Speech at a Reception for UN Permanent Representatives
Áras an Uachtaráin, Thursday, 20th February 2020
I am very happy as President of Ireland to welcome to Áras an Uachtaráin the United Nations Group of Friends of Peace Processes, which was co-founded in 2018 by Ireland and Afghanistan and includes today Permanent Representatives from Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Colombia, Jordan, Libya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Timor Leste and Vietnam.
As Permanent Representatives to the United Nations who are engaged in the core purpose of the UN – that of conflict resolution and reconciliation – you participate in vital work across the globe at a time in which we never needed more to be engaged in multilateralism so that we may achieve an enduring, peaceful and fulfilling balance between the needs of peoples, sustainable economy and a responsible care for ecological capacity.
I know that you have come to Ireland to discuss areas of common interest in relation to the achievement of these aims that you share. I support you in your belief that a peaceful and harmonious world is something which we must all strive tirelessly to achieve and sustain.
We, ourselves, on the island of Ireland are living through the experience of establishing, supporting and sustaining a peace process, and the Irish Government’s commitment to peace on the island of Ireland is what encourages our desire to share our experience with UN Member States in pursuit of international peace and security. I am sure the sharing of your and our experience will help to yield fruitful discussions during your visit.
We are not living in times when the discourse of peace prevails among the most powerful. And that is why you, advocates of peace and reconciliation, are so important.
Losing the Discourse of Peace
I am sure that as participants in humanitarian action, you must feel how morally outrageous it is, given our boundless capacity for creativity and innovation, that the fruits of new science and technology are being turned with ever-increasing intensity, not to the promotion and preservation of peace, the engendering of power, but to the pursuit and prosecution of war?
The root causes of conflict are always complex. Neither when they are identified nor addressed do they remain fixed. They feed on new circumstances, some of which are created by our insatiability and our recklessness. At the moment, we face a threat to peace, sourced, may I suggest, in the threat to our very existence itself. It is an existential crisis that flows from three intersecting crises: climate change resulting from unsustainable, deeply unequal consumption, that co-exists with a failure to meet the basic sufficiency needs of humanity, and a loss of trust in institutions that is reflected in a loss of cohesion at the level of society and multifarious forms of alienation at personal level.
The threat of violence itself, not only between borders but within, for example expressing itself through violence against women, children, environment and nature, is facilitated by an institutional ennui of a sense of failure, incapacity, moral lassitude that is now somehow accepted as inevitable. Peacemakers are thus forced to engage, not only with change, but with the consequences of far too much indifference to these interacting crises.
Any balanced reading of contemporary history suggests that the outbreak, and recurrence, of conflict and security threats can only be prevented by addressing the root causes which are often sourced in failure or, at best, reluctance to address the structural sources of inequality and the means by which they facilitate the spread of hateful, extremist rhetoric for political gain.
Counteracting this exploitative populism demands political imagination and determination, moral courage. We cannot lose the opportunities of the present, or the possibilities of the future, by failing to transact old issues of division that were sown in the past and that are the prospective sources of future hate.
The task of peacebuilding needs to be supported by independent research and financial commitment. It also demands that we become aware as to how the debate and our path forward can be frustrated, co-opted through influence or threat, even determined by those with vested interests in the arms race, who are, after all, the beneficiaries of escalated conflict.
This brings to my mind a number of first-order questions upon which those of us who believe in peace-making, as opposed to warmongering, need to reflect: How have we come to be losing the discourse of peace to the discourse of fear? How has the international security industry come to occupy a space that should be filled by those seeking to fulfil the needs of sufficiency in food, shelter, education and cooperation? How have we come to accept the allocation of a minor, residual role for ecology, society and, yes, even peace?
How have we come to accept as a hegemonic influence on our lives, on our very existence, such a narrow, limited version of economy – a chronically imbalanced approach that has served us so badly and with such destructive consequences?
We are now living through a financialised form of globalisation where capital is not sourcing productivity but is used as a speculative commodity, an abstract asset for financial market transactions.
