Minister Coveney's address to the IIEA: Reflecting on Ireland’s first year on the Security Council
Speech15 December 2021
In January, I spoke at an IIEA event shortly after we took up our seat as an elected member of the Security Council. I set out the principles and priorities for our term.
And so it is a pleasure to return to the IIEA today, albeit virtually, to update you on our work on the Council since then and to look to our plans for the year ahead.
The timing of your event is fitting. Yesterday was the 66th anniversary of Ireland joining the United Nations in 1955. The UN has been very much at the heart of Irish foreign policy since then.
We have been an active and committed member - not least through the remarkable service of members of our Defence Forces in peacekeeping operations for more than 60 years, uninterrupted.
This commitment to the UN is a matter of both values and of interests; as a small country, Ireland depends on international law and a values-based, strong multilateral system to uphold our own sovereignty.
We ran for election to the Security Council because the Council, despite its shortcomings, and it does have shortcomings, continues to perform a crucial function at the centre of that multilateral system.
Since taking up our seat, we have played, I hope, a constructive role, bringing pragmatism and principle to the Council table.
This has not been easy and it has not been without frustrations.
There have been many times when we would have liked the Council to do a lot more, and to speak out more bluntly and more clearly. Progress on the Council is slow and incremental. Sometimes, it is much too slow and much too incremental.
But we have seen success also. Through patient and painstaking diplomacy, at times, we have delivered results that are making a critical difference to ordinary civilians, often very vulnerable people, caught up in conflict. That is the fundamental reason why we competed for the Security Council in the first place.
Nowhere has this been more true than in relation to Syria.
Earlier this year, Ireland and Norway successfully led negotiations on the renewal of the critical Syria humanitarian cross-border resolution. It ensured that life-saving humanitarian aid was able to continue to reach 3.4 million Syrian men, women and children in the northwest of the country.
The 12-month renewal in July was supported by all Council members. I think it is worth noting that was the first time in 5 years that the Council unanimously renewed the resolution.
We will continue to prioritise this in the months ahead, working to ensure that humanitarian aid can reach all those in need across Syria.
We are more than aware that humanitarian aid will not solve the deep divisions or address accountability and the need for political transition in Syria. But it is essential to limit suffering among the Syrian people, and we will also keep on the pressure for a just and sustainable solution to the horrors perpetrated on people there.
When we were elected to the Council last year, we certainly did not expect Ethiopia to be at the centre of our work.
But the deteriorating conflict, and the immense human suffering that it has wrought, has compelled Ireland to act. We have been clear and vocal, and at times in the spotlight on this issue.
We have worked hard since the start of the year to ensure that the Security Council’s attention has remained on Ethiopia, and on the catastrophic humanitarian and human rights situation there. There are more than 6 million people under threat of famine right now.
We have convened public and private meetings on the issue, lobbied for engagement by the UN Secretary-General and the African Union, and secured the Council’s agreement to two separate Statements. I have personally spoken to the Secretary General on a number of occasions on the issue, as well as to President Kenyatta in Kenya, Secretary of State Blinken and other regional and international leaders.
Working in close cooperation with African partners and others, we have ensured that the Council has united in calling for a cessation of hostilities and of course full humanitarian access for those who need it.
However, the conflict in Ethiopia continues; and our work on the Council will also continue.
Ireland’s partnership with Ethiopia is longstanding. In 1936, it was Ireland, as chair of the League of Nations, which defended the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of what was then Abyssinia, in the face of an invasion by Mussolini’s forces.
We have worked in friendship and partnership with the people of Ethiopia for many years, supporting their social and economic development. We opened an Embassy in Addis Ababa in 1994. Ethiopia has been our largest bilateral development partner in recent years. So I very much regret the decision recently by the Ethiopian government to reduce the number of diplomats in our Embassy by two thirds. We had six diplomats there, they have effectively asked four of those to leave.
However, Ireland’s commitment to, and friendship with, the people of Ethiopia remains steadfast. It is rooted in the principles which informed us 85 years ago and which continue to inform us today.
Our relationship with Ethiopia is one of a network of deep and long-standing partnerships with countries in Africa that have informed our work on the Council.
We have prioritised engagement with African partners on the Council, and consistently supported strengthened cooperation with the African Union.
The AU and regional organisations in Africa have an instrumental role in responding to crises and of course building lasting peace.
We have worked in close partnership with Niger to support the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel’s work on conflict prevention, democracy and human rights, and on the issues of Hunger and Conflict and Climate and Security.
Much of our work with African partners has had women, peace and security at its core. We know from our own experience on this island that peace must be inclusive if it is to be sustainable. Women must have a place at the table, and participate fully and equally in decision making.
During our Presidency of the Security Council in September, we brought 16 women civil society briefers to the Council table. That was a record, by the way, in terms of women’s participation.
