Speech to the Permanent Representatives of UN Member States
Áras an Uachtaráin, Thursday, 28th November, 2019
It gives me the greatest pleasure as President of Ireland to welcome to Áras an Uachtaráin Permanent Representatives to the United Nations who are engaged in the core purpose of the United Nations peacebuilding and peacekeeping activities and who are doing so at a time we never needed more to be engaged with multilateralism and doing the long thinking that can achieve an enduring balance between the needs of peoples, economy and ecological capacity. You have come to Ireland to discuss areas of common interest in relation to these activities, including importantly conflict resolution, because you believe that a peaceful and just world is something which we must all strive tirelessly to achieve and sustain.
I am sure it strikes you as participants in humanitarian action, as much as it strikes me, as nothing less than a great failure, morally outrageous, that our boundless capacity for creativity and innovation, and the fruits of new science and technology, are being turned, not to the promotion and preservation of peace, but to the pursuit and prosecution of war.
The sources of conflict are never static. They draw on new circumstances, many created by our greed and our carelessness. At the moment we face the threat of peace, existence itself, that flow from three intersecting areas: climate, unsustainable, deeply unequal consumption, and a neglect of meeting the basic sufficiency needs of humanity and all too often on a lair of violence against women, children, environment and nature we have accepted as inevitable. Peacemakers now have to engage, not only with change, but with interacting crises, and in this task countries with smaller populations and less hubris can do much together.
It remains clear to all that any reading of modern history suggests that the outbreak and recurrence of conflict and security threats can only be prevented by addressing the root causes. This demands political imagination, moral courage, independent research, financial commitment, and unstinting determination. It also demands that the debate and our path forward must not be led, influenced or ever determined at any stage by those with vested interests in the arms race.
I believe that we must all collectively and individually have the courage now to ask how we have come to be losing the discourse of peace to the discourse of fear, and how the international security industry occupies a space that should be filled by these seeking to fill the needs of sufficiency in food, shelter, education and cooperation, and indeed how we have come to accept the allocation of ecology, society and, yes, even peace, to such a narrow and limited version of economy – a chronically imbalanced approach that has served us so badly and with such destructive consequences, and we must combine our efforts to achieve the alternative – the widespread adoption of a new paradigm of sustained peace and development.
I recently addressed an international conference here in Dublin that marked the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, 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 a belief in the irreducible dignity for which humanity stands, and that it can be vindicated, a desire of societies to protect the innocent, uphold justice and live according to an established code of conduct.
This principle of belief in humanity, and that institutions can be brought to serve it, is at the heart of the work which you undertake, often in such challenging circumstances. You have been instrumental in making the world a safer, more secure place. Thanks to humanitarian actions like the work in which you are heavily involved, millions of civilians have lived safer, happier lives.
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, exhibit more complexity and last longer than ever before. In 2017, over 30 million people, the equivalent of 80,000 people every day, were forced to leave their homes as they fled from violence, conflict and disaster. Yet today, in terms of addressing the sources of this, just ten percent of development assistance is spent on peacebuilding, while military expenditure continues to soar.
If we are to strive genuinely to build a culture of peace, it is essential that the fruits of new science and technology are turned to the promotion and preservation of peace, and not to a renewed pursuit and prosecution of war.
As we wrestle with interlinked challenges in science, climate, economy and society, we must do more to support and invest in the interlinked solutions of peace, justice, human rights and development, and 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 interlinked areas of trade, communications, financialisation of a global economy that rewards speculative capital for the few while it refuses to accord rights to workers and migrants seeking the sufficiency of life and who are the many..
For many victims of contemporary conflicts, the great injustice of being deprived of those most basic of human needs – shelter, security and a sense of belonging – is a lived and daily reality. Those who arrive on foreign shores fleeing war and persecution, those whose home and land are illegally taken from them, or those who live under the constant threat and fear of persecution or discrimination, are those rendered voiceless, powerless, their lives ruptured, their autonomy confiscated; a subject which Hannah Arendt has written so eloquently.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 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 construct 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 such a world – one that can be shared equally by all citizens, in all their wonderful diversity. It will, for example, require giving agency to Africans to build a sustainable future for Africans.
Those who work in non-violent ways to end conflict – through dialogue, negotiation, peaceful protests and demonstrations – demonstrate the great power of positive action to effect real and lasting change. We owe an enduring debt of gratitude to those who work to resolve conflict and difference with compassion, empathy and wisdom. We have, indeed, witnessed here in our own country, all that can be achieved by a willingness to engage in discourse and work towards achieving a common goal. Yet this invaluable work cannot be used as an alternative to the deep, structural, institutional changes we are required to make. Humanitarian acts must not be abused so as to obstruct the call for structural change.
All peace processes are just that. They are processes which require long-term and 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 engaging for life. Set against this reality, it is vital that the principles and objectives of any agreement continue to act as the foundation and the framework by which peace and security for all the people is achieved.
