24 October 2019

A fitting tribute to Irish
UN peacekeepers at
Saint Mary’s Cathedral

The United Nations Peace Garden near the West Door of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Today is United Nations Day (24 October 2019) and the beginning of UN Disarmament Week.

The United Nations Peace Garden in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, pays tribute to the Irish men and women who have served with peacekeeping forces, and lost their lives in peacekeeping missions in places as diverse as Lebanon, Cyprus, Somalia, the Congo, Liberia, East Timor, the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East.

The earliest name and date recall C/S Felix Grant (3 October 1960), and the most recent name and date recall FSO Paul O’Donnell (9 September 1995).

This is a fitting tribute to almost 60 years of peacekeeping by members of the armed forces and Gardai as a positive expression of Irish foreign policy.

UN Day marks the anniversary of the entry into force in 1945 of the United Nations Charter. With the ratification of this founding document by the majority of its signatories, including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the United Nations officially came into being.

This day, 24 October, has been celebrated as United Nations Day since 1948. In 1971, the United Nations General Assembly recommended that member states observe the day as a public holiday.

To mark UN Day, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres has announced that next year’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations will feature a large and inclusive global conversation on the role of global co-operation in building the future we want.

Starting next January [2020], the UN will hold dialogues around the world and across borders, sectors and generations. The aims are to reach the global public, to listen to their hopes and fears, and to learn from their experiences.

The United Nations was founded in 1945 to support collective action to realise peace, development and human rights for all. The UN75 initiative seeks to spark dialogue and action on how to build a better world despite the many challenges we face.

The annual observance of Disarmament Week, which begins today (24 October), was first called for in the Final Document of the General Assembly’s 1978 Special Session on Disarmament. At the time, I was involved in the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

The preparation of NGOs for that special session, and the shared submission to the Irish government at the time, led to the re-foundation the following year (1979) of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Irish CND). I was the first chair of Irish CND and am now its President.

The Final Document of the UN Special Session on Disarmament in 1978 called for abandoning the use of force in international relations and seeking security in disarmament. States were invited to highlight the danger of the arms race, propagate the need for its cessation and increase public understanding of the urgent tasks of disarmament.

In 1995, the General Assembly invited governments, as well as NGOs, to continue taking an active part in Disarmament Week in order to promote a better understanding among the public of disarmament issues.

Every year during the annual United Nations Treaty Event, much of the attention is focused on the Arms Trade Treaty. The treaty, regulating the international trade in conventional arms – from small arms to battle tanks, combat aircraft and warships – entered into force on 24 December 2014.

The elimination of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction remains a central but elusive objective of the UN. Despite commitments from member states, there has been limited progress on this long-standing goal. For nuclear weapons, this is largely due to growing tensions between nuclear-armed states and the rigidity of the disarmament machinery.

In the meantime, the southern hemisphere has already become almost entirely one nuclear-weapon-free zone because of regional treaties: the Treaty of Rarotonga, covering the South Pacific, the Treaty of Pelindaba, covering Africa, the Treaty of Bangkok covering south-east Asia, the Treaty of Tlatelolco, covering Latin America and the Caribbean and the Antarctic Treaty.

Recently, the Treaty on a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia also came into force, the first such instrument situated entirely north of the Equator.

The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was a defining moment for global efforts to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit arms trade: the agenda included a specific target to significantly reduce illicit arms flows by 2030.

The UN General Assembly and other UN bodies, supported by the Office for Disarmament Affairs, work to advance international peace and security through the pursuit of the elimination of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and the regulation of conventional arms.

The office promotes:

● Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation
● Strengthening the disarmament regimes in respect to other weapons of mass destruction, and chemical and biological weapons
● Disarmament efforts in the area of conventional weapons, especially landmines and small arms, which are the weapons of choice in contemporary conflicts

It seems one of the missing agenda items in the current ‘Brexit’ debate is the reality that the UN and the European Union were responses to two World Wars that had devastated Europe in particular.

The rise in populism in Trump’s America, ‘Brexit’ Britain and Putin’s Russia, and the seeming intransigence of France and China – all permanent members of the UN Security Council – show how we have to be more imaginative in supporting disarmament initiatives in the run-up to the 75th anniversary of the United Nations this year. A more peaceful world is the most fitting tribute to the Irish men and women commemorated in the UN Peace Garden in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

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