This reflected our belief that if the Security Council is not hearing directly from those most affected by conflict – and those most likely to drive lasting change – it is not doing its job properly.
As co-chairs with Mexico of the Council’s Informal Expert Group on Women, Peace and Security, we have worked to turn principles into practice. We try every day – quietly, without fanfare, but on file after file – to integrate the Women, Peace and Security agenda into the Council’s work.
We established the first WPS Presidency Trio with Kenya and Mexico, acting together in a cross-regional alliance to help close the gap between rhetoric and reality.
This made WPS a concrete and tangible priority during three consecutive Security Council Presidencies in September, October and again in November.
Our commitment to the Women, Peace and Security agenda was central to our response to events in Afghanistan.
As the crisis there escalated so quickly and so tragically in the summer, Ireland ensured that the crucial issue of the fundamental rights of women and girls was central to the Council’s actions.
We convened meetings on the crisis facing Afghan women, speaking out to focus the world’s attention on the specific risks facing them. We ensured that the situation facing them was addressed in the Security Council resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Mission in Afghanistan.
I chaired a debate on Afghanistan during Ireland’s Presidency of the Security Council in September and invited civil society briefers, Wazhma Frogh and Malala Yousafzai, to participate. They gave powerful testimony of the devastating impacts of the current crisis on the Afghan people.
When Ireland held the Presidency of the Security Council in September, our primary responsibility was to manage the agenda for that month as you would expect. We steered the Council through complex discussions on a range of important and urgent issues, including Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and of course the Middle East Peace Process.
The Presidency also presented an important opportunity to advance our own priorities. We convened three high-level signature meetings over the course of that month.
The first of these took place on 8 September, when Ireland chaired an Open Debate of the Security Council on peacekeeping operations.
Within three years of Ireland joining the UN in 1955, our peacekeepers had commenced what is today the longest continuous UN service of any member state when it comes to peacekeeping.
Our support for peacekeeping extends beyond deployments. Strengthening UN peacekeeping operations has been at the heart of our efforts on the Security Council and it was an honour for me to chair the Council meeting on 9 September, when UN Security Council Resolution 2594 on peacekeeping transitions was unanimously adopted.
Led by Ireland, this resolution recognises that peace is not a moment in time, but a process. It highlights that the transition from peacekeeping operations to peacebuilding programmes must be responsive to conditions on the ground, and inclusive of the views of local communities.
Resolution 2594 was just the second Security Council resolution on which Ireland has led the negotiations in our history on the Council.
More importantly, it provides a framework and set of principles that will endure long beyond our Council term. It will guide UN missions, current and in the future, for years to come, as they make the challenging, but essential, transition from peacekeeping to peacebuilding.
Our second signature Presidency event took place on the 23 of September, when the Taoiseach chaired a High-Level meeting on Climate and Security. This meeting brought together Heads of State and Government from across the Council, as well as the UN Secretary-General, to discuss the linkages between climate change and security and conflict.
At that meeting, the Taoiseach announced Ireland’s intention, along with Niger, to convene discussions with all Council members, on a thematic resolution on Climate and Security.
Our teams in New York and Dublin have worked tirelessly in the two months since that meeting to craft a resolution that could garner maximum support from Council members and from the wider UN membership.
As some of you will know, 113 UN Member States ultimately formally co-sponsored that draft resolution. On Monday, twelve Council members voted in favour of the resolution. India voted against and China abstained. Russia decided to use its veto to prevent the resolution being adopted.
Let me be clear. The veto is an anachronism. No Member State, no matter how powerful, how large, should be able to override the will of the vast majority of Council members and the large majority of UN Members. Ireland regrets the use of the veto in all circumstances at the Council. We deeply regret the decision of Russia to use its veto to block the adoption of this important resolution.
We believed over the last year that the weight of evidence and clarity of argument would bring the Council to consensus.
However, despite months of consultations - resulting in a draft resolution that was relatively modest in its scope, but clear in its ambition to put climate and security firmly on the Council’s agenda - this was sadly not the case.
Despite this result earlier this week, climate and security will inevitably continue in Security Council discussions. The adverse effects of climate change are only going to get worse, contributing to insecurity and exacerbating conflict. Anybody who suggests that climate change is not an accelerator of tensions and conflict, in my view, is not realistic in terms of their understanding of the impacts of climate change.
As our Ambassador in New York put it, we remain undaunted. Ireland will continue to press for a robust approach to Climate and Security for the remainder of our time on the Security Council.
Nuclear disarmament is another long-standing priority for Ireland, since the early days of our membership of the UN. Our third signature event during our Council Presidency marked the 25th anniversary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. We have also taken on one of the most difficult roles on the Council as Facilitator for the Iran nuclear non-proliferation deal, the JCPOA.