Geneva Conventions and Multilateralism
I had the pleasure recently to address an international conference here in Dublin that marked the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, which of course are regarded as the cornerstone of modern international humanitarian law and recognised as the most important treaties governing the protection of people in armed conflicts. The Conventions were responsible, in their earliest forms, for the establishment of a humanitarian agency that we now know as the International Red Cross, and they remain solid foundations on which to establish new initiatives to deal with current circumstances.
What ties together the Geneva Conventions, and indeed the humanitarian work in which you all are involved, is the assertion of a belief in the irreducible dignity for which humanity stands, and that such dignity can be vindicated. The Conventions reflect a desire of societies to protect the innocent, advocate for justice and live according to an established code of conduct.
This principle of belief in the essence of humanity, its fundamentals, in terms of sustenance, vulnerability and capacity, and that institutions such as the Red Cross and the UN can be brought to serve such a programme, is at the core of the work you undertake, often in challenging circumstances.
Thanks to humanitarian actions like the work in which you are heavily involved, millions of civilians have lived safer, more harmonious lives.
It is depressing for all of us, but sadly necessary to note, that today, across the globe, the number of people in crisis and displacement is at the highest level in recorded times. Violent conflicts today are likely to have more actors, and demonstrate more complexity and longevity than ever before.
In 2018 some 13.6 million people, or 27,000 persons every day, were forced to leave their homes as they fled from violence, conflict and disaster; these are newly displaced persons, half of whom are children. Some 70.8 million are now forcibly displaced, with four-in-five refugees living in countries neighbouring their country of origin.
Yet today, in terms of addressing the sources of this, just ten percent of development assistance is spent on peacebuilding and conflict resolution, while military expenditure continues to soar, now standing at almost $2 trillion globally.
We are not free to despair. We must work in the space for what is possible, a new eco-social embedded economy, a paradigm change.
You are Permanent Representatives at the source of our multilateral institutions. The UN is important and must be reformed and strengthened. This impetus for change with come from the smaller nations, rather than the powerful.
The young of the world are not alone at being appalled by the cynicism of the suggestion that what is to be discussed and decided at the United Nations General Assembly constitutes some kind of pent-up moral steam of normative concern that can be released by the spokespersons of the publics of the world, but the strut and interests of the powerful and wielders of military and trade power can be allowed to prevail within the Security Council. That glaring amoral suggestion, accepted uncritically by too many, is one of the reasons why we are losing the young in terms of support for decision-making, decision-taking institutions.
There is an argument that must be won. If we are to strive genuinely to build a culture of peace, then it is essential that the fruits of new science and technology are turned to the promotion and safeguarding of peace, rather than facilitating war with its appalling personal and social consequences.
As we wrestle, then, with interlinked challenges in the application of science, changes in climate, unsustainable economy and deeply unequal society, we must do more to support and invest in interlinked solutions of peace. We must recover suppressed instincts for justice, peace, conflict resolution, that were buried under the weight of colonisation and cultural domination. Now is the time for us to reassert our belief in, and support for, justice, human rights and development within a diversity of cultural models.
We must strive to build a culture of peace – not an easy task in today’s geopolitical landscape where the hubris of the most militarily powerful is extended in the intertwined areas of trade, communications, and the financialisation of a global economy that rewards speculative capital for the few while it refuses to accord rights to workers and marginalises or excludes migrants, migrants who are seeking merely the sufficiency of life and who are now, in new circumstances, being forced into involuntary migration due to conflicts sourced in the consequences of climate change.
The citizens of our world differ on how they state their needs. There is not some single, insatiable version of human nature which we are all called to serve.
For many victims of contemporary conflicts, the great injustice of being denied those most basic of human needs – shelter, security and a sense of belonging – is a daily, lived reality. Those who arrive on foreign shores fleeing war and persecution are so often, and in increasing numbers, those whose homes and lands are illegally taken from them, or those who have been living under the constant threat and fear of persecution or discrimination. They are those who have been rendered voiceless, powerless, have had their lives ruptured, their dignity rejected, their autonomy confiscated.
When considering how to mobilise the funding required to address migration, should we not be looking with urgency to new initiatives of global funding that can also address new sources, including capital that is seeking investment, capital that has now no productive yield and that, in its being diverted into the inflation of share values by companies purchasing their own shares, creates, for example, the basis of a new global collapse by non-collateralised technology giants?
