Visit to UNIFIL by Minister of State for Diaspora and International Development, Joe McHugh T.D.
Lebanon, 1 March 2017
Thank you. I am delighted to be here today.
I have travelled to Lebanon and Jordan this week to see for myself the impact of Ireland’s support in response to the overwhelming humanitarian needs that have resulted from the conflict in Syria.
I have been meeting with Ireland’s partners in the delivery of our humanitarian assistance. And I have been so impressed by what I have seen so far – by the capacities and the resilience of the refugees and host communities I have had the honour to meet, and by the efforts of our Irish and international partners to support these communities to meet their most critical needs.
Seeing first-hand how our nation’s values are being represented here in the Middle East is a real privilege for me. And where these values really translate into the personal commitment and endeavours of Irish women and men is with you, our Irish peacekeepers in Lebanon.
This is my first opportunity as Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to visit an Irish peacekeeping mission. And where better to do so than here in south Lebanon, where our engagement with the UNIFIL mission dates all the way back to 1978.
In May 2015, marking the 60th anniversary of Ireland’s membership of the United Nations, my Department had the honour of welcoming then Secretary-General, Ban-Ki Moon, to Dublin. The Secretary-General expressed his deep appreciation for Ireland’s significant contribution to international peace and security over the last six decades by virtue of the professionalism, courage and commitment of our peacekeepers.
Your dedication to the service of peace follows in a proud tradition of Irish men and women wearing the blue beret and helmet stretching back unbroken over six decades. You are a real expression of our nation’s values and interests in the world and your work makes an immeasurable contribution to enhancing Ireland’s reputation abroad.
Peacekeeping has been described as the flagship of the United Nations enterprise. However, it is all too evident that peacekeeping has become both more dangerous and more challenging. This is true here in Lebanon, so long a centre of fragility, which looms large in the Irish consciousness because of the role that our troops have played in maintaining peace and stability.
As a nation that has lived with and suffered from the effects of conflict, we are all too aware of the determination and dedication required from all levels of society to maintain even a fragile and delicate balance. I think that this understanding has led to our deep-rooted commitment to peace and security, and is one of the reasons that we have remained so committed to the UNIFIL mission and mandate; a mandate that is more important than ever as we see the repercussions of the conflict in Syria increasingly playing out in the wider region.
As well as challenges to stability, today, we know that conflict and violence are root causes of the overwhelming humanitarian needs we face as a global community. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East. The conflict in Syria, which will shortly enter its seventh year, has triggered the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. It has threatened the stability of the region and has had an overwhelming impact on neighbouring countries, whose communities and households have demonstrated an enormous generosity on the frontline of the refugee response. But this generosity has a saturation point, not least here in Lebanon, where an estimated 1 million Syrian refugees now present this country with a unique and difficult set of public service delivery, infrastructure, and security challenges.
Cé gur tír bheag muid, is féidir linn difríocht a dhéanamh sa domhain. [Even though we are a small country, we really can make a difference in the world]. And Ireland can, and does, make a difference. Alongside our contributions to UN peacekeeping, we are recognised internationally for our work in promoting human rights, and for our Irish Aid programme, which, as you know, provides development and humanitarian assistance to some of the most vulnerable people in the poorest and most fragile regions of the world. As Minister of State with responsibility for the Irish Aid programme, I am particularly proud of the unprecedented level of humanitarian assistance which Ireland has been able to provide in response to the crisis in Syria and the region.
Since 2012, we have contributed €67.5 million in humanitarian assistance, delivered on the ground by our UN, NGO and Red Cross and Red Crescent partners. This is our largest response to any humanitarian crisis ever. Our funding seeks to meet the needs of the most vulnerable inside Syria, those in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, and those who have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries, such as here in Lebanon and in Jordan.
Our partners provide shelter, humanitarian supplies, and urgently-needed access to health, education, water and sanitation services. They carry out social stability, food security, and livelihoods projects and implement measures to protect women, children and vulnerable families. Our Red Cross and Red Crescent partners, for example, have proven their capacity and expertise in reaching the most vulnerable communities in Syria and in gaining access to besieged areas. During 2016 alone, Ireland’s funding supported their work to carry out 55 cross-frontline operations to bring food, clean water and essential aid to millions of Syrians amid some of the most severe conflict and violence we have seen in our lifetimes.
I have travelled here to Lebanon and spent time earlier this week in Jordan so that I can witness first-hand the delivery of Ireland’s humanitarian assistance. I am meeting with our partners who deliver Ireland’s assistance directly to refugees forced to flee their homes in Syria because of the threat of violence.
Yesterday, in Jordan, I met with our UN and Red Cross partners at Za’atari camp, which is a real microcosm of the humanitarian crisis. Za’atari is an urban settlement of some 80,000 people living inside a 5.3 square kilometre area. Almost 100% of these 80,000 people are designated by the UN as persons of concern, meaning that they have critical needs for water, sanitation, hygiene, protection, health, and education services and access to basic livelihoods.
