Ireland will join the Security Council at a critical juncture
Given the persistent blockages in the UNSC, including a succession of Russian vetoes over Syria, I fear the EU, UK and other progressive partners will need to do more outside the UN to defend and promote its values
Members of the UN Security Council vote. (Photo by KENA BETANCUR / AFP)
On January 1st next year Ireland returns to the Security Council, the UN’s most high profile and contested space. There she will find the UK, looking forward to working together on some of the hardest issues in international affairs.
I spent three years in the Council, some of the most fascinating and frustrating times of my career, never more so than in the sweltering summer of 2005, much of which I spent in the basement of the UN HQ overlooking the East River, negotiating an agreement for the World Summit being held to mark the UN’s sixtieth birthday.
The Summit was the brainchild of the then secretary general Kofi Annan, intended to repair the wounds of the Iraq war, and build a new consensus on the UN’s founding goals of peace, development and human rights.
The UK had a dual role, as a permanent UNSC member, but also as Presidency of the EU, representing the Union as well as the UK in the negotiations. My responsibilities included delivering the UK and EU vision for a new Peacebuilding Commission, to help countries emerge sustainably from conflict and - even harder - to get all 190 UN members to agree the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), the idea that the international community could legitimately intervene in a country’s internal affairs if that country was failing to prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes or crimes against humanity.
Agreeing R2P was a painful and painstaking exercise, seeking to reconcile the views of countries with interests as diverse and opinions as different as Russia, China, Rwanda and Cuba. Ireland, the UK and the EU as a whole, with Norway, Australia, Canada and many others, worked hard to realise the vision Annan had set out for a new consensus on the interlocking challenges of poverty reduction, defence of human rights and prevention of conflict.
Fifteen years on, one can only conclude that our ambitions from that intense summer of 2005 remain far from realised. Syria is perhaps the worst, but not the only, example. Sudan is another. My first big UNSC negotiation in 2005 was the resolution to give the International Criminal Court its first case, to address the appalling ethnic cleansing in Darfur. The International Criminal Court is a noble endeavour, albeit in need of reform. The UK has an excellent candidate, Judge Joanna Korner, standing for election to the Court at the end of this year.
I am confident that Ireland, like the UK, will spare no effort in the search for international peace, security and justice in its two years on the UNSC. The Taoiseach spoke eloquently about this in his address to this year’s General Assembly. Our government, too, is committed to being a force for good in the world, most recently shown by our legislating for the UK to have “Magnitsky-type” sanctions to penalise human rights violations. We have already started to use them against human rights offenders, including in Russia and Belarus.
In Brussels in my last job, I worked with Irish and other colleagues on the proposal for an equivalent EU sanctions regime, which I hope will soon come to pass. Given the persistent blockages in the UNSC, including a succession of Russian vetoes over Syria, I fear the EU, UK and other progressive partners will need to do more outside the UN to defend and promote its values.
We will never give up on the UN. The UK will remain a huge donor to its Funds and Programmes, often stepping in when others pull back or out. Only recently we’ve further upped our contributions to the World Health Organisation, and to the UN’s activities in the Occupied Territories and we’re doubling the money we put into the Peacebuilding Fund and committing £500m to enable equitable sharing of the eventual Covid vaccine(s).
The UN as a whole, and the UNSC in particular, faces big challenges, which all too often seem so hard and so intractable that even the most optimist of diplomats can be driven to despair.
Whenever I am, I like to think of the hopeless we are helping, the victims of abuse, injustice, poverty and conflict. And I like to draw inspiration from great figures of the past.
None greater than Dag Hammarskjold, former UN Secretary-General, whose family I had the honour of meeting when I was Ambassador to Sweden.
Outside the Security Council chamber in my day hung a tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica, a powerful illustration of the worst humans can do to each other.
Perhaps that scene of horror inspired that legendary Secretary-General to lament, or, more positively, to hope, that the UN would succeed only when people stop thinking of it as a Picasso abstraction, but, rather, “as a drawing they made themselves”.
As we mark UN day, let us take up our brushes and paint a brighter future for our shared security together.
Paul Johnston is the ambassador to Ireland of the United Kingdom