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Crimes Against Humanity and the Responsibility to Protect
Crimes Against Humanity and the Responsibility to Protect
Global Ceasefire Call Deserves UN Security Council’s Full Support
Global Ceasefire Call Deserves UN Security Council’s Full Support
Speech / Global

Crimes Against Humanity and the Responsibility to Protect

Address by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to Crimes Against Humanity Initiative, Hague Intersessional Experts Meeting Dinner, The Hague, 11 June 2009.

Mobilising an effective international response to the scourge of crimes against humanity is, for those of us in the world of policy and ideas who spend a lot of our time trying to do just that, nearly always a matter of more than just abstract, intellectual commitment.  I have found that for the great majority of us that commitment has welled up from some personal experience that has touched us, individually, very deeply.  For many that will be bound to be scarifying family memories of the Holocaust; for others the experience of personal loss or closely knowing survivors from Rwanda or Srebrenica or any of the other mass atrocity scenes of more recent decades; for others still, perhaps, the awful sense that they could have done more, in their past official lives, to generate the kind of international response that these situations required.

For me it was my visit to Cambodia in the late 1960s. I was a young Australian making my first trip to Europe, to take up a scholarship in Oxford.  Inexhaustibly hungry for experience, like so many of my compatriots before and since, I spent six months wending my way by plane and overland through a dozen countries in Asia, and a few more in Africa and the Middle East as well. And in every one of them, I spent many hours and days on student campuses and in student hangouts, and in hard-class cross-country trains and ramshackle rural buses, getting to know in the process—usually fleetingly but quite often enduringly, in friendships that have lasted to this day—scores of some of the liveliest and brightest people of their generation.

In the years that followed, I have often come across Indonesians, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Thais, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis, and others whom I either met on the road on that trip, or who were there at the time and had a store of common experiences to exchange. But among all the countries in Asia I visited then, there is just one, Cambodia, from which I never again, in later years, saw any of those students whom I had met and befriended, or anyone exactly like them—not one of those kids with whom I drank beer, ate noodles, and careered up and down the dusty road from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in child-, chicken-, and pig-scattering share taxis.

The reason, I am sadly certain, is that every last one of them died a few years later under  Pol Pot’s murderous genocidal regime—either targeted for execution in the killing fields as a middle-class intellectual enemy of the state or dying, as more than a million did, from starvation and disease after forced displacement to labor in the countryside. The knowledge, and the memory, of what must have happened to those young men and women is something that haunts me to this day

That memory certainly was a core motivation during the long and grueling years in the late 1980s and early 1990s that I worked as Australian Foreign Minister, along with my Southeast Asian, Chinese, American, and UN colleagues, to find and implement a sustainable basis for peace in Cambodia. It was a recurring motif as I watched, impotently and from a distance, the tragic events in Central Africa and the Balkans work themselves out through the mid- to late 1990s.

It was what made me accept with alacrity the offer of the Canadian government in 2000 to jointly lead a distinguished international commission charged with the task of trying to find, once and for all, a conceptual and practical answer that would unite, rather than continuing to divide, the international community in preventing and responding to mass atrocity crimes, a task that we I think we in large measure accomplished by introducing and elaborating the concept of ‘the responsibility to protect’, the core elements of which are too well known to this audience for me to need to spell them out in detail: that the primary responsibility for protecting its people from atrocity crimes is that of the sovereign state itself; other states have a responsibility to assist it to do so; but if, as a result of either incapacity or ill-will, a state is manifestly failing to give that protection, the responsibility to take appropriate action – which might in an extreme case involve the use of coercive military force – shifts to the wider international community

It has what kept me engaged ever since - through membership of  UN panels, writing a book and constant advocacy around the world --  in the even bigger task of winning and consolidating genuine international acceptance and recognition of  this concept as a new global norm and, even more importantly, achieving its effective application in practice as new conscience-shocking situations continue to arise.

