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Opinion

Mideast Faces Tragic Shredding of its Diverse Religious, Ethnic & Cultural Fabric

António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, in an address to the Security Council on the Situation in the Middle East & North Africa

Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the UN Security Council. Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 26 2018 (IPS) - I thank the Russian Federation Presidency for convening this debate at a crucial juncture for the people of the Middle East and North Africa.

The region faces profound divisions, troubling currents and a tragic shredding of its diverse religious, ethnic and cultural fabric.

Decades-old conflicts, together with new ones, as well as deep-rooted social grievances, a shrinking of democratic space and the emergence of terrorism and new forms of violent extremism, are undermining peace, sustainable development and human rights.

The territorial integrity of countries like Syria, Yemen and Libya is under threat. Millions of people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. The impacts of this instability have spread to neighbors and beyond.

In addressing these challenges, we would all do well to recall the series of Arab Human Development Reports issued by the UN Development Programme starting in 2002. Those studies identified significant deficits in education, basic freedoms and empowerment, especially of the region’s women and young people.

Among the findings of the first report, in 2002, was, and I quote:

“Political participation in Arab countries remains weak, as manifested in the lack of genuine representative democracy and restrictions on liberties. At the same time, people’s aspirations for more freedom and greater participation in decision-making have grown, fueled by rising incomes, education, and information flows. The mismatch between aspirations and their fulfilment has in some cases led to alienation and its offspring – apathy and discontent. Remedying this state of affairs must be a priority for national leaderships.”
Many such shortfalls continue to bedevil societies across the region.

Let us also recognize that many of today’s problems are being compounded by the legacy of the past, including the colonial era and the consequences of the First World War, notably the dissolution of the Ottoman empire. The well-known “peace to end all peace” did unfortunately achieve that aim.

It was in this broad context that the Arab Spring reverberated widely as a call for inclusion, opportunity and the opening of political space.

Here I would like to pay tribute to the people of Tunisia, where the call began. They have achieved considerable progress in consolidating their young democracy, including through a new constitution and a peaceful transition of power.

But the Tunisia promise did not materialize everywhere in the region.

Today, in a region once home to one of history’s greatest flowerings of culture and coexistence, we see many fault-lines at work, old and new, crossing each other and generating enormous volatility. These include the Israeli-Palestinian wound, resurgent Cold War-like rivalries, the Sunni-Shia divide, ethnic schisms and other political confrontations.

Economic and social opportunities are clearly insufficient. As such difficulties rise, trust in institutions declines. Societies fracture along ethnic or religious lines, which are being manipulated for political advantage.

At times, foreign interference has exacerbated this disunity, with destabilizing effects.
And the risk of further downward spirals is sky high.

Our most pressing peace and security challenges in the Middle East are a clear reflection of the rifts, pressures, neglect and long-term trends that have brought us to today’s crossroads.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains central to the Middle Eastern quagmire.

Achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting two-state solution that allows Palestinians and Israelis to live side-by-side in peace, within secure and recognized borders, is essential for security and stability in the entire region. The recent tensions and violence in Gaza are a reminder of the fragility of the situation.

International support is critical to create an environment conducive to launching meaningful direct negotiations between the two parties. I remain deeply committed to supporting efforts towards this end.

Later today, I will preside over a pledging conference to address severe funding gaps facing the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees.

In Syria, civilians have borne a litany of atrocities for more than seven years of conflict: sieges, starvation, indiscriminate attacks, the use of chemical weapons, exile and forced displacement, sexual violence, torture, detention and enforced disappearances.

Syria has also become a battleground for proxy wars by regional and international actors. Violence is entrenched, amid a fractured political landscape and a multiplicity of armed groups. In the absence of trusted state institutions, many Syrians have fallen back on religious and tribal identities.

I continue to call on the parties to the conflict to engage meaningfully with my Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura in the UN-facilitated political process in Geneva. I urge progress in the establishment of the constitutional committee. Security Council resolution 2254 remains the only internationally agreed avenue for a credible and sustainable end to this conflict.

More than ever our aim is to see a united and democratic Syria, to avoid irreparable sectarianism, to ensure full respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to enable the Syrian people to freely decide on the country’s future.

Yemen is suffering a prolonged and devastating conflict with clear regional dimensions.

My Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has been actively engaged in order to avoid an escalation that could have dramatic humanitarian consequences at the present moment. One week ago, he presented to this Council elements of a negotiation framework that he has been discussing with various interlocutors inside Yemen and in the region. Our hope is that this framework would allow for a resumption of badly needed political negotiations to put an end to the conflict.

In Gaza, Syria and Yemen, the international community must remain mobilized in order to ensure a strong humanitarian response to millions of people in dire need.

In Libya, the United Nations is committed to supporting national actors to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

The national conference process organized as part of the UN Action Plan is delivering a clear message: Libyans are longing for an end to the conflict and an end to the transition period. All stakeholders must continue lending their support to my Special Representative Ghassan Salamé, as he leads the political process.

Political success in Libya will also hopefully allow the country to play its role in addressing the dramatic plight of migrants and refugees who have been suffering so much in attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

In the past few years, we have witnessed numerous examples of Iraq’s resilience, including overcoming the risk of fragmentation and achieving victory over ISIL. Iraq’s endurance as a stable, federal state is a testament to the enormous sacrifices of the Iraqi people, from all communities. I strongly hope that the Iraqi institutions will be able to ensure an adequate conclusion of the electoral process in a way that fully respects the will of the Iraqi people.

In this context, the reconstruction of areas destroyed in the retaking of territory from ISIL is a priority, as is the safe, dignified and voluntary return of Iraq’s displaced people to their homes, including those from religious minorities. It is also important to complement such efforts by ensuring that those who committed atrocity crimes are held accountable for their actions, in accordance with international standards.

Let us remember that what look like religious conflicts are normally the product of political or geo-strategic manipulation, or proxies for other antagonisms.

There are endless examples of different religious groups living together peacefully for centuries, despite their differences. Today’s artificial divides therefore can and must be overcome, based on respect for the independence and territorial integrity of the countries concerned.

In this context, it is important to value the experience of respect for diversity that Lebanon today represents.

In Lebanon, parliamentary elections — the first since 2009 — were held peacefully in May, underscoring the country’s democratic tradition. We look forward to the formation of the new Government, to further strengthen state institutions, promote structural reforms and to implement the dissociation policy.

Heightened regional tensions could threaten Lebanon’s stability, including at the Blue Line. Steadfast international effort remains critical in supporting Lebanon to consolidate state authority, safeguard the country from regional tensions and host refugees until durable solutions are found, in accordance with relevant Security Council resolutions.

I remain particularly concerned with the risks of destabilization around the Gulf.

That is why I have always supported the efforts of the Kuwaiti mediation to overcome divisions among Arab states in the area.

On the other hand, it is important to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which should remain a valuable element of peace and security, independently of the wider discussion about the role of Iran in the region.

During the Cold War, ideological rivals still found ways to talk and cooperate despite their deep divides, for example through the Helsinki process. I do not see why countries of the region cannot find a similar platform to come together, drawing experience from one another and enhancing opportunities for possible political, environmental, socio-economic or security cooperation.

Regional and sub-regional organizations also have a key role to play in supporting preventive diplomacy, mediation and confidence-building.

The region needs to ensure the integrity of the state, its governance systems and the equal application of the rule of law that protects all individuals.

Majorities should not feel the existential threat of fragmentation, and minorities should not feel the threat of oppression and exile.

And everyone, everywhere, should enjoy their right to live in dignity, freedom and peace.

I call on the members of the Security Council to find much-needed consensus and to act with one strong voice.

 
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