This article was published by IRIN, the UN’s press service, on March 3
BEIRUT, 3 March 2014 (IRIN) – A few weeks ago, the head of security for a charity in Lebanon got the kind of call you never want to get. “One of our staff has been kidnapped,” the voice on the other end said. “She was at a checkpoint an hour ago and no one has heard from her since.”
The panic turned out to be misplaced – the woman had taken an unexpected turn and had forgotten to radio in – but it indicates the difficulties of working in an increasingly violent country.
Lebanon has averaged over a car bomb per week so far in 2014, with the majority on the outskirts of the capital, Beirut. The alleged culprits have largely been al-Qaeda-affiliated groups often targeting areas traditionally run by the Shiite political party Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad. On top of this, there have been a string of kidnappings in recent years, while the country’s second city Tripoli is trapped in a low-level civil war.
For a country that underwent a relative period of peace from 2007 until late 2012, the uptick in violence over the past 18 months has been severe, with fears of a return to the civil war that tore the country apart from 1975 until 1990.
At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled the civil war next door (UNHCR has registered over 935,000 in Lebanon). To adjust to this, most charities in the country have scaled up their operations rapidly. The Danish Refugee Council (DRC), the largest NGO in the country, had 15 Lebanon staff when the Syria crisis started in early 2011. Currently they have more than 500.
Trying to manage these huge increases in operations while ensuring staff are kept safe has been a challenge that requires increasingly complicated responses. The primary move has been to scale up their security teams: until 2012 almost no NGOs had dedicated international security experts, now the bulk of major NGOs do.
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More institutionally, there has been a drive to seek better information-sharing. As such, leading International NGOs, (International Organizations) as well as UN bodies and local stakeholders, have come together to form a joint body – the Safety Security Committee for Lebanon (SSCL).
Set up informally after a top security official was assassinated in late 2012, the body was formalized last July when it received additional funding (until July 2014). Now over 50 members strong, it works on the principles of the 2006 Saving Lives Together framework, which seeks to improve coordination between different international NGOs and UN organizations.
Lawrence Tucker-Gardiner, director of the SSCL, says the principles of sharing security information between NGOs have been successful in other conflict zones – most notably in Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan. He believes that while Lebanon’s security climate is worrying, the lack of direct involvement in the conflict by international actors makes the situation less inherently dangerous for NGO workers.
“There are no areas where organizations have reduced activities where there is still a need [for services]. This is because the characteristic of the conflict is predominantly indirect,” he said. “As such the greatest risk to the members is collateral damage, so it is quite easy to develop strategies around this.”
Sectarianism in Tripoli
Tripoli’s conflict has taken on an increasingly sectarian tint in recent years, with predominantly Sunni Muslims in the Bab al Tabanneh area clashing with those from the neighbouring Jabal Mohsen District who are majority Alawite – an offshoot of Shia Islam. “Generally we know the sect of our drivers, and we try not to send Sunnis into Jabal Mohsen or a Shia into Bab al Tabanneh,” said the head of security at one charity. “A couple of years ago we wouldn’t have needed to do that.”
The spate of car bombings in southern Beirut and north Bekaa in recent months have not generally been followed by immediate retaliatory attacks, Tucker-Gardiner said, thus reducing the impact of the violence on the work of NGOs.
Despite this, organizations are scaling back their operations in Lebanon. “Most organizations are just rationalizing – we can hold this event in Amman, or Larnaca, or Istanbul. We don’t have to hold it in Beirut and expose them to unnecessary risks,” he said.
Hoping for better, preparing for worse
In mid-February, the Lebanese political classes finally came together to form a cabinet – after 11 months without a government. This has somewhat raised hopes that the security situation may improve in the coming months.
Despite this small chink of optimism, Tucker-Gardiner said organizations are making sure to prepare for the worst. “We have done some capacity work with members looking at alternative access strategies if there is a rapid deterioration. Strategies include the recruitment of more local staff [to replace foreign ones], capacity-building of alternative organizations, and negotiated access agreements,” he said.
He added that he had no major expectation that aid workers would become primary targets in the coming months, but that unexpected events could lead to an uptick in violence with the potential for direct clashes between rival militias. This would significantly increase the risk.