And it is what makes me intensely committed to the great enterprise on which this panel of experts is now engaged, on the initiative of the  Harris Institute at the Washington University School of Law under the admiral leadership of Professor Leila Sadat, to draft and secure the ultimate adoption of a new Convention on Crimes Against Humanity, to fill a gap which has all too obviously become apparent in the array of legal instruments available to deal with atrocity crimes, notwithstanding the emergence of the International Criminal Court --  not least the need for national courts around the world to have clear-cut jurisdiction to deal with these cases, and for there to be in place mechanisms to enable effective international cooperation in the investigation and punishment of perpetrators.

I congratulate Leila Sadat, Cherif Bassiouni, Richard Goldstone and the other distinguished members of the Steering Committee for this project, and all those other experts who have contributed so constructively and creatively to the enterprise so far, and have every confidence that it will bear real fruit.

The beginning of wisdom for me on this subject was the realisation, very early on, that for all its compelling general moral authority the Genocide Convention had absolutely no legal application to the killing fields of Cambodia, which nearly everyone still thinks of as the worst genocide of modern times. Because those doing the killing and beating and expelling were of exactly the same nationality, ethnicity, race and religion as those they were victimising – and their motives were political, ideological and class-based rather than having anything to with the characteristics described in the Genocide Convention -  the necessary elements of specific intent required for its application were simply not there.

And for all the well-intentioned attempts that have been made many times since – most obviously in Darfur – to try to argue that the “g” word, properly understood, does have application to a much wider range of crimes against humanity,  and remains the best linguistic vehicle for  energising mass support and high-level governmental support for effective action in response to newly emerging atrocity situations,  the had truth is that this approach is a lost cause. Lawyers remain lawyers, and there will always be good and compelling legal arguments why the Genocide Convention just doesn’t reach many of the cases we morally want it to – resulting in propaganda victories again and again for those who least deserve to have them as claims or charges are reduced by commissions or courts from genocide to ‘only’ crimes against humanity.

Rhetorically and politically it has always made more sense, following David Scheffer, to make “atrocity crimes” or “mass atrocity crimes” the dominant working concept, rather than becoming caught in the technical cul de sacs of defining the difference between genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and trying to explain where ethnic cleansing – not a clearly defined crime at all  -- fits into the other three.

So now is it time, when the debate does have to turn to legal remedies, to make ‘crimes against humanity’ the dominant, resonating legal concept, the centrepiece of the argument in the media, and among policymakers, and not just a kind of afterthought category -- what one is reduced to when genocide for one technical reason or another is ruled out, or when one has to sweep up some smaller bits and pieces.

‘Crimes against humanity’ is  broad enough conceptually to embrace certainly genocide and ethnic cleansing (if not war crimes, which we will continue to have to refer to separately, but that does not seem a problem). It’s a concept with an intellectual and international law pedigree going back a century. And linguistically, the phrase ‘crimes against humanity’ is surely rich and powerful enough for it to carry the moral and emotional weight we want it to.  Quite apart from all the good technical reasons for having a new Crimes Against Humanity Convention, the  campaign to adopt it should put the concept of crimes against humanity right back on the central pedestal where it belongs.

I see this effort marching in lockstep with the continuing effort to entrench and operationalise the new norm of the responsibility to protect. They are wholly complementary exercises, in essence the legal and political faces of the same coin.  Persuading the UN General Assembly to endorse the responsibility to protect principle, as was achieved at the 2005 World Summit, was all about winning acceptance for the core idea that crimes against humanity and other mass atrocity crimes were everybody’s business, not – as they had been for centuries, and even for the first six decades of the UN’s existence, nobody’s business.

Promoting the language of ‘the responsibility to protect’, rather  than ‘the right to intervene’ which had so hopelessly divided the global north and south throughout the 1990s, was all about creating the conditions where – when another Cambodia, or Rwanda or Bosnia or Kosovo came along, as it surely would – the reflex international response would be not to retreat behind Article 2(7) of the Charter and the pretence that this was somehow a matter ‘essentially within the domestic jurisdiction’ of the state in question, but a consensus response that something had to be done, with the only argument being what and how.

