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RIA International Affairs Conference - Tánaiste's Keynote Address

RIA International Affairs Conference

Human (In)Security in an Unsettled World

Tánaiste’s Keynote Address


Preserving the international rules-based order – addressing risks and meeting responsibilities


President Guiry, Dr Carmody, Royal Irish Academy members, Ladies and Gentlemen - thank you for the invitation to speak today.

It is great to see so many people here in the room. Over the last few years, we have missed the opportunity to meet in person, to share information and ideas.

In an era where basic facts are often contested, your work to amplify evidence-based research and knowledge is all the more important.

You have asked me to speak today on Human (In)Security in an Unsettled World.

The title itself reflects the expansion of our traditional understanding of the concept of security - from one focused mainly on military capabilities and readiness to manage interstate conflict - to a multi-faceted reality, which encompasses protection from pandemics, from climate crises, from violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, from economic shocks, from cyber or hybrid threats.

Today, I want to focus my remarks on the key tool that enables us to effectively address all of these threats – the rules-based international order.

The multilateral system, with the UN Charter at its heart, remains our strongest protection, and our most important global security asset.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m undoubtedly not the first Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs to stand before you to make the case for multilateralism - and I’m sure I won’t be the last.

But now, more than ever, we need to speak clearly.

Russia’s full scale illegal invasion of Ukraine, in blatant violation of the UN Charter, has challenged the multilateral system to its core.

And it is this system that we in Ireland – inhabitants of a small, militarily neutral country, dependent on a functioning global trading system for our prosperity – rely on for our very existence as a sovereign and democratic nation.

The creation of the United Nations out of the dark shadow of the Second World War was not inevitable.

It required leadership, vision, hope and conviction.

In the UN Charter, we recognise the equal right of all to live in peace.

We proclaim that the community of nations will no longer be based on the will of the strong, but on common rules agreed by all.

Likewise, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we recognise the equal right of all to live in dignity; to have their human rights and fundamental freedoms respected.

These agreements are the expression of our common humanity. They are imbued with, and reflect, values that transcend nationality, ethnicity or religion.
They were carefully and painstakingly negotiated.

They make clear that the project of peace, equality and dignity is a project that belongs to everyone.

History doesn’t stop with the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of course.

As I said last year at the UN General Assembly, we now have an interlocking web of Treaties, of norms, of resolutions, of international jurisprudence, of political declarations, and of agreed conclusions which has been developed to underpin this global order.

Each and every one has been negotiated by the global community.

Collectively, we have spent millions of hours in windowless basements, vigorously arguing over every paragraph.

All of us together are the architects of this order.

No country can ignore its obligations; quite simply, we not only all signed up to this order, we all created it together.

For Ireland, our own experience of discrimination and injustice shaped our commitment to create a global system governed by agreed principles and values.

It still shapes that commitment today.
In the words of Frank Aiken - a man who knew the price of conflict at home and dedicated himself to global peace – “Without a rule of law in world affairs there can be no peace and security.”

For one hundred years, Ireland has been an active, independent and vocal member of the international community.

We were central to creating major disarmament and non-proliferation instruments - the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

More recently, we’ve been at the forefront of setting ambitious global targets for sustainable development, for gender equality, for emissions reductions, and for accountability through the International Criminal Court.

So when we see the multilateral system threatened so fundamentally – and by a permanent member of the UN Security Council – we know just what is at stake.

Russia’s actions - invading a neighbouring country, a fellow UN Member State; blatantly disregarding the UN Charter; committing gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law; committing potential war crimes and crimes against humanity – are not only utterly wrong in and of themselves.

These actions also embolden those who benefit from a world once again governed by force and power.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

How we respond to this matters. Our conviction, and our staying power matters to Ukraine immensely. And it will matter to us all, far into the future.
Russia is counting on us growing tired, of looking away.

To do so, would be a betrayal of Ukraine and its people. But it would also weaken the very system which protects our own freedom, security and values.

The UN has recorded over 22,000 civilian casualties in Ukraine since last February. This figure is likely only the tip of the iceberg.

Eight million people have been forced to flee. Five million people have been internally displaced within Ukraine.

Ireland has welcomed over 80,000 Ukrainians since last February.

As welcome as they are here, this is not a path that any of them have freely chosen. For the vast majority, if they could return to a peaceful, stable Ukraine, they would do so in a heartbeat.

Russia has shown no sign of wanting to end this war.

