An interview with HMA Tom Fletcher, UK Ambassador to Lebanon
Posted on October 6, 2011
Yesterday I met with the new British Ambassador, Tom Fletcher, who last month replaced the popular Frances Guy as the U.K.’s representative in Beirut.
I was impressed. He remained on message, but thoughtful, on a whole range of potentially thorny issues, including the STL, Syria and Hezbollah. Below is the full transcript of the interview:
Q: What are your thoughts of the country so far?
A: The first thing is just how stunning the place is. Even though everyone had told me to expect that, I still find that overwhelming. When I drive up the mountain in the evening and look back at the sunset, it’s just extraordinary. But then also, as we discussed, the complexity of Lebanon, and the fact that on the surface so much is logical and yet beneath the surface it becomes much, much more complicated. So I’m very daunted by the scale of the challenge in trying to understand how politics and society works. I think, most of all, [I’m struck] by the energy and the dynamism of life here and of people here. You know, the talent of the people I am working with at the embassy, who actually are more talented I think than any group of staff I have worked with in much bigger embassies, but also then the talent of the people you meet around the circuit, it’s just overwhelming how many incredibly well-educated people you come across, who have a point of view on everything, very articulate, often in a third language. That is extraordinary. I think that encourages me that this is somewhere where, as an ambassador, you can actually have an impact because people want to talk and people are receptive and people are engaging. It’s not a country where an ambassador is just writing reports for his capital and going to diplomatic receptions. Here you are actually part of the game.
What impact, if you could sort of come out of here in three years’ time and say ‘I made an impact,’ what would you have liked that to have been?
It all comes back to stability. If we’ve managed to help Lebanon through this very difficult transition in the region and managed to maintain stability here then that will be success enough for the Lebanese leadership and the international community. Actually, stability is key to all our objectives as well, because my commercial objectives all depend on there being a stable economy, my political objectives and regional objectives all depend on there being a sort of stable political situation. If there is not stability, I will be evacuating many British passport holders, which is not a situation I want to find myself in. We are ready if it comes, but in many ways if we get to that point we will have failed because we should all be working hard to hold things together.
But beyond stability, I think there is an opportunity now over the next three years, with the changes there have been in the Arab world more widely, but also with the nature of Lebanese politics at the moment, there is an opportunity to start talking about the future of Lebanon in a more creative way. I think that these structures that have held Lebanon together since the Civil War have done a huge amount and we need to recognize that and many people didn’t think that would be possible. But I wonder now whether those structures are sustainable in the longer term.
Are you referencing anything in particular there? Taif, or sectarianism?
[Lebanon’s] political system that has been pieced together. I can see why that (was the right way to do it 20 years ago – it is just about the right way to do it today – but it isn’t the way that Lebanon should be forever more. And so I’d like to start a conversation with people about Lebanon 2020, especially with younger people. What kind of country to they want to live in? Do people think that sectarianism will become stronger or weaker? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? How can we get the youth more involved in politics? You know, I feel strongly that young people – 18 year olds – should be allowed the vote. I think one of the lessons of the Arab Spring more widely is that you need to empower and involve youth movements or you will find that they are in the street. These are all areas where I think as an outsider, without interfering, you can start a conversation. You can ask – I hope to be asking the right questions even if it’s for other people to then provide the answers.
You mentioned events going on in the region. In your opinion, what regional event, be it the Arab Spring, or be it the bid for Palestinian statehood, all these things going on in 2011, what will have the biggest impact here, and will it be positive or negative?
It’s hard to say, which is why people are so uncertain, why there is so much anxiety at the moment. But if you look back 10 years, and we have been reflected on this internally, we all thought that 9/11 was the event that changed the world, but in actually fact Mark Zuckerburg was the event that changed the world. There have been greater changes as a result of Facebook and Twitter and social media than there were as a result of 9/11 itself. If it hadn’t been for the expansion of the internet then we probably wouldn’t have had the Arab Spring in the same way as we have had it. So that has completely changed the paradigm and it’s changed the role of diplomats and governments as well. We have to be much more responsive to the fact that we are operating in a much more transparent way. We have to have a conversation not just with other diplomats, not through old-fashioned demarches and little notes verbars, you know, all the tools that we have been using for 200 years to interact, those are thrown out the window now and we have to find a new language of diplomacy and new means to interact with the new actors, who aren’t just ministers and diplomats – far from it – they are business leaders, youth leaders, community, religious leaders. It’s much more fluid and we have to be more fleet footed in that environment in order to make the impact that we need to.
