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ireland's turn

Explainer: Ireland takes its seat on the UN Security Council tomorrow - here's what it hopes it can achieve

A sense of realism about what can actually be achieved and a focus on diplomacy will help to define Ireland’s latest stint on the UN Security Council.

foreign-minister-maas-in-new-york The members of the UN Security Council sit on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty meeting in February 2020. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

IRELAND IS SET to take its seat on the UN Security Council tomorrow, 1 January 2021.

This will be Ireland’s fourth stint on the council, having previously served in 1962, 1981-82 and in 2001-02. Those terms coincided with dramatic international crises: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Falklands War and the 9/11 attacks.

This term will be marred by the Covid-19 pandemic, which brings its own challenges – diplomacy over Zoom isn’t as easy as face-to-face discussions on difficult issues.

For the most part, any changes Ireland hopes to make will be through quiet, slow, background discussions with the other countries on the Council. Sometimes, progress can simply mean a particular country or issue doesn’t regress, rather than a marked improvement occurring.

What is the Security Council? What does it do?

There are 15 seats on the UN Security Council.

Five countries – known as ‘the P5’ – have permanent memberships: China, France, Russia, the UK and the US. The other ten seats are won by countries who occupy the seats on a two-year temporary basis.

un-unga-plenary-meeting-united-nations-day-intl-cooperation Vassily Nebenzia president of the Security Council for the month of October, addresses an informal plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

On the United Nations website, it says the UN Security Council has “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”.

All member states of the United Nations – of which there are 193 – are said to be obliged to comply with the council’s decisions.

It calls upon parties in a dispute to settle it through peaceful means. In some cases, the council can resort to imposing sanctions or authorise the use of force to “maintain or restore international peace and security”.

It can make decisions on the deployment of peacekeepers – deciding where they go and what their mandate in that particular region is.

This month, for example, it urged warring parties in Libya to build on a political dialogue forum set up in the UN last month to try ease tensions there.

For a vote to pass through the council, nine of the 15 must vote in favour of the proposal.

The veto

However, each of the permanent members has a veto which they can use to automatically dismiss a motion. As Ireland prepares its diplomatic muscle for decisions to be discussed over the next two years, convincing a P5 member not to use their veto can be a better aim than convincing them to vote for a motion.

The veto can make it difficult for substantive issues to be resolved. This can be seen as a barrier to making progress or solving significant, but difficult, issues.

The greatest example of this is the opposing stances the USA and Russia take on many international conflicts: Russia has previously voted to decrease the border crossings for aid deliveries to Syria; and the US is a strong and public ally of Israel, making a solution for the Israeli-Palestine conflict more difficult.

Another example is that the UN Security Council was seen to have not intervened in the recent assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist that inflamed tensions in the region: Iran has blamed Israel for the attack.

Ireland is realistic about what it can achieve while on the Council.

Others who are also set to take a seat from 1 January – such as Mexico and Norway – are understood to have similar aims. Kenya and India agree with Ireland on some issues.

NO FEE TAOISEACH IRELAND UN SEAT JB5 Leo Varadkar, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Covney and Katherine Zappone in June when Ireland won a seat on the Council.

Since June, when Ireland won its seat, officials have been working with the countries that will be also joining the council, as well as like-minded countries whose membership is set to expire, such as Germany, to find out what their experience has been like on the Council for the past two years.

Earlier this month, Coveney visited Berlin to mark the symbolic handover from Germany’s membership of the Security Council to Ireland.

“Ireland and Germany are unwavering supporters of the United Nations and multilateralism. We believe the Security Council has a vital role to play in preventing and resolving conflict,” Coveney said.

The Security Council that Ireland is joining now is significantly different to the one it joined almost 20 years ago.

China has significantly expanded its power and influence in that time. The US’s relations with China and Russia are significantly strained, and this may not improve drastically under a Joe Biden presidency.

There are three times more specific issues in countries and more than double the ‘thematic issues’ related to conflict than when Ireland was on the Council the last time. This is both because of an increase in conflicts and instability around the world, and because of the UN expanding its remit in terms of what it can do.

The advancement of technology has also made conflict more complicated: real-time information has changed the way conflicts occur or develop.

There are more ways to be influential with fewer resources than before, and through use of tools like cyber attacks and disinformation.

And the growth of non-state actors have made things more complicated, as the traditional tools of diplomacy have been built around dealing with States instead of non-state actors.

How does it all work?

At the UN headquarters in New York, Ireland’s team has been expanded given the significant workload being taken on through being on the Security Council.

Tests have already been carried out to prepare for the influx of diplomatic requests and press releases which will be incoming from when their work officially starts on 1 January.

