LAU "Outreach and Cultural Exchange Across Nations" Day
UN humanitarian and UN Resident coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative
24 April 2014 at Lebanese American University
LAU Provost, Dr. George Najjar
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to be here together with all of you for this important event – students, journalists, ambassadors, UN colleagues, and others that share the same belief in the power of cultural exchange as a tool for producing global leaders and promoting peace.
Together the Lebanese American University and the United Nations have forged a fruitful partnership over the years. LAU’s Outreach and Civic Engagement Unit has been active in organizing the LAU model United Nations program and the LAU UN fair, both valuable tools in understanding the role of the United Nations and its work. In 2011, 100 LAU volunteers supported the “2nd meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions” here in Beirut. Such collaboration is evidence of the University’s commitment to encourage and empower its students to reach out and become agents of constructive change in their society. It is also evidence of the power of small acts to affect significant outcomes.
Other associations of students also play an important role in fostering intercultural understanding and share many of the same core values of the United Nations – their contribution to building a global civil society of enlightened future leaders is noteworthy.
Ladies and gentleman,
Lebanon’s resilience is renowned. I have had the privilege of association with Lebanon over nearly two decades working here and subsequently visiting the country before my return this year and have been deeply impressed by the human talent available and also how this country’s vibrant civil society has contributed to overcoming the serious problems- including conflict- that have beset this country.
Lebanon now has more than one million refugees- equivalent to 80 million for the United States- more refugees per capita than any other country in the world. The bulk of the Syrian refugees are in the parts of the country where the bulk of Lebanese poor live- and unfortunately, nearly 30% of the Lebanese population was classified as below the poverty line ever prior to the influx of refugees! The impact of the Syrian conflict on Lebanon has been- and is- very heavy- and especially on those less well of Lebanese who do not have space to rent or own shops where food vouchers can be redeemed. And yet, heroically, with all its difficulties, the country is still- somehow- managing. The Lebanese Government, donors, UN agencies, international NGOs, municipalities and importantly Lebanese civil society organizations are part of this effort. We cannot- we must not- however take such resilience for granted and the international community needs to increase its support not just for the unfortunate Syrians but especially for the Lebanese communities that are bearing the brunt of this pressure.
International understanding and world peace need to begin at home! Non-Governmental Organizations have played- and can play- a major role in peace building in Lebanon. Despite political polarization and tension between different sectors of Lebanese society, NGOs have worked and continue to address the root causes of conflict in Lebanon, while strengthening civil peace through messages of reconciliation and dialogue. Even during the Lebanese civil war- and again recently- civil society organizations and movements launched campaigns to call for peace and say no to violence.
At this juncture, such initiatives are needed to diffuse tension between Syrians and Lebanese- and the dangers that such incidents can have for the wider community.
The UN was established as an organization of governments but over the years, the organization has learnt the vital importance of partnerships with civil society. In Lebanon, a number of civil society initiatives have been supported, including those seeking to improve the status of women and in respect of domestic violence legislation. Like in so many things, the key to success is working together. If the NGOs in Lebanon continue to work together to promote human rights, programmes for the most disadvantaged groups and social peace, much can be accomplished in addressing the problems of Lebanese society.
Lebanon has much to be proud of. I have spoken of its talented population- including in particular women- and its vibrant civil society. Freedom of the press in Lebanon is an example to the region. The private sector has managed to survive and recover from repeated crisis. The future of the Lebanese state will be built on such strengths as institutions are reformed and modernized. As I am sure you, as students, have experienced at LAU through interacting with friends and colleagues from a diversity of backgrounds, the different communities in this country have more in common than that which divides them.
Many of you are here today to explore possibilities of undertaking further studies abroad. Indeed, I am well aware that there are many more Lebanese outside the country than you have here and many have been extremely successful. The example of successful Lebanese abroad in the areas of business, medicine, politics, and science are well known. The Lebanese diaspora continues to play a very important role in this country through record remittances which has enabled, among other things, the Lebanese pound to retain its stability.
The advantage of going abroad to increase knowledge, experience and learn about other communities is of course invaluable and is to be encouraged. At the same time, may I hope that you will not see further education as a ticket out of this country but as an opportunity to strengthen the contribution that you can make to addressing fundamental problems in Lebanon and contributing to the strengthening of social peace and prosperity for all Lebanese.
This morning, I am here to represent the United Nations. We are some twenty four different organizations in this country, ranging from a large peace keeping mission through several regional organizations based here and country offices concerned with health, education, employment, development, human rights, agriculture- and refugees. Lebanon is a founder member of the United Nations in 1945. It is your organization.
Contrary to the views of many, we are not in the country because of the Syrian crisis- the UN has been here for decades through multiple crises and will be here when this one is resolved. We are here for Lebanon. Even in dealing with the refugee influx, we are here for Lebanon. Indeed, it is not widely understood that the bulk of United Nations staff in Lebanon are Lebanese nationals- such is the talent of which I have spoken.
The institution and its parts, constructed as they are by governments and humans, are imperfect. But as Ralph Bunche, a former UN Undersecretary General who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work mediating in Palestine, put it “the UN was not set up to get us to paradise but to save us from hell”. In this country, we seek to support the government and civil society in dealing with the problems that menace the future of Lebanon.
But that future is in the hands of you and your generation. May I express the wish that you employ the talents and skills that you have developed- and that you will develop- to contribute to the prosperous and peaceful Lebanon that the population of this country seeks- and deserves.