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Statement by President Higgins following phonecall with Dr Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO

Date: Sat 3rd Feb, 2024 | 12:41

Uachtarán na hÉireann, President Michael D. Higgins last night had a discussion by phone with Dr Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organisation’s Health Emergencies Programme.

Their discussion followed from a recent meeting which President Higgins held with Dr Ryan and the Director General of the WHO, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, at Áras an Uachtaráin on 18 December 2023, at which they undertook to stay in touch on health and food issues and, in particular, to continue their engagement on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

In what was a comprehensive call, Dr Ryan updated the President on the figures for the number of deaths that have taken place in Gaza, which have now passed 27,000. He informed the President that the current figure for UNRWA staff deaths in Gaza is 152.

Following their call, President Higgins said that he wishes to share the sense of urgency conveyed to him as media reports emerged that an attack on an ever-more densely packed Rafah is being reported and ceasefire talks are at a crucial stage:

I was grateful to receive an update on the current situation on the ground in Gaza from Dr Mike Ryan, who in the most difficult and challenging of human circumstances is among those engaging in desperately needed humanitarian work which we should all support.

Listening to the update which Dr Ryan provided, it is clear that it is more vital than ever that the space for diplomacy be forefronted and supported as steps that are necessary for saving life and helping discussions towards peace, and that those negotiations on which all sides are engaging are brought to an early and positive conclusion.

The consensus of all those interested in an enduring peace is holding and widening on the principle that an immediate ceasefire is necessary, which will offer the best prospect for the achievement of the release of all hostages and allow the essential humanitarian supports access to the population which so desperately needs them.

The WHO have pointed out in their latest Emergency Situation Update, published earlier this week, that 70% of those who have been killed in Gaza to date are women and children.

UNICEF in particular have highlighted that the violence has left 17,000 children without parents.

The WHO have further stressed that 75% of the population of Gaza have been displaced, and expressed key concerns around the continued dismantling of the health system within Gaza, the deepening of levels of food insecurity with over half a million people facing catastrophic hunger and starvation, and the ongoing outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Given all of these facts, any further extension of the bombing campaign into what is a densely populated area to which so many people have fled would leave any respect for humanitarian law in tatters. The suggestion that such a development take place and be watched in near silence is a suggestion that removes all morality from any stated position of public concern for the most basic of human rights.

What is at stake now, given the high proportion of loss of life of non-combatants, and particularly of women and children, is the potential emptying out of the entire space and discourse of human rights and international humanitarian law. Such an eschewing of moral considerations is a moment of global crisis that offers a terrible nadir of human concern and must be opposed in order to prevent it being invoked in future conflicts.

Beyond the immediately required ceasefire, release of hostages and provision of humanitarian supports, it is of the utmost importance that demand and support for serious discussions resume on a meaningful long-term settlement which can provide peace and security to both the people of Palestine and the people of Israel. As the Irish Government with others have stated, this must include the recognition of a Palestinian State.

Any rhetoric which suggests a future without such a State needs to be confronted directly. The necessary preparations for this includes the release of those prisoners who are committed to the building of an enduring peace and whose influence may be vital in the development of such a State.

It is also vital, as has been highlighted by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths, that countries continue to support UNRWA in what are the most critical of times for the most vulnerable.

The 30,000 UNRWA staff in the region, including 13,000 in Gaza, are assisting some of the most broken people on the planet in the most devastating of circumstances. The small number of those suspected of being connected to the appalling atrocities carried out by Hamas on 7 October have correctly been dealt with. It is now of the utmost importance that all countries demonstrate their commitment to the vital humanitarian supports that are needed and follow the example of the Irish Government and other Governments who are committing their support to the vitally important work which UNRWA carries out on behalf of the international community.

Those countries who have removed their funding from UNRWA must be reminded of the unavoidable consequences their actions are likely to have on this most vulnerable. This is not a matter on which anyone who believes in the vital need for a humanitarian response can remain silent.”