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“Preparing for the Global Humanitarian Summit - The Irish Response” Keynote Address at the Irish Humanitarian Summit

O’Reilly Hall, University College Dublin, 2nd July 2015

Distinguished guests, Minister Flanagan, Minister Sherlock, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for that warm welcome. 

Is mian liom comhgháirdeas a dhéanamh leis an tOllamh Deeks agus leis An Coláiste Ollscoile, Baile Átha Cliath as ócáid an lae inniú i Halla Uí Raghallaigh a eagrú. Bhí áthas orm glacadh leis an cuireadh óráid a thabhairt ag Cruinniú Mullaigh Dhaonnúil na hÉireann, a thugann le chéile daoine aonair agus ceannairí ó réimse leathan eagraíochtaí a bhfuil baint acu le gníomh daonnúil in Éirinn agus thar lear.

[May I congratulate Professor Deeks and University College Dublin for hosting today’s event in O’Reilly Hall. I was delighted to accept the invitation to speak at this Irish Humanitarian Summit, bringing together as it does leaders from the wide variety of actors involved in humanitarian action in Ireland and abroad.]  That community of concern includes academics, non-governmental organisations, and UN agencies, public and private sector representatives, and, very importantly, members of the diaspora communities here in Ireland.

Ireland has a lengthy history of humanitarian engagement and that record constitutes a tradition that has become strongly linked to the positive aspects of Irish national identity.  The experiences of famine and of emigration are to be expected as influences on Ireland’s foreign policy in general and its approach to overseas aid in particular. The early architects of Ireland’s foreign policy had a defined sense of Ireland’s history and political traditions as having provided our country with a specific ethical, and emancipatory, perspective on world affairs, and this view was widely shared by the Irish people. Whether it was in response to the war in Biafra in the 1960s, the famines in Bangladesh and Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s, or the response to the Tsunami and Haiti earthquake in more recent times, and all the crises in between, Irish people have shown time and again an eagerness to offer their help to the suffering and most vulnerable. 

Irish people in making such a response are embracing their responsibilities as global citizens. The Irish State delivers these values through our foreign policy and the work of Irish Aid, and through the work of the Irish NGOs present in the room today. The efforts of Irish humanitarian workers in the field are in turn highly respected within the humanitarian sector for their commitment and professionalism. Then too, Irish people have also risen to senior positions within international aid agencies, as evident with many of the guests here today. Irish Aid’s much-commended Rapid Response Initiative harnesses the expertise of Irish humanitarian professionals from across a wide range of professions, deploying them to crises across the globe at short notice when needed. 

As President, and previously as a member of the Dáil and Seanad Foreign Affairs Committee, I have had the privilege of visiting many of the heroic projects supported or administered by Irish humanitarians in difficult circumstances around the world. I have witnessed the work of Irish Aid – and its Irish and international partners – first hand during my visits to Lebanon this year, and to Ethiopia in 2014. In Ethiopia I visited camps for South Sudanese refugees fleeing the conflict which has engulfed the world’s newest state. Hundreds of thousands of people have sought shelter in Gambella in Ethiopia, while one and a half million more are internally displaced within South Sudan’s own borders. 

While our humanitarian action may have been shaped by our domestic cultural and political identity from within, a factor which has helped to shape our national identity on the global stage, Ireland’s humanitarian and development work is also grounded on the contemporary values of solidarity, community, democracy, justice, freedom, and respect for human rights and equality. In addressing the present humanitarian context, I believe we must invoke those values, not as a form of predictable rhetoric but as guidance as to our future direction, and as constituent elements of our practice.

We are at a critical moment in world history; facing a series of tests and choices that will determine not only the fate of millions of our fellow global citizens now, but tests and choices that will define the future of our planet. I spoke in January, at the launch of the European Year of Development, of my belief that 2015 is on a par with 1945 in terms of the potential that it has to reshape how humanity deals with the challenges we face. By the end of this year, the post-2015 development agenda will have to be finalised and the new Sustainable Development Goals will be called upon to provide a roadmap for the future. 

