Possible implications of COVID-19 on International Peace and Security
The novel coronavirus COVID-19 has since January already claimed over 12,950 lives globally and has had an impact on more than 180 countries and territories. Many countries have instituted drastic measure to curb the spread of the virus. COVID-19 has not yet emerged as a major issue in most situations on the Council’s agenda, but this may well change in the coming days or weeks, possibly in ways that have implications for international peace and security.
One of the most obvious differences between this coronavirus and the past health crises on the Council agenda—and indeed any other issue that the Council has grappled with in 74 years—is its direct impact on the Council’s working methods. Since the highly contagious nature of this virus has prompted social distancing, the Council decided to postpone all of its meetings scheduled for the week of March 16. While the Council members made only one public statement during that period—a press statement on Central African Republic, agreed electronically—they spent the week testing video-conferencing. It remains unclear whether Council members will seek to meet in person during the current crisis.
The UN Charter and the Security Council’s provisional rules of procedure provide limited explicit guidance with regard to this situation, but both offer the Council a high degree of flexibility. For one thing, according to article 30 of the Charter, the Council “shall adopt its own rules of procedure”, and can therefore decide on its own practices. Article 28 (3) of the UN Charter says that the Council “may hold meetings at such places other than the seat of the Organization as in its judgment will best facilitate its work”. Rule 5 of the provisional rules of procedure states that the Council “shall normally meet at the seat of the United Nations”, but adds that “Any member of the Security-Council or the Secretary-General may propose that the Security Council should meet at another place. Should the Security Council accept any such proposal, it shall decide upon the place and the period during which the Council shall meet at such place.” Here, too, the Council itself can decide if meeting virtually is in line with rule 5.
Article 28 (1) of the Charter furthermore says that the Council “shall be so organized as to be able to function continuously”, and rule 1 of the provisional rules of procedure, declares that “the interval between meetings shall not exceed fourteen days”. Members’ determination to ensure the continuity of the Council’s work is thus consistent with the Charter and the rules of procedure.
Aside from its impact on the Council’s functioning, the current crisis has other potential impacts on international peace and security. First, the health of UN peacekeepers in missions that the Council authorises is likely to become a significant concern. This was the case with the two health crises that the Council has grappled with previously: HIV/AIDS and Ebola. However, unlike Ebola, which was concentrated in a specific region (West Africa in 2014-2015) or country (the Democratic Republic of the Congo more recently), COVID-19 is a global pandemic, and unlike HIV/AIDS, the onset of dire symptoms occurs within days or weeks. To help maintain the safety of peacekeepers, it may become essential to enhance the capacity in different missions to provide care in the field or medical evacuation as needed. Troop- and police-contributing countries may seek assurances from the UN Secretariat in this regard. Missions may also be faced with challenges around troop rotations caused by travel restrictions, quarantine provisions and the closure of borders and regional air hubs: the UN Mission in South Sudan has already experienced a postponement in its troop rotations.
Second, if not contained, the virus is likely to have a significant impact on the humanitarian response in many situations on the Council’s agenda. COVID-19 is already taxing health care systems in developed countries, and could have a devastating impact in places where such systems are far weaker. Concerns have already been raised over the scenario of the virus spreading through camps for refugees or internally displaced persons in South Sudan, Syria, Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh), and elsewhere. On Friday (20 March), Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo tweeted that in many of the meetings she had held remotely during the past week, she had heard “from sources on the ground about the potentially devastating impact” of the virus in Idlib and other parts of Syria. She added: “If anyone…still needed a reason to stop fighting, this is it”. The Council’s monthly briefing on the humanitarian situation in Syria, which had been planned for 25 March, has been postponed due to the virus.
The disruption of supply chains and the movements of persons and goods across borders may compound the humanitarian challenges, as medical supplies and other essentials may not reach people in need in conflict-affected countries. Already there are reports that humanitarian efforts may be hindered in Yemen, described by OCHA as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, by the decision of the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels to suspend flights to and from the country in an effort to combat the virus. Diplomatic efforts may be affected in conflict-affected countries due to travel restrictions.
Third, the humanitarian impacts of the virus may be a new consideration in the Council’s sanctions regimes. Recent media reports indicate, for example, that the UK is privately urging the US to soften its bilateral sanctions on Tehran to help Iran, which has been hard hit by coronavirus, to fight the pandemic.
Fourth, the Council—and the UN system more broadly—will have to contend with a challenging financial environment in which initiatives in the peace and security and humanitarian fields, among other areas, will face significant funding shortfalls. Unlike previous health crises the Council has dealt with, COVID-19 is shutting down swathes of the global economy. This may heighten the importance of cooperation among the Council, the UN system more broadly, regional organisations, national governments and other actors to promote the effective use of limited resources, to generate cost-efficient responses to crises, and to coordinate international responses.
In its 18 September 2014 resolution 2177 on the Ebola outbreak, the Council, among other things, expressed concerns about the impact of trade and travel restrictions on the affected countries and stressed “the crucial and immediate need for a coordinated international response to the Ebola outbreak” and the need for a coordinated approach by all relevant entities of the UN system.
In his remarks to the press on Thursday (19 March), Secretary-General António Guterres urged worldwide solidarity in facing the crisis, and observed that coordination of global responses would help to conquer the virus. Once its meeting modalities are clear, the Council may wish to consider a briefing on the various security and humanitarian implications of COVID-19, thematically and on situations on its agenda.