The top United Nations diplomat in Lebanon faced backlash Thursday after he posted a tweet alleging that violent protests that took place this week were the work of “suspicious groups.”
The UN’s Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis thanked Future Movement Member of Parliament Bahia Hariri on Twitter for her condemnation of attacks on private property and “distinguishing these unacceptable acts of a handful of hired & politically manipulated suspicious groups from legitimate & needed peaceful protests.”
Many thanks MP @BahiaHariri for rejecting violence against public & private property, against LAF in Tripoli, Saida & others, while distinguishing these unacceptable acts of a handful of hired & politically manipulated suspicious groups from legitimate & needed peaceful protests.— Jan Kubis (@UNJanKubis) April 30, 2020
Almost immediately after publishing the tweet, journalists and activists called on Kubis to substantiate his claims with hard evidence.
“If the UN has evidence that these claims are correct, they should make that evidence publicly available,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch told Al Arabiya English.
“Otherwise, the UN should not disseminate unfounded allegations that may be used to justify excessive use of force against protesters.”
These are very serious allegations. Does the UN have evidence for these claims? @hrw did not find evidence of this during interviews with protesters across #Lebanon.— Aya Majzoub (@Aya_Majzoub) April 30, 2020
Such unfounded allegations are dangerous & may be used to justify excessive use of force against protesters. https://t.co/N4NopDOW46
Kubis’ office did not respond to a request for comment made by Al Arabiya English.
Over the last four nights, violent protests have broken out across the country in response to the rapidly deteriorating economy, spiraling living costs, and an unprecedented devaluation of the local currency.
The protests, which have mainly centered in the northern city of Tripoli and the port city of Sidon, have seen demonstrators target the homes of politicians and banking institutions, many of which have been attacked with Molotov cocktails.
Dozens have been injured in clashes with security forces – from among the ranks of the protesters and the Lebanese Army. A 26-year-old demonstrator, Fawwaz Samman, was killed on Monday night, allegedly by live fire from the army.
Leading politicians, including Prime Minister Hassan Diab, have accused protesters of being “infiltrators” with ulterior motives and seeking to incite divisions.
Kubis’ tweet, which contains similar sentiment to that expressed by politicians, “is a damning statement when the UN has not identified any clear evidence [for its claims],” said Kareem Chehayeb, an independent researcher and journalist.
The rhetoric of infiltration and manipulation is rejected by protesters and activists, who have described the protests as an expression of anger at both the banks, which have put oppressive restrictions on cash withdrawals in recent months, and the state, for failing to prevent economic collapse and support the most vulnerable populations particularly following the economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus.
Luna Safwan is an independent journalist who also responded to Kubis on Twitter. She told Al Arabiya English that the message sent by the UN official’s tweet was “concerning” and implied that Kubis was on the side of the “political elite.”
I have never been more disappointed as a journalist in the international community.— Luna Safwan - لونا صفوان (@LunaSafwan) April 30, 2020
So now, angry Lebanese protestors are being described as "Politically manipulated suspicious groups" by a UN official.#Lebanon #LebanonProtests #Tripoli https://t.co/GFs1qofyoC
In the first few months of Lebanon’s six-month-old protests, Kubis was at times praised for his blunt and direct messages to Lebanese politicians, when he called on them to respect freedom of expression, increase accountability and put an end to security forces’ attacks on journalists.
However, “this statement today surely left a big question mark for the protesters and the independent civil society in Lebanon regarding the true stance of the UN,” Safwan added.