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Champagne pushes reform in Beirut meeting with Lebanese president

OTTAWA — Canada’s foreign minister pushed for Lebanon’s president to pursue economic and political reforms as he expressed Canadian solidarity with the embattled Lebanese people.

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne met face to face Thursday with Lebanese President Michel Aoun in Beirut, before taking a close-up look at the burned-out hulk of the city’s decimated port.

“My key messages to President Aoun today was: There cannot be aid without real reforms. That impunity must cease. That youth, young women, the street has spoken. And that the way forward is clear now,” Champagne said in a teleconference afterwards. 

Champagne also met with victims, rank-and-file Lebanese, first responders and international agencies trying to help the country.

“I thought there was something symbolic to be one of the first foreign ministers to come here and to show support and to listen to the people,” he said.

“And to speak loud and clear to the authorities as to what we see is needed to ensure a more inclusive and better future for Lebanon.”

Champagne also marked the meeting with Aoun with a Twitter post that affirmed Canada’s solidarity with the people of Lebanon who have been demanding change since the devastating Aug. 4 explosion that killed 200 people, injured 6,000 and flattened districts of Beirut.

Lebanese people have taken to the streets demanding an independent investigation into the explosion and to protest widespread corruption in their country.

“I reaffirmed Canada’s solidarity with the people of Lebanon. We spoke about the path forward & the reforms necessary for Lebanon’s sustainable recovery,” he tweeted.

The meeting was the centrepiece of a four-country trip this week that has seen Champagne literally bust the bubble of COVID-19 video diplomacy. Prior to arriving in Lebanon, he visited Switzerland and Italy, where he also met his Chinese counterpart and pressed for the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

The two Canadian men have been imprisoned in China since December 2018 in what is widely seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on an American extradition warrant.

Champagne said his meeting with Wang Yi — a “robust” 90-minute talk that focused on the “two Michaels” and human rights concerns — came as the two ministers were crossing paths on separate European trips, and was brokered by the Italian foreign ministry.

Champagne pushed Wang to allow Canadian diplomats to visit Kovrig and Spavor, access that has been denied since early this year. China says its can’t allow access to their prisons during COVID-19.

“I reminded him that Canada will always insist of having consular access to both Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and that we expect them to respect the spirit and the letter of the Vienna Convention,” said Champagne, referring to the international agreement on consular access. 

While winning the release of Kovrig and Spavor remains Champagne’s top priority, the explosion in Beirut, which exacerbated a simmering political crisis in Lebanon, is also galvanizing the minister for a very real domestic political reason — the 200,000-strong Lebanese community in Canada has also been loudly calling for change in their homeland.

Champagne posted a video on Twitter from the scene of the explosion after his meeting with Aoun.

“You can smell destruction. You can feel destruction, you can see also the resilience of the Lebanese people,” the minister said, against a vast backdrop of brown and grey ruin.

“We have said we will be there for Lebanon and I can assure you what you’re seeing is only part of the destruction. You cannot even see with your own eyes the size of that destruction.”

Champagne’s trip ends in London where he will meet in person with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 27, 2020.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

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