Ireland has had the great honour, and great responsibility, of co-chairing with Kenya the negotiation process for finalising the Sustainable Development Goals. In addition, a new climate change agreement will have been signed in Paris. I have recently been invited by President Hollande to address a preliminary conference in Paris later this month on the theme of Summit of Consciences for the Climate.  The two processes of sustainable development and responding to climate change are profoundly interconnected with each other and of course they both directly inform the current humanitarian context.

In each area, development, climate change and displacement, we will be required to undertake the rigorous intellectual work, work that should inform good policy and ‘best practice’, work that will allow us to recognise the contours, complexities and, most crucially, the underlying causes of our current situation. It is a matter of concern as to whether the will for such engaged scholarship exists at the present time. Certainly it seems missing from current discourse at the political and institutional level.

We will need political and moral leadership that is courageous and far-sighted and grounded in the founding values of human rights. In the spheres of law, policy and diplomacy, we must accept our obligations and duties in an interdependent world – obligations that may be indeed grounded in international law, but that run deeper to the level of moral and ethical obligations.

The World Humanitarian Summit which will be held in Istanbul on 26 and 27 May 2016, has been called by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.  The Secretary General has done so as an acknowledgement of the urgency of the situation and of its global nature, at a time when the humanitarian crisis facing the world is the greatest since World War II in its scale and its complexity. The World Summit will address the humanitarian consequences of both natural disasters and the consequences that flow from war and conflict.  I wish to focus in particular today on the dramatic increase in humanitarian need we are currently witnessing as a result of some particular wars and political collapses in Africa and Asia.

Let us first be unequivocal that this present crisis of displacement is not an issue that can be compartmentalised in a silo that we might label ‘security’, or externalised simply as a regional concern for some. It is a global issue which is directly and primarily concerned with the protection of human rights. In approaching this issue, we must, I will argue, make a fresh commitment to the universality of human rights and to the common humanity of all and we must also understand the current humanitarian crisis, and our own position in relation to it, in proper historical context.  The alternative is to choose short-term and short-sighted responses based on a narrow sense of national self-interest – a choice that would be, for humanity in general and our shared future, nothing short of disastrous.

Let us begin by considering the true nature of what we are witnessing at present. As recently confirmed by the UN High Commission for Refugees, the number of refugees and displaced persons is now at its highest level since figures were first recorded in the 1950s. Global forced displacement has seen accelerated growth in 2014, once again reaching record levels. By end-2014, 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalised violence, or human rights violations. This constitutes 8.3 million persons more than the previous year (51.2 million) and the highest annual increase in a single year. To date, the response to addressing the humanitarian reality behind these population numbers, and to addressing the root causes driving people to move has been, in my view, wholly inadequate. 

In recent months, we in Europe have seen these great humanitarian challenges become manifest in the Mediterranean, where this year alone almost two thousand people have already died in attempting to make the perilous journey across the sea, fleeing conflict and grinding poverty, hoping for a better life.

Ireland’s LÉ Eithne, in its first weeks of deployment in the Mediterranean, has rescued more than 2,700 desperate migrants from unseaworthy craft of various shapes and sizes. While retaining the integrity of the distinction between aid and militarism – a crucial distinction and fundamental principle which I recognise and support; nevertheless the scale of drowning we have witnessed in the first months of this year demands emergency action and, as Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces, I suggest I speak for all of the Irish people when I say how proud we are that our naval forces can make this contribution. 

The numbers of lives which have been lost on Europe’s southern and eastern borders have been truly shocking, and we must recognise that this is a human and not a natural phenomenon. In all regions, this present increased level of displacement has specific causes. In Africa and in the Middle East too, we are seeing great levels of displacement, prompted by war and conflict and by catastrophic failures of politics and of development strategies.

