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Neutrality debate: Vital that we retain the triple lock

Prof Ray Murphy: Any peacekeeping operation outside the UN framework would most likely be EU- or Nato-led, and would lack international legitimacy

UN peacekeeping is one of the most successful examples of multilateralism today. At the same time, many peacekeeping operations are delegated by the UN to regional organisations such as the African Union, the EU and Nato. While a key responsibility of peacekeepers today is the protection of civilians, there is a broader international responsibility to protect vulnerable populations from atrocities, as acknowledged in the 2005 World Summit document. However, it reiterated that any response under this doctrine should be within the framework of the UN.

UN peacekeepers are frequently confronted by hostile environments. This has prompted the Security Council to respond by authorising more robust stabilisation and peace enforcement missions, which may involve using force to neutralise hostile armed groups. Such operations are controversial and, in essence, authorise a more combative role for peacekeepers. This has increased tensions among the major powers and these have spilt over into all UN activities, in particular the work of the Security Council. This has been reflected in the paralysis when responding to the brutal wars in Syria and Yemen.

In the current debate about Russia’s use of its veto, it seems to be forgotten that this privilege is extended to all five permanent members of the Security Council – United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France. Furthermore, when the Council is unable to act, the issue can be transferred to the General Assembly for approval, an organ with far greater representation and legitimacy within the UN system.

Most of the current discussion regarding the triple lock is focused on the Russian ability to veto peacekeeping operations. Part of Ireland’s neutrality stance, the triple lock means that a mandate from the United Nations, a Government decision and a Dáil vote are required to send more than 12 troops overseas.


A quick review of the use of the veto shows how the US has most often exercised it. In fact, in 2002 the US threatened to use its veto in the Security Council to prevent the renewal of all UN operations in its efforts to evade the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

Ireland played a significant role while a member of the Security Council. This success owed much to our perceived independence and history, especially on a range of issues including disarmament, human rights and nuclear non-proliferation. Ireland has also advocated for reform of the UN in order to strengthen its mechanisms. This will not be helped by participating in missions that do not have prior UN approval. It would also set a precedent for bypassing the UN in the future.

The UN is often dysfunctional and inefficient but it remains the most important international organisation with responsibility for peace and security. If Ireland is really committed to the UN Charter and international law, then it cannot be part of any decision that goes outside this framework.

The 2015 Defence White Paper confirmed Ireland’s policy of military neutrality. This is a fundamental tenet of Irish foreign policy that underpins engagement in all peacekeeping operations. Deployment of Defence Forces’ personnel on peacekeeping missions should continue to be in accordance with the commitment to the triple lock process made before the second referendum on the Nice Treaty. Any peacekeeping operation outside the UN framework would most likely be EU- or Nato-led and would lack international legitimacy.

Unfortunately, the combination of political and security challenges confronting peacekeeping missions may damage the priority given to human rights, rule of law and good governance. Ireland can still play a role in promoting these principles and supporting political processes ahead of military solutions. Our real strength lies in our capacity to utilise our soft power to forge alliances with a wide range of global actors, including our EU partners, while maintaining an independent foreign policy on certain issues.

Prof. Ray Murphy, Irish Centre for Human Rights, School of Law, University of Galway