Irish President’s speech sends a firm and welcome message about the world’s changes this past week
On Tuesday 31 January President Michael D. Higgins hosted a New Years’ Greetings Ceremony for members of the Diplomatic Corp at Áras an Uachtaráin.
In his speech, the President spoke of the rapid and fundamental changes to the international system and the importance of safeguarding and defending the mechanisms for collective action to address global challenges.
You can read the full speech below, or listen right here, with thanks to Soundcloud.
Speech by President Michael D. Higgins
At the Diplomatic Corps 2017 New Year’s Greeting Ceremony
Áras an Uachtaráin
Tuesday, 31st January, 2017
A Oirircis, A Dhéin an Chóir Thaidhleoireachta,
A Aire Stáit Mhic an tSaoí,
A Aíonna Uile, agus a Dhaoine Óga ach go háirithe,
Cuireann sé áthas orm agus ar mo bhean chéile, Sabina, céad míle fáilte a fhearadh romhaibh go léir go hÁras an Uachtaráin.
Your Excellency, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps,
Minister of State McEntee,
It is my great pleasure to welcome you and your families to Áras an Uachtaráin. As we enter 2017 my wish for each and every one of you and the citizens of your countries is what I wish for the people of Ireland – a year of peace, prosperity and hope.
May I begin by conveying my thanks to His Excellency, Most Reverend Charles Brown, for his kind words and good wishes for the New Year. His Excellency represents a Papacy which continued, throughout 2016, to challenge not only growing inequalities and exclusions across our world but also the quietism with which they are being accepted. Pope Francis put it so well when he warned us that we should be worried if we come to a point when our consciences are anaesthetised.
This year of 2017 surely suggests a deep reflection, not only on our present position, but on our future. The year 2016 was a wake-up call for all who believe in the extension of a global order based on multilateralism and the rule of law. Such a global order, as might be built on a recognition of our interdependency and shared vulnerabilities seems to be receding from our horizon.
In an atmosphere of fading trust, we seem unable to extricate ourselves from what has failed us to see that what we claimed as rational has, again and again, come to be defined as little more than a consistency in the pursuit of an abstraction, a set of assumptions held with such fervour as to constitute an albeit unstated ideology.
The models we accepted as singular have produced misery and insecurity, and, while rewarding insatiability, they have failed to encourage cohesion, not to speak of advancing or attaining it in our global community. In what could be described as institutional atrophy, we have become frozen in models that are failing us above all else in terms of cohesion. An inability to nurture a pluralism of scholarship has led to a quenching of critical capacity, to a paucity of policy options. The anaesthetised conscience is the poor defence we encounter, when we are confronted with a rationalisation of what is irrational?
The language we use must connect to the wisdom we have come to share, and to the diverse sources that can be particular. We can never afford to forget that peace, prosperity and equality are fundamentally based on justice. We, as independent nations of course, address these issues through the Institutions of the European Union, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The UN is the pinnacle of multilateralism in our schema and, while it has enormous, life-saving achievements to its name, it is today neither adequately funded, nor connected to the citizens who depends on its moral authority. Most alarmingly, in the eyes of so many of the excluded, poor, or concerned peoples of the world, it seems to lack an institutional structure of efficacy that can make new forms of capital accountable nationally, regionally or globally.
More worryingly still, it is attacked on occasion by the most powerful, and frustrated in its moral purpose by the blatant pursuit of interests.
One of the greatest achievements of the United Nations, historically, was to make common cause on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, for the first time, set out the universal protection of fundamental human rights. But can ‘we the peoples’ honestly say that the ambitions of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration have been fulfilled? Or that they are even recognised as an aim to be fulfilled? What does our promise “to promote social progress and better standards of life” mean to young girls in forgotten crises, and why do more than 130 million people need humanitarian assistance to survive?
Idealism, based on best instincts, drawing on received wisdom, building an emancipatory imagination does matter. The utopian instinct cannot be dismissed as idle speculation. We do need to envisage how to get to a better place.
Here in Ireland, 2016 was the year we celebrated the centenary of dramatic events which hastened the creation of our own State; when we remembered the leaders of the Easter Rising, the founders of the State and many quiet, previously unsung heroes and heroines who took part in the revolutionary struggle. That period of reflection brought to light the important and forgotten role played by women in forging the Ireland of today. The 1916 Proclamation called for a Republic that would guarantee “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”. Our Republic is, of course, a work in progress and the freedoms we have been gifted by it are moral and ethical obligations for each successive generation. They, in turn, pose profound questions about fairness and inclusiveness, not just to citizens of Ireland but to all of us as citizens of the world.
