Analysis | Imperfect, but impactful: Personal lessons learned from Ireland’s two years on the U.N. Security Council
In October 2020, I left a job at a public relations firm to join the Irish Mission to the United Nations, working on strategic communications and media engagement in the lead-up to Ireland’s 2021–2022 term on the Security Council. At the time, there were many questions we had to be ready to answer, but by far the most difficult for me was: What will you accomplish on the council?
The problem was not a lack of vision. The team at the Irish Mission, under the leadership of the permanent representative in New York and the foreign minister in Dublin, had a clear and decisive idea of its role as an elected member of the Security Council. It would speak up for vulnerable populations, push the council to understand and address the root causes of insecurity, and advocate for increased accountability.
The problem with the question was rather the assumption that the Security Council is a place where states go to pursue a single, predictable goal. Foreign ministries are big bureaucracies, but elected council members are at their best when they are agile, flexible, and open to adapting when the realities of the world change. After all, back in October 2020, few of us would have predicted that in February 2023 the United Nations would mark one year since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. We also might not have predicted that during our two-year council term, the world would witness the fall of Kabul to the Taliban or a devastating war in Ethiopia that would kill hundreds of thousands of people.
As I learned in a short but intense two years on the Security Council, you have to expect the unexpected. It is an imperfect body, where reform is greatly needed. Ultimately, however, if elected members are active, engaged, and ready to take on new challenges — while keeping their priorities at the forefront — they can help the council achieve notable successes. Nothing less than its legitimacy and the maintenance of international peace and security are at stake.
When facing challenges, member states need to show flexibility by recognizing alternative paths to facilitate change. Russia used the first veto of the 2021–2022 Security Council term, in December 2021, on a climate and security resolution drafted and negotiated by Ireland and Niger. The link between climate change and global insecurity has never been clearer, and support for council action on this issue is overwhelming — over 113 U.N. member states co-sponsored the resolution before Russia vetoed it. Despite this setback, Ireland, along with Niger and other like-minded partners, pushed member states to address the links between climate and insecurity during the term. We did this, for example, by ensuring that the council included the issue in the mandates of relevant peacekeeping missions, such as the U.N. missions in Cyprus and Iraq.
Flexibility also means that member states ought to stand by their principles when they are challenged by world events. For the last few years, there has been a council measure, an exemption, that allows certain sanctioned members of the Taliban to travel for specific reasons without pre-authorization from the Security Council. The renewal of this exemption requires council consensus; it stands out as an example where every Security Council member has an equal say.
Throughout 2022, as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated and the Taliban continued to erase women and girls from public life, Ireland decided that the council needed to respond. In August, when this exemption was up for renewal, Ireland objected. As a result, those sanctioned Taliban leaders who had been subject to the exemption lost the ability to travel without prior approval. It was a small but genuine step toward accountability for members of the Taliban, who continue to strip women and girls in Afghanistan of their fundamental rights. If Afghan women and girls cannot leave their houses, then why should Taliban leaders be able to travel freely?
Member states also need to be open to unexpected leadership opportunities. The final months of an elected member’s term can easily be a period of burnout — especially after two years of intense, constant work that adds stress to the limited capacity of smaller states. In the face of this possibility, Ireland focused its energy during those last months on working with the United States to pass a resolution ensuring a humanitarian “carveout” across all U.N. sanctions regimes. The carveout aims to ensure that organizations delivering lifesaving aid are not harmed by U.N. sanctions — an exception humanitarian actors have long advocated for. Ireland had hoped to pursue this issue during its term; it had a consistent tradition of standing up for humanitarian principles.
Although the political climate early in the term meant that such a resolution seemed a distant prospect, the context changed throughout our 18 months on the council. We had built up credibility as well as key strategic and procedural knowledge. The timing was right. Following the advice of humanitarian workers, Ireland and the United States secured a groundbreaking resolution that received wide-ranging support and praise from communities across the world.
Even in a role Ireland knew it would lead on, it still needed to show agility and flexibility. Ahead of 2021, Ireland and Norway decided to take on leadership of the Syria humanitarian cross-border resolution. This resolution had always been difficult to negotiate, but 2021 and 2022 led to massive swings in dynamics at the Security Council. In 2021, the United States and Russia had to agree on the resolution at the highest levels — Biden and Putin reportedly discussed it directly. Then, in 2022, everything changed. The United States and Russia were hardly engaging at all after the invasion of Ukraine. Skilled negotiators on Ireland and Norway’s teams successfully navigated those challenging dynamics to find agreement. And the ability of both elected members to adapt to the changing political climate and keep the channels of formal and informal communication open between all members was the key to success.
In 2021 and 2022, the world saw levels of suffering that are difficult to comprehend. It is impossible in these few paragraphs to encompass them all: devastating humanitarian crises, rising levels of food insecurity, military coups from Myanmar to Burkina Faso. The Security Council, despite some of its successes, is failing to meet those challenges.
Ireland has long been a proponent of Security Council reform — which could include increasing the number of council members; correcting the historical underrepresentation of certain regions, especially African states; and removing veto powers from the permanent five members. The failure to make these changes gravely hampers the Security Council’s legitimacy, as became clear to me during the term. Until real structural changes are made, as impossible as that may seem, it will become harder and harder for all members of the Security Council to fulfil their essential mandate: the maintenance of international peace and security.
Until that day comes, it is up to elected members of the council to bring a sense of renewed purpose each year. What will they accomplish? None of us can be sure. But in a world that needs diplomacy more than ever, it is vital that every elected member joins the Security Council ready to actively and passionately pursue a safer world — no matter where the two years take them.
Meghan Boroughs is the public diplomacy and communications manager at Ireland’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York. She received her master’s degree from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in 2018, and is an alumna of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy’s certificate program.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Irish government.