What's In Blue

Posted Sun 5 Apr 2020

International Peace and Security, and Pandemics: Security Council Precedents and Options

Introduction: COVID-19 and the Security Council to Date

The Security Council has faced rising criticism over its silence on the COVID-19 pandemic. Unable to meet in person due to the pandemic’s outbreak in New York, members spent much of the second half of March adapting the Council’s working methods in ways that enabled remote meetings.

Council members have not, at the time of writing, agreed on a statement on the global health crisis. When Estonia initiated a press statement on 18 March, some members took the view that it went beyond the scope of the Council’s mandate of addressing threats to international peace and security. A subsequent, reportedly French-led, draft resolution has been discussed exclusively among the P5; it appears that the main impediment has been US-China divisions over the name of, and early responses to, the virus, with the US insisting on identifying it as emanating from China. Last week, Tunisia produced the first draft of a resolution, as well, expected to be negotiated initially among the E10 or elected members of the Council.

Meanwhile, the Secretary-General called for an immediate global ceasefire on 23 March, to “silence the guns” and “focus together on the true fight of our lives”. On 3 April, he delivered a detailed update, underlining that while parties had expressed their acceptance for his call for a global ceasefire, there were challenges to making ceasefires a reality and robust diplomacy was needed.

Security Council Report, writing on 21 March, noted that an option would be for the Council to seek a briefing on the security and humanitarian implications of COVID-19. On 2 April, nine elected Council members wrote to the presidency, requesting a closed video teleconference (VTC) on the impact of COVID-19 on issues relevant to the Council’s agenda, with a briefing by the Secretary-General. That same day, over 190 civil society organisations from all over the world addressed a letter to the Secretary-General, commending his call for a global ceasefire and, expressing their concern about Council inaction in this context, called on him to brief the Council immediately. The same group of organisations also sent letters to all Council members, urging that the Council act in support of a global ceasefire, starting by expressing their unanimous support for it.

If the Council is briefed on peace and security implications of COVID-19 and pursues a product, several reflections from its previous resolutions on AIDS and Ebola may be relevant, as well as the Secretary-General’s global ceasefire call, which echoes many similar themes of risks to humanitarian impediments and to the most vulnerable populations. An open question in connection with a possible resolution is whether the Council might itself take on any global actions in respect of the pandemic and its knock-on effects, beyond the country-specific issues on its agenda.

 COVID-19’s Global Reach and Impact

The COVID-19 disease has shown startling scope, scale and risk. In under four months, the novel coronavirus has infected at least 1.2 million people, with some 70,000 reported fatalities, sparing few countries. National responses have been strikingly uncoordinated even at the level of regional and sub-regional bodies; nonetheless, the dominant approach among affected countries has been to lock down or restrict “non-essential” activities and impose sharp curbs on international (and in some cases, national) travel. The disease and the response measures have had immediate effects on some of the world’s wealthiest countries, all among the first to be hit. Many are short of the hospital beds and specialised equipment for a crisis of this magnitude, including protective gear for frontline responders. Lacking essential medical supplies, some countries have questioned, or sought to redirect, the globalised supply chains for goods that suddenly appear strategic. Economic indicators suggest a deep recession, like nothing seen “since the second world war”, according to a World Bank analyst. The implications for countries with weak health systems may be especially harsh, and there are fears for populations that are highly exposed or confined, including detainees, displaced persons, asylum-seekers and refugees. Communities that rely heavily on humanitarian relief, or are subject to severe import restrictions, may face acute threats. Particular populations may also face added dangers due to racial discrimination, age and gender.

COVID-19 and International Peace and Security

The initial Council meetings on HIV/AIDS and Ebola in West Africa were prompted by the US, largely to generate more focused attention and serve as a call for action in situations where global responses had been insufficient, and poorly coordinated. COVID-19 does not lack for attention, but remains without a globally-coordinated response.

The Security Council has already established that a health crisis may also threaten international peace and security, including through its secondary impacts. Several common elements emerge from earlier resolutions, and the Secretary-General’s global ceasefire call, as matters the Council might be likely to address. (These resolutions and related information can be found here, at SCR’s UN documents for health crises.

The Global Ceasefire Call

In calling for a global ceasefire, Guterres described COVID-19 as a disease that “attacks all, relentlessly”, with some populations most at risk for “devastating losses”. At the launch of the global humanitarian response plan on 25 March, Guterres warned that the pandemic threatened to divert international attention and resources from resolving ongoing conflicts and supporting peace processes.

