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Explainer: Five months in, what has Ireland been up to on the UN Security Council?

Minister Coveney said that there has been a “fundamental misunderstanding” of what Ireland is doing on the Council.

china-guizhou-wang-yi-irish-fm-talks-cn Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Simon Coveney: We’ve got to talk to everybody, even countries where we may have disagreements. And by the way, we’ve had disagreements in those conversations… and some agreement in other areas, too. And that’s how you build an honest, respectful relationship. And that’s how I make Ireland relevant on the international stage.

AHEAD OF IRELAND taking its seat on the UN Security Council – which was pitched on the basis of upholding human rights – ‘slow, quiet discussions in the background’ were how officials had hoped to help resolve diplomatic disagreements and long-standing conflicts.

Or at least, stop them from getting worse. 

But now that it’s seated at the table, Ireland has been pushed to do more than that. In recent weeks there have been calls to oust the Israeli ambassador from Ireland over its ‘disproportionate’ response to an attack by Hamas, which has resulted in the deaths of 254 Palestinian civilians – including 68 children. 12 Israelis were killed in the conflict.

There have also been criticisms of Foreign Minister Simon Coveney for flying out to meet with the Chinese Government in the context of the oppression of Uighur Muslims in the north-west of China, and amid the exit ban on Irish businessman Richard O’Halloran.

Meetings with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javād Zarīf have also been criticised.

A ‘fundamental misunderstanding’ of Ireland as a nuclear-deal ‘umpire’

In an interview with The Journal about Ireland’s first few months on the Council, which Ireland fought hard and spent big to be a part of for the two-year term, Minister Coveney said that there is a “fundamental misunderstanding” of what Ireland is doing on the Council:

I’ve seen some commentary – ‘why are we bringing an Iranian Foreign Minister to Dublin, are we endorsing Iranian foreign policy?’ That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what we’re doing. 

He explained: “We have a formal role as the facilitator for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [the JCPOA, or the Iranian nuclear deal]. And we have been involved in ensuring that Iran engages with the other countries that are party to the Iranian nuclear deal in a way that can put that deal back together.”

He said that this was a “classic case” of Ireland being a facilitator in bringing big influencers and superpowers together – such as Iran and the US – and ensuring that the world is safer through closer restraints on nuclear development in Iran. 

Iran and world powers are engaged in talks in Austria to rescue a 2015 nuclear deal, after former US president Donald Trump walked away from it in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, undoing progress that had been previously made.

Since the transfer of power from that administration to Joe Biden’s, it’s hoped the nuclear deal can be revived. 

For this to happen, the US would need to lift the sanctions reinstated by Trump, while Tehran would have to re-commit to full compliance with nuclear obligations it progressively withdrew from since 2019.

Representatives of Washington and Tehran are currently not the same negotiating room – but are in the same city of Vienna, communicating through intermediaries. 

Though that may seem minor, that and the extension of a monitoring process of nuclear development in Iran out to next month is seen as huge progress towards a deal – possibly as soon as the next few weeks.

“It’s working,” Coveney said of the progress Ireland has made as a facilitator. “I’m not saying that’s because of Ireland alone, but we’ve contributed to it.”

The difficulties with the UN Security Council

A brutal 11 days of violence between Israel and Hamas, in which 12 Israelis and 254 Palestinians were killed; a conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia in which sexual violence is being used as a weapon by both sides; and a military coup in Myanmar, which has destabilised democratic progress, have all taken priority on the global list of conflict and security issues. 

Getting an agreement among the 15 member states is hard fought for; particularly as the five permanent members of the Council – the US, China, Russia, France and the UK – wield a veto, and are rarely on the same side of any diplomatic dispute.

As an example, researcher at the IIEA Ross Fitzpatrick wrote in an opinion piece for The Journal this week: ”China vehemently pushes back against the discussion of human rights at the Security Council and regularly objects to references to human rights in draft resolutions and the mandates of UN Peacekeeping Missions.”

This is the major criticism of the UN Security Council – that it is a ‘toothless debate club’, split on every issue to the point that it is paralysed from taking practical action to keep citizens safe, which is the whole point it exists. 

As if proof was needed, Minister Simon Coveney gave a frustrated speech to the Seanad following a meeting of the UN Security Council, in which he criticised it for not agreeing on a statement that called for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and that would condemn the killing of children on both sides.

This was because the US, a close ally of Ireland’s, strongly backs Israel in its right to defend itself against Hamas, and has for decades. A statement was finally agreed by the UN SC, but only after a ceasefire was brokered by Egypt between the two sides.

This agonisingly slow process isn’t surprising, and is a regular feature of the diplomatic process of the Security Council – often a source of criticism from rights groups and charities for not doing enough to protect vulnerable communities around the world.

The director of Ireland’s Middle East and North Africa unit Cáit Moran said that when the Security Council issues a statement, that’s the “moral authority” on the issue, which is where its power lies.

“It’s for a reason that the Palestinians, or others in a particular situation like that, will actually call for the Council to meet,” she told The Journal

When the same question was put to him, UN Director at the Department of Foreign Affairs Gerard Keown said that the Council has a “unique legitimacy when it speaks”.