In terms of the local events, I mean it’s a mixture, isn’t it? No one event will be the overwhelmingly significant one. I think that the transition in Syria is obviously the one that brings most concern here and anxiety and will ultimately have the greatest impact on Lebanon. But as you say, the Palestine resolution and the effort that we all have to engage in now to get a state of Palestine is in many ways equally important for the longer term. If you look at this as an issue that has shaped the Middle East for 60 years, it’s about time that we got it sorted so it doesn’t shape the Middle East for the next 60 years in a negative way.
But the British government was in support of the latest bid for [Palestinian] statehood?
We are in support of a Palestinian state, without doubt. We weren’t convinced that going to the Security Council was necessarily the best tactical move to get negotiations started and practically, you know, we could have as many votes as we want in the Security Council, that alone is not going to get the state. We are more likely to get a state from forcing the two sides into some kind of meaningful negotiation and holding them to it. So we didn’t agree necessarily that it was the best tactic. But it’s a wakeup call for all of us and we have to accept that now, even if it wasn’t the approach that we would have supported. The fact that we back a Palestinian state, the fact that we have institutions in place to create one and now we have had this wakeup call and the Palestinians have said ‘We’re ready,’ the world has pretty much said ‘We agree you’re ready’ and we will argue over exactly what readiness means but there was a pretty clear message from New York and very symbolically from the Palestinians themselves. I mean, it was very moving to see the Palestinians coming out and protesting peacefully for the state they have been waiting so long for. So, it was a clear wakeup call to us that we have got to stop just mouthing platitudes. You know, my first job in the Foreign Office was on the Middle East peace process. I have written these lines to take for now 16 years. We can’t keep saying words about renewing the peace process and restarting negotiations unless we put some beef behind it and we now have an obligation to do that –
I know the British government in principle supports Palestinian statehood, but would this not have been a good way to revigorate, to give a shot in the arm and give Palestinian negotiators the same level footing as Israeli ones, in that they would have a state, a legally and internationally recognized and mandated state, from whence to start another round of talks?
It’s tricky. We have to be practical as well. There was a real risk that actually pushing this all the way to a vote would have then provoked a U.S. veto – and it’s not my position to defend that; it’s for the U.S. to explain their position – but provoking a U.S. veto and provoking the Israelis to have another reason not to engage in negotiations and to walk away, I don’t think that would have made a Palestinian state more imminent. I think it would have made it less imminent. I think in the end we got the right combination. We managed to have – the Palestinians scored a huge symbolic victory and nobody denies that, but they also showed that they were rational and pragmatic, and ready to hold this card back. This can come back to the Security Council at any time but while it’s there is this additional pressure on us, on the international community, on the Americans, on Israelis and on the Palestinians to get into some kind of meaningful conversation. If they had just played that card then we’d have had two or three days of great headlines, expectations through the roof, and then the real danger of nothing then coming behind it.
While we’re on the subject of the U.S., in particular there are lots of things to do with Lebanon and Syria that have been going on. [U.S. Ambassador] Maura Connelly, who I’m sure you’ve met by now, she said that Lebanon needs to do more to protect Syrian opposition members within Lebanon. I’ve met lots of them, they live in fear. Obviously there are people, on one side mainly of the political divide, who are saying things and who are sort of worried about things. What’s your view on this? Is Lebanon doing enough to not just protect what might be termed ‘dissidents’ but also to allow a dialogue befitting of a democratic state with regards Syria?
The key thing is that Lebanon takes a neutral role. We, we as the Foreign Secretary made clear even this morning, back the rights of Syrian protesters to protest for freedom, to meet, to write, to talk, to interact in the way they need to do and the way that an opposition must do in any free society, and that’s why we were so disappointed we didn’t get this resolution [condemning Assad] in New York last night, which was asking for just those rights. It cannot be right that 3,000 are killed, that who knows how many are imprisoned. Syrians just simply do not have those freedoms at the moment. As to the Lebanese role, I think they have an obligation, and it’s in line with Lebanese values and Lebanese history, that they would always protect the rights of all people to interact, to have those freedoms. And, obviously, I would join the American ambassador in hoping that would be the case.
Obviously, given the some might say unique makeup of politics here, there are some parties who are backed – at least ideologically and in some cases financially – by the administration currently in Syria. Is there any fear that the transition in Syria might play out rather negatively in Lebanon? And, I think you can see what I’m getting at, that some might have their interests challenged here?
