Interview with Gebran Michel Soufan , Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Lebanon to the United Nations Office and other International Organizations in Geneva
His Excellency has had a busy summer. Indeed, when the 12 July War broke out between Hezbollah and Israel, Ambassador Soufan was about to leave on holiday, but had to cancel his plans. Instead, he spent his summer rushing to meetings, writing reports, preparing for the second special session of the Human Rights Council convened on 11 August 2006 to address the Israeli violations of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law in Lebanon. In sum, it was a summer full of anxiety, stress and action.
Q : Mr Ambassador, what is your background ?
I started my diplomatic career in January 1978. For two years, I worked at the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants in Beirut as an attach ?. Then I was appointed to the New York Mission. My assignment lasted five years. In November 1984, I was transferred to the Embassy of Lebanon in Austria. While in Vienna, I was a non-resident Charg ? d’affaires for Hungary where Lebanon has cultural and commercial interests. After seven years abroad, I was called back for other duties in Beirut at the Department of International Organizations, as well as working for the Office of the Minister. In July 1990, I was appointed counsellor at the Lebanese Embassy in Washington, DC. During my five years there, I acquired a vast experience in World Affairs and was particularly involved in the peace process negotiations between the concerned Arab Countries, including Lebanon, and Israel. The thrust of my work, concerning bilateral relations between Lebanon and the USA, was with the Executive Branch.
My next position was Consul General of Lebanon in Los Angeles from January 1995 till May 1999. I then returned to Lebanon to fill the post of Director of International Affairs at the Department of Political Affairs and at a later stage to be Director of the Minister’s Cabinet. I was promoted to the ambassadorial rank in October 2000 and appointed in November 2003 as Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Lebanon to the United Nations Office and other International Organizations in Geneva.
However, before embracing my diplomatic career, I was being trained as a lawyer at the firm of Mr Fouad Boutros, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, and his then associate Dr Bahige Tabbarah, a member of the Lebanese Parliament and a former Minister of Justice. One of the universal truths I learned in this law firm is that only ignorant people vouch to be completely knowledgeable. In life, in some respect, we are always students, irrespective of how much we know ; besides, there should be no concessions on values.
Q : Do you regret not having continued your career as a lawyer ?
That’s a good question ! Sometimes, I wonder whether I should have left my job in the private sector, because the lawyer in me always prevails. Yet, sometimes in life, we must adapt to unforeseen circumstances. We experience a dilemma and we have to choose. Important decisions, committing you a whole new future, are not easy to make. But in the end, I chose diplomacy.
Q : Since you are a trained lawyer, you ought to be happy in Geneva, with its negotiations, rules, laws and regulations.
I am fortunate to be in Geneva. In fact, this is the cradle of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Laws. I believe we are currently at a turning point as efforts are deployed not only to promote Human Rights, but to respect them too.
Q : Do you have a « favourite » organization among the international organizations here in Geneva ?
In fulfilling our duties in Geneva, we work according to official instructions which correspond to Lebanon’s priorities and interests. I can assure you that it is not easy to accomplish such a task properly if a mission, as in our case, is composed of a small team. Difficult as it may be, the job however becomes challenging when we follow up ongoing events in Geneva, are associated with them and contribute to their outcomes. My colleagues and I do our best and I leave it to professionals to judge us upon our endeavours and achievements.
So the matter should not be phrased in terms of preference to « a favourite organization ». Yet, I believe that the annual session of the Commission on Human Rights, replaced by the Human Rights Council, was a major event. It involved all the State’s people and apparatus and required considerable and thorough preparation. I will not be divulging a secret if I tell you that Dr Charles Malik, Lebanon’s Champion of Human Rights, a former Rapporteur and President of the Commission and the driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was a source of strength to me. In this respect, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights bears, somehow through Malik, the fingerprints of Lebanon. I am convinced that Malik, credited for many achievements in the field of Human Rights, wouldn’t have been successful had it not been for his skills honed in Lebanon, a country that provided the proper environment for nurturing his ideas and ideals.
Perhaps Lebanon’s main challenge as a free country in the international arena with a diverse and open society is to continue to enrich « the history of the spirit »-if I may quote Malik’s own words.