In Hindsight: The Security Council and Health Crises
Last month’s emergency meeting on the ebola outbreak in West Africa was a rare situation when the Council considered a public health crisis and adopted a resolution. However, this was not the first time. The Council has also over the years held a series of meetings on the AIDS epidemic and previously discussed pandemics in the context of new challenges.
On 10 January 2000, the Council held its first meeting of the new millennium as an open debate on “The situation in Africa: the impact of AIDS on international peace and security”. Participants hailed it as precedent-setting; it was the first time the Council discussed a health issue as a security threat (S/PV.4087). The Council was prompted to consider the epidemic because of concern that the socio-economic consequences of the epidemic in Africa—such as weakened state institutions, millions of orphans and reversed economic development—could lead to conflict. By highlighting the seriousness of the epidemic with an open debate, the Council’s main objective was to generate greater global action. Then US Vice-President Al Gore chaired the meeting and former Secretary-General Kofi Annan was among the briefers.
There was controversy over the Council’s considering this non-traditional security threat. Notably, Russia and China did not make statements. Later that month, the president of the Council said in a letter to the president of the General Assembly that it was “high time” the UN develop a comprehensive agenda to combat AIDS and suggested the Assembly play a role in doing so (S/2000/75).
In July 2000, the Council added “HIV/AIDS and international peacekeeping operations” as an item to its agenda and adopted resolution 1308, which recognised that “the HIV/AIDS pandemic, if unchecked, may pose a risk to stability and security”. Resolution 1308 requested the UN to provide AIDS awareness training before and during deployment of peacekeepers. (Narrowing the issue to how it affected peacekeepers was more acceptable to those Council members who were reluctant to encroach on non-traditional security issues.)
Over the next five years, the Council received occasional briefings on the topic and two presidential statements were adopted (S/PRST/2001/16 and S/PRST/2005/33). Starting in January 2000 the Council incorporated language on AIDS in several resolutions renewing peacekeeping operations’ mandates and in its thematic resolutions. The agenda item specifically related to AIDS disappeared from the Council “seizure list” in 2009, but on 7 June 2011, the Council revisited the subject of AIDS and its impact on international peace and security during Gabon’s presidency, using its catch-all agenda item “Maintenance of international peace and security” (S/PV.6547). Resolution 1983, adopted at the meeting, asked the Secretary-General to consider the needs of people living with AIDS, particularly women and girls, in conflict and post-conflict situations, and recognised peacekeepers’ role in contributing to an integrated UN response to AIDS.
The Council also considered pandemics at a 23 November 2011 debate on new challenges to international peace and security (S/PV.6668). Portugal’s Foreign Minister Paulo Portas spoke presciently in light of the ebola epidemic: “Integrating the fight against pandemics into the peacebuilding strategies of post-conflict countries…is an essential measure to avoid jeopardizing the gains made in the consolidation of peace.”
The Council briefly discussed the current ebola epidemic on 8 July during its meeting on the UN Office for West Africa (S/PV.7213). Though Doctors Without Borders had declared the epidemic “totally out of control” on 20 June, the situation was still broadly perceived as a health crisis rather than a security issue. Following the meeting, a Council press statement on a range of issues in West Africa expressed “deep concern” over the outbreak and highlighted the need for “prompt assistance” (SC/11466).
It was not until the first week of September, however, that the Council, as it began considering the mandate renewal of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), focused closer attention on the epidemic and its potential to destabilise Liberia. Two weeks earlier, on 16 August in Monrovia, Liberia, protestors overran an ebola isolation centre, followed by the government quarantining the West Point slum, which also led to violence. In addition, the Council needed to consider the health of peacekeepers and concerns of troop-contributing countries (TCCs), some of which raised the possibility of withdrawing their soldiers. A 4 September meeting with TCCs and a 9 September briefing and consultations on Liberia focused exclusively on ebola (S/PV.7260). A few days later, the Council adopted resolution 2176, expressing “grave concern” over the Ebola epidemic in the region and authorising a three-month technical rollover of UNMIL, which halted the mission’s ongoing drawdown.
During the consultations on Liberia, Council president in September, Ambassador Samantha Power (US), suggested a dedicated Council session on the ebola epidemic. This session, held on 18 September under the agenda item “Peace and Security in Africa”, was the Council’s first “emergency meeting” on a health crisis (S/PV.7268). Similar to the initial meeting on AIDS, it was organised as an open debate with the idea that a Council meeting could spur greater global action. At the session, the Council adopted resolution 2177 in which it determined that “the unprecedented extent of the ebola outbreak in Africa constitutes a threat to international peace and security”. The resolution had 134 co-sponsors, the highest number for a resolution adopted by the Council.
Resolution 2177, the Council’s third resolution on a health crisis, stands out as the first recognition by the Council of the threat posed by an epidemic to international peace and security. In resolution 1308, the Council had refrained from this explicit designation and resolution 1983 was more tepid, recognising the challenges of the AIDS epidemic to the “development, progress and stability of societies”. Reflecting the urgent need to deal with ebola, resolution 2177 also called for actions from member states, regional organisations, the private sector and the UN that were more comprehensive than those addressed in Council resolutions on AIDS. It may signal a higher degree of consensus within the Council regarding the security implications of a health crisis and a more hands on engagement with the UN’s overall handling of the crisis.