As I say, I think there will be a transition in Syria and it’s for the Syrian people to lead that. One of the things in the resolution last night is that there shouldn’t be any external military intervention or anything like that. This is a Syrian issue. But you’re right, there are threats that the transition presents for all of us here in Lebanon because of the interconnectedness of the two societies. None of us are saying that Lebanon needs to separate entirely from Syria. That would be completely unrealistic, like saying to us that Wales and England should separate entirely and have no contact or interaction and so on. Of course Syria is going to remain the most significant international country for Lebanon, but that’s as it should be. We can and we must do what we can to protect the Lebanese space from what is happening across the border. And I think we can do that in several ways. One is by making sure sanctions against Syria are not sanctions that hit the Lebanese economy. Even, you know, a knock-on effect. We have to be very careful that the sanctions hit the Syrian regime, not the Syrian people, not the Lebanese people, or the Lebanese regime. I think we can do more to improve the reputation of Lebanon as a destination for foreign investment, which again will underpin the economy. We have decided here in the embassy that we will increase our support for the Lebanese Army training and mentoring. The Lebanese Army is the best guarantor of stability here. It is part of the state that works very well indeed so we can do more to build them up and help them maintain control and to defend Lebanon from the internal threat, but also the external threat. I’ve seen myself, I’ve been on a couple of training programs with them, the extent to which they are moving into that position, that readiness to play that role.
But also, I think we can help by trying to influence the political process in the right way. Most importantly by making the case for Lebanese nationalism. It may seem an odd thing for a foreign ambassador to be talking about another country’s nationalism, but that to me is what’s needed now. We actually need less interference and commentary from all of us outsiders. I’m not just talking about Iran and Syria, I’m talking about the rest of us, Saudi, Europe, Britain, America. We need actually less of that interference and more independence of thought and leadership within Lebanon. There’s a tendency to always look outside for the answers and actually this is an opportunity. This transition in Syria should allow Lebanese leaders – and I don’t just mean the ones who are traditionally associated with Western countries but Lebanese leaders from right across the spectrum – to step up and to articulate a more Lebanese nationalist position.
So the transition in Syria would enable a sort of elevated sense of political independence here?
I hope so. I mean you can argue it both ways at the moment. Many people look at the situation in Syria and worry about Lebanese stability. You could turn it round and say that actually it’s quite encouraging that Lebanon has held together the way it has over the past three to six months. Not many people would have predicted that it would have held together so successfully. The government is now working on service delivery, working on reform, but above all you have a political leadership, across the political divide, which wants to hold things together, which doesn’t want to go back to the past. And in some ways maybe when that is tested by these external shocks, it will come out stronger.
In terms of the last three to six months, let’s start there, the new Cabinet, the latest in a series of Cabinets, how are they doing and how does the UK view their performance across a variety of issues, I suppose the number one being the STL?
I have done the rounds now and seen most of the Cabinet ministers and had some very encouraging, issued-based conversations about the issues and challenges that are in their interests and I’ve been very encouraged by the extent of the seriousness with which they are getting down to business, but also with the practical approach many of them have. It was very good, for example, to have a very substantive talk to the Tourism Minister about how we can get more tourists from the UK; to have a very substantive talk to the Energy Minister about oil and gas, for example, and the way in which we could work with the Lebanese for the Lebanese economy; but also with the Finance Minister, where we discussed the obstacles, the things that are holding back British investment and which we think are quite straightforward to deal with: high-speed internet, electricity and so on. So those weren’t just general courtesy calls and in conversations with the Prime Minister I’ve been very impressed with how focused he is on delivery. I think the key is now that we don’t try to overload the new government with expectations, we don’t try to fix every single problem, but that we focus in on some very key issues on which there can be progress. And I think on the economic side, that is the work on the business law, the anti-corruption measures, which are very much needed by overseas business investors but also by businesses here. I think investment on electricity, we are long overdue a functioning electrical system here that people can rely on and I think the internet, where getting a higher speed link will unlock huge amounts of Lebanese talent. The thing with Lebanon is that you don’t need to do very much, you just need to get out the way and let people get on with it. And by giving them internet, they’ll generate income, they’ll make money for the economy. I also think there are some changes that we need to think about on the electoral side in the run up to the votes, such as better ballot papers, the voting age as I mentioned, the electoral commission, but those will be part of an ongoing dialogue. But we need to be quite focused in what we ask for. We shouldn’t be asking for absolutely everything. It’s a tough position to be governing in and we have to be realistic.