For all the bumps and grinds and reverses along the way, and there have been many, I remain personally confident that the consolidation of the responsibility to protect norm, as the overall framing principle for international debate on this subject, and the basic guide to appropriate  action, is on course.

There remain some conceptual challenges – ensuring that the scope and limits of the doctrine are universally understood, that it is seen to be not about conflict generally or human rights generally or, even more grandly and broadly, human security generally, but about a narrow subset of extreme cases, involving the commission – or likely commission -- of mass atrocity crimes, with crimes against humanity at the core. Looked at this way there are probably no more than ten or fifteen cases at any given time where it is appropriate for the political and policy debate to be conducted in responsibility to protect terms – because large scale atrocity crimes are being committed, seem imminently about  to be committed, or are on a path to being committed in the reasonably near term if appropriate remedial action is not taken, by the state itself or others assisting it. By contrast, there are likely to be 70 or 100 or more country or regional situations where at any given time it is appropriate to talk about conflict prevention or resolution strategies,  responses to human rights abuses of various kinds, or reactions to other kinds of human security concerns.

There also remain conceptual challenges in explaining, in an environment where there is still considerable dissimulation going on as well as genuine uncertainty, which particular cases are properly characterised as responsibility to protect situations and which are not: why it is, for example, to take those cases most debated in recent times, that the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Russia’s invasion of Georgia  in 2008 were not justified in R2P terms; that the Burma-Myanmar cyclone in 2008 was not an R2P case, but could have been if the generals’ behaviour had been characterisable as so recklessly indifferent to human life as to amount to a crime against humanity, which in the event it was not; that Somalia and the Congo for many years, Darfur since 2003 and Sri Lanka in this year’s military endgame have been properly characterised as R2P cases, but where the international community’s response has been, for one reason or another, unhappily inadequate; and that Kenya in early 2008 is the clearest case we have had of an exploding situation being widely, and properly, characterised as an R2P one, and where the international community’s response – in this case diplomatic mediation – did prove to be adequate to bring it under control.

In addition to the conceptual challenges, there certainly remain institutional ones, in ensuring  for a start that well-intentioned states facing atrocity crime problems get in practice all the assistance they need – and which the 2005 UN resolution clearly encourages other states to give them – in terms of capacity building, effective policy formulation and delivery and,  if things get rough and they call for it, the necessary security support. It means also putting in place worldwide the early warning and response capability, the diplomatic and civilian response capability, the legal response mechanisms and – for extreme cases – the coercive military capability to ensure that the international community, if it has the will, can deliver the appropriate response to whatever new atrocity crime situation that comes along demanding its engagement, again as clearly authorised by the 2005 UN resolution.

One issue that arises in this context is whether, when it comes to putting in place appropriate legal response mechanisms, it is necessary or desirable for the responsibility to protect norm itself to be given some more formal legal status, for example – as David Scheffer has suggested, by incorporating appropriate provisions in the proposed Crimes Against Humanity Convention. In its present draft form this is focused on individual criminal responsibility, and limits state responsibility essentially to introducing the necessary legislative and other measures to make that real. Scheffer suggests that the Convention also contain state responsibility provisions expressly prohibiting the commission of crimes against humanity by any state-party entity itself, and requiring state-parties to act, as a matter of legal obligation, in accordance with the 2005 UN resolution.

My own instinct, for what it is worth, although I would certainly be happy to see this debated further, is that while such an exercise would certainly give new weight and prominence to the responsibility to protect norm, and that anything that reinforced the obligations of states to act constructively and not destructively in relation atrocity crimes would be hugely welcome, the risks probably outweigh the benefits. It would be nightmarishly difficult to get states to sign up to direct legal liability of the kind proposed, be a major distraction that would work against them signing up to anything else, and would in any event not make a great deal of practical difference since any enforcement action against a state itself would have to be a matter for the Security Council, and if the 2005 UN Resolution is to be taken seriously it already has that role

In addition to the conceptual and institutional challenges I have described, proponents of the responsibility to protect will always face a political challenge – to activate the real world response that is actually required to avert or halt an atrocity crime catastrophe. That means having in place mechanisms and strategies to ensure both peer group pressure, by government friends of R2P, to energise the highest levels of governmental and intergovernmental decision-making, and bottom up grass roots action to kick the decision makers into action if they are showing signs of hesitation.

