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How Tough Can Ireland Be on Protecting Afghan Women’s Rights?

Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland’s ambassador to the United Nations, is chairing the Security Council in September, the most visible time of year for the UN and as the Council grapples with the upheaval in Afghanistan, Aug. 27, 2021. A lifelong diplomat, Byrne Nason is particularly vocal about women’s rights. JOHN PENNEY

The day after the Taliban took over Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason of Ireland spoke directly to Afghan women through her remarks in the United Nations Security Council, telling them: “Women of Afghanistan: we hear you and we hear your pleas to the international community at this dark time. The fear, indignation and sense of betrayal you feel is understood. It is righteous.”

She also said in the Council on Aug. 16, as it debated the sudden Taliban takeover of the country: “All of us around this table can and should agree that, as a non-negotiable principle in all discussions, the rights of women in Afghanistan must be protected.” Byrne Nason was the only ambassador among the 15 members to address Afghan women this way in the immediate crisis.

Two weeks later, she is still speaking out on protecting women’s rights in Afghanistan as the United States and other Western allies have left the country. When she was asked in an interview with PassBlue what the Council could realistically achieve on women’s and girls’ rights, Byrne Nason said: “You use the term ‘realistic,’ that suggests that there may be negotiation around that. And I will come back to say that that is not negotiable as far as we’re concerned.”

If there is consensus in the Council that women’s rights must be protected under the Taliban regime, the situation remains unclear: Hervé de Lys, Unicef’s representative in Afghanistan, said in a press briefing on Aug. 30 that Unicef only had assurances from the Taliban so far that girls will be able to attend primary school.

Ireland, a mighty but small European country that won a two-year elected Council seat in January, running on the smallest budget in a three-way contest among Norway and Canada, has been ambitious in its first nine months. This month, it holds the Council presidency. Yet the Afghan file seems to be led primarily by the permanent-five members  (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US): UN Secretary-General António Guterres met with them personally on Aug. 30 to talk about the country, and France, Britain and the US led the drafting of a resolution that was approved on the same day to try to ensure that Afghans who want to leave their country under the Taliban can do so freely (it also reiterated the rights of women and girls in the country).

In her Council statement on the resolution, Byrne Nason said, “​​We would, of course, have preferred stronger language in respect of human rights, particularly given the situation now faced by the women and girls of Afghanistan.”

According to Richard Gowan, the UN director at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit think tank, Ireland and Mexico, another elected Council member, were instrumental in adding language in the resolution on the political participation of women in Afghanistan’s future.

“I have to say I’ve been heartened at the Security Council that we have heard all members . . . speak out in favor of the protection of the human rights of women in Afghanistan in the post-government era, in the period of Taliban regime,” Byrne Nason told PassBlue on Aug. 27. “I think there’s a broad commitment to that.”

Rory Montgomery, a retired Irish diplomat and a professor at the Royal Irish Academy, said of his country’s government: “I think we wouldn’t pretend to have any particular national expertise in Afghanistan, and I imagine that we will, of course, in discussions both at the UN and also the European Union, we will be doing what we can to emphasize the values of human rights, women’s rights, in particular, humanitarian support.” (Byrne Nason is on the board of the academy.)

With the annual mandate of the UN’s political mission in Afghanistan (Unama) due to be renewed on Sept. 17, Afghanistan is likely to stay in the spotlight of the Council this month, with a debate on the country to be held on Sept. 9. Byrne Nason told reporters at a media briefing on Sept. 1 (video below) that recognition of the Taliban “is not a question that we expect to deal with tomorrow morning.”

Other priorities of Ireland on its program of work: an open debate on Sept. 7 on the maintenance of international peace and security, attended by some members of the organization The Elders, including Mary Robinson, a former Irish President and UN high commissioner for human rights. Ireland is also organizing an open debate on peacekeeping, on Sept. 8, focusing on transitions of missions — that is, when they end. (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former president of Liberia, is expected to brief.) The other signature event, on climate and security, will take place on Sept. 23, during the high-level week of the opening session of the General Assembly, and chaired by Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheal Martin.

Ambassador Byrne Nason says she is hoping for Council outcomes, statements or resolutions, from the meetings on peacekeeping and climate and security, although she admits there is a limit to what Ireland can do as Council president on the climate file, as Russia and, to some extent, China, resist the topic being discussed in the Council. “I think what we need to do is to assist the Council to better grasp the challenges,” she said, “so our level of ambition is to move the Council’s consideration forward.”

Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors or other high-level diplomats as their countries assume the presidency of the Security Council. This column follows ones this year on Tunisia, Britain (United Kingdom), US, Vietnam, China, Estonia, France and India.

To hear an original analysis with more details on Ireland’s presidency and insights from Montgomery, as well as the beloved dogs of the Irish president, download PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, on Patreon or SoundCloud, produced by Stéphanie Fillion and Kacie Candela. (Excerpts of the podcast are included in the interview below.)

Ambassador to the UN:  Geraldine Byrne Nason, 62
Since: August 2017
Languages:  Irish, French, English
Education: Honorary doctorate of letters, Maynooth University; master’s in English and bachelor’s degree in English and Irish, Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

Her story, briefly: Geraldine Byrne Nason was born in Drogheda, a town of about 41,000 people, located about 35 miles north of Dublin, in County Louth (part of the town is in County Meath). “I’m very proud to be the first Irish woman, and the first loud woman doesn’t mean a lot to many of you, but that’s the smallest county in Ireland. . . . ,” she said of Louth at the Sept. 1 media briefing.

