Why did Ireland abstain in the UN vote on a commission of inquiry into Gaza?

Republic’s role in Gaza resolution part of EU issue

The move sparked fury from the Opposition and criticism of newly appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan. Photograph: Eric Luke / THE IRISH TIMES

The move sparked fury from the Opposition and criticism of newly appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan. Photograph: Eric Luke / THE IRISH TIMES

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 01:00

On Thursday the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) published its long-awaited observations on Ireland’s human rights record, but the country was embroiled in another controversy in Geneva the previous evening.

Ireland’s representative at the UN, Ambassador Patricia O’Brien, took part in an emergency session of the UNHRC on Gaza.

Ireland has been a member of the influential international body since January 2013 when it was elected for a three-year term following extensive diplomatic efforts by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

On Wednesday, a special session of the human rights council was convened to discuss the situation in Gaza at the behest of a number of members, led by Egypt, Palestinian representatives and other Arab states.

Ireland was one of a number of members to make a public statement on the situation in Gaza during the opening session.

Appalled

In a hard-hitting statement, Ms O’Brien told delegates Irish people were “appalled” at the situation in Gaza, and while Israel had a right to defend its people “this right does not negate the right of others”.

She concluded by calling for an “appropriate investigation into breaches of international law”.

It was all the more surprising, then, that the Republic chose to abstain in the vote, calling for the establishment of a committee of inquiry, which ultimately was carried. The move sparked fury from the Opposition and criticism of newly appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan.

The department defended its decision by claiming Ireland could not support the resolution as it had failed to mention the Hamas attacks on Israel and was “unbalanced, inaccurate and prejudges the outcome of the investigation”.

It pleaded that it had tried to secure changes to the text but these had not been taken on board by the main countries sponsoring the resolution.

Ireland lambasted

But critics lambasted Ireland for siding with the eight other EU countries on the council, and failing to make a stand on the Palestinian issue.

It is clear that Ireland’s membership of the EU played a central role in its decision – Ireland voted in tandem with the other eight EU countries on the council, including Germany and the United Kingdom, with the EU issuing a collective statement outlining why it couldn’t endorse the proposal.

Ireland was also part of a collective EU decision not to back the original letter seeking the special session.

The controversy over the vote illustrates the difficulty for the EU to forge a cohesive collective response to the Middle East.

A number of European countries, including Germany, Czech Republic, the Netherlands and, some would say, the United Kingdom are regarded as sympathetic to Israel.

In contrast, Ireland is one of the strongest supporters of the Palestinian position around the EU table.

Ireland’s election to the UNHRC 18 months ago was welcomed as an acknowledgment of Ireland’s record in human rights advocacy.

Wednesday’s vote in Geneva illustrated the responsibilities and challenges that come with that role.