Mobilising political will in any policy context whatever, national or international, requires the coming together of good information, good organization and good arguments. As to the last, it is helpful that ‘national interest’ is now a much broader concept than it used to be. It’s not quite as easy now as it was for Chamberlain in the 1930s to talk of faraway countries with people of whom we know nothing: we do know now that states that cannot or will not stop internal atrocity crimes are the kind of states that cannot or will not stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug and people trafficking, the spread of health pandemics and other global risks that every country in the world has a stake in ending.

There is still a long way to go before we can be confident that the automatic consensual reflex of which I spoke earlier will cut in at the time it should and in the way it should in every new case that arises, and longer still before we can credibly claim that the responsibility to protect principle in all its dimensions has evolved into a rule of customary international law. But the evidence, particularly over the last year, is of advance rather than reverse particularly with the large measure of consensus which seems to have emerged around the UN Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of the responsibility to protect, prepared after long consultations by his special adviser Edward Luck, and although still not debated by the UN General Assembly, expected to be formally received with little or no dissent.

The importance of the report is that it does not retreat in any way on the basic principles as they were adopted in 2005, and focuses very constructively on what states need to do for themselves, what others need to do to assist them, and the kinds of prevention, reaction and rebuilding measures that may need to be employed if a state is unreceptive to self-help or assistance and atrocity crime alarm bells are ringing. And what is intriguing is that some of the states who were last to join the consensus in 2005, and have been most resistant since in expressing support for the concept, have now very definitely changed course, with India’s Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, for example, saying publicly in April this year that the Government of Sri Lanka had a clear ‘responsibility to protect’ its civilians at extreme risk in the final operations of the military against the Tamil Tigers.

Maybe my confidence is a little premature, but one of the things that has most sustained me over forty years of public life, more than twenty of them working in international affairs, is a fairly unquenchable sense of optimism: a belief that even the most horrible and intractable problems are soluble; that rational solutions for which there are good, principled arguments do eventually prevail; and that good people, good governments, and good governance will eventually prevail over bad.

When it comes to international relations, and in particular the great issues of war and peace, violence, and catastrophic human rights violations with which we are concerned here, there is a well-established view that anyone who approaches things in this kind of generally optimistic frame of mind must be incorrigibly naïve, if not outright demented.  Certainly in the case of genocide and atrocity crimes—either directly committed by a government against its own people, or allowed to happen by a government unable or unwilling to stop it—it is hard for even the incorrigibly naïve to remain optimistic.

In this world we inhabit—full of cynicism, double standards, crude assertions of national interest, high-level realpolitik, and low-level maneuvering for political advantage—it is very easy to believe that ideas do not matter very much. But I believe as passionately now as I ever have in my long career—starting and finishing in the world of nongovernmental organizations, but with much time between in politics and government—that ideas matter enormously, for good and for ill. For all the difficulties of acceptance and application that lie ahead, there are —I have come optimistically, but firmly, to believe—not many ideas that have the potential to matter more for good, not only in theory but in practice, than that of the responsibility to protect.

And in the cause of advancing that responsibility there can be few more constructive contributions to be made than strengthening the direct normative constraints against committing crimes against humanity – sharpening the applicable law, trying to universalise its application, and ensure its effective enforcement through worldwide cooperation. In all of this nothing less than our common humanity is at stake, and this group can be collectively very proud of what it is doing to advance it.

MONUSCO peacekeepers patrol amid the COVID-19 outbreak, in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, 19 March 2020. REUTERS/Olivia Acland

Global Ceasefire Call Deserves UN Security Council’s Full Support

At least twelve conflict parties have signed on to UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s appeal for a worldwide cessation of hostilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a promising start, and despite setbacks in some places, the Security Council should endorse the call wholeheartedly.