Conflict in Libya and neighbouring African countries continues to push migrants into boats on the Mediterranean, while the conflict in Syria continues to push refugees across the borders into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. More than half (53%) of all refugees worldwide, as recognised by the UNHCR, came from just three countries: Syria (3.88 million), Afghanistan (2.59 million), and Somalia (1.11 million).[1]

This current migration crisis is not solely or even predominantly, a European problem. Many of those displaced will go on to seek protection in Europe, but most will stay in neighbouring states where, we must never forget, the great majority of the world’s refugees are to be found.

The leading host countries for refugees are not the most developed states but those neighbours who receive grossly inadequate support. At the end of 2014, Turkey hosted 1.59 million refugees, Pakistan 1.51 million, Lebanon (a country with a total population of less than 4.5 million) hosted 1.15 million, Iran 982,000, Ethiopia 659,500, Jordan 654,100.

Given this reality, we must interrogate how so much of our discourse has focused on questions of security and border control, on alleged “pull factors”, to the neglect of the reality of the conditions from which people are leaving and the conditions where they subsequently find themselves.  

Analysing the UNHCR figures we are confronted with the many contradictions in how developed countries currently approach the movements of people from areas of conflict.  As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has noted:

“We cannot ask these countries to keep their borders open and to close other borders.”

The High Commissioner has correctly identified this as an untenable position.  Worse, we are failing to support these countries with the anticipated consequence that the global situation will deteriorate further for them and for us.  As the High Commissioner has described the receiving states:

“They are the first line of defense for global collective security and they are pillars, essential pillars, for regional security. If they fall, the consequences will be dramatic for the whole world.”

We know that much of this migration catastrophe flows from political and diplomatic failures and, more frequently, neglect of indicators of impending confrontations.  In 2014, Ireland provided almost €15 million in funding to address the Syria crisis. So far in 2015, €3.3 million has been provided to UN agencies (€1.5m for the World Food Programme, €1 million for UNICEF and €800,000 for UNHCR Jordan) for the Syria response.  On 31 March 2015, at the third International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria in Kuwait (“Kuwait III”), Minister of State Sherlock announced a pledge of €12 million on behalf of the Irish government bringing the total value of Ireland’s contribution to the Syria crisis to €41 million. 

Internationally, however, as recently reported by Amnesty International, only 23% of the UN humanitarian appeal for Syria’s refugees has been funded. As a result of this funding shortage, aid agencies have repeatedly had to reduce financial assistance to refugees. The immediate consequence of this failure to fund or resettle refugees from the war is that the neighbouring states are unable to cope and are increasingly imposing restrictions on those fleeing from the fighting.

Most of those arriving in Italy by boat or being rescued in the central Mediterranean are leaving from Libya, a country facing great political difficulties, with no functioning asylum system. Libyan authorities have little capacity to prevent migrants leaving their shores and there is no indication that the numbers coming to Libya from other states will decrease.   

Little is being done to support the authorities in Libya and European states and institutions have been slow to agree a response that would remove the impulse for desperate people to get into the boats in the first instance or provide safe pathways to protection or resettlement in frontline states.  Again and again we encounter not just a reluctance, but a resistance to acknowledge the consequences of diplomatic failure, to learn from that failure or to take responsibility for it in strategy or diplomacy.

The response such as it has been to date has focussed heavily on border controls, security, and targeting those who are smuggling migrants across frontiers.  These steps are of course necessary as part of a comprehensive strategy, but the emphasis to date has been misplaced.  Any suggestion that the current situation can be resolved with such measures alone is misguided, and may lead to security consequences that are far more dangerous to Europe in the longer term.

I believe that the reality of the present situation, including its historical origins and perspective, has become obscured, and so too have the moral and ethical issues at stake for institutions, international organisations and national governments and their populations. The dangers that we face include the danger that in ceding to an ahistorical and statist exceptionalism, we might lose sight of, or even lose completely, the universality of human rights and human dignity on which our international order is expressed. At stake then is the moral force and authority of the international system itself, and that of the regions of destination.

The principle of universality of rights and human dignity, as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is the very foundation of the United Nations and this principle, our common humanity in all its dimensions, must be our starting point.