2016 was a year in which the Irish people re-committed themselves to the ideals of the State’s founding fathers. Likewise, 2017 can be the year in which we, the members of the United Nations, re-commit ourselves to honouring in full the pledges made in the UN Charter. We can open a dialogue with the cos muintir of the world, the excluded, the disappointed, the angry. Above all, we cannot abandon the excluded, the confused, to the predatory abuse of those who seek the exploitation of difference, of race, ethnicity, culture or gender. There can be no room for such abuse. We have in Europe and elsewhere experienced the consequences already.
We, as peoples, as Heads of State or Diplomats cannot ignore the agony of humanity that cries out to us for belief in the capacity of humans to feel, imagine and create a civilisation of sufficiency.
In claiming that it is enough to adjust to what is failing, in declaring our times to be post-ideological, we are being the most ideological generation in decades. The disquieted publics of the world must not be abandoned to demagoguery, rather they must be invited to be partners in responding to interdependency.
For all these reasons and more, I wish every success to Antonio Guterres, the new Secretary General of the United Nations, in facing the challenges ahead. I take it as a hopeful sign that he has been quick to acknowledge that many have lost confidence in global institutions, including the UN itself. The Secretary General has argued that it was time for the UN to recognise its shortcomings and to reform the way it works, and we must be ready to work with him on those reforms. He has already made some wonderful and hopeful appointments in the areas of development and refugee welfare. We must now avoid any renewed deflection of resources from humanity towards the tasks of war. We must instead work harder to undo the legacy of previous wars.
Last November, while on State visits to Vietnam and Lao PDR, I saw for myself the devastating impact of war on a country and the much longer-term effects of unexploded ordnance. In 2016 there was major, and welcome, progress in strengthening the instruments of international humanitarian law, such as the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention and the Cluster Munitions Convention. The Convention on Conventional Weapons also made progress at its recent Review Conference, and I welcome the early entry into force and consolidation of the work of the Arms Trade Treaty. Yet, while all this is indeed facing our challenges it is scarcely sufficient, nor is it reflecting urgency in time.
So much remains to be done. During my visit to Vietnam and Laos, I and recognised that at the present rate of decommissioning unexploded ordnance, it would take the people of Laos 250 years for it to be safe to go on to the fields they need to till for food. Can we not use technology, science and international cooperation to speed up such tasks as this?
I do want to record and encourage the progress we have made. I am especially proud that Ireland, together with our partners, has sponsored a ground breaking resolution at the United Nations to begin negotiations this year on a Treaty to prohibit Nuclear Weapons, leading to their total elimination. Building on Ireland’s enduring tradition of strong support and advocacy on nuclear disarmament, this new Treaty is intended to complement and reinforce the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and offer new hope that the world can finally be free from the threat posed by these weapons to the future of humanity.
Another area of multilateral progress has been on climate change. The greatest significance of COP21 was that the scientific reality of climate change was accepted in this universal, legally binding agreement.
COP21 has, of course, left a number of issues yet to be resolved, but, as I said to this same audience last year, we can all see that it is a great achievement when viewed through the lens of the disappointing failures of the past. It truly represents a turning point in the climate crisis, a powerful, irreversible movement. The climate justice movement is now global: so many people have started to change their consumption patterns and thousands of cities, provinces and regions around the world have committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. These are, of course, most welcome developments.
These agreements, made in the name of the peoples of the world, belong to the peoples of the world who will need to be mobilised for their defence and their implementation.
For millions of children, women and men who are on the move, however, global leadership fell short in 2016. We have seen a terrible loss of life, the displacement of entire communities, including those pertaining to small and ancient cultures, such as the Yazidis, and the destruction of civilian infrastructure in armed conflict and natural disasters across the world. When I represented Ireland at the World Humanitarian Summit in May last year, I was heartened by the commitment voiced by so many nations to alleviating this suffering. But even the most effective humanitarian response is a lesser achievement than the prevention or the halting of the conflicts which make it necessary. Yet as we speak, the World Food Programme is left short of funds and has cut the meagre rations of 1.4 million displaced people in Iraq.