The initial international reaction to COVID-19 has more often than not been characterised by divisions and suspicion, as states failed to cooperate and accused one another of mishandling the disease. UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s call for a global ceasefire in the face of the pandemic thus struck a rare positive note amid the prevailing gloom. On 23 March, when Guterres first proposed an immediate cessation of hostilities “in all corners of the world”, to allow all actors to focus on battling the virus and facilitating humanitarian aid to affected populations, the idea seemed fanciful. Still, armed groups from Colombia to the Philippines endorsed the idea in the days that followed. By early April, the UN could cite twelve countries in which at least one party to a conflict had acknowledged the appeal, although with differing levels of zeal and very unequal degrees of follow-through.

Crisis Group has joined other non-governmental organisations in backing the Secretary-General’s initiative. It represents the clearest formulation of the need to limit deadly conflict in the face of COVID-19. The disease has the potential to undermine weak states, aggravate social tensions, give unscrupulous leaders an excuse to repress dissent and distract major powers from diplomacy and crisis management. But there are also historical precedents for major natural disasters (such as the 2004 Asian tsunami) creating conditions for peacemaking in affected regions. This Secretary-General’s initiative offers a useful reference point for international efforts to find similar opportunities as the coronavirus spreads. It could also act as a simple framing device for the Security Council, which has been split over how to handle the pandemic, to take a common stance on its emerging security implications.

The motivations and interests that lie at the source of these conflicts are singular and often highly local.

As Guterres has acknowledged, the ceasefire call will have little value if it remains a rhetorical device only. Yet shifting from rhetoric to reality is no small task. The governments and armed groups that endorse the UN ceasefire appeal may be reflecting universal fear of COVID-19, but they continue to be driven by the particular grievances and tensions that prompted them to fight in the first place. As Crisis Group’s work demonstrates daily, the motivations and interests that lie at the source of these conflicts are singular and often highly local. No universal appeal, however powerful, can erase them. If the UN and sympathetic actors want to translate the Secretary-General’s initiative into durable ceasefires, they will need to tackle these specific challenges on a case-by-case basis – and to do so just as COVID-19 is making it harder for international mediators and peacekeepers to travel, deal directly with decision-makers or devote the attention necessary for conflict resolution. It also is worth keeping in mind that COVID-19’s full implications for fragile states and associated conflicts are not yet clear – the disease has only started to escalate in many poorer or institutionally weaker countries.

Still, for all these question marks, the Secretary-General’s call has created at least some useful momentum for pausing violence that could help pandemic response efforts and perhaps begin building the trust that will be needed to pursue longer-term peace deals. UN envoys are already doing their best to link the global appeal to their existing political efforts in cases such as Sudan, South Sudan and Syria. If the Security Council and its most powerful members get behind the Secretary-General’s call, it could create still more opportunities for peacemaking.

Disparate Motives

The states and armed groups that have acknowledged or endorsed the Secretary-General’s ceasefire appeal are a disparate group. Some have nodded to the call, most likely for public relations purposes, without any seeming intention of putting it into practice. As the UN has noted, both the Ukrainian and the Russian-backed de facto authorities that control parts of eastern Ukraine welcomed the call, but shooting and shelling continues along the line of control that separates their respective forces at only a marginally lower level than before. In Libya, combatants escalated hostilities immediately after expressing an interest in the Secretary-General’s initiative. For some conflict parties, acknowledging the appeal may be little more than gesture politics, with battlefield stakes and potential openings outweighing fear of COVID-19.

For some conflict parties, acknowledging the appeal may be little more than gesture politics.