In an earlier interview, she told PassBlue that she never intended to become a diplomat: “I’m a small-town girl, I went to a small university and studied literature. So none of that was an indicator for a career in diplomacy,” she said. When she was attending Maynooth, a professor encouraged her to look at careers in the foreign service, and she said she never looked back: “I can’t actually imagine doing anything else. It’s been a very extraordinary career. And I still wake up every morning thrilled that I have that conversation with my English professor, as it turns out.”

Her first diplomatic posting happened to be at the UN “on a multilateral trail as a young diplomat,” she said, adding, “I like to think of myself then as a baby diplomat, in the Fifth Committee [UN budgets], a great grounding in multilateralism.”

She then focused on disarmament in Dublin, followed by stints in Helsinki and Geneva. She became ambassador to the European Union in Brussels in 2008. “There, I really began to look at the individual bilateral relationships with the member states around the table of the EU.”

Byrne Nason eventually returned to Dublin, where she worked as second secretary-general in the Department of the Taoiseach and was also the highest-ranking woman in the foreign affairs department at the time.

In 2014, she became ambassador to France and Monaco, where she started an informal network of women ambassadors and journalists in Paris. In the Security Council, she’s also started an informal group among the five current women permanent representatives, which she calls the G5. (Besides Ireland, they are from Britain, Norway, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the US.)

“We like to get together for G5 meetings from time to time, totally off-the-record very informal, and never with an agenda,” she said. “But we enjoy that contact.”

She was also chair of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in 2018 and 2019. She is married and has one son.

Her remarks below have been condensed and edited for clarity.

On Unama (UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan), how can its mandate renewal in September be adapted to fit the situation on the ground? The situation in Afghanistan is very volatile. We are watching developments day by day, hour by hour, the mandate is an absolutely critical tool for the United Nations. We will have to very carefully consider the situation on the ground in Afghanistan in relation to which parts of that mandate can remain as the UN expression of its responsibility in Afghanistan. I will straightaway say to you that we are very aware that the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, even before the current political changes and crisis, was very serious. It’s a very poor country, half the population are below the poverty line. So we will be very anxious to make sure that in the mandate renewal that important lifesaving humanitarian work continues because of what I’ve already said about the role of women and girls in Afghanistan. We are very concerned about making sure that the human rights mandate and the gender aspects are given their absolute appropriate attention. We have already heard some assurances from the Taliban. I have to say that neither professionally nor personally am I content to accept vague assurances. I think the mandate will have to be very clear on that issue. As I’ve said to you, that’s not negotiable. I’m with Michelle Bachelet [UN high commissioner for human rights] when it comes to saying it’s a fundamental red line issue for us. [On Sept. 1, a top UN official in Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, told the media that the UN was waiting on national guidance from the Taliban on their policies regarding women.]

There have been many discussions on how international and Afghan staffers working for the UN have been treated during the evacuation process of some personnel. Will this be discussed in Unama’s renewal? I think the secretary-general has a huge responsibility in relation to UN staff, international and Afghan. I had recent discussions with him, where I know it’s a preoccupying issue for him. His responsibility there is a heavy one; it’s not really a matter for the Security Council when we look at the Unama mandate; we will look much more at the policy part. Of course, the safety of all UN staff in Afghanistan, and anywhere else in the world, is absolutely primordial. You have already heard us speak many times about the safety, for example, of UN peacekeepers, the safety of UN staffers anywhere in the world matters to us. So we will be supporting the secretary-general and all his efforts to keep his staff and the UN staff, our staff, safe.

With the Taliban as the de facto authorities in Afghanistan currently, what do you think the international community can realistically achieve in protecting women’s and girls’ rights? I’ve been heartened at the Security Council that we have heard all members speak in favor of the protection of the human rights of women in Afghanistan, in the post-government era, in the period of the Taliban regime. I think there’s a broad commitment to that. What we can do is use the term “realistic,” that suggests that there may be negotiation around that. And I will come back to say that that is not negotiable, as far as we’re concerned.

As soon as I arrived here in New York, I became involved as a founding member of a group of countries who are friends of the peace process, and that included Afghanistan; more recently, I joined with the UK and Afghanistan in a “friends of women” of Afghanistan group; we see the peace and stability of Afghanistan linked to the protection of rights of women. We have seen over time where efforts have been made to take away the human rights of women, the right to education, the right to work, the right to freedom of movement; that they have been countries that have weakened their own fabric. This is about power and distribution of power, when we come to gender. And we want to ensure that half the population in Afghanistan retains its right to contribute to peace and stability.

As co-chairs with Mexico of the working group on women, peace and security in the Council, we called on the president of the Council in August to take this as a responsibility. We will take that doubly as a responsibility as we sit in the chair in September. It’s something that underwrites our own foreign policy. I come from a country that has known conflict on the small island we live on and where women played an absolutely critical role in stabilizing a very dangerous situation in Northern Ireland, and where women in Northern Ireland have continued over the last two decades to share their experience, including with Afghan women. I’m sure that the Irish government will want to ensure that commitment is seen through under our Council presidency.

Head of State: Michael Higgins
Head of Government: Micheal Martin
Foreign Affairs Minister: Simon Coveney
Type of Government: Parliamentary republic
Year Ireland Joined the UN: 1955
Years in the Security Council:1960, 1980-81, 2001-2002, 2021-2022
Population: 4.9 million
Memberships in Regional Groups: European Union, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), World Trade Organization (WTO)
CO2 emissions, 2019: 7.6 tons (world average, 4.7 tons per person; US: 16 tons; target for 2030 to reach the 1.5 degree Celsius limit: 2 tons)

 

Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.

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