There is precedent for the Council calling for a country-specific ceasefire in a major health crisis. Resolution 2439 on Ebola in the DRC expressed “serious concern regarding the security situation in the areas affected by the Ebola outbreak, which is severely hampering the response efforts and facilitating the spread of the virus in the DRC and the wider region”; and called for the “immediate cessation of hostilities by all armed groups, including the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)”. It is also recognised that conflict-affected countries can be particularly fertile ground for pandemics: as resolution 1308 noted in the case of HIV/AIDS, the “pandemic is exacerbated by conditions of violence and instability, which increase the risk of exposure to the disease through large movements of people, widespread uncertainty over conditions and reduced access to medical care”.

Pandemics Creating or Exacerbating Fragility

In addition to conflict exacerbating pandemics, the Council has recognised that the reverse is also true: the pandemic can cause or aggravate instability. The September 2014 Security Council resolution 2177 on Ebola in West Africa, which determines that the unprecedented extent of the Ebola outbreak in Africa constitutes a threat to international peace and security, opens by recognising that the peacebuilding and development gains of the most affected countries could be reversed in light of the Ebola outbreak and that the outbreak is undermining the stability of those countries “and, unless contained, may lead to further instances of civil unrest, social tensions and a deterioration of the political and security climate”. Resolution 1308 on HIV/AIDS recognised in 2000 “that HIV poses one of the most formidable challenges to the development, progress and stability of societies and requires an exceptional and comprehensive global response”.

While both resolutions emphasised the particular impacts these health crises could have on disrupting fragile conflict and post-conflict countries, the HIV/AIDS resolution recognised “that the spread of HIV can have a uniquely devastating impact on all sectors and levels of society”. In the current conditions of COVID-19, accusations traded over the source and spread of the virus have already contributed to heightened international tension. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and others have called for both international and unilateral sanctions to be relaxed to permit countries access to necessary goods and equipment in the context of the pandemic. “Humanitarian exemptions to sanctions measures should be given broad and practical effect, with prompt, flexible authorization for essential medical equipment and supplies”, Bachelet said on 24 March.

International Coordination

One concern about the international response to COVID-19 is its limited coordination and policy coherence. During a 19 March virtual press encounter, the Secretary-General affirmed that the international community needs to move to a health strategy “that ensures, in full transparency, a coordinated global response, including helping countries that are less prepared to tackle the crisis”. He added that: “governments must give the strongest support to the multilateral efforts to fight the virus, led by the World Health Organization (WHO)”. More recently, the General Assembly resolution, adopted on 2 April, called for “a global response based on unity, solidarity, and renewed multilateral cooperation”.

If the Security Council were to call for enhanced coordination and cooperation among member states in addressing this crisis, it would be drawing on precedents. The September 2014 resolution 2177 on the Ebola crisis in West Africa underscored that “the control of outbreaks of major infectious diseases requires urgent action and greater national, regional and international collaboration”, and thus stressed the “crucial and immediate need for a coordinated international response to the Ebola outbreak”, including in its transnational dimensions. Similarly, the July 2000 resolution 1308 on HIV/AIDS stressed the need for coordinated efforts of all relevant UN organisations, and reaffirmed the importance of a coordinated international response to the pandemic. What makes the current pandemic different from past health crises—and an argument for why coordinated global responses based on mutual cooperation are now so critical—is not only that it has spread so rapidly across the globe, with a precipitous rise in the number of infections and fatalities, but that much about the virus remains unknown or unconfirmed, including crucial information on incubation, transmission, effective mitigation, drug response and immunity.

International Mobilisation and Health Commitments

 There have been several calls for enhanced international mobilisation to tackle the crisis. Addressing the G20 Summit on the coronavirus on 26 March, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom pleaded for a “paradigm shift in global solidarity—in sharing experience, expertise and resources, and in working together to keep supply lines open, supporting nations who need our support.” Similar messages have been conveyed in past health crises, including by the Council, several of whose resolutions delve into their technical, logistics, financial and educational aspects. Resolution 2177 recognised that the Ebola outbreak “may exceed the capacity of governments concerned to respond”, and urged members states, the AU, ECOWAS and the EU to “mobilize and provide immediately technical expertise and additional medical capacity”. It further called on member states to provide “urgent resources and assistance including deployable medical capabilities such as field hospitals with qualified and sufficient expertise, staff and supplies, laboratory services, logistical, transport and construction support capabilities, airlift and other aviation support and aeromedical services”. Resolution 2439 on the DRC outbreak stressed the need for the international community to remain engaged in supporting the strengthening of national health systems. It is less clear how this coordination might work in practice for COVID-19, notably in a situation where, for now, many traditional donor countries are deeply absorbed with their national health and economic responses.

