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Minister’s Statement to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade

Irish Aid, International relations, Minister Charles Flanagan, European Union, Speech, Africa, Ireland, Middle East and North Africa, Europe, 2014

 

Minister’s Statement to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade

Review of the Foreign Affairs Council

11 November 2014

 

Chairman, Members of the Committee,

I welcome the opportunity to address this Committee for the first time since my appointment as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I look forward to working closely with you in my role. I am sure we will be meeting regularly for the exchange of views in the period ahead.

Overview

Today I would like to brief the Committee on recent developments at the Foreign Affairs Council.

My statement will focus on the extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council meeting in August, the regular meeting in October, and will look ahead to the meeting in November.

I propose to address the three key issues which have dominated discussions at the Council and will likely do so for some time: Ebola, the Southern Neighbourhood and the Eastern Neighbourhood.

Each presents complex challenges which will demand much of my time over the coming months when my schedule will include visits to Kiev and, following my recent visit to the Gaza Reconstruction conference in Cairo, I intend to visit the Middle East at the earliest opportunity. I look forward to further exchanges with the Committee on these critical challenges following these visits.

Ebola

But first allow me to speak about Ebola – a primary concern for the Government and one on which I have been working very closely with Ministers Varadkar and Coveney in recent months. My Department is also in ongoing contact with other government agencies, in particular the Departments of Health, Defence and the Taoiseach as well as the HSE.

Since the first cases emerged in March 2014, the current outbreak of Ebola is the largest and most complex since the virus was first discovered in 1976. There have been more cases and deaths in this outbreak than all others combined. As of 7 November, the WHO reports 13,268 cases of Ebola with 4,960 reported deaths.

Ireland is one of a small number of countries with an embassy in Freetown and, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the staff of my Department who have been working full-time on Ebola and related issues in a very challenging environment. The dedication and professionalism demonstrated by Ambassador Walsh and her team in Freetown, along with officials from other agencies who have been on ground, exemplifies what is best about our public service. Minister of State Sherlock recently visited Sierra Leone and has been reporting first hand to me about the hard work being undertaken by our Embassy staff, and, indeed, about the critical situation on the ground. He is playing an important role in the Government’s response to this crisis.

At the October meeting of the Council, there was an extensive discussion on the Ebola crisis and widespread agreement that Member States needed to do more. In response, my Department began to work with the Department of Defence on a joint initiative and I am pleased to inform the Committee today that Minister Coveney and I have agreed that a contingent of Irish Defence Forces personnel will be deployed to Sierra Leone to work with and support our Embassy staff in Freetown.

This contingent of three personnel, all of whom have vast collective experience in West Africa, will be deployed to the Embassy under my Department’s Emergency Civilian Assistance Team, or E-CAT, initiative.

Continuing a long tradition of our Defence Forces contributing to global crisis relief efforts, these personnel will bring a wealth of valuable technical experience. The deployment, in conjunction with the work being carried out by our Embassy, other government agencies and Irish NGOs demonstrates clearly the long standing commitment of the Irish people to assisting the most vulnerable communities overseas. We are also working with the UK, the USA, the UN organisations and NGOs. This deployment will enhance the mission’s capacity to continue playing a key role.

These deployments are a clear example of the whole of government approach required to fight this dreadful disease. By adding experience in areas such as emergency planning and response, logistics, security assessment and risk mitigation and paramedic training, those deployed will add a significant new dimension to Ireland’s contribution.

On 24 September, my officials reported to this Committee on the Department’s response to the Ebola crisis. The Government continues to work very closely with our EU partners and through the UN to ensure that a strong coordinated approach and detailed contingency plans are in place for all aspects of this crisis. At the October meeting, Council agreed to guarantee that international health workers who contract Ebola will be treated in-country at appropriate medical facilities or evacuated in line with medical advice on a case by case basis.