They have a good amount of foresight of what to expect with topics for discussion and votes usually flagged well before they occur.

As peacekeeping mandates are reviewed every 12 months after being agreed at the UN Security Council, so often the diplomatic legwork will have been done well in advance of a vote.

For example, the mandate for UN’s peacekeeping mission in Lebanon UNIFIL – established to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces and restore stability to the area – is due up for ‘renewal’ in August. But many of the stances for each side are already known ahead of that vote.

lebanon-beirut-port-explosions-aftermath-chinese-peacekeeper-cleaning-work UN peacekeepers clear the ruins of the port explosions in Beirut, 3 September 2020. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images


Something unforeseen can still happen, of course, leading to a vote that is less predictable.

But voting doesn’t happen very often, and so a lot of the UN Security Council work is not about a big, ultimatum vote – time is more taken up by incremental changes over time.

A lot of work is needed for the Iran nuclear deal, for example – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – in order to convince the US to rejoin and to convince Iran to comply with its terms once again.

Decisions will often come to the minister for approval – or potentially as far as the office of the Taoiseach depending on the importance of the issue.

However, because of the advance nature of decisions, much of that work will be done by the diplomats on the ground in New York having already agreed the strategy on a variety of topics at government level. 

What are Ireland’s aims? Can it achieve them?

Ireland’s strategy on the UN Security Council is understood to be aiming at as many realistic and achievable goals as possible.

With the power of the veto and competing interests across the different members of the Council, it is hoping for incremental improvements in a variety of areas that will aim to eventually add up to tangible progress over time.

On a practical level, as a small trading nation it’s in our natural interest for peace and stability across the globe. Being on the UN Security Council means that the country would have more influence than it otherwise would have to foster an environment for economic and social development.

Similarly, the country invests hugely in overseas aid to the developing world, particularly in parts of Africa. Any decisions affecting a particular region will also be informed by our goals in the places where we already invest time and resources.

One area Ireland hopes to make an impact in is climate change. Although China and Russia (and the US under Trump) have been slow to accept climate change actions to be within the remit of the Security Council, a key part of the Irish campaign to win a seat has been climate change.

It has been discussed at the Council for over a decade, but it’s believed Ireland will aim to keep it on the agenda and aim to solve issues that arise through a lens of climate change.

It is a topic that has come in discussions between Minister Coveney and his counterparts, particularly in African countries, who share the desire for unilateral action to address climate change issues.

But for other countries, they don’t agree that issues such as climate change and gender participation should form part of the UN Security Council’s mandate.

Russia and China see security through narrower terms, while the UK, France and the US generally see a correlation between instability and countries greatly affected by environmental issues and gender disparity.

women-peace-and-security-in-ukraine-photo-exhibition-in-kyiv Tatiana Kryuchenko, a paramedic at the Hospitaliers medical corps, is pictured during the opening of the 'Women, Peace and Security in Ukraine' photo exhibition. Hennadii Minchenko Hennadii Minchenko

When the UN’s ‘Women Peace and Security’ (WPS) agenda was first introduced – which aims to lessen the effects of war and conflict on women and girls by involving them in peacekeeping – it was not unanimously accepted by all members, but has gradually been adopted into more of the UN’s work over time.

This means that in peace-keeping missions, including women in efforts to find resolutions to conflict and bring about peace is taken more seriously, Ireland can point to how the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition and its founder Monica McWilliams was heavily involved in the Peace Process and Good Friday Agreement negotiations.

That gradual progress towards a consensus is seen as the core way for the UN Security Council to work, its more progressive members believe. An aggressive push to get countries to comply with a resolution they don’t like is not the best way to make real, long-lasting change.

There were some aspects of the WPS agenda that the outgoing US administration didn’t particularly agree with, which is hoped to be resolved when Biden takes over as US President.

Without bringing equality into the debate and purely on performance, there is a correlation between excluding women from peace discussions and those talks being unsuccessful.

Furthermore, when it comes to our peacekeepers, Ireland is proud of its position as having peacekeepers on the ground across the world since 1958. 

Its positions on the Security Council will allow it to have impactful decisions on the mandates that UN peacekeepers are given and the locations they are sent. 

It’s understood that discussions have been held with the Defence Forces and Department of Defence to help inform Ireland’s policy decisions in this regard while on the Council. 

Again, like in every decision being made, it’ll be the gradual, incremental change that eventually adds up to tangible difference on the ground that is Ireland’s aim here. 

With an extremely busy schedule at a time when the world is coping the effects of a global pandemic, it is likely to be another momentous and difficult period for Ireland to be sitting on the UN Security Council. 

Sean Murray & Gráinne Ní Aodha
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