Now in the STL, I think this is one of those classic issues where we have to be very careful not to be always placing Lebanon in a position where it has to choose, where we are saying you are either with us or against us. You must do this or it means that you no longer care about international norms in justice. It’s absolutely essential that Lebanon funds the international tribunal for Lebanon’s reasons. This isn’t just an international process. Lebanon needs to get rid of this culture of impunity that has allowed in the past presidents and prime ministers to be assassinated without there being any redress. And the real purpose of the tribunal is to get justice for those who lost their loved ones, but also to send the strongest possible message to those who might be thinking of assassinations in the future that it’s not worth it, that they will be hounded, that their freedom of maneuver will be limited to such an extent that they have to look at other ways of influencing politics. They have to actually enter the political process rather than trying to smash bits of it up. So it’s essential for Lebanon’s reasons it continues and I’m still confident that Lebanon’s leaders will take the decisions they need to take in the interests of Lebanon and that they will fund the court.
Which may take the form of a Presidential Degree or bypassing the Cabinet? Can you understand why some people in Cabinet might not want to see the STL funded?
I know there’s a debate and I know with my conversations from people here but also in the media that there’s a divergence of views. I think we have to win the argument for why it’s in Lebanon’s interests. It’s not for us on the outside to get involved in the technicalities of how that should be done. I hope that there would be the widest possible consensus that it is the right approach.
Britain has funded the tribunal in the past. Is there any risk of vested interest here from the UK government in taking up the slack, in terms of this being something that Westminster has actively supported, that there would probably be some here that would say you as a representative of Her Majesty’s government aren’t the most impartial of arbiters in this debate?
Because we funded the tribunal?
I mean, we funded the tribunal because we believe in international justice. We don’t come to it with an answer we’re looking for. We’re not approaching it in a partial way; we just want to get justice. We want the people who carried out the assassinations to face that justice. Our funding will continue because our commitment is not diminishing, but we do think it’s important that Lebanon plays its part as well. The risk is that if Lebanon doesn’t fund and the tribunal falls apart, then that sends a very negative signal to people that actually, you know, that there won’t be justice.
What sort of knock on effect might that have on Lebanon’s domestic prosperity, stability and also in terms of how the world views Lebanon?
The fall of the tribunal?
I think –
Well we don’t need to be so dramatic at this point. Let’s say Lebanon can’t agree on the funding for 2011. It’s essentially reneging on 1757.
It would send an incredibly negative signal. There are a lot of us out there at the moment fighting for Lebanon’s reputation, saying that this is somewhere to come and invest, that this is a government we can work with, that we must protect Lebanon from what’s happening in the rest of the region, that we will stand by Lebanon at this stage, that Lebanon can once again be the intellectual leader of the Arab world. All of us who believe in Lebanon’s potential would find it much harder to make that case to the more skeptical parts of international opinion if Lebanon was to turn around and reject the tribunal. It would send a very negative signal. And there are those who are trying now, if you look at some of the General Assembly speeches, there are countries who want to present Lebanon as moving away from the international community, moving further towards Iran, moving away from Lebanon’s core values and not funding the tribunal would be a gift to those people. And that way lies all sorts of dangers and problems because when it’s easier to generalize about Lebanon in that way then it’s much harder for us to justify what we want to do to stand by Lebanon.
I don’t believe that Lebanon is or will be controlled by any one group; I believe that all the groups in the current political process in and outside the government have an interest in working together to hold the place together and to keep Lebanon stable. I don’t think that any one group wants to dominate or overwhelm because they all understand that this is a very complex society, but it is diverse and that we must protect that diversity. So I hope that no one group would undermine that diversity and undermine the support of Lebanon’s friends.
When we are talking about regional events and the stuff that has gone on in the Arab world in 2011, and we spoke a bit about how that’s sent world governments thinking on new ways of engaging with people and you mentioned social media and youth groups, given the change of landscape in countries surrounding Lebanon, do you think it is still right that there are no diplomatic ties here with one of the major political parties, Hezbollah? What’s the justification for that and do you think it’s sustainable, given what’s going on around?