Others, including a significant number of non-state armed groups, seem to see real practical advantages in signing onto the Secretary-General’s appeal. Early adopters of the ceasefire included the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the National Liberation Army (in Spanish, Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN) in Colombia. Both appear genuinely concerned by COVID-19’s health risks and economic consequences for the people they say they represent. In the Filipino case, lockdowns in many cities and provinces have threatened food and medical supplies to the CPP’s supporters, and limited Communist fighters’ freedom of movement. A ceasefire, if respected, should enable these supplies to get through. In Colombia, the ELN tied a promise to cease hostilities for one month to a demand for economic aid to low-income families, farmers and businesses, which it presumably sees as important for boosting its popular profile.

Some groups or their members may have signed on to the UN appeal for more tactical political reasons. For the ELN, another motivation for signing up to the ceasefire was the opportunity to call on the Colombian government to return to peace talks that were suspended in January 2019. In Cameroon, meanwhile, just one of twelve small armed groups that claim to fight on behalf of the Anglophone minority against the Francophone-dominated government signed onto the UN ceasefire call. It may have done so with an eye to gaining international recognition relative to the other eleven (some of which are stronger militarily).

Many groups have placed caveats on their ceasefire pledges or left ambiguity about how they will carry them out. The ELN reserved the right to respond to attacks by the military or other armed groups, and it has already clashed with criminal organisations in the days since the ceasefire was announced. Although the group also released some hostages to signal its commitment to the ceasefire, it has kidnapped several more. In Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that control much of the country’s north east have declared a ceasefire, but it is not clear whether this applies to asymmetric attacks against Turkey-backed forces inside Syria for which the SDF does not take public responsibility.

UN efforts to persuade armed groups to cease hostilities seem to have more traction in cases where parties had already engaged in peace talks.

Of course, not all conflict parties have responded to their rivals’ COVID-related ceasefires with enthusiasm. The Colombian government has treated the ELN declaration sceptically, and it is unlikely to accede to the guerrillas’ main goal of peace talks. In Cameroon, the government has shown no interest in the separatists’ ceasefire offer, in line with its enduring opposition to engaging in talks with them. Its reluctance may also be a symptom of a broader leadership issue as President Paul Biya has remained out of public view since the virus emerged, fuelling speculation about his health. Perhaps not surprisingly, UN efforts to persuade armed groups to cease hostilities seem to have more traction in cases – such as Sudan – where parties had already engaged in peace talks, meaning that COVID-19 adds impetus to existing processes.

One case in which the UN was initially hopeful of using COVID-19 to advance a ceasefire and restart a political process was Yemen. In the wake of his global ceasefire call, Secretary-General Guterres launched a specific appeal for a Yemeni ceasefire – an initiative that had been in the works before – and both the domestic parties to the conflict and the international military coalition backing the UN-recognised government indicated an interest. Nonetheless, violence escalated and UN-led talks among the government, its regional patrons and the Huthi rebels over the ceasefire did not come to pass. UN officials continued to work on launching new talks, conscious that the combatants in Yemen often ratchet up hostilities before agreeing to ceasefires in the hope of gaining leverage in talks. At the time of writing, the Saudi-led coalition has announced that it will suspend military operations in Yemen for a fortnight in response to the UN efforts.

More troubling, UN efforts to support a COVID-related ceasefire in Libya appear to have derailed completely. The UN-recognised Government of National Accord and Arab Libyan Armed Forces launched fresh hostilities in late March, apparently with foreign forces participating on both sides. While the UN is attempting to revive deadlocked political negotiations, neither party is invested in making the process work. The fact that reported cases of COVID-19 remain rare in Libya may have reduced the UN call’s resonance, at least for the time being.

None of these setbacks should call into question the desirability of the UN’s ceasefire call. They do, however, raise questions about how to sustain those pledges that have been made. In the short term, the best answer may lie in creating greater incentives for armed groups to halt their operations by addressing some of the social and economic difficulties facing their supporters. If, for example, the relevant authorities could guarantee the supply of food and medicine in the Philippines or cater to the economic woes of peripheral regions in Colombia, groups like the CPP and ELN would have good reason to extend their ceasefires – and face greater popular backlash were they to resume shooting. In Cameroon, too, rebels and the government alike are more likely to buy into a ceasefire if aid agencies use it to address COVID-19 and help provide necessary assistance. Such help could include testing people for the virus and mending badly degraded medical infrastructure. UN agencies may be able to marshal some resources to meet these needs, although the overall challenge of raising funds to address the pandemic is already daunting.