And yet, life goes on. An average of 80 babies are born each week at the camp, there 11 schools, where 20,000 children are enrolled; 2 hospitals and 9 health care centres; and an informal market consisting of 3,000 shops and business.
One of the services provided by our Red Cross partners in Za’atari is communications assistance to support refugees to trace and contact missing family members, who may be displaced inside Syria, or in the region. It was extremely moving to bear witness to the situation of these families, and we can only imagine their desperation to locate and reconnect with their loved ones.
Our UN and Red Cross partners also work from Jordan to channel cross-border assistance into southern Syria, in the hopes of accessing hard-to-reach communities and those stranded in border areas.
Tomorrow I will meet with the Irish organisations Trócaire and Concern. Concern’s work in northern Lebanon targets Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities, aiming to build their resilience, respond to protection concerns, and provide psychosocial support. Trócaire’s work in Shatila refugee camp which I also plan to visit responds to the needs of Syrian and Palestinian refugee families, providing protection, food support and improved shelter and education opportunities to vulnerable men, women and children. I am very much looking forward to seeing this in person.
Meeting with these partners, and meeting with you here today, I have been reminded of an event at which I spoke last year to celebrate the life of Roger Casement as part of our year of commemorations.
Casement was a true Irish humanitarian. He spent much of his life on the African continent, where he could not help but be moved by the inequalities he saw. He developed a keen sense of injustice and he became passionate about improving the lives of the Africans he met.
When I consider the full remit of my role, as Minister of State with responsibility for the Diaspora and International Development, I am keenly aware of the generations of Irish people who have left our shores, sharing in Casement’s desire to address global inequalities.
The Irish missionary tradition stretches back centuries to the time of St. Colmcille. Fear eile as Dún na nGall! [A fellow Donegal man!] In the last century Irish priests, nuns and lay missionaries undertook difficult journeys to remote places to bring education, health and, most importantly, hope to some of the world’s poorest people. Today, wherever I travel, I am constantly reminded of the reputation of these missionaries, and today, of the Irish humanitarians and development workers, who have followed that missionary tradition, and who continue this important work. We should be so proud too of our Irish diaspora, who in many places around the world are making real contributions to communities in need.
I’m aware too of your work to carry out humanitarian and development projects here in Lebanon – your support to the orphanage in Tibnin, the Irish Battalion Medical Clinics, your support of the elderly, cooperative and literacy projects, and your work to bring water and electricity services to people who need them.
You are a crucial part of this picture of the international Irish, who have dedicated themselves to improving the lives of others and the world that we live in.
I want you to know how deeply your contribution is valued at home and the critical role that you as peacekeepers play in projecting an Irish identity to the world, of a nation that values peace, and that envisions a sustainable and just world for all.
These values have grown from our own Irish experience, an experience long-shaped by poverty, famine, and conflict; but also by growth and development and reconciliation. These are the values that we wish to make ourselves known for.
I am conscious of the challenging and often dangerous tasks that you are asked to carry out, together with your fellow Finnish and Estonian peacekeepers. I am mindful of the personal risks and sacrifices that you are making to further the peace and stability in this region. I applaud your professionalism, your courage, and your commitment.
I look forward to having an opportunity to speak more informally with you shortly, but would like to conclude by expressing my gratitude to you for your dedication and service.
I know that for 95 of you this is your first tour of duty overseas, while others have completed many overseas tours. I’m told that Sergeant Declan Higgins is on his twelfth tour to the UNIFIL mission. An incredible commitment. I want to acknowledge this, and to wish you all continued safety and success in your important careers.
I’m delighted too to meet with such a strong Donegal contingent here so far from home. 44 troops in total. I know that your families and your communities in Ardara and Aranmore, Ballyshannon and Ballybofey, Castlefin and Killygordon, Dunkineely and Donegal Town, Glenties and Gweedore, Moville and Mountcharles, Letterkenny, Lifford, Rossnowlagh, Ramelton and Stranorlar, are immensely proud of you and your work.
I also particularly want to acknowledge the women here on duty. The transformative role that women can play in peacekeeping, conflict resolution, and recovery has long been in evidence, but regrettably is still too often neglected. The UN’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda is a real priority for my Department, as I know it is for the Defence Forces. Irish Aid is doing its bit to promote women’s engagement in these sectors, but I really want to recognise the role of Irish women in our Defence Forces as an area where Ireland is leading by example.
Thank you all for your service. I congratulate you. You are doing your country proud.
[Go raibh míle maith agaibh as do séirbhís tábhachtach. Comhghairdeachas. Tá brodúil an tír libh.]