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Opinion: The UN Security Council needs an 'outsider' and Ireland fits that bill

Andrew Anderson of Front Line Defenders says Ireland can play a pivotal role at the UN Security Council by improving international relations at a difficult time.

Andrew Anderson

IN RECENT WEEKS – that have been dominated by challenging and difficult news – it has been great to see Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason take up Ireland’s seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC), and for her to be already promoting an agenda around women, peace and security.

Ireland starts its two-year term at a time when the international rules-based system has never been under greater threat.

Two of the permanent members of the UNSC, China and Russia, are actively campaigning to weaken that framework and undermine democracy and human rights.

A third permanent member, the USA, has at best been absent but at times complicit in actively destabilising and undermining the system.

A volatile world

In spite of the dangerous scenes in Washington, DC in recent weeks, there is hope that will change with the swearing-in of a new president today, and we will see an opportunity to reverse the tide of populist authoritarianism.

Ireland campaigned for its seat on the UNSC on the basis of its values and a track record of a principled commitment to peace, human rights and development. And as Kofi Annan memorably put it, you can’t have any one of those without the other two.

Ireland’s first days on the job, on the international stage, come at an incredibly volatile time internationally.

China recently rounded up at least 53 pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong; the United States of America witnessed an insurrection in the US Capitol building championed by the soon-to-be-former President Trump.

This too, at a time when the nativist and populist government of the United Kingdom has formally left the European Union, weakening an important political and economic bloc; and the Ugandan government has regained power as many continue to question the authenticity of the recent election results.

This to say nothing of the ongoing crises and massive human rights violations that have plagued the international system in Palestine, Western Sahara, and Kashmir, to name a few, nor of the mass crimes against humanity being committed in China including the possible genocide of the Uighur people.

Ireland and a wave of optimism

There are also some more positive straws in the wind. There is a growing understanding in Western democracies that the aggression of the Chinese Government, domestically and externally, is a strategic threat, and that the much-vaunted opening of the world’s biggest market has been largely a mirage.

The international community has started to wake up to the reckless aggression of Saudi Arabia’s rulers just as their economic power has started to wane. The EU has belatedly started to get a bit more serious about the threat posed by populist authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary.

And a new US administration is coming from today, which, in spite of the mixed track record of the Obama administration where many of its leading members served, should mark a return to a more serious effort to engage on global issues.

So what can this island-nation of almost five million souls on the far Western edge of a fragile Europe do for human rights, now that it sits in the UN Security Council?

Ireland may not be a global power, but with its track record of commitment to multilateralism, there are initiatives that Ireland can advance – perhaps even with allies on the UNSC (Estonia, Norway, Tunisia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; Kenya and Mexico) – that can start to integrate a focus on human rights within the agenda of the venerable body. 

Ireland has long supported the work of and protection for human rights defenders, and with recent efforts in the fields of business and human rights – including International Financial Institutions – to call out and work against reprisals, the UN can play a significant role in providing greater support to and resources for human rights defenders, while holding UNSC and UNHRC members to task when they perpetrate reprisals against HRDs. 

Priorities

Perhaps start with Colombia; Ireland has been a strong supporter of the peace process in that country, with former Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore having held the role of the EU’s Special Representative to the Colombian Peace Process.

Yet since the signing of that agreement, Colombia has led the world with the greatest number of killings of human rights defenders. With over 100 killed each year since 2016, it more than triples the number of the next highest country – either the Philippines or Brazil – in that same period.

Ireland should convene a special session of the UNSC in Colombia to offer robust support for the full peace agreement and to have hearings as to the plight of HRDs and what is needed to ensure protection. Galvanising action and putting a spotlight on such issues would be an important way to maximise the benefit of the UNSC seat. 

Conducting business as usual has led the institution into a comatose period. Certainly, this current period of immense and complex global challenges, and the propensity of powerful states to retreat to protectionism, to compete, and at worst to engage in conflict does not facilitate Security Council work. 

But the Security Council endured decades of Cold War and yet was able to act effectively. What might be needed is a catalyst in the form of an ‘outsider’ and Ireland fits that bill. 

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The events of the first days of 2021 show that anti-democratic and anti-human rights forces have not taken a holiday.

It is a good time for Ireland to use its standing and reputation in the world and make good on the commitment Foreign Minister Simon Coveney made in June 2020, “We are not all over the world for what we can get for ourselves; Ireland is out there to contribute to a better world for everyone.”

With five million Irish at home, and over 70 million in the Diaspora, the Irish people are ready and willing to lead.

Andrew Anderson is the Executive Director of Front Line Defenders having previously served as Deputy Director since March 2003. Prior to joining Front Line Defenders, Andrew worked for thirteen years at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International where he was Director of the Campaigning and Crisis Response Programme and then Director of the Africa Programme.

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