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Amid Crises and Stalemates, the Security Council Matters. And Small, Elected Members Can Make a Difference.

Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland’s ambassador to the UN and rotating president of the Security Council in September, chairing a meeting on Libya, Sept. 30, 2021. Small, elected members of the Council, she writes, can influence its work positively, despite the “power politics” of the permanent members. CIA PAK/UN PHOTO

This was a year like no other globally, and so it was at the United Nations Security Council. In May, we grappled with an eruption of violence in Gaza. In August, we watched with dismay as Kabul fell to the Taliban. All year, we denounced widespread food insecurity in Yemen and struggled in horror as the conflict in Ethiopia deteriorated. Covid-19 relentlessly compounded every issue.

Increasingly complex crises and chronic conflicts beset us. Yet flaws and all, the Security Council made a difference — as did small, elected countries like my own, Ireland.

In a Council that needs major reform, we have railed at how we are often paralyzed by P5 — permanent member — power politics. We have called out a Council too slow to react, a Council that sometimes looks the other way. Yet I take courage from small steps, based on my conviction that humanity and values have their place at that table.

For more than six months, Norway, another elected member, and Ireland led negotiations to renew the humanitarian-aid resolution allowing critical supplies across the border from Turkey into Syria. Adopted unanimously for the first time in years, the resolution ensured that lifesaving aid reached millions of Syrian women, men and children facing another 12 months of chronic need. Our principled focus on helping the Syrian people enabled all parties, including the United States and Russia, to agree on a compromise that can help save lives. I believe that humanity prevailed.

Far from the media spotlight, UN peacekeeping troops do valiant work, yet as one of the UN’s largest troop contributors per capita, with over six decades of continuous UN peacekeeping experience, Ireland knows that when the troops leave — and they do leave — ordinary people need the prospect of sustained peace. Sometimes as the UN plans for transition to peace-building, we face a cliff where civilians are put at risk. In September, under Ireland’s watch, the Security Council approved the first-ever resolution on peacekeeping transitions. We put ordinary people at the heart of that work.

In a calamitous year for Afghanistan, the Council’s adoption in December of a humanitarian exemption to the Taliban sanctions regime was a complex decision, bringing a rare but needed possibility of hope to Afghan citizens. We don’t see this as a one-year license for the Taliban. This is not the Council looking the other way, nor a year when the Taliban will not be held to account.

The exemption is for suffering Afghan people. Nothing more. Our human-rights and humanitarian values this year have never been more important, nor as tested, than in this decision. We will continue to judge the Taliban not by their words but by their actions. We will judge them not least by how they treat Afghan women and girls, whose voices Ireland and others will continue to raise to the rest of the world through the Council.

In spite of challenges, Ireland has also stayed heavily focused on other humanitarian concerns: specifically keeping the Council’s attention trained on the catastrophe in Ethiopia. A staggering 9.4 million people in Northern Ethiopia desperately need help. Our simple goal has been to end such shocking human suffering and end the conflict — in short, to find a political way ahead. I regret that so far these efforts have yet to bear fruit. Yet my hope resides in Ireland’s conviction that a small, bold country such as ours can contribute to the Council by standing up and speaking out. We will continue to work tirelessly with the UN, the African Union and the Council to solve this crisis.

The links between climate and security cannot be ignored, no matter what some critics say. With Niger, another elected member, we tried our best to show how important it is to look at the connection of climate change to conflicts, supported by a massive group effort of 113 other UN member states pushing the Council to finally act. A few Council members pushed back, and a single anachronistic veto decided the vote, but not the results, because climate change is on our agenda. There’s no denying the impact it has on the countries and regional contexts we discuss every day in the chamber. We will always press for a robust approach to climate-related security risks. We won’t look the other way.

From a conference room in New York City, the Council cannot solve all of the world’s problems. Can we really save succeeding generations from the scourge of war? The UN Charter provides us the clear responsibility to do so. And therefore we must try. As we start Ireland’s second year on the Council in January, I carry with me the words of the Irish Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett, who wrote:

Ever tried.
Ever failed.
No matter.
Try again.
Fail again.
Fail better.

Geraldine Byrne Nason is Ireland’s ambassador to the United Nations.

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