The FAO estimates that over 17 million people are currently in crisis and emergency food insecurity levels in member countries of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), namely Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda, which are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
Currently, close to 12 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are in need of food assistance. Much of Somalia, north-east and coastal Kenya, south-east of Ethiopia as well as the Afar region are still to recover from El Niño-induced drought of 2015/16 while South Sudan and Darfur region of Sudan are facing the protracted insecurity.
The end of the year was darkened by the fall of Aleppo, with the cries for help of countless civilians going unheeded in the midst of a brutal conflict. The global system has failed these men, women and children. We cannot and must not turn our back on their suffering. For the worlds diplomats and government agencies, a humanitarian response is of course essential, but it can never be sufficient. We must get beyond reaction, and achieve more structural analyses of future trends, including, for example, demography.
If we are failing to understand migration now – not recognising the positive contribution of migrants to so many economies and peoples, for example, that migrants in 2016 produced just short of 10% of global output – how will we deal with the changes that will be underway in the future? In 1950 the U.S., Canada and Europe accounted for 29% of world population. In 2015 this share had fallen to 15%, and it is projected that it will decrease further, to 12.5%, by 2050. Africa, which had 7.5% of the world’s general population in 1900, 9% in 1950 and 15% in 2015, will reach an estimated 24% by 2050, and estimates range from 25% to 40% by 2100.
We must come to understand migration, both voluntary and involuntary. This need never be at the cost of humanitarian response or obligation. In 2016 the Irish Defence Forces deployed three naval vessels to the Mediterranean and rescued over 7,000 migrants. Here in Ireland we are justifiably proud of the life-saving work of our Defence Services, but I know that our citizens are concerned too at what is causing that migration – extreme poverty, conflict, ethnic cleansing, and natural disasters.
In Istanbul I suggested that ‘leaving no-one behind’ is a humanitarian imperative and I am pleased that Ireland led the response last year, together with Jordan, acting as co-facilitators of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The Declaration delivered a strong message of solidarity and contains detailed commitments which should ensure a more humane, dignified and compassionate response by the international community to the plight of refugees and migrants. But, of course, we must now turn promises into action and deliver a strong ‘Global Compact on Refugees’.
All of us must realise, of course, that implementing an adequate response to climate change and having a new Sustainable Development Strategy that deals in a just way with issues of trade, debt, environmental protection, intellectual and spiritual freedom, as well as cultural diversity, will have an influence on the future shape of migratory flows.
I very much welcome the increased centrality in policy discussions of the consequences of unaddressed inequality. Globalisation, in its current version, has raised many from poverty and increased global wealth, but it has also brought political and economic turmoil in its wake. Tragically for many people left behind the premium attached to being born in a rich country is still too high.
In his seminal book, Global Inequality, Professor Branko Milanovic pointed out last year that African countries do grow but often have sudden and sharp declines. The inability to sustain this growth through long periods is directly affected by externalities and, all too often, not only conflicts but falls in commodity prices are behind these declines.
We have not allowed a general context to emerge that allows for sustainable growth, have neglected issues of debt, major trade and duties in terms of taxation.
My good friend, Carlos Lopes, the former Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, has identified inequality between groups as the main cause of conflict within the continent which, he reckons, is costing Africa more than 2% of annual GDP growth, and as to conflict, Dr. Lopes has noted that only eight of the African Union’s member states have not been affected by conflict since independence – the toll on the continent has been enormous.
Branko Milanovic argues that the advocates of globalisation in its early days had insisted that it would make access to technology and best economic practices easier for poorer countries. But he points to a fundamental contradiction in the globalisation we have seen to-date, in that it implies the movement of factors of production and particularly of capital, goods and, increasingly, services. But it has not been true of labour. Yet it is precisely in “left out” regions such as Africa that we will see the biggest demographic changes, with 50 % of the population increase between now and 2050 taking place on that continent.
Africa, the youthful continent, must be allowed to be the continent of opportunity for all Africans and all of their fellow global citizens will benefit if it is made possible. Young African people must be enabled to make a decent living in their own communities. The continent needs to create 18 million new jobs per annum to cope with population expansion but at the moment it is only creating two million.
The African Union Summit which closes in Addis Ababa today has just declared 2017 the “Year of Youth.” This is most timely and I hope that the EU-Africa Summit in the autumn, which will have youth issues as a major theme, will deliver concrete actions to tackle this huge demographic challenge, which is a great opportunity, not only for Africa, but for humanity. We can do something ethical and new, empowering the young people of the continent, like young people here, to “take charge of change.”