The key to preventing the spread of Ebola is to stop it at its source in West Africa. We also need to help our partner countries there to build their resilience and reduce poverty which is a major driver of the infection. That is why the Government is providing over €17 million in the region directly to our partner governments and through NGOs. Our programmes in Sierra Leone and Liberia are very focused on strengthening health systems. A grant of €1 million has recently been approved for the UN Ebola Trust Fund and other additional support is being considered.

59 Irish citizens are currently registered with my Department as being based in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Mali. Officials are in ongoing contact with those registered, providing up to date advice to ensure their health and safety.

While there has been welcome progress in the development of treatment facilities and the introduction of a facility under the auspices of the European Commission to assist with Medevacs, working in Liberia and Sierra Leone remains a very challenging proposition.

Given the complexities involved, the successful repatriation of an Irish citizen presenting with Ebola will be a significant challenge for all the agencies involved. While contingency plans are in place, there is no guarantee that any of the options available will lead to an evacuation at the appropriate time for a number of reasons outside the control of the Irish authorities. These include the medical prognosis and advice in the individual case, the short window in which to carry out a repatriation, and most pertinently, the very small number of aircraft) available globally capable of carrying out such an operation.

It must be stressed that, in light of the complex and challenging environment, it is crucial for anyone who wishes to volunteer to ensure they have the appropriate qualifications, experience and training to take on their role and that they are in full knowledge of the precautions they need to take, as well as the risks.

The wider implications of Ebola for the affected countries are serious. Economic growth is likely to fall as normal agricultural and market activities have been disrupted. Food shortages, reduced government revenues and growing unemployment are also likely. It is crucial therefore that the international community continues to assist the long term development needs of the affected countries after this epidemic is brought under control.

We will again discuss Ebola at the November Council and will be joined by EU Ebola coordinator, Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides, who will provide an update on the efforts of the EU.

Southern Neighbourhood

Middle East issues remain a major preoccupation of the Council and, indeed, I have been vociferous in pressing for the EU to play a much stronger role in promoting and supporting the Peace Process. At the October Council, I urged the new High Representative, Federica Mogherini, to make an early visit to the region in her new capacity, identifying these issues as a priority for the EU. Following her visit on 7-8 November, I look forward to meeting her on Monday and discussing how we can carry this work forward – as the Middle East is, once again, on the FAC Agenda following discussion at both the August and October Councils.

Some two-and-a-half months on from the end of the most recent and horrendous Gaza conflict, the humanitarian situation within the Strip remains dire. The process of reconstruction and recovery has yet to begin in earnest, with only very limited amounts of the materials required for reconstruction having managed to enter. Israel has announced some positive measures to ease the blockade, including some limited exports and the granting of 5,000 additional permits to allow Palestinians in Gaza to work within Israel. However, the overall restrictions policy regrettably remains very much in place.

Members will be aware that I attended the Gaza Reconstruction Conference in Cairo on 12 October where, on behalf of the Government, I pledged some €2.5 million to meet immediate humanitarian needs within Gaza and to contribute to its longer-term recovery and reconstruction. This is in addition to €1 million already provided to Gaza earlier this year and to our broader programme of assistance to the Palestinian people which currently amounts to over €10 million annually. The Conference was valuable in re-focusing international attention on the humanitarian plight within Gaza as well as underlining the need for urgent political efforts to both address the underlying causes and ensure that we avoid the calamity of a fourth Gaza conflict.

On the positive side, the ceasefire agreed on 26 August following Egyptian mediation continues to hold, with no major reported violations so far. Talks on transforming the current ceasefire into a more sustainable agreement which will address both the underlying issues of the blockade and a halt to rocket attacks on Israel are reportedly due to resume in Cairo towards the end of this month. Progress within this framework remains absolutely essential if we are to see a real improvement in the situation on the ground in Gaza and the actual commencement of vital reconstruction.

The EU has already made clear, including at the August Council, its readiness to contribute to a comprehensive and sustainable solution in Gaza. Work is continuing at official level on identifying the various ways in which the EU might contribute, including through building on its existing missions deployed in the region. A more sustainable ceasefire agreement within Gaza remains absolutely essential, however, if the EU is to become more closely engaged on the ground there.