I met with the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon at Áras an Uachtaráin just a few weeks ago and we discussed the challenges associated with the global crisis of migration and refugees. To mark World Refugee Day just two weeks ago, the Secretary General has said:

“Refugees are people like anyone else, like you and me. They led ordinary lives before becoming displaced, and their biggest dream is to be able to live normally again ... let us recall our common humanity, celebrate tolerance and diversity and open our hearts to refugees everywhere.”

When we consider the obligations and responsibilities that flow from our common humanity we all share, the position of civilians fleeing war should not be alien to any nation, including those that currently enjoy prosperity and peace.

I have spoken elsewhere, and in different contexts, about the “ethics of memory”; about the importance of how we remember the past to the challenge of building better futures.  One of the great dangers of forgetting our own past is that we can have a false sense of security about the present, or come to view contemporary differences between us and others as essential rather than determined or made contingent by events or unaccountable forces. We have all shared a troubled history, and our systems and standards of protection were put in place at the mid-point of a troubled century when many European nations witnessed enormous destruction and displacement. 

If compassion is to be grounded in empathy, then we would all do well to remember ethically the experiences of our own forebears.  For Ireland, we remember that among the one million who fled famine and disease during a few short years many were driven to make perilous journeys in inadequate vessels to harbours or populations which at times rejected them with hostility, but at times there were those who accepted them and afforded them the opportunity to begin new lives.

For all European nations, the memory of the refugee experience should be within the reach of one or two generations.  The level of displacement across this continent both during and after the World War II left few regions untouched; for example, well over 10 million ethnic Germans were expelled from Eastern and Central Europe or left voluntarily between 1945 and 1950.  The refugee camps established at the end of the war were only finally closed in Europe in 1960.

Even in more recent history, Europe has faced large refugee movements within its own borders in the 1990s in the Balkans when 2.7 million were displaced and 700,000 sought asylum in Western Europe.  At the global level too, the world has met such challenges before and the international response to the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s ultimately saw millions of civilians resettled in North America, Europe and Australasia.

We must reject then any exceptionalism, which would seek to define the current crisis as being unprecedented or beyond our capacity.   Our human rights obligations, under UN treaties and under the European Convention are universal, and non-derogable.  They are also unreservedly and unquestionably to be applied without discrimination on the grounds of legal status, race, religion or nationality. 

As to the extent of these obligations, in the first instance there are the obligations to protect the right to life of those we are directly confronted with at sea. In the case of the Mediterranean, the European Union must do more to expand search and rescue operations, and these missions must be prioritised over concerns about controls. 
Yes, comprehensive long-term solutions must be found to reduce current flows of people across the Mediterranean, but in the interim period we cannot accept that deterrence ever justifies the loss of life. 

There is also the non-derogable right to freedom from non-refoulement, which we are seeing being blatantly violated in Southeast Asia and elsewhere at this time.  Again the need for regional cooperation and coordinated action, or its absence or difficulty, cannot justify tactical responses that risk the loss of life.  

At the level of national governments we need to have in place robust domestic refugee systems that are fair, equitable and efficient.  In the Irish context, I welcome the publication this week of the report of the Working Group on improvements to the protection process, including Direct Provision and supports to asylum seekers.

Adequacy and transparency of process is important, but we must recognise that the scale of the numbers needing protection unequivocally will require substantive and generous action. Beyond the immediate issue of search and rescue and receiving refugees, and that of supporting institutions in the frontline countries, we must also look at resettlement.  In framing its response to this great challenge, the international community has a moral as well as a legal obligation, not merely to rescue those crammed into often makeshift and extremely dangerous vessels, but to provide long term solutions afterward.

UNHCR estimated in 2014 that 378,684 Syrian refugees in the five main host countries were in need of resettlement.  However, to date the number of places offered to these most vulnerable of Syria’s refugees, who have been determined to be unlikely to return safely to Syria at any foreseeable point, stands at just 87,442. At the global level, Amnesty International has called for an international number of 300,000 per year to be resettled.