The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement was an endpoint, but equally it was a beginning, the beginning of the process to build a peaceful society. Some 20 years later, the difficult process of reconciliation continues. Northern Ireland is a much more peaceful society today, but it is not entirely healed.
This year Ireland marks the 61st anniversary of Ireland’s peacekeeping contributions. Today, there are more than 600 Irish Defence Forces personnel deployed on UN peacekeeping missions, including more than 370 women and men on the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, a mission to which we have been contributing for 40 years now. We currently deploy troops to seven of the UN’s 14 peacekeeping operations. For peacekeeping missions to be successful and for peacekeepers to be safe, missions must be more than a means for demonstrating political resolve; they must be a meaningful tool for the attainment of peace.
Two-thirds of UN peacekeepers are currently deployed in high-risk environments, and more have been killed by acts of violence in the last five years than in any other five-year period in our history. We are burdening our personnel with increasingly complex mandates, but not the resources to carry these out. Effective operations drive efficient operations, and we must ensure that our drive for efficiencies does not blind us to this fact. Effectiveness is also strengthened through the increased participation of women as peacekeepers. We need to listen more to those women peacekeepers in the field to allow us realise positive change.
Indeed in the past the neglect of women’s contribution to the post-conflict adjustments was a significant loss, and it should have told us something about attitudes holding us back.
Important, too, in this debate is that we fully recognise where peacekeeping is situated in our range of responses, that we understand 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 preventing conflict, are so much of our hope that we can break the cycle and create a paradigm of peace as something that is not predicated on the temporary cessation of violence, a pause between conflicts. Our world can orbit a new sun for prosperity and equality, we can bask in sustained and 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 as imagined by the Sustainable Development Goals.
We, as a global community, as shared custodians of the earth, have certain collective obligations and concerns that we share now in the face of catastrophe.
Some of these relate to the environment; we have a responsibility to ensure that the planet remains capable of nurturing and sustaining life, in all its diversity, for the future. However, we also, of course, have a responsibility to ensure that we safeguard the worth and dignity of every human being.
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. Problems of under-development underlie many conflict situations. We need holistic solutions.
We also need to develop and sustain institutions capable of channelling our collective will. The United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, the World Bank, and many other bodies are indispensable to addressing shared challenges and implementing what might become agreed solutions. Yet, as I say this I realise that security from hunger, transmittable diseases, housing, health, education is not the content given to ‘security’ by the armaments industry of the world. Even the Secretary-General has to repeat that he is not invoking ‘security’ of something drawn out of fear to sell weapons. Eliminating global poverty, offering fair trade – these are contributions to security that will last.
Ireland remains deeply committed to that multilateral order. The challenges we face – whether climate change, displacement, or eradicating poverty and inequality – are global in nature.
And it is only by cooperating that we can hope to address these successfully and meaningfully.
However, this commitment to multilateralism is 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 is as regrettable as it is myopic and displays a dangerous ignorance of history. Furthermore, it 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 very clearly: we must condemn such violations whenever and wherever they occur, and we must redouble 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 of conflict and war. Conflicts have become more protracted, more urban, and much more fragmented, particularly over the last decade, 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 Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This is an increase from an average length of 5.2 years in 2014.
Furthermore, the United Nations now informs us that one in every 70 people worldwide is caught up in a humanitarian crisis – that equates to 132 million people globally across 42 countries – highlighting the growing scale of the challenge.
More people are being displaced by conflict. The same United Nations analysis indicates that the number of forcibly displaced people rose from 59.5 million in 2014 to 68.5 million in 2017.
Crises exacerbate gender inequalities: girls in conflict settings are two-and-a-half times more likely to be missing school than boys. In just two years between 2015 and 2017, the number of people experiencing crisis-level food insecurity or worse increased from 80 million to 124 million people. Food insecurity will remain a major concern, particularly in areas affected by conflict and climate-related hazards.
The majority of humanitarian needs occur in long-lasting crises in which there has been limited progress in addressing the root causes, the underlying structural factors. It is paramount that political solutions are now the focus of those actors that can realise positive change.
We must make conflict prevention a priority for the United Nations. That means changing the United Nations – strengthening it, not talking endlessly of reform, and to create the conditions for this we must make conflict prevention a priority in our own societies. We have the capacity and the knowledge for conflict prevention, mediation, stabilisation and recovery, but I ask now, do we have the will? We must use these tools more effectively, sometimes at the same time and always for the betterment of people. We must allow authentic voices to be heard and not just the voices of those who hold formal power. We must have actual United Nations associations in every member state engaging with our citizens.
May I conclude by thanking all of you here today for all you have done in the cause of building a better and more peaceful world. May I also assure you that while Ireland may be a small island on the periphery of Europe, our outlook is global, and our proud tradition of participation in peacekeeping and crisis management operations demonstrates how we can be a force for peace and stability.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.