A similar circumstance prevails in relation to sources and flows of credit. Sources of credit and capital, currently not being utilised, could be made available to create a Green Economy Fund, a just transition, sustainable development, and solutions to migration issues in a way that is accountable, transparent, efficient and consistent with the UN Charter. Capital can fund a long-term real yield. Integrating a response to interacting crises, including the crises created by a new form of concentration of wealth and dead capital, makes sense. The UN realised a circumstance such as this when it responded in the 1940s to a global financial crisis. Today we seem unable to act. The UN is being undermined, under-funded and mocked as a global institution. Yet, it is the depositary of our multilateral agreements and responsibilities.
We must work together for a form of discourse that rejects violence; violence of an institutional, structural kind, as well as personal.
Building a Discourse of Peace and Reconciliation
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that great document of the United Nations, has affirmed that “recognition of the inherent dignity, and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.
If we are to create such a world, a world where all our fellow citizens can live in peace, security, safety, respect and dignity, we must not only reject all forms of violence, but envision an inclusive, sustainable, diverse world – one that can be shared equally by all citizens, in all their wonderful diversity. Critically, it will require, for example, giving agency to Africans to build a sustainable future for their continent, as Carlos Lopes, High Representative of the African Union Commission, has articulated in his book, Africa in Transformation.
You who work in non-violent ways to end conflict – through dialogue, negotiation and peaceful protests – are more than sowing seeds, you are demonstrating the great power of positive action in effecting real and lasting change, doing so with compassion, empathy and wisdom.
We on the island of Ireland have witnessed what can be achieved by a willingness to engage in discourse and how it facilitates, makes possible, work towards achieving a common goal.
However, this invaluable work or intervention and rapid humanitarian response should never be used as a means of avoiding the deep, structural, institutional changes we are required to make. Humanitarian acts must not be abused by their being cited as alternatives to the call for structural change. The neglect of structural change promises catastrophe, and it promises that within decades.
Conflict resolution processes require courage, patience and hope. All peace processes are just that: they are processes which require long-term, sustained political engagement. It is rare that the sources of a conflict can be fully addressed in one generation. Therefore, those committed to peace must recognise that we are embarking on a potentially lifelong, even inter-generational, pursuit. Set against this reality, it is vital that the principles and objectives of any agreement be flexible to new challenges, acting as the foundation and the framework by which peace and reconciliation for all the people is achieved.
In our own case in Ireland, the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement was a form of endpoint, but really it was a beginning, the beginning of the process to build a peaceful society. Over 20 years later, the difficult process of reconciliation continues. Northern Ireland is a much more peaceful society today, but it is not entirely healed.
Conflict resolution, to be successful, must be more than a means for demonstrating political resolve; it must be a meaningful, inclusive tool for the attainment of peace, requiring parties to accommodate, collaborate and compromise.
Effectiveness is also strengthened, the evidence is overwhelming, through the increased participation of women. We need to listen more to those women involved in conflict resolution to allow us realise positive change. Indeed, in the past, the neglect of women’s contribution to the post-conflict adjustments was a significant, avoidable loss, often resulting in a sub-optimal outcome.
Important, too, in this debate is that we fully recognise how responding to, and addressing, conflict and violence demands the utilisation of the widest possible range of tools and instruments – from conflict-prevention, to mediation, to humanitarian assistance, to development and co-operation. Security, be it in its hardware, its software, or its rhetoric, is, thus, just one element of an operation.
Many societies remain trapped in orbit around a body of conflict, fear and suffering. You, the representatives of so many nations who have played a role in resolving conflict and achieving reconciliation, embody so much of our hope that we can break the cycle and create a paradigm of peace as something that is not predicated on any temporary cessation of violence.
Need for a New Paradigm of Resonance
It would be a serious mistake, too, to see conflict resolution work as merely reactive. The world that is possible as the alternative is one of joy and fulfilment experienced at personal and collective levels. Our world can orbit a new sun for fulfilment, equality and prosperity. We can bask in sustainable peace, free from the scourge of war, in a future where the principles of the UN Charter are adhered to, and where the world is transformed, re-imagined, as envisaged by the Sustainable Development Goals.
