What's In Blue

Posted Tue 8 Sep 2020

Videoconference on COVID-19 Pandemic

Tomorrow (9 September), Security Council members will hold an open videoconference (VTC) 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 Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo, and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock are expected to brief.

France and Tunisia—the penholders on resolution 2532—requested the session. According to the resolution, the Secretary-General should provide updates “on the 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-keeping operations and Special Political Missions to deliver their mandated priority tasks”.

Following the Secretary-General’s 23 March global ceasefire appeal to combat the pandemic and a laborious three-month negotiation, the Council adopted resolution 2532 on 1 July. The resolution additionally calls for all conflict parties to engage in an immediate 90-day humanitarian pause, exempts military operations against terrorist groups designated by the Security Council, and requests the Secretary-General to ensure that the UN system, including country teams, accelerate their response to the pandemic.

While this will be the first Council meeting on the implementation of resolution 2532, the Council has held a number of sessions related to the pandemic since its adoption. On 2 July, a ministerial-level open debate organised by Germany focused on the peace and security implications of the pandemic, and on 12 August, Indonesia’s presidency organised a ministerial-level open debate to consider the impact of COVID-19 on peacebuilding and sustaining peace. In July, Council members also held an informal interactive dialogue on the pandemic with the Peacebuilding Commission chairs and vice-chairs. Briefing at last month’s open debate, Secretary-General Guterres noted that his ceasefire appeal had “prompted positive responses from governments and non-state actors”. But these initial positive signs proved largely fleeting: “regrettably, in many instances, the pandemic did not move the parties to suspend hostilities or agree to a permanent ceasefire”, Guterres said.

Members are likely to be interested in the update by Lacroix on the pandemic’s impact on peace operations. The UN initially suspended troop rotations; it has sought to take measures to protect mission personnel, as well as to make sure that peacekeepers do not spread the disease; it has been forced to adjust missions’ activities, such as patrolling; and it has sought to support host governments in their mitigation efforts. For DiCarlo’s briefing, members may be keen to hear more about how the pandemic has affected political and peace processes. During previous Council meetings, briefers have regularly flagged the risks to peace processes and elections, and members could be interested in how the UN has adapted its work where travel and in-person meetings have become more difficult. Members could be interested in how UN peace operations have sought to help countries manage the socio-economic stresses of the pandemic.

Lowcock may note that the pandemic is more widespread in some of the world’s greatest humanitarian crises than case totals would suggest, because of a lack of testing capacity and official reporting, as well as crippled health systems damaged by years of war; a strong indication of this under-reporting is the high rate of positive test results in some conflict countries. In Syria, a worrying development has been the first COVID-19 case detected last month among residents of northern Syria’s Al Hol camp, which is home to about 74,000 displaced people and refugees from Syria and Iraq. Another troubling indicator has been the 90 humanitarian workers, largely in Damascus, who have tested positive for COVID-19 despite only 2,830 confirmed cases in the country, according to a 2 September OCHA report. A Human Rights Watch report released the same day said that as of 16 August it had verified the deaths of 33 doctors in Syria who had responded to COVID-19, at a time when the official death toll from the pandemic countrywide was 64 persons, which indicates a more severe outbreak than official data suggests.

Lowcock could note that a major funding shortfall facing relief efforts in Yemen, along with a fuel shortage, risks exacerbating transmission of the virus and threatens the response to COVID-19 in Yemen, which is believed already to have experienced a large outbreak. At last week’s Council VTC on Libya, Acting Special Representative Stephanie Williams said the COVID-19 pandemic “appears to be spiraling out of control”, with reported cases in Libya having doubled in the preceding two weeks, despite a shortage in testing capacities. Members may raise concerns about reported access restrictions in conflict situations that continue to impede humanitarian and relief work. Some members could reiterate calls for waiving sanctions measures, as the Secretary-General encouraged in March, stating that sanctions may undermine countries’ responses to the pandemic.

In addition to supporting his ceasefire appeal, Guterres has noted that the Council can have an important conflict prevention role. During his three briefings since April, Guterres has repeated observations about the potentially destabilising consequences of the pandemic in increasing tensions from its socio-economic fallout and around upcoming elections, eroding trust in public institutions, and aggravating pre-existing grievances. Most members have also regularly expressed similar concerns. On 24 September, the Council will hold another COVID-19 related meeting: a summit during General Assembly high-level week on “post-COVID-19 global governance”, where Guterres and AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat will brief.

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