Then too, although advocates of its current form will claim that globalisation can be credited with reducing inequality between countries, the very opposite has happened, as you know, within some developed countries, where inequality has widened dramatically. The undisputed winners from globalisation in those countries are, of course, the very richest, elites enriching themselves in the midst of the poverty of their people all over the planet, who have made dramatic gains in both absolute and relative terms. The relative losers have included the less affluent groups in some OECD countries, prompting, as many would argue, widespread discontent and anger, which gained much prominence in 2016. Cohesion must become the project for all of us, and surely it is the best bedrock for secure living in a public world where democracy can be experienced.
May I suggest that a future, reinvigorated, institutional order might well draw on a regionalised set of initiatives. We should be considering migrating science and technology in innovative clusters to Africa and Asia as part of our global sharing.
Our old forms of industrial revolution and hegemony in trade are over. We now need, at global level, to build an ethical globalisation that recognises interdependency and that respects diverse sources of wisdom, including the legacies of intuitive wisdom. If we are to deliver a sustainable future, we surely urgently need to recognise opportunities and release science and technology to assist in that task.
In Europe and the United States deepening inequalities have betrayed the commitment to cohesion upon which so many hopes have been placed. Racism and xenophobia are gaining ground, exploiting fears and ignorance in ways that could destroy democracy itself. Inequalities and the exclusions they breed are now being exploited by extremists, preaching claims to exclusive forms of propriety and entitlement which ignore the fundamental truth that we are all but migrants in time and space, who can best flourish in sufficiency, creativity, and destroy ourselves and our planet through mindless insatiability.
Our gaze must not be averted. We must be open to the agony of our fellow occupants of this fragile planet.
There is an urgent need to look into the deep and quiet corners of those lives deprived of a right to participate at all levels of society because these lives deserve, again in the words of Pope Francis, a “dignified welcome.”
Indeed, at a time when identity politics is surfacing its ugly head we might recall the elegant and prescient words of Séamus Heaney, invited as a poet to speak when the European Union celebrated just over 10 years ago the arrival of new member States from central and eastern Europe:
“So on a day when newcomers appear
Let it be a homecoming and let us speak
The unstrange word, as it behoves us here,
“Move lips, move minds and make new meanings flare …”
Ireland is anxious to have an adequate discourse on all these issues. In 2020 Ireland will be a candidate for election to the UN Security Council. We will be seeking the support of your governments for our candidature. We believe that our values and principles, and our steadfast commitment to the UN, will enable us to make a valuable contribution to the work of the Council.
Many of the institutions which enshrined the ideals we subscribe to today were created very soon after the Second World War during a period of great economic and political challenge. It would have been understandable then if the victors, the vanquished and the countless victims of the war had simply retreated into their own jurisdictions, be it as the victors or the vanquished, but they did not.
The need for collective action was quickly recognised and our imperfect world is a better place today because of far-sighted and imaginative arrangements put in place then by brave, longsighted women and men. It needed an inspired generation of diplomats and political leaders to make it happen and that is what we need again today.
We must set about the necessary change but we should be firm in defending our achievements. We must ensure respect for a rules-based approach to international order and protect the international acquis – that complex set of treaties and resolutions which form the basis for global solidarity. We need to be steadfast and vocal in our defence of what are legally binding commitments and challenge anyone, even those with loud and powerful voices, who may seek, in pursuit of short-term interests, to dismiss them as in any sense optional.
Further reforms are of course needed. We saw recently, for example, what can be achieved when vetoes are not employed. Far too often we have seen conflicts prolonged, lives lost and untold misery visited on the innocent by the deployment of vetoes. Ireland would prefer if vetoes were abolished completely but, recognising that progress is likely to be incremental, we have been actively associated with initiatives in New York to limit their use in the first instance. We have also offered ideas on broadening the membership of the Security Council in order to make it more reflective of the contemporary, rather than the post-war, world.
Broader representation would, in its own way, be a first step towards addressing some of the inequalities that bedevil the world and the institutional inadequacies to which I have referred.
