Champagne surveys Beirut, says 'people are fed up' after the explosion
Canada's foreign affairs minister pledges aid and assistance for Lebanon, with strings attached
Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne has now seen the destruction in Beirut first-hand and says Canada is ready and willing to help — but only under certain conditions.
The minister is on the ground in Beirut, where 2,750 tonnes of improperly stored ammonium nitrate exploded on Aug. 4, killing at least 180 people, including two Canadians, and leaving huge swaths of Lebanon's capital city in ruins.
The country, already dealing with a devastating economic downturn and the ravages of COVID-19, is seeking international aid to investigate the blast and recover from it.
But many in Lebanon worry that foreign aid money will never trickle down to those who need it. The city has been roiled by protests in the wake of the explosion, and Prime Minister Hassan Diab's government stepped down earlier this month.
Champagne spoke to As it Happens guest host Helen Mann from Lebanon on Thursday. Here is part of their conversation.
Minister Champagne, the French foreign minister said today that Lebanon is in such a deep crisis, the entire country is at risk of collapse. On the ground there today, do you share that view?
Well, definitely. This country is at a crossroad. I sensed it, you know, when I went to the site. I mean, I've never seen anything like that. You still [smell] the smell of destruction; you touch the destruction. They even gave me binoculars, because they said, "Minister, there's no way you can see it all."
This is a tragedy of all tragedies for Lebanon. And my message to the authorities today was that the international assistance that's going to come must be accompanied by real reforms, that impunity must cease and that history has spoken and the way forward is clear.
You just have to listen to the youth, to these women who have been disproportionately impacted by this crisis, civil society, the volunteers that I've met — people are just fed up. They're saying things need to change because this country is at a crossroads.
Does that conversation with the Lebanese leadership matter at this point, though? Because there's no elected government beneath them right now, having seen them resign after the outcry over the explosion.
I think it was important for me to carry that message to the only remaining figure, which is the president of Lebanon, President [Michael] Aoun. I was loud and clear in my message. I said: President, you've heard it from many. We will be happy to work in the plan forward to assist you with technical assistance. This is soft power. This is what Canada can do best. But these reforms need to be meaningful. They need to be overreaching. And they need to happen soon.
And this is the same thing with the ... investigation of the crime. I said: Yes, the RCMP would be willing to participate, but under conditions. You know, this needs to be transparent ... and we need to make sure that we find those that have to be accountable, that we will not participate in an inquiry or we will not participate in an investigation if it's not credible, independent and impartial.
The diaspora in Canada has been tremendously generous, [guiding] us through our response. And, you know, Canada's probably the second-largest diaspora of Lebanese. So our voice matters.
How do you, though, ensure that the aid gets to those who need it most? You mentioned accountability. How do you make that happen?
We make sure that no taxpayer dollar and no dollars that were given by Canadians would go anywhere but to trusted organizations that provide services directly on the ground.
I'll give you an example. I met today with the director general of the Lebanese Red Cross. This is one of the institutions that is the most credible in this country. And when I met with the director general and the volunteers, they were telling me: Minister, we don't have any intermediary. We go door by door. We provide assistance directly to the families who need it most.
I'd like to read you a tweet from a Lebanese Canadian who says, directing this to you, that "the Lebanese [government] controls the banks, factories and construction firms. Relief and aid will be used as backdoor dealing to keep their interest afloat, our politicians cannot be trusted even to pick up the trash, cannot be trusted to help people who need help." There are also concerns that people will turn to Hezbollah because they don't feel that they can count on the government. What do you say?
I would say that's why we're going to work with international organizations like the Red Cross. I mean, what's the alternative? You have people who have lost everything. You have people here who've lost relatives. I met with the families of the victims, the two Canadians. People are crushed by what's going on.
So I don't think that the alternative is not to be helping people in times like that. Quite the opposite. I think we need to help them in a structured, responsible way.
On the other hand, I am very, very aware that whilst we're providing assistance, this needs to come with reforms. That's the message that I've been carrying.
We saw the government of technocrats that was trying to do that in January. As we've discussed, they've since resigned. There's such urgency. Winter is coming. We want reform before our money goes to people who need it because we want make sure it gets to them. But in the meantime, there has to be a great sense of urgency.
Definitely, and that's why I said, listen to the streets, listen to the youth, listen to the women that I met today. They won't accept the status quo. This won't work. People are fed up. They're fed up of the institution. They're fed up of the corruption. They're fed up of all the causes of the negligence that have led to the loss of life.
I'd like to ask you about China. You were in Rome meeting with your Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, and it appears you came no closer to breaking the impasse over the two detained Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. So what did the meeting achieve?
We had a robust discussion. We spoke for more than an hour and a half.
I believe in diplomacy. I believe that the only way to make progress is engagement, is talking to people. So that allowed me to repeat our message to say that arbitrary detention, coercive diplomacy is not acceptable.
Is there a point at which Canada needs to change its strategy when we see that China is not budging and these two men remain imprisoned?
The only way to achieve anything is through diplomacy.
The way forward is for us not only to put that message out to the Chinese leadership, but I've also been talking to the international community, to my colleagues around the world.
Those are not [just] two Canadians. Those are two citizens of a liberal democracy. This is not ... only [a] concern in Canada. This would be concerning everyone.
How long are you willing to wait for diplomacy to work, sir?
I would say that there's no alternative to diplomacy.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.