President Browne, UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson, distinguished guest speakers, ladies and gentlemen. It is a genuine pleasure for me to join you here in Galway for the opening of this important symposium.
The issues you will discuss over the coming days are among those at the forefront of Ireland's foreign policy priorities.
The world faces many challenges. Often when faced with reports from all over the world of seemingly intractable conflicts, increasing violence, and the dire humanitarian situations in which far too many people live, it can be easy to fall into the trap of despondency and even cynicism. This is not your approach. It is not mine either, and it is not Ireland's.
You have gathered here to talk about solutions, to empower leadership in communities - large and small - to embed and develop peace and to work on building sustainable livelihoods to ensure communities are invested in their own development. This is important work and it is work that I and the Irish government fully support. It lies at the heart of our foreign policy, which, crucially, includes the Irish people’s development programme. I am proud that we have managed to sustain and develop that programme over the past three years of severe economic difficulty and challenge at home. And I am proud that this has been recognised internationally as an act of great solidarity by the Irish people with those whose lives and rights are under threat in some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities on earth.
Irish Engagement in Great Lakes
For those of you visiting Ireland for the first time you will have discovered that Ireland is not a large country geographically, nor in fact, demographically. But this has never stopped Irish people believing themselves to be global citizens with a voice on an international stage. It is a matter of great pride that Ireland and the Irish have connections to every country and all corners of the world and that Irish people have made a difference in many of those countries, not least the thousands of Irish missionaries who have worked in the fields of education and health in some of the poorest countries in the world.
At the beginning of the 20th century an Irish man working for the British Foreign Service was posted to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 110 years ago the Casement Report was published - a report cataloguing such widespread abuses of human rights that it ultimately led to a change in the administration of the country. Roger Casement's report did not solve the problems of the Congo and its neighbours at the time, nor could it. But it provides clear evidence of an Irish history of bearing witness to gross injustice, abuses of human rights, and a history of seeking resolutions.
Many years later, and 20 years ago this year, another Irish man bore witness to the genocide in Rwanda. Fergal Keane's reporting for the BBC from Rwanda is etched on the memory of all who watched his reports. It is hard for those at a distance to perceive of the horrors which so many lived through at that time, and since.
Role of Special Envoy Mary Robinson
Special Envoy Mary Robinson joins that great tradition of the Irish who bear witness to the terrible and inhumane abuses which can be inflicted in times of conflict and, even more importantly, seeks to make change happen. Her visit as Ireland’s President to Rwanda, which also took place 20 years ago, brought an international focus to the situation there. Her work since has been to reduce the likelihood of such terrible events reoccurring anywhere in the world and to support those who are working to build peace and new futures, building structures which develop community and livelihoods, undermining the environments in which conflict and human rights abuses are enabled.
The region of the Great Lakes and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in particular, has seen too many violations of the human rights of the people who live there.
The country and the entire region continue to face one of the most complex and enduring humanitarian crises in the world. You know too well that ongoing conflict, human rights violations and gender-based violence in the east of the country continue to displace hundreds of thousands of people internally and across borders into neighbouring countries. All regional Governments must cooperate with the United Nations and play a positive role in searching for peace and stability. Central to this is the process of reconciliation, justice for the perpetrators of human rights abuses and peace building.
In Mary Robinson as UN Special Envoy in the Great Lakes region, I and the Irish Government know that the region has a dedicated, passionate advocate. I can assure you that she has our full support. Her well known track record as an advocate for the marginalised and those in greatest need is a long and distinguished one, both in Ireland and globally, particularly, during her tenure as UN High Commissioner on Human Rights.
However, I recognise that the task that has been given to the Special Envoy is not an easy one. She and her office require the strong and consistent support of the international community in order to effectively fulfil the ambitious mandate she has been given to oversee the implementation of the framework agreement on peace security and co-operation. She and her office will also require your support. Gathered here, there is a group of people who understand the complexity of the challenges and have the capacity to work towards solutions.
It is imperative that the international community’s work with political leaders in the Great Lakes regions is complemented by strong support for Mary Robinson’s vision of a bottom-up civil society engagement in the peace process, and, in particular, one which allows the greater engagement of women.
Ireland is committed to supporting this process. Partnership is the cornerstone of Ireland’s approach with civil society and this is built on a shared commitment to the foundations of sustainable development, including gender equality.
Last December I announced Irish Government support of €300,000 in support of Mary Robinson’s work as Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General. Today, I am pleased to announce further funding of €100,000 in support of the Women’s Platform for the implementation of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Great Lakes Region.
This platform is undertaking crucial work in the region focused on supporting key women’s groups in the region in order to combat violence against women, develop women’s livelihoods and promote access to clean energy.
We believe that programmes such as this which both provide direct support to women on the ground and advocate for further support for the region will make real changes for people living in the region and impact directly on further embedding peace agreements already reached.
The Role of Women in Development
Development processes can marginalise different sections of society such as poor men and women and minorities. In the developing world, in particular, women continue to be under-represented in decision- making and leadership in several areas.
Ireland recognises the right of women to participate in policy processes as central to sustainable and equitable development.
We know that the barriers to women’s leadership opportunities are a result of the power imbalances that exist.
One of the worst manifestations of this is gender based violence. Women in fragile states are particularly at risk of being victims of violence. Ireland's support is aimed at preventing and responding to gender based violence and advocating a survivor based approach in responses.
In the DRC specifically, Ireland is supporting a project which addresses the root causes of gender inequality and violence against women through economic and social empowerment.