As democrats, we should also be concerned that an anti-intellectualism is feeding populism among the most insecure and excluded on this continent. We live in an atmosphere of diminishing respect for what I like to call the necessary grace of discourse. “Words matter”, as Vaclav Havel memorably wrote. They can liberate, they can kill or condemn. They can free and they can rile. They can love and they can hate. That was my message at Trinity College last year when I spoke of the importance of a pluralism of scholarship – ideas, the free discussion of ideas, the critique and questioning of received ideas and the articulation of new ones are fundamental to the shaping of public discourse and to the vitality of democratic life.
This is especially true of our shared Europe where the contemporary challenge is to recover a sense of hope and solidarity, between and within Member States. For its architects and its peoples, the European project was always about more than the creation of a single market and a single currency. It was about sharing prosperity, security in life, achieving freedom from poverty. Cohesion enjoyed as much prominence as productivity. The energy of that vision has been lost. It must be recovered.
The distinguished German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, has drawn attention to both the shortcomings and the possibilities encapsulated in the European project. He has reminded us that without the constant exercise of public deliberation, and without citizens being enabled to submit their arguments to rational disputation, democracy itself will suffer. He calls this the “unforced force of the better argument.”
The loss of trust we currently see on the “European street” is alarming. The public presentation of accommodations reached, and the formal text of policy instruments used by the EU, have, at times, had the effect of separating European institutions from the people they represent. The discourse has not reached the street; the words lack moral political choice or intent. Often they constitute a mask for failure, confusion, impotence or even evasion in the face of challenges. If political parties lose support, the people can decide to remove them at election time. If, however, it is institutions that lose popular support, what results is a legitimation crisis that can threaten democracy itself.
As President of Ireland, an ancient European, culture and people, I firmly believe that we need to widen the debate on what we mean when we talk of Europe. The choice is between recovering a flexibility that will be democratically accountable or remaining transfixed, waiting for the system to be overturned. At its best, Europe can be, it is my profound conviction, become renewed as a project based on humanistic values of dialogue and integration that can appeal to all generations of Europeans and their fellow global citizens.
Irrespective of its failings and imperfections, the European Union remains a visionary and vital project, one which has helped preserve peace and one that can create a sense of common purpose among Europeans. Its values remain at the heart of our approach to the world. The challenges facing the Union over the year ahead are acute but, to my mind, this creates more space, not less, for a renewed and mobilised European discourse, heralding values of justice, positive internationalism and cooperation.
It is important that, in critically assessing the Union, as we must do, we do not allow ourselves to be misrepresented. We are for its strengthening, its increased efficiency, its greater connection with the European Street, never in any sense as advocates for its destruction. The context of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the Union simply means that we must be resolute in mitigating and overcoming any negative consequences for the Union and for Ireland.
We are particularly mindful in this regard of the circumstances of Northern Ireland, a place which is a living example of the positive impact of European Union membership in supporting and framing a peace process. Recent political developments have resulted in an election in Northern Ireland and, there is a risk that old divisions may come to the forefront in the upcoming campaign. This combines with concerns about the impact of ‘Brexit’ on a region which, while transformed over the past two decades, is not yet fully reconciled or healed and should remind us again, as if we needed it, of the relative fragility of peace.
However, the institutions and principles of an International binding treaty, the Good Friday Agreement, are comprehensive and robust and I believe that the people of Northern Ireland expect their politicians to work together effectively so that the full promise of the choice made by the people of this island in 1998 can be realised. That democratic endorsement is a powerful one which reminds us that – even in times of difficulty – we have a duty of hope.
That duty of hope is something which, I know, is very familiar to all of you in your work as government representatives. I so want to pay tribute to the work that you, the diplomatic community, undertake day in, day out, to advance the international agenda. Yours is always a demanding role that can at times be a thankless and even dangerous profession. Building friendships, fostering understanding and finding peaceful solutions are the makings of your professional lives. I see you as the people who so often are trying to keep doors open when others are rushing to close them. However, it is the inescapable duty of politicians to suggest the outline of that shared house in ethical space that we are seeking to construct.
Sometimes it seems to me that on the ground a good diplomat remains someone who has genuine empathy for the foreign society in which she or he lives and works, acting as a ‘knowledge broker’, with the capacity to read cultural and ideological complexity as context, and to empathise with the point of view of the local people so as to better communicate the positions of the country he or she represents.
I would like, therefore, to thank you once again for the vital role you perform in fostering understanding and co-operation between our nations and would ask you to please convey the good wishes of the Irish people to all those you represent so well.
Go raibh maith agaibh.