“It has that moral force of the UN Charter behind it. It also has a role to shine the light on an issue. And even when it is unable to speak out, it is the highest forum in the UN in which member states can ask tough questions about issues critical to international peace and security.”

For those that hear from the victims of violence and conflict, this seems far too little, and any diplomatic stand taken by Ireland would feel better than to do nothing.

Minister Coveney acknowledges that people have been annoyed at his meetings with Governments accused of the oppression of a group of people:

“In the last number of weeks, I’ve spent an hour with [Russia's Minister for Foreign Affairs in Russia, Sergey] Lavrov, I’ve just come back from China, and I spent over four hours with the Chinese Foreign Minister. I’ve also been to Tehran and the Iranian Foreign Minister came to Ireland. And I think people are sort of saying, ‘are we forging close relationships with these countries?’ 

“We spent three hours with [US National Security Advisor] Jake Sullivan and [US Secretary of State] Antony Blinken when they came through Shannon last week, and we hosted the French Foreign Minister, and I’ve been to London to meet [the UK Foreign Secretary] Dominic Raab. So the reason why all of those things are important is that they are the P5 in countries: China, Russia, the US, the UK, and France.

And if you’re going to get anything done of substance on the Security Council, you’ve got to have a relationship with the permanent five.

“So because I spend time speaking to Sergey Lavrov doesn’t mean that I agree with what Russia are doing on an issue per se, just like if I go to meet the Chinese Foreign Minister doesn’t mean I’m not raising human rights issues of concern. I am. But I’ve also got to behave like a country on the Security Council, as a Foreign Minister.” 

Ousting a minister or diplomat can escalate tensions, or regress an issue that can make things worse for its citizens.

In the case of Belarus, for example, cutting diplomatic and economic ties could push that regime and its people closer towards more authoritarian-run countries, such as Russia, and push a compromise further out of reach.

As Fitzpatrick wrote in that same opinion piece: “Germany’s decision to criticise China’s human rights record very openly at the Security Council during its most recent term led to a rapid deterioration of relations, which made co-operation virtually impossible in other important areas.”

Sexual violence against women and girls in Ethiopia

ethiopia-tigray-eritreans-in-charge Smret Kalayu, aged 25, from Dengelat, recounts her escape in April while Eritrean forces searched houses and watched each other raping women of all ages. Source: Ben Curtis

One of the issues that Ireland has spearheaded at the UN Security Council is a statement that condemned the use of sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war against women and girls in Ethiopia, since a conflict broke out in its Tigray region last November.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into the northern region in November to detain and disarm leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the region’s former ruling party.

Though he vowed the conflict would be brief, more than six months later the fighting continues, with reports of atrocities proliferating – and leading many leaders to warn of a potential humanitarian catastrophe, including a risk of famine.

This has received relatively little international attention, and is part of the Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security agenda, which recognises how women and girls are disproportionately impacted by the tragedies of conflict.

Ireland called on the UN Security Council to discuss the Tigray region issue, which caused tension with the Ethiopian Government, with whom Ireland has had a good relationship – Ireland’s largest development programme in Africa is in Ethiopia.

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But the call won the support of the three African countries on the Security Council: Kenya, Niger and Tunisia.

Ireland also drafted the UN Security Council statement raising concerns about unrest in the region and condemning the sexual violence being used as a weapon, and although agreement on more ambitious drafts couldn’t be reached, the statement was published in April

“The members of the Security Council expressed their deep concern about allegations of human rights violations and abuses, including reports of sexual violence against women and girls in the Tigray region, and called for investigations to find those responsible and bring them to justice,” a section of the statement read.

An independent international observer team are to carry out a report for the UN on the Tigray region as a result.

ethiopia-tigray-caught-in-the-middle A baby sits on his mother's back as they wait to see a visiting doctor at a hospital which was damaged and looted by Eritrean soldiers. Source: Ben Curtis

Sonja Hyland, the Political Director at the Department of Foreign Affairs said that the conflict in Ethiopia shows that one of the advantages of Ireland being on the Security Council is “to really contribute to things that in the normal course of events, you’re not necessarily going to be contributing to massively”.

“Partly because there’s not a particularly strong public interest, and partly because you don’t have a particular role outside the Security Council context.”

A crucial UN aid border to Syria

Another issue that Ireland is centrally involved in is keeping the last UN humanitarian aid crossing into northwest Syria open. The UN Security Council is due to vote on this issue before the resolution that keeps the crossing open runs out on 10 July – it’s still uncertain how that vote will go.

Three million people in northwest Syria rely on aid from the UN coming through the Bab al-Hawa open access border. 

In 2014, the UN Security Council allowed aid operations to cross at four points, but last year – after objections from Russia and China – this was reduced to just Bab al-Hawa being allowed to stay open for an initial period of 12 months. 

All 13 other members voted to keep the crossings open. Russia and China have argued that aid can come from the Damascus government – which is unlikely. 

In January, Minister Coveney visited the Turkish side of the crossing; in the past two weeks it’s understood that he’s discussed the issue during visits with the Russian Foreign Minister, the French Foreign Minister and the Iranian Foreign Minister.

By the time Ireland takes the presidency of the UN Security Council in September, at which it can set the Council’s agenda, it should have a clear idea of what issues it can push for a compromise on – even if it takes painfully slow progress to get there.

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