This is an agreement that is of the utmost importance to regional and international peace and security. I visited Tehran in March this year – the first Irish foreign minister, by the way, to do so for 20 years – and I hosted the former Iranian Foreign Minister in Dublin last May.
I believe it is incumbent on Ireland to do everything possible to persuade all parties to return to full compliance with the JCPOA. Make no mistake – this is an enormously difficult task. And while I am encouraged that the talks in Vienna started again in late November, we need to see real progress on this – and we need to see it fast.
It has been a busy year more generally.
I have addressed the Security Council, virtually and in person, on 16 different occasions. President Higgins, the Taoiseach, Minister Ryan, Minister of State Brophy and Minister of State Byrne have all participated in different Council meetings at different times.
Our teams in New York, Dublin and across our Mission network have worked tirelessly and other government departments have supported us throughout. We have benefitted in particular from the insight, and the day-to-day experience, of the Defence Forces, as we have worked to shape the mandates given to UN peacekeeping operations by the Council. And if ever there was a reminder of the connection between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Defence I think our time on the Security Council has confirmed that.
That work will continue.
As we enter the second half of our tenure on the Council, we will be guided by the principles that the Government agreed at the start of our term: building peace, strengthening conflict prevention, and ensuring accountability.
The promotion and protection of International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law has been integral to our approach across the Security Council agenda. This will remain, of course, the case for next year.
We will continue to play an active role on issues across the Council’s agenda.
Amongst these issues, the Middle East Peace Process is foremost in my mind. As you are aware, there are divergent views on this issue among Security Council members. It is vital that we continue to use our seat on the Council productively, engaging with like-minded partners as well as those holding differing views so that we can try to build consensus on a way forward.
Speaking to the Council in May, I made it clear that the Council had a collective responsibility to speak out in response to the escalation of violence.
We will continue to insist on the need for a negotiated two-state solution, adherence to international law and respect for human rights.
This may seem like a dim prospect for now, but we have simply no other option but to continue to advocate in this space.
We cannot allow expediency or international fatigue to replace the fundamental need to end the occupation that began in 1967; to meet Israeli and Palestinian security needs; and to deliver the aspirations of the Palestinian people for statehood and sovereignty, while of course respecting the right of Israel to defend itself and protect its own state.
The deteriorating situation in Myanmar is also deeply concerning. It is almost a year since the coup began. We will continue to use our seat on the Council to call for unhindered humanitarian access and full respect of human rights and international humanitarian law.
Ireland has a history of engagement on peace in Colombia. We have focused on work on the Council to promote a lasting and just peace, as you would expect, ensuring that victims and vulnerable groups continue to be placed at the centre of the peace process there, and, of course, to support the work of the UN Verification Mission. These efforts will continue throughout the rest of our term.
Libya is due to hold elections on the 24th of December, despite the fact that many predicted they wouldn’t happen and it is a pivotal moment in the Libyan Peace Process. The UN is playing a central role in supporting the political process and ceasefire implementation. We will continue on the Council to support the Libyan people on their challenging path to a sustainable and lasting peace.
And on Afghanistan, we are working with partners on the Council and elsewhere, to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. We are closely involved in ongoing Council negotiations with a view to securing humanitarian exemptions to the Taliban sanctions regime, which should help to ensure the direct provision of aid to the Afghan people via UN agencies and NGOs.
But let’s be in no doubt about the task here, as credible reports are now predicting that up to 23 million people could face challenging famine-like conditions in the winter months ahead.
We are matching our words with action. We have substantially increased our own humanitarian aid to UN agencies and NGOs working in Afghanistan.
More than 500 vulnerable and at-risk Afghans have been offered refugee resettlement status in Ireland and almost 400 have arrived. They include journalists; human rights defenders, particularly women; judges; members of minority ethnic communities; and members of the LGBTI community.
The composition of the Council will change next year, and we have been meeting and speaking with the five incoming elected members - Albania, Brazil, Gabon, Ghana and the United Arab Emirates.
As with other elected and permanent members, we will engage openly and constructively with all of them.
The Council has a responsibility to fulfil its mandate, and to reach agreement on even the most difficult of issues on its agenda.
That’s not easy, and it sometimes requires painful compromise, but it is worth it.
In the words of Dag Hammarskjöld, who as Secretary-General admitted Ireland to the UN, and first called on our peacekeepers to serve, he said: ‘‘The UN was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but… to save us from hell.’’
I am proud of what we have achieved in our first year on the Security Council, and I am determined that we will build on our achievements and do, I hope, even more next year.
I look forward to hearing your views and comments and to answering your questions. I know we have a very well informed audience here so hopefully I can giveyou straight answers to straight questions and obviously respond to your comments as well.
Thank you for taking the time to listen and I look forward to hearing what you have to say.