Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne is heading to Lebanon this week to get a firsthand look at the devastation caused by the deadly explosions in Beirut and urge the country’s government to start getting real in the fight against corruption.
The visit is one stop on a multicountry tour, Mr. Champagne’s first overseas since many countries around the world – including Canada – slammed their borders shut in March to slow the spread of COVID-19.
It comes nearly three weeks after a powerful explosion at Beirut’s port ripped through the city, killing at least 180 people, injuring more than 6,000 and leaving much of Lebanon’s capital in ruins. Two Canadians are among the dead.
Canada has so far committed $30-million to help pay for emergency food, water, shelter and medical assistance in the immediate aftermath, and Mr. Champagne said he plans to meet with aid workers to see the progress and hear about their needs.
“I’m going there by choice to support all our efforts, to support the people on the ground,” Mr. Champagne told The Canadian Press in an interview on Sunday, adding: “We have about 25 [diplomatic] staff there and some 20 of them lost their homes in the blast.”
The minister, who is currently in Switzerland, is also set to meet members of Lebanon’s beleaguered government, which many Lebanese believe is culpable for the explosion due to years of negligence and widespread corruption.
A report emerged over the weekend saying the Lebanese government had been warned numerous times over the years about the stockpile of ammonium nitrate being improperly stored at the port, near several residential neighbourhoods.
Many Lebanese took the streets after the explosion demanding an independent investigation into the explosion and an end to the wider problem of corruption – a call that was echoed by members of the 200,000-strong Lebanese community in Canada.
Mr. Champagne said he plans to convey that message to Lebanese President Michel Aoun when the two meet this week in Beirut, and add the Canadian government’s own voice to those demands.
“I thought it was important for me to carry the voice of the community in Canada, which has spoken in very clear terms to me about the need for governance, about the need for reforms, about the need to rebuild the country,” Mr. Champagne said.
Asked what immediate steps the Lebanese government could take to show its sincerity, Mr. Champagne echoed previous calls for an independent investigation, adding Canada was willing to assist by deploying RCMP officers.
Mr. Champagne said Lebanon had actually already accepted such an offer, which would see the Mounties working alongside FBI agents and counterparts from the French national police, but that Canada wants to see the terms of such an investigation first.
“We want a credible, transparent and thorough investigation so my point will be to President Aoun: ‘If you want Canada to participate alongside the FBI and the French national police, there are conditions around that,” ’ Mr. Champagne said.
“We offered it, we got a response from the Lebanese government. But now I want to make sure the conditions under which we are prepared is because we want to get to the truth, we want to get to justice, we want accountability and transparency.”
Mr. Champagne is in Switzerland meeting various United Nations officials as well as the head of the World Economic Forum and World Trade Organization. He will also visit Italy and Britain before returning home, where he’ll quarantine for 14 days.
Mr. Champagne noted that Italy is taking over the presidency of the Group of Twenty next year while Britain is moving into the same position for the Group of Seven, and he suggested his visit to the two countries was intended to help shape their respective agendas.
“It’s another way for Canada to influence the agenda, the global agenda,” he said.
“That was also part of my discussions today for example with the head of the World Economic Forum, to try to see how do we rebuild better, how do we rebuild greener, how do we build together.”
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