BEIRUT - Former US President Jimmy Carter met with President Michel Sleiman Wednesday, before being flown to Naqoura in South Lebanon for a meeting with United Nations peacekeepers. The presidential visit and trip to the South came as Hizbullah reportedly declined an invitation to meet with the former head of state.
Carter, on a five-day visit to Lebanon, told reporters after speaking with Sleiman that he was pleased to back in Lebanon. "I am happy to come back to this great country - a country that has dedicated itself to peace, stability, progress, freedom and human rights."
The renowned peace activist and Nobel laureate, said he was honored to have met with Sleiman, who, Carter said, has earned the trust of the Lebanese people and the rest of the world.
Carter also expressed the hope that Lebanon's springtime elections would be "successful and safe," adding that he might return with a team of election observers to monitor the fairness and transparency of the polls.
Early in his distinguished post-presidency, Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, founded the Carter Center, a not-for-profit organization partnered with Emory University that is devoted to a variety of human rights causes across the world. The center based in Atlanta, Georgia has a long history of monitoring developing world elections, from Venezuela to Nepal.
On Tuesday, the day Carter arrived in Beirut, Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud, charged with preparing Lebanon for the elections, said he had not been contacted by Carter about election monitoring.
But he did not dismiss the prospect. "I believe it is in the interest of Lebanon to open the door to any observation," he said, adding that any decision on electoral oversight would have to be approved by the Cabinet.
After meeting with Sleiman, Carter took an aerial tour of the Blue Line in South Lebanon and spoke with United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) officials. "I strongly urge all parties to seize this opportunity to work toward peace," Carter told the troops.
UNIFIL commander, Claudio Graziano, said that Carter's visit "testifies to the international community's support for our mission and underlines the importance of the continued commitment of the parties to their respective obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1701."
In an opinion piece published Wednesday in The Washington Post, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Carter voiced the hope that President-elect Barack Obama's new administration could usher in a new era of effective American diplomatic leadership in the region and across the world.
"Throughout the Middle East, there is hope that the United States will move more aggressively and persistently to help orchestrate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the prism through which the region measures the US commitment to human rights," Carter wrote.
"Our next president has an unprecedented opportunity to lead through example by inspiring and supporting those who would reach for freedom and by being tough and effective with those who would impede freedom's march," he added.
In a statement released before Carter's arrival in Lebanon, the director of the Carter Center's Conflict Resolution Program, Hrair Balian said that "during his visit, President Carter will discuss recent developments in Lebanon and the Middle East with officials and representatives of major political blocs in Parliament and civil society leaders."
And on Tuesday, Carter said that he was hoping to meet with Hizbullah officials. "I am going to meet with all of the political parties as possible," Carter said after arriving in Beirut.
But Wednesday, Rick Jasculca, a spokesman for Carter, told AFP that although Carter had sought meetings with all major political players, "Hizbullah had declined the request."
Hizbullah foreign relations chief Nawaf Moussawi told The Daily Star Wednesday that he was not following up on the issue. But the leader of Hizbullah's parliamentary bloc, MP Mohammad Raad, told AFP that the group "does not meet with anyone from a US administration which supports Zionist terrorism."
Regarding the Carter Center's potential monitoring role in the springtime polls, Raad said the party "will accept whatever decision the Cabinet makes."
In the past, there has been some tension between Carter and the US State Department over his unofficial diplomatic missions. Carter, long active in the Middle East peace process, published a hotly-debated book, "Palestine Peace not Apartheid," in 2006, and in April he visited Israel, the Occupied West Bank, Jordan and Syria. The trip was not coordinated through the US Sate Department.
Cherie Lenzen, the public affairs officer for the US Embassy in Lebanon, said of Carter's current trip, that "President Carter is on a private visit."
According to Carter's comments Wednesday and the Carter Center press release, after his visit to Lebanon, he will travel to Syria to meet with President Bashar Assad. The two are expected to discuss the prospects for Middle East peace.
News reports have suggested that Carter may also meet with Hamas representatives in Damascus. During his controversial visit to Damascus earlier this year, Carter met with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.
Carter, the 39th American president and a chief architect of the first Camp David Accord, will be speaking Friday to an audience of students, faculty and invited guests at American University of Beirut.