Even within Europe itself, we might also ask what does solidarity mean in relation to migration and asylum policy?  Italy, Malta and Greece cannot be abandoned or expected to fulfil Europe’s duties on their own, simply by virtue of geography.

Taken together, the universal and non-derogable rights – the right to life and the right to freedom from torture, and non-refoulement, represent the core values of the institutional framework we put in place after the Second World War to promote peace in the world.   If Europe is to fulfil or recapture the vision of its founding fathers, then it must be a Europe built on respect for basic human rights, including economic and social rights and respect for the rights of migrants and refugees. If we allow these rights to be diluted by the rhetoric of prejudice and fear, we risk undermining the moral legitimacy of our various positions on the world stage.  This in turn will weaken, and perhaps is already weakening, our influence and capacity to act in response to the very real threats to these values. 

Fundamentalism and extremism are at the heart of the conflicts that are driving the greater number of those who are displaced, often accompanied by a rhetoric of hate about the purported conflict between faith-based values and those of what is suggested to be a decadent west.  A rise of extremism in one corner of the world has the potential to affect us all. While technological and communication advances offer great innovation and capability, they can also be harnessed for ill and in their use, the threat of such extremism can spread and flourish faster than ever before. We cannot hope to succeed in defeating extremism by deepening systems of “othering” those who arrive in Europe seeking our protection.

This is a moment for leadership that is courageous, grounded in an unqualified commitment to human rights, and informed by a long-sighted understanding of the gravity of the present situation. This is a moment for European leaders to engage in the public space with their parliaments and with their electorates, and, rather than yielding to new populisms based on fear and eroding security, to make the case for solidarity and protection. Are we to be limited in our actions by the narrow self interest of the present, or are we to fulfil the duties bestowed on us by the principles of universal human rights, by our debt to history, and by our obligations to the future?  These are the questions we must answer.

While it is appropriate that ‘Serving the Needs of People in Conflict’ has been chosen as a core theme of the World Humanitarian Summit preparations, responding to the consequences of conflict is not enough. The international community must also consider how to take such preventative action as will best enable them to engage actively in advance of conflicts. More and more, the international community is simply and inadequately reacting to the worst events after they have happened.

The current crisis is the product of failed diplomacy, a failure that all of the international community shares, and the powerful share more than most.  We are witnessing the sapping away of the authority and influence of a necessary and genuine internationalism.

At the same time I want to recognise those who continue to act for sustainable peace and security.  They must be supported and it is the responsibility of us all to work through multilateral institutions and diplomatic channels to promote peace where it is absent, and to sustain it, where it is fragile.

Alongside our aid programme and policy engagement, Ireland plays an important role through the international peacekeeping operations that it supports. Within three years of joining the United Nations, the first contingent of Irish peacekeepers was deployed as part of an observer mission to Lebanon in 1958. Since then, Ireland’s commitment to blue-helmet peacekeeping remains unbroken, and it is probably the most visible expression of Ireland’s support to the United Nations.

When I visited the Irish contingent of peacekeepers which forms part of the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon earlier this year, I was struck by the quiet, sustained, and sensitively delivered professionalism of Irish soldiers and members of an Garda Síochána, who make incredible sacrifices to bring peace and stability in places where it is fragile or threatened.

Other factors that are contributing to global instability must also be addressed.  The effects of climate change make international borders appear even more irrelevant. Humanity’s interdependence across borders, oceans and continents is apparent in the face of typhoon, flood or drought.  And those most affected by these climate change related events are those who are already the poorest and the most vulnerable. Global inequality is most strikingly exemplified in the manner in which climate change most affects those who have least contributed to it.

The interlinked and recurrent emergencies that climate change contributes to, require interlinked, global solutions. We must recognise the solidarity that binds us all together as human beings, and acknowledge that we all share a responsibility towards this fragile planet, and a duty of hospitality towards all those who live on it.