Its actions – organising sham referendums to annex Ukrainian territory, threatening the use of weapons of mass destruction, attacking and occupying the Zaporizhizhia Nuclear Power Plant, announcing the stationing of nuclear weapons in Belarus, indiscriminately attacking civilians and civilian infrastructure, weaponising food and energy supplies, abducting Ukrainian children and forcibly transferring them to Russia – these actions speak for themselves.

Ordinary towns, where people went about their daily lives, have become bywords for horror.

During our membership of the UN Security Council, we saw Russia abuse its position on the Council on a daily basis – preventing the Council from acting with its cynical use of the veto, and spreading disinformation.

Russia has also paralysed European regional peace and security bodies, such as the OSCE.

Ireland has not stayed silent in the face of these violations. We have acted in lockstep with our EU partners to defend the multilateral system.

We have pushed for accountability, including through our support for the International Criminal Court, and our decision to intervene in Ukraine’s cases at the International Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights.

Ireland is a militarily neutral country but we are not politically or morally neutral.

We will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes. We will not accept impunity for gross violations of international law and the principles of the UN Charter.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our two years on the Security Council came at a time of unprecedented turmoil.

We have much to be proud of. I know that Minister Coveney spoke in detail about our achievements on the Council when he addressed you last November, and I won’t repeat his words today.
Reflecting on our term, though, one lesson stands out in particular.

That is that permanent membership of the UN Security Council is a privilege.

It confers on those members a particular responsibility to defend and promote the United Nations Charter.

All five permanent members of the Council - the five nuclear weapons states – have immense power and influence.

It is incumbent on them to uphold the multilateral system which we have collectively created.
Ladies and Gentlemen,

This brings me to the role of China.

The re-opening of travel to China after almost three years of COVID lockdown has seen a number of high-level visits from European leaders to China in recent weeks.

I met with Foreign Affairs Counsellor Wang Yi myself at the Munich Security Conference in February.

Conversations that we have been having online – or not at all – over the past few years are now possible in person.

This has led to an increased focus - and much media commentary - on China’s role in the world and the EU-China relationship.

First, let me say that Ireland’s engagement with China on global issues in fact increased during COVID, rather than waned.

This was largely due to our membership of the Security Council throughout 2021 and 2022.

We worked closely with China across all the files on the Council agenda. Our engagement was open and constructive.

We did not always agree but we were committed to consistent dialogue and negotiation.
We were most successful in finding solutions when we were frank in our views – and clear with each other – about where we were willing to compromise, and where we were not.

In many ways, this is echoed in our bilateral relationship with China.

It is a relationship that we value. The links between our countries has deepened over the years, as has our dialogue and our knowledge of one another.

Our economic relationship has greatly expanded, reaching €34.5 billion in two-way trade in 2021.

Investment, in both directions, has brought benefits to both our countries. We have built enduring links in education, in culture, and in tourism.

In March, Minister Eamon Ryan visited Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong to mark St. Patrick’s Day.

Last month, Minister of State Heydon visited Hainan and Shanghai to support Irish companies operating in China.

I expect that this pace of visits to and from China will be maintained.

Ahead of her visit to Beijing, President von der Leyen spoke of setting the terms of a ‘healthy EU engagement’ with China.

We can certainly subscribe to this ambition.

To be successful in this goal, however, we must be clear-eyed about China’s strategic objectives, and about what these might mean for the EU and Ireland.

China’s worldview is different from ours. Our interests and values differ. This reality will inevitably shape how we engage with one another.

Many commentators describe this situation as a ‘West against the rest’ scenario.

There is much chatter about US-China competition, and about the need for the EU to avoid being squeezed between these two hegemons; to build and main its ‘strategic autonomy’.

I disagree with this framing.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me go back to where I started.

The multilateral system, with the UN Charter at its heart, is a system that all of us – China, Ireland, the US – created together.

No country, however large or powerful, can ignore or disregard or sidestep this reality. Every country has an obligation to uphold the Charter.

That is our starting point in analysing and assessing China’s global engagement and ambitions.

We want to work constructively together; addressing climate change, advancing sustainable development, ensuring the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, building a fair and open global trading and investment system.

But we are not naïve. And we do not intend to be silent when we see evidence of core principles being undermined.
President von der Leyen spoke about the concept of ‘de-risking but not de-coupling’, an idea increasingly embedded in EU discourse on China.

At its heart, we see ‘de-risking’ as developing our economic and systemic resilience, to in turn protect our values and interests.

It does not mean turning our backs on an economic, diplomatic and cultural relationship with China.

Far from it.

There are many mutually beneficial ties that we can nourish and grow.

