How Ireland punched above its weight at UN Security Council


A SMALL state has little opportunity to demonstrate its foreign policy values, for, if its government were to make a practice of issuing statements about its stance on the many issues in world affairs, it would appear absurdly self-important, and would quickly lose credibility.

However, if such a state becomes a member of the security council of the United Nations, not only does it have an opportunity to take up positions on the huge range of global issues that come before that body week-in week-out: it will find itself obliged to do so.

In last week’s article, I mentioned Ireland’s period as a member of the security council in 2001-2002, when it played an exceptionally independent, active and constructive role in relation to a wider range of global issues. However, for two reasons little of this activity attracted any attention at home.

First of all, even when we were members of the security council, none of our media had a UN correspondent. Moreover, Irish governments have been slow to draw any attention to the remarkable work done by our diplomats at the UN, or elsewhere, fearing that to say much about these activities – and the success attending a lot of what they undertake – could prejudice Ireland’s ability to continue to exercise a constructive influence in various aspects of world affairs. However, in combination with popular domestic misconceptions about the nature and range of what is called the EU common foreign policy, this over-modest approach has created a thoroughly misleading impression that Ireland no longer pursues an independent foreign policy.

Because this situation seemed to me to be damaging to our reputation and interests, in April 2003, I wrote in this column about the independent and influential role that Ireland had recently played as a member of the security council in 2001 and 2002.

With regard to the US, few Irish people realise that in the security council debate on the resolution which the US and Britain subsequently misused to justify their invasion of Iraq, the Irish representative explicitly stated that in our view it offered no authority for any such action.

During our 2001-2002 term on the security council, Ireland was active in relation to peace and human rights issues in many different parts of the world, and this activity made a visible impact on about eight of these disputes.

Throughout the whole period Ireland maintained an independent position, and at different times found itself opposing one or other of all five permanent members – including the US, which it opposed on some aspect of nine different issues.

Because of the principled character of the positions we adopted on these issues and the non-contentious manner in which these matters were approached by our diplomats and by the minister for foreign affairs – then Brian Cowen, most – although not all – of these Irish stances seem to have evoked remarkably little hostility from those whose positions we found ourselves opposing.

A remarkable Irish contribution during this period was the ending of the war in Angola. At the outset of our period on the security council, the then Irish ambassador to the UN, Richard Ryan, was appointed chairman of the Angola (Unita) Sanctions Committee, which, after the Iraq Sanctions Committee, was the most important of 10 such UN sanctions bodies.

Visits by Ambassador Ryan to countries in southern Africa and eastern Europe from which arms had been reaching the rebels, and to southern African countries with citizens who had been dealing in diamonds emanating from the rebels, made the sanctions effective for the first time.

As a result on April 4th, 2002, a ceasefire was signed, with Unita admitting they had been defeated by the rigorous implementation of the UN sanctions. Ireland also worked hard to protect the right of the people of western Sahara to self-determination. It did this by blocking an attempt involving France and the US to secure the adoption of a resolution that would have prejudiced self-determination for this former Spanish colony, by allowing people with only one year’s residence to vote on the future of the territory, to the potential benefit of neighbouring Morocco.

On the Middle East, in October 2001 it was Ireland that marked the establishment of the negotiating quartet (UN, US, EU, and Russia) by drafting a security council statement endorsing the quartet’s call for an end to violence and a return to negotiations.

Two months later Ireland supported a moderate Arab resolution, and the US as a result found it necessary to use its veto. However, the shift achieved in the balance within the council on this issue led the US three months later to accept the principle of Palestinian statehood.

Next, on Afghanistan, it was on Irish insistence that on October 8th, 2001, the president of the council issued a statement, drafted by Ireland, stressing the importance of humanitarian considerations in relation to armed action there.

Later, despite Russian opposition, Ireland helped to ensure that the Pashtuns, as the majority ethnic group, were included in the process of forming a new government.

Again, despite support by the five permanent members for lifting an arms embargo on Ethiopia and Eritrea, Irish intervention helped to persuade four other new members to join in blocking this proposal.

At a more general level, despite some French and British reticence, Ireland initiated regular briefings of EU member states that were not members of the council – a procedure that continued after Ireland’s departure from the council. And in the interests of transparency Ireland instituted luncheon briefings of states not members of the security council, in groups of 12-15. Finally Ireland led in establishing gatherings of the non-permanent members of the council, and also met an NGO working group every couple of months.

Needless to say, all these initiatives were widely welcomed by many member states.