What's In Blue

Posted Tue 30 Jun 2020

Security Council Resolution on COVID-19*

Tomorrow (1 July) the Security Council is expected to adopt a resolution supporting the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. The draft resolution expresses “grave concern about the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world, especially in countries ravaged by armed conflicts, or in post-conflict situations, or affected by humanitarian crises”, “demands a general and immediate cessation of hostilities in all situations on its agenda” and “calls upon all parties to armed conflicts to engage immediately in a durable humanitarian pause for at least 90 consecutive days” to enable delivery of humanitarian assistance. The draft resolution was placed in blue by its co-penholders France and Tunisia on Sunday night (28 June). The 24-hour written voting procedure for members to submit their votes started at 11 am today. The Council presidency is expected to convene a video conference (VTC) shortly after the voting period concludes to announce the results.

The negotiations have been protracted largely due to China-US differences over whether to include a reference to the World Health Organization (WHO) in the draft. The US objections started when President Donald Trump announced on 14 April that the US would halt funding to the UN agency pending a review of how it had handled the coronavirus pandemic. Six weeks later, Trump said that the US would permanently terminate its relationship with the WHO. China, on the other hand, has insisted on referring to the UN specialised agency, which the Council has also mentioned in previous health crisis resolutions on HIV/AIDS and Ebola.

At one point in early May, the co-penholders believed that they had found a compromise by referring more obliquely to specialised health agencies, rather than to the WHO, in a paragraph on the need to support all countries and all relevant entities of the UN system. The penholders placed the draft resolution under a silence procedure on 7 May on the understanding that the US was amenable to this proposal. However, the US broke silence over this issue.

In recent weeks, the co-penholders launched a new push for a compromise. They proposed that the draft could include that members had “considered” the General Assembly’s 2 April resolution 74/270, “Global solidarity to fight the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)”. This resolution acknowledges the crucial role played by the WHO in the global response and calls for the application of the relevant guidelines recommended by the agency. This suggestion received the support of the other members, was signed off on by the US, and then accepted by China.

After the draft resolution was put in blue, Russia raised concerns over language on the issue of sanctions waivers, which had been changed at the request of the US. This has been a sensitive issue in earlier rounds of negotiations. At a G20 summit on the pandemic on 26 March, the Secretary-General suggested waiving sanctions that can undermine countries’ capacity to respond to the pandemic. The draft resolution does not explicitly mention the Secretary-General’s appeal for sanctions waivers. Earlier drafts welcomed “all efforts and measures proposed by the Secretary-General concerning the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to conflict-affected countries”, thus encompassing the Secretary-General’s call for sanctions waivers. However, the draft placed directly in blue on Sunday, bypassing a silence procedure, replaced “welcoming” with “recognizing”. Russia indicated initial objections to the changes and said that it intended to submit amendments by this morning, but did not submit any proposals, enabling the draft resolution as tabled to be put to a vote.

The draft resolution in blue specifies that a ceasefire and humanitarian pause do not apply to military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or Da’esh), Al-Qaida and Al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups that have been designated by the Security Council. It also recognises that conditions of violence and instability in conflict situations can exacerbate the COVID-19 pandemic, and that inversely the pandemic can exacerbate the adverse humanitarian impact of conflict. Members have noted that the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening in some conflict countries, making the resolution still important amid questions over the added value of the Council backing the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call more than three months since his appeal. The draft resolution further states that the unprecedented extent of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security.

The draft resolution requests the Secretary-General to 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, as well as on the impact of COVID-19 on the ability of peace operations to deliver their mandated priority tasks. Later this week, the Secretary-General is expected to brief Council members at an open debate on the peace and security implications of pandemics and international health crises being organised by Germany as it takes over the Council presidency from France.