This is one of those questions that is always kept under review. Our policy at the moment, as you know, is not to have contact. In many ways, the decision we base as much on Hezbollah’s choices as on our own. I mean, we’re open minded. We, from our experience in Northern Ireland and I was the PM’s Northern Ireland adviser for four years, we understand that you have to talk to people even when you disagree with them and that you need to find a way to bring groups into the political process, because that’s the best way to settle differences. We don’t say never. But we do hope that Hezbollah will take the right decisions, including in supporting government reform.
Well they have a minister for it.
In allowing Lebanon to fulfill its international obligations, which would make it easier to envisage a time when we could restart those conversations.
But in the immediate sense does it not slightly hamstring your ability to connect universally within Lebanon’s political scene if you’re not talking to the party that is, in this Cabinet at least, in charge of these reforms that we’ve been hoping we see?
I’m obviously talking to people across the government so I have a pretty good view of what’s happening, including in ministries where I don’t have contact with ministers. There is no reason why we can’t support reforms in those ministries when they are clearly in Lebanon’s interests. Now, as I say, I would very much hope that there will be a scenario where progress has been made on reform, on fulfillment of international obligations and in choosing a Lebanese path of dialogue – rather of confrontation and violence – that justifies contact in the future. But it doesn’t just depend on the UK, it also depends on others taking the right decisions.
Is there not, we have Lebanon constantly saying it supports [UNSC Resolution] 1701, we have the parliament speaker saying we support not just 1701 but also 425, Lebanon has gone to the U.N. for maritime borders…is it hypocrisy or a double standard that Lebanon goes to the Security Council with all of these yet this year it refuses to implement 1757, the one supporting the tribunal?
We’ll see. We hope they will support 1757. We are not at the point yet when it’s rejected it. I actually think that Lebanon – and many people accuse the West of being non-consistent on UN resolutions and I’d have expected you to push me on that in some ways, many people do in conversations here – I actually think Lebanon’s pretty consistent on its international obligations so far. If you look at the way Lebanon chaired the Security Council, with enormous pressure from different sides, it actually chaired it in a very impartial way. In New York and from Beirut it handled that month of conversations with a lot of subtlety and balance. You know, it was quite an example to all of us of consistency. So, yeah, I’m comfortable with the position that Lebanon is taking on Security Council resolutions.
But there are levels of conforming to Security Council resolutions, isn’t there. I would suggest that if there was an equivalent lack of action and vocal support for something like 1701 as we have seen with 1757 – there was nothing in the policy statement specifically saying it would support the STL – then Lebanon would be accused of violating 1701. I know certainly one country that would say that.
Again, we have to be practical and the most important thing is that Lebanon adheres to 1757, that Lebanon pays its proportion of the tribunal money, and how they get there is for Lebanon to decide. It’s a very complex situation within government and we want to allow Lebanese decision makers the space to take the right decisions. Now, if they take the wrong decisions, of course there will be consequences but I am confident that they have Lebanon’s best interests at heart.
Lebanon’s best interests, not the interests of themselves or their own groups? Because a lot of things we’ve talked about today – internet, electricity – you said they’re very simple. Certainly, to ourselves as foreigners they seem very logical and very easily done but, you know, most of the reasons why they aren’t done, are stuff that is endemic. Vice, nepotism. What evidence have you been granted on your preliminary meetings with ministers that they are all in this together rather than in it for themselves or their sect?
We have to judge on results and they have reassured me that they want to deliver and that they can deliver and that they can put the national interest first. We will wait and see, but I have to be confident with the reassurances they give me. I’ve not been here long enough to become too cynical, to not believe everything I hear, and so if I’m given those reassurances, I’m willing to take them.
Going forward, we’ve discussed how crucial stability is for Lebanon. What is the biggest threat to that, internally or externally, over, say, the next 12 months?
There are obvious external shocks and change in Syria is one of them. If we fail to make progress towards a Palestinian state, that’s another. But I think it’s actually a more fundamental issue than that and the most important argument here is for coexistence. Ultimately, it all depends on whether the center ground can hold, on whether those who are fighting for coexistence come out fighting stronger. The forces holding Lebanon together are stronger than the forces that would want to pull it apart, for whatever their own reasons. And so far I’m optimistic, from my conversations with people and the evidence on the ground, that people are able to do that, but I don’t underestimate the challenges. There are external events, but ultimately it’s a more Lebanese issue, which is can we maintain and build and independent, sovereign, nationalist Lebanon, led be people that are working in the national interest and not in the interest of any of us. That supports my objectives.