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Security Council

Different countries have different sensitivities; diplomacy is a lot about understanding those sensitivities.

Ireland is fairly touchy about tax it has to be said. The Baltic countries worry about Russia. The Greeks and the Cypriots are always on the look out for Turkish misbehaviour (for which no great vigilence is required).

On a Zoom call the other day, I observed a Dutch and a French MEP go at each other over whether the EU should have a seat at the UN Security Council. It wasn’t pretty.

The implication might have been that it is probably time for the French to give up their permanent seat. The French MEP made the very valid point that Marine Le Pen and the French far right would have a field day if that happened.

And now we have an opportunity to see the significance of all of this at the top table.

Ireland will take up its seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) starting a two year term on January 1st. The 15 member Council is primarily responsible for international peace and security.

There are 5 permanent members (P5) of the UNSC and 10 elected members (E10). The advantage of permanence is aggravated by being able to exercise a veto. There has been endless debate about whether the P5 should be expanded to include at least one African country or whether there should be permanent members at all, a question of legitimacy.

The 5 are Russia, the US, UK, France and China. This membership has its roots in the aftermath of World War 2. Essentially it is a 1945 answer to a question that no one is asking any more. It would be great if the EU had a seat at the UNSC but that would require the EU to have a foreign policy - a matter for another day.

The veto is not used very frequently by France or the UK (not since 1989) but is regularly used by the others. France has argued that the veto should not be used in certain limited circumstances such as mass atrocity including large-scale war crimes.

The E10 seats are distributed according to geography with 3 African seats for example. Membership from January 1st 2021 is Ireland, Estonia, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia, Vietnam, India, Kenya, Norway and Mexico.

The fact that the P5 are divided also presents opportunities for the E10. 9 votes are required to pass a resolution (giving the E10 collective veto power, if you’re still following me) however it is highly unlikely that Ireland will side with Russia and/or China against the US, UK and France. Alignment with Estonia, Kenya and Norway will come naturally.

So what will Ireland do over the next 2 years under the very capable leadership of our Ambassador to the UN, Geraldine Byrne-Nason?

Firstly, Ireland campaigned on specific issues associated with our ‘political DNA’ such as international development, peacekeeping and conflict resolution. So it is to be expected that Ireland will prioritise these issues over the two years.

Secondly, we will substantially increase our physical presence in New York (home of the UNSC) to manage the huge additional workload that comes with membership. Each year, the UNSC passes approximately 50 resolutions, each of which can take many weeks of preparation.

Thirdly, we can use our excellent reputation as an honest broker to help mediate one or two of the knottier problems. When Brian Cowan was Foreign Minister, Ireland contributed significantly to helping peace building in East Timor. Incidentally, being native English speakers also helps when independent ‘penholders’ are required. Ireland held similar leadership roles on the Sustainable Development Goals (2015) and the Global Compact on Migration (2017).

Finally, and this is more wishful thinking than anything else, perhaps we could put the shameful inaction of the last 10 years of the UN’s approach to the Syrian Civil War behind us and help to frame a response to the war that prioritises humanitarian access for those still trapped in Idlib and ensuring justice impunity for breaches of International humanitarian law.

In fact, the flaws of the Security Council’s efforts can backfire disastrously. As each UNSC resolution failed, the Assad regime was emboldened and the scale of violence ratcheted up.

At least, as far as Syria is concerned, the Irish government should commit to do no harm.

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