Ireland firmly believes that, in addressing issues surrounding violence against women and girls, we must tackle the structural underpinnings of gender inequality which facilitate disempowerment, under-representation, and ultimately vulnerability of women and girls. We need to understand attitudes, behaviours, and practices that perpetuate gender stereotypes, promote unequal power relations and facilitate discrimination and violence against women and girls. We must also recognise the strong link between equal participation in political and public life and the prevention of human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence. Without equitable female participation in decision-making processes at all levels, existing unequal power structures and inequalities will persist.
Investing in education for girls reduces poverty and promotes long- term and sustainable development. We know that educating girls and women results in healthier and better-educated families, reduces child mortality rates, and encourages greater political participation.
Women smallholder farmers play a vital role in African agriculture, and indeed in enhancing global food and nutrition security. They are responsible for producing much of Africa’s food, and often perform a huge amount of the family’s farm work. Despite their important role, they are often discriminated against in terms of access to land, advisory services, and credit.
Ireland has a particular interest in seeing gender inequality addressed in agricultural programming, and supports NGOs focussing on women farmers’ access to land, financial services, new technologies, and agricultural extension services and markets. As well as increasing the food security of households, an enhanced role in decision- making has been linked to the empowerment of women through improved agriculture techniques.
Ireland's work at Multilateral level
Ireland has been playing a strong and prominent international role in the negotiating process now under way to agree a new framework for global development after the MDGs, post-2015. We recognise gender equality as a human right and it is a key priority for Ireland in this post-2015 processes. I have called, and we have called clearly in New York for a standalone global development goal on gender equality, in addition to the effective mainstreaming of gender equality across all goals in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Framework. I am confident that we will succeed.
Ireland remains fully committed to combating all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls and will continue to advocate at the regional and international level, including as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
As most of you here are aware, in 2000 the United Nations Security Council adopted a landmark resolution. Resolution 1325 recognised the distinct, adverse effect of conflict on women and girls, as well as the importance of their vital contribution to building sustainable peace. In 2010, Ireland conducted a ground-breaking cross-learning initiative. It brought together women and men from Timor-Leste, Liberia and Northern Ireland, and drew upon their direct experiences. Mary Robinson played a crucial role. This process fed into in our first National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, which reflects a genuine whole-of-government approach.
I am pleased to say that much has been achieved since this Plan was launched. It has been widely received as an example of best practice by both the UN and the EU, among others. Ireland is a donor country with direct experience of conflict ourselves. We are in a unique and credible position to be leaders on these issues. Our Plan was built on extensive civil society consultation, and includes an independent monitoring mechanism, which was chaired very effectively by Liz McManus. The Monitoring Group has very successfully held us to account. We have made great strides in terms of gender-mainstreaming, the prevention of gender-based violence, and in international lobbying and advocacy. However, as the Monitoring Group noted in its last report, there is much still to be achieved.
In the coming weeks a Consultative Group, comprising civil society organisations, independent experts, and statutory authorities will be launching a public consultation on our next National Action Plan. I would encourage all of you to engage with this process and submit your input on how our next Plan can build on the first, and on how we can adopt an even more transformative approach. Because that is what is required: transformation. A transformation in our perceptions of women’s role in society and in peace building; a transformation in the way all of us, including political leaders, adopt this agenda as their own.
The most recent Security Council resolution on women, peace and security, 2122, was adopted last October. It represents a pivot away from a focus on women and victims towards a positive agenda of women’s participation and women’s leadership. The UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon, has commissioned a global study on women, peace and security in advance of a High level Review in 2015. The themes of leadership, participation and empowerment that you will discuss here in NUI Galway are at the very heart of the conversation.
In fragile states, such as the DRC, where leaders have a significant task in strengthening society, the presence of women leaders can help to change attitudes and mind-sets and promote equality. Women leaders can press for women’s rights to be upheld, as well as working for societal change that benefits all. Our support to NGOs in DRC includes targeted programmes to empower women through greater participation in development processes, and on the effective exercise of women’s right to information.
In line with our policy commitment to addressing the effects of protracted crises, which often do not receive the attention they deserve, since 2009 Ireland has provided almost €45 million in funding to the DRC. Through Irish Aid support, trusted partners Trócaire and Christian Aid are facilitating empowerment of women in the DRC through their selection and active participation in Water and Sanitation Committees, and supporting survivors of Sexual and Gender Based Violence to identify their own needs, in terms of psychosocial, medical, legal and financial assistance.
It is still unacceptably difficult to reach many of the people who need our help in the Great Lakes region. Respect for humanitarian principles and the need to ensure that humanitarian actors have unhindered access to populations in need must be paramount. The Irish Government, along with our partners at the EU and UN, condemns all forms of external support to destabilising forces active in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The focus by all sides must be on finding durable solutions to the ongoing crisis in the DRC and the region. You are a part of this process. Connections made and ideas raised here may well result in genuine change.
In this context, I am delighted to introduce the next speaker.
I can certainly be assured that Mary Robinson is committed to seeing a major positive change for the region both in the implementation of political settlements and the lives of communities on the ground. Long before she was elected Ireland’s first woman president in 1990, Mary Robinson, the human rights lawyer and activist, was advocating for the rights of women in Ireland. She has spent a lifetime fighting discrimination, empowering women and through her work as a member of The Elders, making the concerns of ordinary people, a priority on the world stage.
When appointed in March 2013 as Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa she became the first woman appointed as a UN Special Envoy. This marked another first not only for her but in the progress of women’s rights and gender equality. I am delighted to welcome to the stage UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region, Mary Robinson, and to wish you all well for your deliberations here.