Pandemics and Security
Expected Council Action
In July, the Council will hold an open debate on the peace and security implications of pandemics and international health crises. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas will chair the session. Secretary-General António Guterres, ICRC President Peter Maurer, and AU Commissioner for Social Affairs Amira Elfadil Mohammed are the likely briefers. Because the measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are likely still to be in place, the debate is expected to be held as an open videoconference (VTC) and statements by non-Council members are expected to be submitted in writing.
Key Recent Developments
On 11 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In the two weeks before the declaration, cases of COVID-19, which was first identified in China in late 2019, had expanded thirteen-fold and the number of affected countries had tripled, with 118,000 cases in 114 countries and over 4,000 deaths, according to the WHO. With New York City becoming a new epicentre of the pandemic, UN headquarters closed down from 16 March (other than for essential services), and over the next two weeks the Security Council adapted its working methods to hold meetings remotely.
On 23 March, the Secretary-General called for an immediate global ceasefire to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. He highlighted the particular challenges posed by the pandemic to conflict-affected countries where “health systems have collapsed”, “health professionals are few in number and have often been targeted”, and refugees and displaced persons are “doubly vulnerable”. The appeal received some initial positive responses, with armed groups in a number of countries committing themselves to ceasefires.
On 2 April, the General Assembly adopted a resolution, co-sponsored by 188 countries, that emphasised the importance of global solidarity in fighting the disease. The resolution acknowledged the “crucial role played by the World Health Organization”, expressed “strong support for the central role of the United Nations system in the global response”, and called for “intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat the pandemic”.
The Security Council, for its part, has come under widespread criticism over its inability to address the crisis. As early as 18 March, Estonia proposed a Council press statement on the pandemic. At the time, some members questioned the pandemic’s link to international peace and security and felt that some of the statement’s contents went beyond the Council’s mandate. It was also around this time that France initiated high-level discussions among the P5 on a draft resolution, which soon stalled over US-China divisions on identifying the origins and name of the virus and describing early responses. By the end of March, Tunisia proposed a draft resolution to the Council’s ten elected members, which, similarly to the draft being negotiated by the P5, would express support for the Secretary-General’s ceasefire appeal.
As the negotiation processes continued on the two resolutions, Council members held a closed VTC on 9 April with the Secretary-General on COVID-19’s “impact on Council agenda situations”, including peace operations, humanitarian crises, and the Secretary-General’s ceasefire appeal. Guterres told members that beyond being a health crisis with social and economic impact, “the pandemic also poses a significant threat to the maintenance of international peace and security”.
Guterres outlined eight particular threats posed by the pandemic. They included the potential for the pandemic to create discontent with public institutions, particularly if citizens perceive that authorities were mishandling the response or were not being transparent about the scope of the crisis, and for the economic fallout to create “major stressors”, especially in fragile and less developed countries. The postponement of elections or referenda or the decision to proceed with a vote “can create political tensions and undermine legitimacy”, the Secretary-General’s statement notes.
Other threats, according to Guterres, are that actors in conflict settings could use the uncertainty created by the crisis to promote further division and turmoil, that terrorist groups could exploit the health crisis, that the risk of bioterror attacks could increase, that the pandemic could stall peace processes or impede crisis diplomacy, and that it could trigger or exacerbate human rights challenges. In a short set of press elements Council members expressed “support for all efforts of the Secretary-General concerning the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to conflict-affected countries and recalled the need for unity and solidarity with all those affected”.
On 14 April, US President Donald Trump announced that the US would halt funding to the WHO for 60 to 90 days to review the agency’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which Trump has strongly criticised. Six weeks later, Trump announced that the US would be terminating its relationship with the WHO and ending its funding to the agency.
By the time of the 14 April announcement, negotiations on the respective P5 and E10 draft resolutions had largely concluded, and France and Tunisia proceeded to merge the drafts into a single text, which they presented to Council members during a 23 April closed VTC. But negotiations were then stymied over whether to mention the WHO in the resolution: the US opposed any such reference, while China insisted on it. On 7 May, the co-penholders placed the draft resolution under silence procedure, believing that they had found compromise language by replacing an explicit reference to the WHO with a reference to the “United Nations system, including specialized health agencies”. The US broke the silence over this issue, however, and during the second half of June, France and Tunisia began a new push to find a compromise on the WHO issue.
While the Council has yet to collectively pronounce itself on the pandemic, members have discussed the impact of COVID-19 in nearly all its country-specific and thematic meetings. Press elements following such sessions have addressed different dimensions of the pandemic in the particular context–-such as calling for cooperation between UN peace operations and host governments to contain the disease, expressing concern about the health and safety of peacekeepers, and calling for ceasefires or for conflict parties to de-escalate in line with the Secretary-General’s ceasefire appeal.
Key Issues and Options
The open debate is meant to consider and promote greater understanding of the peace and security implications of international health crises and the relevant role of the Security Council therein, including in conflict prevention. It will look to identify “triggers” that can cause a health crisis to become a security crisis, such as socio-economic impacts that are often root causes of conflict: unemployment, social tensions and stigma, and poor governance. There is the issue of how pandemics worsen humanitarian crises in conflict countries; conversely, how violence fosters the spread of disease, for example by large movements of people and by hindering coordinated responses; and their impact on peace operations. Lessons from previous health crises such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic and more recent Ebola crises in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are another issue for consideration.
As this issue went to press, it appeared likely that the Council would adopt the French-Tunisian draft resolution that demands a general and immediate cessation of hostilities in all situations on its agenda and calls for all parties to engage in an immediate humanitarian pause for at least 90 days. An option, if an agreement remains elusive, could be a shorter resolution or presidential statement narrowly focused on just those elements directly related to the Secretary-General’s ceasefire appeal, while another option is to table the draft resolution, compelling members to decide how to vote.
Negotiations on the COVID-19 draft resolution have pitted the US against China. US criticism and rhetoric about China over the pandemic, amid the major US outbreak, have exacerbated tensions between the countries. China’s insistence on referring to the WHO—which has been mentioned in other Council resolutions on HIV/AIDS and Ebola—has at times been supported by developing countries on the Council that are more reliant on the UN agency. (For more on the Council’s reactions to other health crises, see “International Peace and Security, and Pandemics: Security Council Precedents and Options”: What’s in Blue, 5 April 2020.)
Securing a Council resolution has been important for France. President Emmanuel Macron started the initiative and has sought to organise a P5 summit to agree on a common approach to the pandemic. Several elected members have also been keen to see the Council address the pandemic. In addition to Tunisia’s role, the Council’s elected members (minus South Africa) requested the Council’s 9 April briefing by the Secretary-General on COVID-19, and during the May impasse, Estonia and Germany floated the idea of a more concise resolution centred on the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call, though this did not gain traction. Russia and South Africa have at times pushed for the Council to address the issue of lifting unilateral sanctions or establishing broader sanctions exemptions to ensure effective COVID-19 responses, citing, among other things, the Secretary-General’s appeal at a March G20 summit to waive sanctions that can undermine countries’ capacity to respond to the pandemic.
UN DOCUMENTS ON COVID-19
|Security Council Letter|
|22 June 2020S/2020/571||This was the concept note for the 2 July open debate on pandemics and security.|
|General Assembly Document|
|2 April 2020A/RES/74/270||This resolution reaffirmed the General Assembly’s “commitment to international cooperation and multilateralism and its strong support for the central role of the UN system in the global response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic”|