By Reem Naamani
BEIRUT: Representatives of the Lebanese Diaspora urged the government Wednesday to press ahead with allowing Lebanese abroad to vote in the next elections and announced plans to form a “Higher Diaspora Council” to boost ties between emigrants and their home country.
Speaking at a two-day conference at the Four Seasons Hotel entitled Worldwide Lebanese 2011, they also urged the government to respect its international commitments and restrict the holding of weapons to state authorities.
Ahmad Hariri, speaking on behalf of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, said “there has been much ‘poetry’ written about the riches of the Lebanese Diaspora, but little effort has been made to enhance the ties between the emigrants and their own land.”
Hariri said the country’s political divisions were affecting Lebanese inside the country as well as the country’s Diaspora communities abroad.
Hariri stressed the need to see the perpetrators of a string of political assassinations brought to justice, and supported the work of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is examining the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other politicians.
“The big problem is that a country in which illegitimate weapons prevail cannot attract” Lebanese from around the world, Hariri said.
Walid Maalouf, a Lebanese-American and former USAID official, said the Diaspora “supports the Lebanese government and its organizations and thus limits the use of weapons to the Lebanese [security] forces and army.”
Maalouf also called for ensuring that members of the Lebanese Diaspora get to vote in the next round of parliamentary elections.
Tony Issa, a member of the Australian parliament, told the conference that Lebanese emigrants should not only participate in the voting process, but also have a number of seats set aside for them, as representatives of the Diaspora.
Ghayas Rifai, who heads conference organizer Eventz Mena, called for the formation of a “Higher Diaspora Council” that would form a representative committee to benefit the Lebanese emigrants and Diaspora organizations.
“In this way, we can work together so that we can protect our country from any harm … and reach the Lebanese minds that are scattered around the globe.”
Saad Azhari, chairman and general manager of Blom Bank SAL, said Lebanese emigrants have contributed to local economic growth through remittances that reached $8.4 billion in 2010.