support the Minister of Interior in his aims for reforms. etc etc.
As ever on leaving a prison, I look skyward and enjoy the freedom of the space above me. Spare a thought for the incarcerated around the world now and again.
Friday 15 January. I attend a presentation on the findings of a study about the participation of women in the Lebanese parliamentary elections of June 2009. The Minister of Interior is there as well as hundreds of women activists and a handful of (mostly male) MPs. As the Minister puts it having only 12 female candidates out of a total of over 700 is quite simply a disgrace. There are many reasons for it: access to finance, problems of confessional politics ( for which read feudal patriarchal system), basic attitudes to women etc.. But there are few excuses. There are excellent, well-qualified and keen Lebanese women in all walks of life, many judges, many lawyers, many businesswomen, 2 Cabinet Ministers, but only 4 out of 128 elected MPs i.e. 2 fewer than in the last elections in 2005.
The conclusion that the Minister comes to is that the only way forward is to introduce a quota. He pledges to present a proposal to Cabinet next week that 30% of seats in the municipal elections in May are reserved for women. He gets a whole hearted round of applause. The Minister is courageous. Quotas have helped women in many different countries from Pakistan to Norway.
And me as a British diplomat, can I support a quota? It is an interesting dilemma. Technically the British government supports the implementation of all human rights conventions including that of the Convention to End Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to which Lebanon is a signatory. But quotas? I stick to the positive examples. By introducing a concept of twinning constituencies the Labour party greatly increased the number of female candidates in 1997 and thus the number of women MPs in parliament. Nearly all major parties in the UK are committed to increasing the number of female candidates. Practical efforts to change working practices in the Scottish parliament have led to a significant increase in women's representation.
If quotas are right for Lebanon and the cabinet agrees, then we should support it. I wish the Minister well. Only by pushing the edges of the possible can change inch forward.
As an Ambassador you occasionally get to do things that make you proud of your country. On Friday I participated in a citizenship ceremony. We don't do too many of these in Beirut so we like to make a bit of a fuss; flowers, flags, photos for the family. How many British passport holders really give much thought about what it means to be British? What do you think you have to do when you get a British passport? Swear allegiance to the monarch? Yes, of course. But what else? Did you know that you pledge to uphold democratic values? I like that bit. Ok we don't define what that means, but let's keep the definition broad and let's remember that it is every citizen's duty to uphold those democratic values. If we remembered this now and again perhaps we can better defend the fundamental freedoms that we cherish.
The theme is accentuated for me later in the day. I go to a lecture given by former Prime Minister Selim Hoss. Whatever your political complexion in Lebanon you are likely to respect PM Hoss as one of the few non-corrupt politicians in Lebanon. He has on his wall at home a saying which translates something like: a public servant is strong until he asks for a favour for himself. It is always a pleasure to listen to Mr Hoss. He doesn't disappoint the packed gathering. He gives us a 30 minute summary of his experience in government in Lebanon. He concludes that Lebanon appears to be a democracy but in reality it enjoys many freedoms but little democracy. Lebanese have freedom to express themselves, freedom to think, freedom of movement, freedom to work and freedom to demonstrate. But without the rule of law and its imposition, Lebanon cannot be a democracy.
I think we can rightly continue to be demanding. Lebanon has gone through many traumas but 20 years ought to be enough time to reconstitute the state and begin the imposition of the rule of law. With a Minister of Justice committed to root out corruption in the judiciary, this national unity government is well placed to start.
Election and Inauguration of General Michel Sleiman as President of the Republic of Lebanon. Just the sort of official occasion where it is a real honour to be a diplomat. It is a tremendous priviledge to be present at such a historic moment. Lebanon has survived without a President for 6 months but it has been hard going. And under the last President the office itself fell into disrepute.
President Sleiman has a very difficult task. As the symbol of the unity of the nation, he has to help keep a potentially squabbling national unity government together. He pledges to start the debate on a national defence strategy to consider the future of the arms of the resistance. He commits himself to try and make Lebanon a country where young people want to stay not to keep emigrating. He is solemn and dignified and looks a bit tired round the edges.
I enjoy saying hello to old friends who have come to attend the ceremony: Abubaker el Kirby the Foreign Minister of Yemen, Hoshyar Zebari the Foreign Minister of Iraq. I enjoy too watching the diplomatic comings and goings - the Iranians with the Saudis, the French and the Egyptians, which Lebanese politicians come to greet which Arab leaders. The Prime Minister of Qatar beaming at everyone.
We stand in a long queue to greet the new President, two lady ambassadors squashed between the commander of UNIFIL and the envoy from the Vatican. We thought we couldn't be better protected. Both managed to get to the President before us. And we thought we were both pretty bolshy ... obviously no chivalry these days.
I hand over a message from Gordon Brown which gets broadcast in its entirety in Arabic within 15 minutes. I thank our press officers for a good piece of work.
The night sky is filled with fireworks.. Long live President Sleiman.. may God give him strength.
After the tension around Prime Ministerial visits it is a real pleasure to return to the more routine, but also more varied nature of day to day Ambassadorial existence. On Thursday 21 February I had the pleasure of attending the opening of the Magic Pencil exhibition that the British Council are showing in Tripoli in conjunction with a number of workshops with graphic designers. The Magic Pencil is a celebration of British children's illustrators and is designed to enchant - with old favourites from Quinten Blake and the Lola and Charlie series as well as many others with whom I am less well acquainted. For more details see http://magicpencil.britishcouncil.org The nice thing about the opening is the mixture of teachers, designers, kids and local dignatories. Even better is the venue itself: the Safadi Cultural Centre. It has recently opened and houses contact points for different cultural centres, as well as the British Council, there are representative offices from the Germans, Spanish and Russians. On Thursday there is a Russian violin concert going on in the main auditorium. So we join them. Some in the audience make jokes about whether the British Council and the Russian Cultural Centre have licenses to operate in Lebanon, most enjoy both the British artists and the Russian music. And in the same building there are excellent gym facilities and a thriving basketball court. So that night there was activity on three or four levels at once.
Today, Friday 22 February I officially open our new Visa Application Centre. Actually it has been open since Monday and seems to be doing well. The staff are enthusiastic and very welcoming which is encouraging. The new set up will avoid queues outside the Embassy in the rain or hot sun of summer and should make applying for a visa to the UK a more pleasant experience. Everyone will need to go and get their fingerprints taken though. I do the classic of applying for a visa myself and having my fingerprints taken. Unfortunately the machine doesn't like my prints much so we have to repeat the procedure - it happens! I hope the staff are still smiling in a few months time.