As was widely recognised at the Cairo Conference, the crisis in Gaza cannot be divorced from the wider political context and the continuing failure to make any real progress towards ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and achieving a negotiated two-State solution.

The overall situation on the ground within the Occupied Territories has continued to sharply deteriorate in recent months since the outbreak of the Gaza conflict. Tensions have become dangerously heightened in East Jerusalem in relation to the Al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount where the long established status quo regarding this highly significant religious site is increasingly being challenged by certain right-wing Israeli politicians and settlers. There have been a series of violent incidents in recent days which have resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians and bystanders and which I obviously condemn.

Meanwhile, Israel has continued to announce further large-scale settlement expansions in highly sensitive areas such as East Jerusalem. These announcements, which are directly inimical to any prospects for pursuing peace or promoting a two-State solution, have drawn widespread international condemnation, including on my own behalf in statements which I issued on 1 September and 28 October.

This month’s Council is likely to see some discussion of Sweden’s decision on 30 October to formally recognise Palestine as a state. We believe very much that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can ultimately only be resolved through negotiations and securing a comprehensive peace agreement which provides for a viable two-State solution. All our policies and actions at EU and international level are constructively designed to advance this goal and secure a comprehensive peace agreement at the earliest opportunity. As circumstances change, our policies need to be reviewed and evaluated and this process is underway.

I remain convinced that the EU must become more actively engaged in the efforts to re-launch the peace process, following the unsuccessful conclusion of the US-led peace talks earlier this year, and in confronting the increasingly serious threats to securing a viable, negotiated two-State solution. As I mentioned, I hope that the discussion at this month Council following the new High Representative’s welcome visit to the region on 7-8 November, will be the start of a serious policy reflection within the Union on how it can better deploy its undoubted leverage and influence to better effect in pursuing a comprehensive peace agreement.

Our overall position on the Middle East Peace Process and how best to advance it will continue to be evaluated in light of our own continuing assessment and that of all our EU Partners.

The crisis in northern Iraq following the rapid advances of the ISIS jihadist movement earlier this year necessitated an extraordinary meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council in August. The focus of this Council was very much on political and humanitarian support from the EU to assist those displaced by this major crisis and to the new Iraqi government formed just prior to the Council.

It is clear that broad-based international action remains necessary to confront the serious security threat which ISIS and other militant jihadists operating in Iraq and Syria pose not just to the Middle East region but the entire global community. The extraordinary Council in August recognised that there is a responsibility on all in the international community to cooperate with the new Iraqi government in the common fight against terrorism.

The UN Security Council has adopted two wide-ranging Resolutions, 2170 and 2178, which have called for international action on a number of fronts to deal with ISIS, including stopping incitement of terrorist acts, preventing the flow of foreign fighters to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and tackling effectively the sources of terrorist financing.

Unfortunately, this threat has not receded but on the contrary has only intensified in recent weeks as ISIS has continued its barbarous campaign across Iraq and Syria.

Last month’s Council agreed a new EU strategy on counter-terrorism and foreign fighters, called for at the August 2014 European Council. Ministers also encouraged the High Representative to mirror this work by developing a new comprehensive regional strategy for Iraq and Syria which would look beyond the immediate threat posed by ISIS.

Ultimately, of course, it remains the case that the related crises in Syria and Iraq can only be resolved politically, and not militarily. The Conclusions adopted by the Council last month were quite clear in recognising this and, in line with our long-standing national position, I will certainly be emphasising this point in any further discussion of the crises in Iraq and Syria at the Council.

While the immediate prospects within Syria for a political resolution remain bleak, it is incumbent on all in the international community to fully support the new UN Special Envoy, Steffan di Mistura, in his efforts to progress a solution based on the Geneva principles which provide for transition to a new, agreed form of government within Syria. It also remains important that all regional stakeholders in a position to exert influence are fully engaged in UN-led peace efforts.