Earlier Council initiatives

Even before the Secretary-General’s global ceasefire appeal, Council members had started discussing a product on COVID-19. Estonia first proposed a Council press statement on 18 March. At the time, China and South Africa questioned the pandemic’s link with international peace and security, and whether elements in the statement such as references to the global economy fell within the Council’s mandate. At around this time, according to news reports, French president Emmanuel Macron initiated high-level discussions among the P5 on a draft resolution for a general and immediate worldwide cessation of hostilities and proposed a P5 summit to agree on a common approach to the pandemic.  The P5 talks soon stalled over China-US divisions over the origins and name of the virus, which the US sought to link explicitly to China in the text, and description of early responses. As these differences between the US and China became clear, Estonia paused a discussion on its draft press statement.

At the end of March, as the P5 struggled to agree on a draft resolution, Tunisia circulated a draft resolution to the Council’s ten elected members (E10) to endorse the Secretary-General’s ceasefire appeal. Differences among the E10 emerged over the language on sanctions. South Africa sought language on lifting or waiving economic measures—citing the Secretary-General’s appeal to the G20, as well as similar calls by the AU and the Southern African Development Community. While several members supported South Africa, European members contended that this would be a non-starter with P5 members, particularly the US. But they also had reservations about the implications for EU sanctions, which they noted already provided humanitarian exemptions.

After expert-level negotiations on 6 and 8 April, Tunisia placed the text under an E10 silence procedure on 8 April, the evening before Council members’ first VTC on the pandemic with the Secretary-General to consider COVID-19’s “impact on Council agenda situations”. The elected members, minus South Africa, had requested the briefing a week earlier.

South Africa broke the E10 silence over the sanctions issue shortly after the Council’s 9 April meeting. Not wanting to further delay agreement among the E10, Belgium and Germany agreed to add sanctions-related language, aware that it would most likely be removed during negotiations with the P5. Estonia continued to have objections. A paragraph on encouraging the easing of economic measures that may impede efforts to stop COVID-19 was placed in brackets in the E10 draft to indicate Estonia’s reservations, as was a paragraph on granting humanitarian exemptions in accordance with the guidance of various sanctions regimes,  first included in the 8 April draft text.

At this point, France had obtained agreement from China and the US that the virus be referred to as COVID-19. It had also resolved other issues that allowed Russia and the US to accept a Council endorsement of a global ceasefire by including language that would exempt counter-terrorism operations from a cessation of hostilities demand.

French-Tunisian Draft Resolution

France and Tunisia proceeded to merge their respective draft resolutions. On 23 April, they presented their draft text in a closed video conference (VTC), under “any other business” (AOB). Four days later, the co-penholders circulated a revised text, which they apparently described as having incorporated members’ comments that were not in direct contradiction. The changes included calling on parties to armed conflict to hold a humanitarian pause for 90 consecutive days, rather than 30 days. The initial 30-day period had been considered insufficient by some members to provide the humanitarian assistance needed to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other changes, language was added acknowledging the role of women in the COVID-19 response.

However, the US continued to resist any reference to the WHO, though it offered to withdraw all its other suggested revisions, including proposals for language on the need for greater “transparency”, which appeared to have been in relation to its criticisms of China over the course of the pandemic. Some members, who felt the most important objective was for the Council to support the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call, sought to convince China to cede its position on mentioning the WHO.

On 5 May, members held another meeting under “any other business” to discuss the draft. France indicated that it had prepared a revised draft resolution, but that before circulating the text it would continue efforts to broker a compromise between China and the US. In addition to Russia, Indonesia, Niger, South Africa, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Vietnam stated their support for referencing the WHO, concerned that failure to mention the UN agency would send a negative signal. Two days later, the penholders placed the draft under silence procedure, having substituted an explicit reference to the WHO with a reference to the “United Nations system, including specialized health agencies”, which proved unacceptable to the US. With the negotiations appearing intractable, Estonia and Germany floated the idea of a more concise resolution centred on the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call. Despite Estonia informally circulating a draft text, the proposal did not gain traction. At a 21 May AOB, the penholders said they would continue to try to broker an agreement but until recently, there appeared to be very little movement on the text.


*Post-script: On 1 July 2020, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2532 on COVID-19. 

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