What's In Blue

Posted Mon 5 Aug 2019

Council Adopts Presidential Statement on Ebola

On Friday (2 August), the Security Council adopted a presidential statement on the outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The adoption of the statement took place amidst ongoing efforts to stem the spread of the current outbreak, which was first reported in August 2018. Since then, over 1,800 people have died, and more than 2,700 cases have been reported. The virus is mostly located in North Kivu and Ituri (with four cases including two deaths in Goma). Three Ebola deaths across the border in Uganda were also confirmed in June.

The first draft of the statement was circulated by France, the penholder on the DRC, two days prior to the informal interactive dialogue (IID) on the Ebola outbreak in the DRC held on Wednesday (31 July). It seems that there was little divergence among Council member states during negotiations on this presidential statement. Negotiations were conducted via email, and the text passed silence on Friday morning and was adopted shortly thereafter.

The IID was convened at the request of six members: Belgium, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, France, Germany, and South Africa. The meeting gave different actors a chance to discuss what was happening on the ground with regard to Ebola, how the response to the outbreak was being organised, and the challenges faced in addressing the crisis. Speakers from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the AU, OCHA, and the UN Ebola Emergency Response Coordinator David Gressly briefed.

Members found that the closed nature of the meeting allowed for a frank discussion.  An additional benefit of the IID format was that the DRC was able to take part in the meeting, something that would not have been permitted in closed consultations, which only allow participation by UN officials and Council members.

The briefers reportedly highlighted the population’s mistrust of efforts to address Ebola, the need for close cooperation by international actors with the DRC government’s initiatives, and how the international community could help finance the response. Some briefers also highlighted the continued necessity of MONUSCO’s security umbrella in eastern DRC in order for the response to be successful, a point that may be revisited in December during discussions on MONUSCO’s renewal.

The statement adopted on Friday reflects many of the themes raised in the IID, according to Council members. The statement notes that the WHO has declared the Ebola outbreak in the DRC a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). This declaration was made on 17 July, almost a year after the current Ebola outbreak in the DRC began and following reports of a confirmed case of Ebola in Goma, a city of nearly 2 million inhabitants that is close to the Rwandan border and has an international airport. A PHEIC has only been declared four times in WHO’s history, including the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. According to WHO’s International Health Regulations of 2005, a PHEIC is “an extraordinary event which is determined, as provided in these Regulations: to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease; and to potentially require a coordinated international response”. WHO has also said that a PHEIC “implies a situation that is serious, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border; and may require immediate international action”.

Amidst concerns about the spread of the disease across borders, the presidential statement “emphasizes the need for continued cooperation and coordination with the DRC to address the Ebola outbreak, as well as with States in the region, as appropriate”.  In the statement, the Council further stresses “the need for government and civil society in affected and at-risk countries to work urgently with relevant partners for preventing, detecting and responding to possible cases, as well as to the optimal vaccine strategies that have maximum impact on curtailing the outbreak”.

Consistent with resolution 2439 of 30 October 2018, the Council reiterates concern in the statement about “attacks on humanitarian and medical personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties” that have hampered the Ebola response and facilitated the spread of the disease in the DRC and the broader region. In this regard, it condemns attacks and threats against these personnel, “including the killings of health workers, as well as attacks on their means of transport and equipment, hospitals and other medical facilities”. It also “demands…safe and unhindered access for humanitarian and medical personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties, to patients and others in need”.

The Council’s worries about attacks on health workers and facilities used in combatting the Ebola crisis echo those of the Secretary-General. In his 17 July report on the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) (S/2019/575), the Secretary-General expressed concern about “the worsening security situation in the affected areas and the attacks on Ebola response teams”. In particular, he referred to an increase in attacks in Beni and Butembo on Ebola response centres and stated that “Ebola response efforts continued to be hampered by community resistance and insecurity, with attacks on health-care personnel and facilities”. There have been several deaths of healthcare workers during the outbreak as a result of violence perpetrated against them, including an international WHO doctor.

To confront the Ebola outbreak, the Council underscores “the need for a comprehensive and community-based approach by building trust among the population, especially those most at risk, to facilitate an effective response”.

While Council members agree on the importance of combatting the epidemic, there are some differences of perspective on approach. The presidential statement includes reference to “optimal vaccine strategies,” but there may not be uniform agreement on such a strategy; a Merck vaccination has been used with success in the DRC, but there are alternative vaccinations being considered, amidst concerns about potential shortfalls and the long-term need for vaccinations if the virus were to persist and spread more rapidly. Some members also emphasise that the Ebola response should not be conflated with the work of MONUSCO—although they recognise the mission’s logistical role in the response—as they maintain the importance of distinguishing between a purely humanitarian effort and the mission’s activities.

It is likely the Council will continue to follow this issue closely, though no further meetings on the DRC are currently scheduled to take place this month.