Interview: Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland's UN envoy

Interview: Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland's UN envoy
10 min read
09 September, 2021
This month, Ireland is chairing the United Nations Security Council. As the president of the international security body, Ireland's ambassador hopes the independent voice they bring will allow progress in several areas, including in the Arab region.

Ireland is taking on the role of President of the United Nations Security Council for the month of September. Whilst at the helm, Ireland will be responsible for running the council agendas and presiding over meetings.

Al-Araby Al-Jadeed’s correspondent at the UN in New York met with the Irish ambassador and head of the Security Council for September, Geraldine Byrne Nason.

You mentioned that one high-level discussion you wish to convene will be on nuclear non-proliferation. A few months ago Britain announced that they intend to increase their nuclear arsenal – which would be a violation of treaties they are signatories to. Do you see this as a threat to your security, as their neighbours?

We know the capacity of nuclear weapons to be so utterly destructive, whether they are 10 or 100,000 miles away – their existence threatens everyone, not just neighbouring countries. Our views are clear – we want a nuclear-weapons-free world. We will continue to argue against nuclear weapons, no matter who has them.

"We know the capacity of nuclear weapons to be so utterly destructive, whether they are 10 or 100,000 miles away – their existence threatens everyone, not just neighbouring countries. Our views are clear – we want a nuclear-weapons-free world"

There is a lot of talk about a Middle East free from nuclear weapons, but silence on Israel’s nuclear arsenal, especially from the US and other Western states. What would you say to that? Will this have negative repercussions for the Iranian deal, which has been faltering for a long time now?

Many want to see a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, as do we, and many of our Middle Eastern colleagues. We helped to facilitate the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), which we regard as a major diplomatic achievement and we want to see it restarted and all parties adhering to it. It would be a global confidence building measure for us to agree on, and for containing Iran’s nuke aspirations.

Regarding Israel as well, if the JCPOA is restarted, and all parties respect the conditions of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), that would be a huge investment in regional stability, and could hopefully unlock a positive movement. Iran plays a big role regionally and though we are critical of many of its policies, we want to see Iran come back into partnership with the US and vice versa. It’s good for neighbours to be talking.

The Security Council adopted resolution 2593 (2021) on Afghanistan on August 30th, but Russia and China, who abstained, warned that sanctions and asset freezing by western countries, especially the US, would not contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. What are your thoughts on that? Additionally, there are many parties discussing security matters at the moment, most notably security at the airport, how are you going to tackle that?

I was relieved the Security Council used its voice in respect of what is clearly an enormous crisis situation on the ground there. It was focused on the immediate situation out of necessity, though we know there’s a huge amount of work to be done long-term. On 9 September we will host a discussion on the role of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

Interview: Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland's UN envoy
Armed personnel at Kabul Airport on September 03, 2021, Afghanistan [Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

The resolution spoke clearly about unfettered access for humanitarian workers - Ireland pushed the point that the human rights of all Afghans and internationals there must be respected now. We have heard assurances from the Taliban, not least in how they will treat women – but we have made it clear that we are waiting to see actions, not words. We insisted that women must have full, equal and meaningful representation – this is what inclusive means to us.

The Taliban needs to respect the rights of anyone who wants to leave– it has made vague commitments but we need to hold them to account. A huge rethink will be needed in how the UN will engage with any future power structures on the ground but our immediate concern is that 18 million are below the poverty line; the economy has imploded and the terrorist threat on the ground is clear – presenting an enormous threat for anyone, including the Taliban.

On the topic of the Middle East and Palestine, which the Security Council discussed at the end of August in their regular monthly meeting, this issue has been on the council agenda for more than 70 years, but the situation in the region has not improved. It's no secret that Ireland has a reputation, based on it's history and struggles where you are an avid supporter of the Palestinian cause, yet share good relations with Israel. Your colleagues in the European Union criticise the settlements and demolitions of Palestinian houses for example, but we don’t see action. Could you talk about Ireland’s policy and also the role you see Ireland being able to play within the EU?

Ireland is a known friend of Palestine and has argued the right of a sustainable and sovereign state of Palestine, which we see as compatible with a democratic and independent Israel. We need to go back to 1967, the illegal occupation needs to end, and we need to see the two-state solution which this council set the parameters for! In 2018, Ireland took action, leading the latest UN-supported statement for a solution for the Middle East Peace Process.

"We need to go back to 1967, the illegal occupation needs to end, and we need to see the two-state solution which this council set the parameters for!"

I think we are distinguished in the EU for our principle on this issue. The government has always spoken out in terms of recognition of the state of Palestine, it’s part of the program of this current government. We want to see the quartet get back to the table and the two parties get back to negotiating a solution. We were very critical and probably exceptional in this, of the crisis in Gaza, we called for an end to the incendiary balloons and the missiles.