Equally, within Iraq, the new unity government led by Prime Minister Al-Abadi must be strongly encouraged to continue efforts to promote reconciliation and more inclusive policies within the country. Accountability for all those, including the many members of minority communities, who have suffered grievously at the hands of extremists, be it ISIS or the Assad regime, also remains critical and is why we continue to strongly support referral of the situation in Syria to the ICC.

Finally, we must never forget the humanitarian dimension of the crises in Syria and Iraq, with the onset of winter only compounding the problems confronting the millions of people internally displaced or refugees. This is a genuine regional crisis, impacting severely on both Syria’s and Iraq’s neighbours, and only reinforces the case for development of a comprehensive EU regional strategy to confront it.

A final Middle East issue to be addressed at this month’s Council is the continuing volatile and dangerous situation in Libya. This issue was also discussed at the August and October Councils, with substantive Conclusions having been adopted last month.

Although not yet on the scale engulfing Syria or Iraq, the conflict in Libya is one which is rightly of concern to all within the EU, given Libya’s proximity as a Mediterranean neighbour and the very real fears now existing that it could become a failed state, if the current conflict and crisis within the country is not halted and reversed.

The EU has consistently condemned the ongoing violence and human rights abuses within the country and urged all sides to agree an unconditional ceasefire. As with Iraq and Syria, there is no military solution to this conflict and only a political agreement can provide a sustainable way forward for the country.

The immediate priority must be an end to all violence and an end also to actions by external forces which might exacerbate current divisions and undermine Libya’s democratic transition. While the Council last month clearly recognised the legitimacy of the House of Representatives elected in June as the sole legislative authority in Libya, it also urged the government led by Prime Minister al-Thinni and the House of Representatives to reach out to all parties and engage constructively in an inclusive political dialogue aimed at ending the current deep divisions within Libyan society.

Libya remains a vital regional partner for the EU and indeed for Ireland, which has so many strong associations and ties with the country. It behoves us to continue to do all we can to assist Libya to emerge from its current crisis and resume a sustainable path towards peace, security and prosperity.

Eastern Neighbourhood

Moving on to the Eastern Neighbourhood:

The crisis in Ukraine continued to be the subject of detailed discussion in the Foreign Affairs Council during the period under review. While there have been some positive developments since the beginning of September, when the parties agreed a ceasefire and peace plan in Minsk, the situation remains very fragile.

From the outset, the EU has played a leading role in efforts to promote dialogue and peace in Ukraine and has worked tirelessly to facilitate an inclusive and negotiated settlement of the crisis.

The EU’s response to the crisis involved a three phase approach, beginning with the suspension of discussions on a new agreement with Russia and visa liberalisation. This was followed by a series of asset freezes and visa bans against Russian and Ukrainian individuals and entities involved in undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

At the end of July, agreement was reached on a package of restrictive measures targeting sectoral cooperation and exchanges with the Russian Federation. These restrictions limit access by Russian State-owned financial institutions to EU capital markets; impose an embargo on new contracts for trade in arms; establish an export ban for dual use goods for military end users; and curtail Russian access to sensitive technologies particularly in the field of energy.

The European Council decided to strengthen these restrictive measures on 30 August. At the October Council, Ministers agreed that the conditions for amending or relaxing the measures in place do not exist at present. As the situation on the ground in Ukraine evolves, we will discuss with our European partners what modifications or further measures might be necessary.

The Council welcomed the direct talks between the parties that resulted in agreement on 5 September in Minsk on a ceasefire and 12 point peace plan. A lasting ceasefire remains key to the success of current efforts to reach a sustainable political solution, which must be based on respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and with clear guarantees on border security, disarmament of all illegal groups and the withdrawal of foreign forces.

It is disturbing, therefore, to note the numerous violations of the ceasefire that have taken place. It is vital that all sides abide by the commitments they have signed up to under Minsk and that no effort is spared in working to implement the Protocol and bring about a negotiated end to this tragic conflict.