In its essence, our shared task is to recapture the dimension of humanity within this humanitarian crisis. We must never simply reduce a human experience to a nameless quantification.  I am pleased to note, then, that the overarching theme of the Irish Humanitarian Summit has been chosen as ‘putting affected people at the centre of humanitarian response.’  The first responders, in any emergency whether natural or manmade, are the people affected. Neighbours share food with those without, relatives shelter families forced to evacuate their homes. These responders are the most effective in addressing the real and immediate needs of the crisis-affected.

The global humanitarian community needs to both recognise this, and incorporate it into existing and strengthened coordination and response structures. By focusing on those affected and treating them as key agents in their own recovery and development, with all of the respect and dignity that it entails for their cultures and context, then the global humanitarian community can begin to make real progress in saving lives, and enabling communities to improve their position, and even to flourish.

In order to help communities reduce their vulnerability to disasters before they strike, humanitarian agencies need to learn from the communities themselves what the risks are, and incorporate the community’s existing coping mechanisms, with their instinctive intelligence and indigenous wisdom,  into their work. Similarly, the concept of ‘resilience’ and building communities’ own abilities to mitigate the effect of disasters can only be done by harnessing local knowledge. It is the harnessing of local knowledge, coupled as necessary with external expertise, which will see the greatest strides forward in helping communities to withstand shocks and transform their societies by ‘building back’ from disaster better than before.

Taking into account the position of women in both development and humanitarian practice is also essential. We must recognise that women are disproportionally and uniquely affected by disasters and armed conflict. Ireland’s Second National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security recognises both the particularly adverse effect of conflict on women and girls, as well as their critical role in conflict prevention, peace negotiations, peacebuilding, and governance.

It was with enormous pleasure that in March this year I accepted the invitation of Mlambo-Ngucka, UN Under Secretary General and the Executive Director UNWOMEN, to become one of 10 World Leader Global Champions for the UN Women’s HeforShe campaign. This global movement has at its core the principle of solidarity, it is a movement that seeks to bring one half of humanity together in support of the other half of humanity. I look forward to making my own modest contribution in carrying out this role with passion and energy in the months ahead.

In conclusion, as we take up this important work of preparation for these summits on development, climate change and the humanitarian crisis, my hope is that world leaders involved will make wise and brave, and yes, the necessary radical decisions. The European Union, and other international institutions and Member States must commit to fully and comprehensively addressing the protracted conflicts, civil unrest, or cyclical food crises which drive so many of our global fellow citizens to such desperate measures. We must propose solutions that acknowledge cooperation, interdependence and solidarity, departing from individual and national self-interest – positions that prevail, for example, to a worrying degree in the current European discourse.

Thar na spriocanna agus na gealltanais, na ráitis bheartais agus na fógartha, tá sé riachtanach go gcoimeádfadh oibrithe cabhrach, parlaiminteoirí, lucht léinn agus  gníomhaígh, ar aon dul le go leor agaibh sa chomhluadar seo, cuntas as ceannairí domhanda chun cinntiú go gcoinníonn siad na gealltanais a rinne siad.

[Beyond the goals and commitments, the policy statements and the declarations, it is essential that aid workers, parliamentarians, academics, activists, like many of you in the room today, hold world leaders to account and ensure that they deliver on the promises made.]

As we prepare for the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul next year, today’s gathering marks an important opportunity for the Irish humanitarian community to provide recommendations on how best we can respond to crises.  In doing so, you can ensure that those most affected have the agency and resources necessary to not only survive, but to tackle the root causes of these crises, and have the capacity to absorb, adapt to or transform, shocks and stresses in their own communities, with their own strategies respected, and their own normative visions for community security, not only made possible, but assisted.

In opening this Irish Humanitarian Summit today, I urge you - as the key humanitarian activists in Ireland - to propose bold and tangible proposals for realising this urgent appeal. The most vulnerable people on our fragile planet require your intervention, your solidarity.  They are entitled to no less if we are to hope together for a better and more secure world.

[1] These figures are all taken from the UNHCR report for 2014.  Figures exclude Palestinian refugees who are dealt with under a separate legal regime.