Resolution 2177 recalls the International Health Regulations (IHR, 2005) as a framework for coordination of a public health emergency of international concern, and the importance of WHO member states abiding by these commitments, and coordinating their responses. Resolution 2439 encourages the government of the DRC, WHO, and other Ebola responders to continue to improve the transparency and accuracy of the daily reporting on the status of the outbreak and to enhance efforts to communicate with the public. By the same token, the Council has recognised the dangers of the transmission of false information. Resolution 2177 called on member states to enhance efforts to communicate to the public, including to mitigate against misinformation. It requested the Secretary-General to develop a strategic communication platform using existing United Nations System resources and facilities in the affected countries, as necessary and available, including to assist governments and other relevant partners.

Transparency and accuracy in daily reporting to governments, WHO, and other bodies, as called for in Resolution 2439 with respect to the DRC and Ebola, are not only a matter of increasing effective local responses, but could contribute to international understanding of how a pandemic behaves and encourage international solidarity.

UN Peace Operations

The current pandemic has already had a significant impact on the work of UN peacekeeping operations, and may risk undermining the ability of UN peace operations to deliver on their mandates. Missions have had to adapt their operations to help prevent the spread of the virus. Troop rotations have been postponed, and peacekeepers arriving in the field have been quarantined: in a letter of 4 April to troop and police contributing countries, the Secretary-General, underlining the importance of field missions to help protect vulnerable communities, among other things, says that he has directed the suspension of all rotations, repatriations and new deployments of uniformed personnel until 30 June, as a disease mitigation measure. Peace operations can also contribute to national COVID-19 responses. Patrols have observed physical distancing in keeping with WHO guidelines. The UN/AU Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) recently initiated a public awareness programme to help internally displaced persons living in camps in central and north Darfur to prepare for and fight against COVID-19. Radio Miraya, operated by UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), has been reporting on the potential effects of the coronavirus on South Sudan and playing public service announcements that educate listeners on precautionary measures against an outbreak. And the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has provided some medical equipment to hospitals in southern Lebanon to address the crisis.

The Security Council has addressed the role of peacekeepers in past health crises in ways that it might consider during this one. The Council could recognise the array of efforts being carried out by peacekeepers—for example, physical distancing, providing medical equipment to hospitals, and public awareness campaigns—if these appear to be having a constructive impact in the field. It recognised the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL)’s public awareness campaigns in Liberia during the Ebola epidemic, commending in resolution 2177 the efforts to communicate WHO protocols and preventive measures to the Liberian public, including through UNMIL Radio. (Days before, the Council adopted resolution 2176, renewing the mandate of UNMIL for three months, halting the ongoing drawdown of the mission and referring to a recent Secretary-General’s letter that underscored serious security risks from the epidemic.)

The Council could demonstrate sensitivity to the critical importance of measures to prevent peacekeepers from spreading the virus to vulnerable populations in host countries with fragile health care systems, recognising the Secretary-General’s recent decisions to suspend the arrival and departure of uniformed personnel. The bitter legacy of the introduction of cholera into Haiti by UN peacekeepers in 2010 is also instructive in this regard.

The safety and security of peacekeepers was a concern for the Council in addressing HIV/AIDS and Ebola. In resolution 1308 the Council “expressed concern at the potential damaging impact of HIV/AIDS on [peacekeepers’] health”, encouraging member states and requesting the Secretary-General to provide pre-deployment education and training for preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. A similar call for pre-deployment education and training on the risks of COVID-19 and the use of precautionary measures such as hand-washing and physical distancing could be encouraged in a potential Council product. To help maintain the safety of peacekeepers, it may also become essential to enhance the capacity in different missions to provide care in the field and medical evacuation as needed; the Council could address these issues in a product as well.

After consulting with international health organisations, the Departments of Peace Operations (DPO) and of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), the Council might further consider outlining and encouraging best practices and lessons learned in confronting COVID-19 that can be systematically incorporated into the work of UN peace operations.

 Human Rights

Concerns have been raised worldwide about the importance of upholding human rights in the context of undertaking measures in response to the COVID-­19 pandemic. Addressing the Ebola crisis in 2014, the Council saw this need clearly: resolution 2177, adopted unanimously, asked the Secretary-General to continue to provide human rights information and analysis in his reporting. The resolution also recognised the important role of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and “the role their briefings on human rights violations and hate speech play in contributing to early awareness of potential conflict”.