We will continue to support many of our businesses in their engagement with China, and to work with the Chinese companies established in Ireland to create jobs and build prosperity.

Alongside this, we will also work with EU partners to shore up our economic security.

We will continue to advocate strongly for a level playing field for global trade and investment. And, in line with the objectives in our Trade and Investment Strategy, we will increase our focus on supply chains and securing Ireland’s position in Global Value Chains.

Much of this work lies within the ambit of government. But it is not confined to government only.
The private sector, academia and other domestic partners need to reflect on how they can continue to build valuable relationships in China, in areas where it makes sense to do so.

They need also, though, to assess their level of exposure and identify areas where may be necessary to de-risk.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Ireland will continue to be clear about areas of particular importance to us in our engagement with China.

First, Ukraine.

In February, China published a position paper on the war. This paper reiterated China’s belief in respecting the sovereignty of all countries, in line with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.

It made clear China’s opposition to the use of nuclear weapons and attacks on nuclear facilities. It emphasised the importance of international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians.

All of this is very welcome.

However, the paper failed to call out Russia’s aggression.
To date, China’s proposals for peace have not acknowledged that Russia started this war – and that it is Russia that can, and must, end it.

The recent State visit of President Xi Jinping to Moscow was a visual demonstration of the close ties between the two countries.

At key moments during Ukraine’s re-emergence as a sovereign state after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, China has assured Ukraine of its support for its sovereignty and territorial integrity, within its internationally recognised borders.

I call on China to reflect on this commitment, and to use its considerable influence to end Russia’s war.
This would honour the principles of the UN Charter, and the wishes of the overwhelming majority of UN Member States.

President Xi’s call with President Zelensky last week and his decision to send China’s Special Representative on Eurasian Affairs to Ukraine is a very positive step.

Second, Ireland will continue to underline our expectation to China that they will honour the existing multilateral system.

I welcome China’s active participation at the UN and other global fora. That participation is essential.

But China also has a responsibility to ensure that its policies – including proposals such as the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilisations Initiative – serve to strengthen the existing global security architecture.

We will continue to emphasise to China the importance of the protections afforded to states and individuals by the UN Charter and the broader UN framework.

And we will be unambiguous in our opposition to initiatives that do not reflect the purposes and principles of the Charter.

We will also be clear that the maintenance of stability and the status quo in relation to Taiwan is critical. Any attempt to change the status quo by force would not be acceptable.

I can only agree with my German colleague, Minister Baerbock, when she said that any serious escalation would have consequences for all countries.

Let there be no doubt – Ireland adheres to, and will continue to adhere to, the One China Policy. This means that we do not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

We recognise the People’s Republic of China as the legal representative of China. That is not in question.
But this does not preclude the development of economic, cultural and people-to-people connections with Taiwan; nor the meaningful participation of Taiwan in relevant multilateral fora.

Third, partnership with China on global challenges remains a necessity. Whether on global health, on climate change, or on the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals, China is a key interlocutor.

Minister Ryan’s meetings in China in March, for instance, had a strong focus on climate and on preparation for this year’s COP meeting in Dubai.

China is home to 1.4 billion people. It is the world’s largest CO2 emitter.

It is an economic powerhouse that can deliver, and indeed is delivering, innovative solutions to mitigate the climate crisis. We will continue to ask China to step up to a leadership role, anchored in agreed multilateral approaches.

Fourth, Ireland will continue to prioritise the preservation and promotion of human rights, a critical pillar of the multilateral system.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That Declaration is, so to speak, what it says on the tin – universal.
It articulates the basic rights and fundamental freedoms that all human beings on this planet deserve to enjoy.

Last year the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, published her assessment of the human rights situation in Xinjiang.

The findings were stark.

It reported that the scale of the arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of the Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups, ‘may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity’.

Such a serious finding demands action.

I have raised the report directly with my Chinese counterparts, urging compliance with its recommendations.

Ireland has consistently, and publicly, voiced our concerns at the UN.

We will continue to do so.

I sincerely regret that China effectively blocked discussion of the report at the UN Human Rights Council.

Ireland’s message on human rights will remain consistent. Whether in relation to Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong or elsewhere – China has an obligation to act in a manner that ensures full respect for the rule of law.

China, like every other UN member state, must comply with its human rights obligations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

During our recent commemorations of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I was reminded that peace and prosperity, if they are to endure, must be grounded in principles of human rights, equality, respect, dialogue and engagement.

Those are the principles that guide Irish foreign policy.

They will continue to guide our engagement with all members of the global community.

Thank you.


Press Office

2 May 2023

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