Expected Council Action
In January, the Council is expected to hold a briefing on the implementation of resolution 2532, which demanded a cessation of hostilities in all situations on the Council’s agenda to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock are the anticipated briefers.
Background and Recent Developments
On 23 March 2020, Secretary-General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in conflict-affected countries. On 1 July, the Security Council supported the Secretary-General’s call when it adopted resolution 2532, demanding a cessation of hostilities in all situations on its agenda and calling for all conflict parties to engage in a humanitarian pause for at least 90 days. The resolution exempted military operations against terrorist groups designated by the Security Council. It also requested the Secretary-General to ensure that the UN system, including country teams, accelerate their response to the pandemic.
US-China tensions caused the resolution to take more than three months to negotiate. A key sticking point was the US opposition to mentioning the World Health Organization (WHO), which the administration of US President Donald Trump has criticised during the crisis, along with China. (On 6 July 2020, the US notified Secretary-General António Guterres of its withdrawal from the WHO, effective 6 July 2021.) China, conversely, wanted a reference to the UN agency, which is mentioned in previous Council resolutions on health crises. A compromise was finally reached by adding language that said the Council had “considered” the General Assembly’s 2 April 2020 resolution on “Global solidarity to fight the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)”; that resolution acknowledged the crucial role played by the WHO and called for the application of the agency’s relevant guidelines.
During a 9 September 2020 videoconference (VTC), Council members received briefings by DiCarlo, Lacroix and Lowcock on the implementation of resolution 2532. DiCarlo noted that after some encouraging initial responses to the Secretary-General’s ceasefire appeal, many temporary truces had expired without extensions. She recalled the heightened risks to international peace and security posed by the pandemic—including the erosion of trust in public institutions, the aggravation of human rights violations and abuses, and the impact on political and peace processes—which “highlight the magnitude of the challenge of conflict prevention that lies before us”. Both DiCarlo and Lacroix described how UN peace operations were adapting.
Lowcock similarly flagged the “indirect consequences of the pandemic” in fragile countries that “are dwarfing the impact of the virus itself”, noting that these are “chiefly economic”. He highlighted the importance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and similar institutions in cushioning people from the worst effects of the global economic contraction to reduce the risks of instability and fragility. “To speak plainly, woefully inadequate economic and political action will lead to greater instability and conflicts in the coming years,” he said. “More crises will be on this Council’s agenda”.
Throughout the crisis, the Council has held a number of meetings related to the pandemic. The Secretary-General first briefed members in a closed VTC on his ceasefire appeal and the impact of COVID-19 on peace operations and humanitarian crises on 9 April 2020. High-level debates were organised by Germany on 2 July 2020 to consider the pandemic’s peace and security implications, on 12 August by Indonesia on the challenges to peacebuilding, and 24 September by Niger to consider global governance reforms post-COVID-19.
Several vaccines developed by late 2020 and the subsequent rollout of initial vaccinations in several countries has brought new hope for an end to the pandemic. During the 12 August 2020 Council debate, Sarah Cliffe of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, identifying secondary impacts of the pandemic on peace and security, flagged the potential for unequal access to vaccines to become a conflict driver.
Key Issues and Options
The January briefing is being organised in connection with the request in resolution 2532 that the Secretary-General provide updates to the Council on UN efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic in countries in situations of armed conflict or affected by humanitarian crises and on the impact of COVID-19 on the ability of peacekeeping operations and special political missions to carry out their mandated priority tasks. Council meetings on the pandemic, including the 9 September 2020 VTC, have considered potential threats that the pandemic poses to international peace and security. Resolution 2532 recognised that the “unprecedented extent of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security”.
No Council product is expected. The Council may, however, continue to hold periodic meetings to stay aware of and consider possible destabilising impacts of the pandemic. Such meetings could help prepare the Council to act quickly on looming peace and security threats as a result of the pandemic while, perhaps more significantly, also bringing attention to its socio-economic impacts that threaten international peace and security and prompting other relevant actors to address such problems.
Tunisia is organising this briefing as part of its January Council presidency. It served with France as co-penholders on resolution 2532. France and Tunisia had requested the Council’s first briefing on 9 September 2020 to be updated on the implementation of resolution 2532.
In addition to the difficult resolution negotiations, Council meetings on the pandemic over the last nine months were punctuated by US interventions highly critical of China and the WHO. The quite inflammatory statements echoed those of the Trump administration amid the major COVID-19 outbreak in the US. President-elect Joe Biden has said he intends to reverse the US withdrawal from the WHO, and the new US administration is likely to seek to reduce divisiveness during Council discussions of the global health crisis.
Another area of difference that has surfaced in Council consideration of the pandemic has been over sanctions. Russia and China often recall their view that sanctions, especially those imposed unilaterally, should be waived as they can undermine countries’ capacity to respond to the pandemic, an action the Secretary-General has previously suggested. These were points recalled at a 25 November Arria-formula meeting on unilateral coercive measures, co-sponsored by China, Niger, Russia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and South Africa.
UN DOCUMENTS ON COVID-19
|Security Council Resolution|
|1 July 2020S/RES/2532||This resolution demanded a general and immediate cessation of hostilities in all situations on the Council’s agenda and called upon all parties to armed conflicts to engage immediately in a 90-day humanitarian pause.|
|Security Council Letters|
|4 December 2020S/2020/1172||This was the summary of the Arria-formula meeting of the Security Council on the theme “End unilateral coercive measures now”.|
|14 August 2020S/2020/799||This contained the record of the briefings and statements from the 12 August open debate (held by VTC) on “Pandemics and the Challenges of Sustaining Peace”.|
|8 July 2020S/2020/663||This letter contained the records of the briefings and statements from the 2 July open debate on the peace and security implications of pandemics and international health crises.|
|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”|