This will require transcending the lesser version of life which a wild market deregulation has created, sustained by violence, facing up to a realisation of our present experience of how we are living our lives, how we are dealing with what is a “catastrophe of resonance”, to quote Professor Hartmut Rosa, that is experienced in modern society.
A world that eschews violence requires facilitating the transformative appropriation of every dimension of the world – how we are to exist, the relationships between ourselves and others and indeed with the world itself, how we may be transformed from consuming the world to resonating with it. I agree with Professor Rosa’s argument that such a loss of human responsivity has been a factor in the democratic crisis in which we find ourselves:
“The emergence of political echo chambers and milieus that are segregated from one another are also mutually reinforcing – and they undermine the possibility of a democracy based on resonance.”
Professor Rosa asserts that if we succeed in establishing a horizontal political or democratic sphere of resonance, such an achievement will enable us to find the means of creating new institutions that might serve an eco-social version of responsible, embedded global economy.
In this context, a key challenge in establishing such a sphere of resonance is to build, as bulwark of a democratic communications order, strong, politically institutionalised and guaranteed public service broadcasting, as well as the protection of civic meeting places. According to Hannah Arendt, this type of collective production of political resonance has the capacity not only to transform the world but also to recreate the world, providing people with self-efficacy and an important instrument with which society and the public space can become a sphere of resonance for citizens.
Multilateralism as Key
I welcome the much greater recognition at the United Nations, under the leadership of Secretary-General Guterres, of the undeniable links between development and security, and between human rights abuses and conflict, and the recognition that we need transformative, long-term, holistic solutions.
We do need to develop and sustain institutions capable of channelling our collective will and providing the transformative solutions to conflict resolution. The United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, the World Bank, and other bodies are indispensable in addressing shared challenges and implementing what might become agreed solutions.
Yet, as I say this, I realise that security from hunger and transmittable diseases, and the provision of housing, health and education, those most human and important forms of security, are not the content given to ‘security’ by the armaments industry of the world. Eliminating global poverty, offering fair trade – these are the contributions to security that can inspire and endure.
Ireland remains deeply committed to that multilateral order. The challenges we face – whether climate change, displacement, poverty eradication or conflict resolution – are global in nature. And it is only by cooperating that we can hope to address these successfully and meaningfully.
The commitment to multilateralism is, however, no longer a given. Several states, including some of the most powerful actors globally, are repudiating this multilateral order, pursuing narrow, neo-nationalist agendas. This attitude – as regrettable as it is myopic, and displaying a dangerous ignorance of history – is eroding the respect of international standards and laws including the Geneva Conventions.
Violations of the Geneva Conventions persist, often by the most powerful, with recurring incidents of illegal detention of suspects and documented torture, practices that clearly contravene the accords contained in the Geneva Conventions. Violations of international law are never acceptable. May I say this unambiguously: we must condemn such violations whenever and wherever they occur, and we must intensify our efforts to prevent them.
Countries with smaller populations on the Security Council will need to have courage to resist the intimidation of those abusing power, be it in trade, technology, diplomacy or threatened exclusions.
An additional challenge we face is the change in the nature and form of conflict and war. Conflicts have become more protracted, more urban and more fragmented, all of which creates significant challenges for humanitarian actors.
We know, for instance, that the average length of a humanitarian crisis is now over nine years, according to the United Nations. This is an increase from an average length of 5.2 years in 2014.
We must make conflict prevention and resolution a priority for the United Nations. That means changing the United Nations – strengthening it, not talking endlessly of reform, which can too often be a subtext for those wishing to weaken the UN’s capacity to act.
To create the conditions for this, we must make conflict prevention and resolution a priority in our own societies. We have the capacity and the knowledge for conflict prevention, resolution, reconciliation and recovery, but I ask now, do we have the resolve? We must allow authentic voices to be heard, and not just the voices of those who hold formal power. The United Nations must actively engage in every member state with citizens.
May I conclude by thanking all of you here today for all you have done in the cause of building a better, more peaceful world. May I also assure you that while Ireland may be a physically small island on the periphery of Europe, our outlook is global, and our proud tradition of participation in peacekeeping and conflict resolution at home demonstrates how we can be a force for peace, stability and reconciliation.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.