The Council has touched on a pandemic’s “possible growing impact on social instability and emergency situations” (resolution 1308). Already, COVID-19 has generated concerns over authoritarian measures and the suppression of civil liberties, particularly when these appear open-ended. In its resolution 2439 on the Ebola epidemic in the DRC, the Council demanded “that all parties to the armed conflict fully respect international law, including, as applicable, international human rights law”.

Nearly all current UN peace operations have human rights-related tasks in their mandates and most have a human rights component on the ground. With the possibility of technical rollovers being used in the next period to extend mandates, the human rights aspects of these mandates will be extended as well. In a potential thematic Council product on the impact of COVID-19, the Council may want to follow the precedent set in resolution 2177 and stress the importance of continuing human rights monitoring and analysis as part of the reporting it receives on situations on its agenda. It could further emphasise the importance of governments’ safeguarding human rights as a means of protecting civilians and preventing the exacerbation of already vulnerable situations and demand–as it did in 2018 with respect to the Ebola epidemic in the DRC–that all parties to the armed conflicts respect human rights law.

Humanitarian Response

The pandemic has spread to conflict-affected and fragile countries. Obvious threats are the vulnerability of displaced persons and countries already experiencing humanitarian crises with health systems already devastated by war. During last month’s informal briefing of Council members on Libya, one issue that arose was how Libya’s hospitals are already at full capacity treating war wounded. Humanitarian needs are likely to become more acute, and also more challenging to staff and to fund, as countries around the world focus on meeting their own COVID-19-related needs.

In its August 2018 resolution 2439 on Ebola in the DRC the Council noted that: “the security situation negatively impacts the ability to respond to and contain the outbreak of the Ebola virus”. It also condemned all attacks by armed groups, including those posing serious security risks for responders and jeopardising the response to the Ebola outbreak. It demanded “that all parties ensure full, safe, immediate and unhindered access for humanitarian and medical personnel, and their equipment, transport and supplies to the affected areas”, and stressed that “humanitarian response teams and hospitals and other medical facilities providing life-saving assistance and relief to those in need must be respected and protected, and that they must not be a target, in accordance with international law”.

In its Ebola-related resolutions, the Council commended the contribution and commitment of international health and humanitarian relief workers on the ground, as well as all other front-line actors involved in the response effort.

Like others who are amongst the most vulnerable during conflict, this effect of this pandemic on those in refugee and IDP camps is likely to be severe. An outbreak of COVID-19 in refugee camps, such as in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh which houses over a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, is a scenario that the Council may well have to face.

The Council may wish to acknowledge that a pandemic affects men and women differently. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa women were on the frontlines and female nurses made up the majority of the medical personnel who died from the virus. In Liberia authorities estimated that 75 per cent of Ebola deaths were women. Today women comprise 70 percent of the global health care workforce and dominate the community social work and civil society sectors. It is therefore likely that at the local level in some crisis situations, women will be at the forefront of the working with those with COVID-19.

The two Ebola-related resolutions adopted by the Council both stressed the different impact of Ebola on men and women and emphasised the need for a gender-sensitive response that should be developed with the engagement of women. In any Council product on COVID-19, the Council could acknowledge the particular impact of the pandemic on women and stress the importance of women’s participation in the development of the responses to the outbreak.


Initiatives are underway in other bodies. On 2 April, the General Assembly adopted a resolution on the COVID-19 pandemic co-sponsored by 188 countries that emphasised the importance of global solidarity to fight the disease. The resolution expressed the General Assembly’s “strong support for the central role of the United Nations system in the global response to the coronavirus”, and it called for “intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat the pandemic”. Among the forms of intensified international cooperation highlighted are: “[E]xchanging information, scientific knowledge and best practices and… applying the relevant guidelines recommended by the World Health Organization”. The Secretary-General launched on 25 March a $2 billion global humanitarian response plan to fund the fight against COVID-19 in the world’s poorest countries. At a summit of the Group of 20, convened remotely on 27 March, members pledged to inject $5 trillion in fiscal spending into the global economy to blunt the economic impact of the coronavirus and committed to implement and fund all necessary health measures needed to stop the virus’s spread. The Council meeting to consider international peace and security aspects of the new coronavirus can build on these steps. Choosing not to do so could raise questions about the Council’s relevance in the face of a mammoth global crisis with a range of international peace and security implications.

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