At the October Council, Ministers called for more support for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, underlining its key contribution in helping to broker the ceasefire and secure agreement on the modalities for its implementation. Without their tireless efforts, it is difficult to see how these agreements could have been otherwise reached. The Mission also has a vital role to play in monitoring the ceasefire and ensuring Ukraine’s full and effective control of its border with Russia. I would like to pay tribute to the five Irish members of the Mission for the valuable work that they undertake.

I am pleased to say that Ireland also provided nine personnel to the international observer missions monitoring the parliamentary elections which took place across Ukraine on 26 October last.

The EU has welcomed the outcome of the elections which mark further significant progress for the Ukrainian people. I look forward to the early formation of a new government which can provide new impetus to the much needed programme of economic and political reforms. I am pleased to note that the preliminary assessment of the OSCE’s observer mission was that the elections marked an important step in Ukraine’s aspirations to consolidate democratic elections in accordance with its international commitments.

By contrast, the elections last weekend in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions run counter to the letter and spirit of the Minsk Protocol which foresees local elections in accordance with Ukrainian law. The Council had already made clear at its meeting in October that the EU would not recognise these elections which risk undermining progress towards a sustainable political solution within the framework of the Minsk agreements.

The Council expressed its deep concern at the deteriorating humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine. Deplorable violence and suffering has been inflicted on thousands of innocent civilians over many months and we are now faced with a serious humanitarian crisis. The EU has led the way in providing urgently needed support and is committed to making available additional funding and in-kind assistance to meet the growing needs of the local populations in the affected areas.

Against this background, I greatly welcome the gas deal reached between Russia and Ukraine on 29 October which ensures security of gas supply for the Ukrainian population throughout the winter months.

The EU recognises the need to fully support Ukraine at this very difficult and challenging time. In particular, we must work to achieve an outcome to the current crisis which enables the Ukrainian people to freely choose their own future, without external influence.

The Council will discuss Ukraine again at its November meeting, in particular reviewing the state of play on the Minsk agreement, and the recent elections.

November Foreign Affairs Council

The November Foreign Affairs Council will be the first to be chaired by the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini. I look forward to working closely with Federica in her new role and wish her every success in building on the work of her predecessor Cathy Ashton.

As I have highlighted in my statement the forthcoming Council is expected to see further discussions on Ukraine, Ebola, and the Middle East Peace Process.

In addition, we will discuss Bosnia and Herzegovina. This follows the conclusions adopted at the October Council welcoming the conduct of the elections which took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina on 12 October, and which also called for the swift formation of a government there.

Heads of Mission Conference and Foreign Policy Review

Mr Chairman,

Before finishing, I would like to touch briefly on the wide-ranging review of our foreign policy and external relations, which I have been undertaking with my Department. This is an important exercise in light of the many challenges and opportunities presented by our fast-changing world. The variety and complexity of issues that I have addressed in my remarks today highlights the value of such a wide-ranging review of policy. It presents an opportunity to make a fresh and forward-looking statement about Ireland’s foreign policy and our place in the world

I want to thank the Committee for its detailed submission to the review earlier this year. Work is at an advanced stage and I expect to bring the outcome to Government for consideration shortly.

In addition to charting a future path for our foreign policy, an important aim of the review is to communicate the purpose and value of our international engagement. With this in mind, I intend to publish the review when it has been finalised. I hope it will spark discussion and debate about our international contribution and I look forward to discussing it with members of the Committee in due course.

The work of our Embassy network is crucial as we strive to address the range of issues on the international agenda and to pursue the broad range of the Government’s EU and international objectives. For this reason I am convening a Heads of Mission Conference next January. The conference, the first since 2011, will provide an opportunity to coordinate our work in advancing Government priorities and in providing a first-rate service to Irish citizens and businesses.

I would like to engage the Committee fully in the work of the Conference and I will be in touch with you shortly, Chairman, to carry this work forward.

That concludes my remarks for today.

I would be happy to address any questions that you may have and look forward to hearing your own perspectives on these issues and others which you might wish to raise.