In May, we called ceaselessly for an urgent meeting of the council, and for a united message. We wanted Israel to assume its responsibilities, show proportionate discriminatory behaviour and respect international law. We also want to see an end to settlements and demolitions. You have heard this from us before and we are saying it again and acting on that at the Security Council.

If you look at the facts on the ground, whether in Jerusalem or the West Bank, there are settlements swallowing up more and more land belonging to the Palestinians. When I go to visit every year, I'm very doubtful that a two-state solution is possible anymore.

We have argued consistently against that as the illegal settlements increase they push the two-state solution further away and start to raise the spectre of it being impossible.

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But do you believe there should be more pressure with regards to weapons delivery for example? I mean - why should Israel stop doing what it’s doing when there are no consequences? 

Because Israel is a democratic state that needs to respect international law. They are breaking the law. We are using all the tools at our disposal to make it clear that we are absolutely opposed to what is happening in terms of settlements. Security Council Resolution 2334 must be observed.

You worked very hard on the Syria cross border draft resolution with your colleague, the Norwegian ambassador, as pen-holders of the humanitarian file at the security council. Prior to the vote, however,  the Americans and Russians got together and added and changed some paragraphs of that resolution, without real consultation from other members. Do you feel like you were left out of their decision?

You’re asking an Irish woman if she got left out? We don’t get left out!

However, not all members of the P5 met, it was just America and Russia. I want to try and put this in the context of the wider dynamics in the Security Council. There’s the issue of Syria of course, and the geopolitics on the ground, as well as the role the Security Council plays, or rather, the way the Security Council reacts to this – could you put this all into the broader context?

The role that Ireland and Norway played as co-pens on the Syria humanitarian resolution is significant because neither of us are geopolitical weights in the region: that’s why we are the co-pens - we don’t bring baggage to the discussion and we can talk to everyone at the Security Council. We were not left out – we facilitated the brokering of the agreement.

We are proud to have brought something really concrete to the lives of over 3.4 million people beyond that one crossing. We’re disappointed we only have one crossing when we used to have four - the level of humanitarian need there is enormous.

But it was a great day yesterday – we saw a crossed-line delivery - the first into the WFP warehouses from Aleppo into Idlib which is an area we have been trying to get deliveries into for two years. It’s not the solution but it is a step. We believe humanitarian aid should be able to move cross border, cross line, however it needs to go to get to the people who need it.

On the dynamics at the Security Council. Well, we had to fight to be elected to it. Whilst is a flawed and anachronistic body, it is the only body with the responsibility for international peace and security. As an independent, militarily non-aligned country, we know where the regional and national self-interests are; where the nuclear powers play a role and where they don’t and shouldn’t play a role.

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Ireland has shown itself to be an independent voice. We talked about Iran and Syria but not the leadership role we are playing regarding Tigray, as another example. To me, regardless of the flaws in the Security Council like the constantly changing dynamics and shifting alliances, we always look ahead and try to look for solutions. We didn’t touch on Yemen, or the upcoming elections in Somalia and Libya. These are the really important issues we’re grappling with.

No serious developments have happened since 2018 on the political level in Yemen. Mr Martin Griffiths, the former UN envoy to Yemen, has travelled all around the region last year but failed to secure even a permanent ceasefire. Are you optimistic that the new envoy will be able to achieve more, and if so why? 

We have seen many false dawns in Yemen, even during the eight months since we joined the Security Council. Martin Griffiths made valiant efforts to secure a ceasefire but the obstacles were too great. I’m constantly reminded that it’s the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. We know people there are not just hungry, they are being starved in Yemen. We are watching the worrying situation in Marib again, with the Houthi advance and standoff there.

We want to see the new envoy make progress, he is highly experienced and knows the region. We will have the first opportunity to bring him to the Security Council table under our presidency and we can only hope that there’s a fresh start. We have called for small steps, fixing the Safer tanker, delivery of aid, opening of the ports. However, we need a ceasefire and a solution.

Am I optimistic? We have to be optimistic because the people behind the lines in Yemen are the almost forgotten victims of an almost forgotten war and we won’t look away during our presidency.

Regarding Libya, and the topic of immigration - the EU entrusts the Libyan Coastguard, who returns a lot of immigrants to Libya wanting to go to Europe, despite knowing that lots then disappear or get tortured on their return. What do you think about this policy being part of the European Union?

With Libya, we have seen positive steps - a ceasefire and a national unity government formed. We support the plans for elections on 24 December. On migrants, we are desperately concerned about those desperate enough to go to sea to save themselves and we want to see them protected.

I must say though that the situation on the ground is very complex - we know there’s enormous arms trafficking and people trafficking, and then we see these people who have no choice but to leave. We fully support the Security Council Resolution aiming to protect the Libyan coast through the Ireni Operation. We want to see the Libyan people rebuild their country under their own democratic process and we want to disrupt the traffickers and part of all that resides in the political settlement in Libya in particular the departure of foreign fighters.

This interview was shortened and modified for clarification purposes