Rebels and the government alike are more likely to buy into a ceasefire if aid agencies use it to address COVID-19 and help provide necessary assistance.

For its part, the UN Security Council could offer additional political backing to those actors who are prepared to cooperate with the Secretary-General’s initiative. The Security Council has already alluded to the global ceasefire call in a press statement on Afghanistan, encouraging the Kabul government and Taliban to halt hostilities in light of COVID-19 (while the Afghan government has reiterated its longstanding demand for a ceasefire, the Taliban have indicated that they will unilaterally pause violence in coronavirus-affected areas under their control).

Council members might not be comfortable making such direct statements on all the conflicts mentioned here – the Council has, for example, held only one informal discussion on Cameroon and has not dealt with the Philippines at all. But it could reinforce the Secretary-General’s efforts in at least one significant way: it could create a formal framework for Guterres to monitor and update ceasefire implementation. The UN has already put out a useful update on international responses to his appeal, but if the Council were to request a monthly or bimonthly update on its implementation, then both governments and armed groups would be aware that their behaviour is under scrutiny. That measure might deter some actors from breaking their commitments or encourage others to join in.

Council Dynamics

This scenario, however, would require the Security Council to tackle COVID-19 in a unitary and strategic fashion. To date, it has proven impossible for the Council to do so. To date, inter-governmental discussions in New York of the pandemic’s security implications have not gone well. The Security Council’s permanent five members were unable to agree on a resolution on the matter, tabled by France in mid-March, apparently because the U.S. demanded that it refer to the Chinese origins of the virus. A proposal by Estonia for a less weighty Council press statement on the coronavirus failed when China, supported by South Africa, argued that the illness was not properly a matter of “peace and security”. While the General Assembly has passed a resolution promoting cooperation in the face of COVID-19, it did not mention the disease’s impact on conflicts.

The U.S. did not join a statement of support by Canada, and China and Russia are also absent.

With the Security Council in a state of confusion, the Secretary-General’s global ceasefire call offers a relatively straightforward initiative around which states inside and outside the Council can rally. Canada (not a Security Council member at present) orchestrated a statement of support for the initiative that now has the backing of over 70 states, including France and the UK. There are still some notable gaps among the signatories. The U.S. did not join up, claiming that the call could get in the way of counter-terrorism operations, and China and Russia are also absent. For representatives of poorer countries at the UN, the main concern is the economic impact of COVID-19 rather than its political and security ramifications. A recent statement by members of the G77 of southern countries at the UN, co-signed by China, praises Guterres for flagging the pandemic’s economic effects, but not the ceasefire call.

Those Security Council members that believe the Council should speak out on COVID-19 increasingly see the Secretary-General’s ceasefire appeal as the best vehicle for their efforts. Tunisia has worked with other elected Council members on a draft resolution that highlights the ceasefire call, although early drafts contained material on global public health and economic issues that even sympathetic diplomats felt fell outside the body’s purview. French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to push other P5 leaders to find common ground on Security Council action, but as yet he has been unable to forge consensus. Russia has used the COVID-19 debate to argue for relaxation of international sanctions, which the U.S. and its allies view with suspicion, although Moscow is far from alone in flagging the issue. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and a growing roster of international luminaries have called for humanitarian exemptions to sanctions (a position that Crisis Group supports) although Russia has argued for an even broader end to unilateral economic penalties.

The Secretary-General will brief the Security Council on COVID-19’s security implications on 9 April. Some diplomats hope that he can nudge the members to agree on wording for a Security Council output, despite the outstanding obstacles. The Council risks further diminishing itself if it cannot come to some sort of common position on the threat coronavirus presents to international peace and security soon. The best compromise at this time may be for the Council to get behind a narrow resolution that backs the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call and, as noted above, signals that the Council will track how the call is implemented, giving it some additional credibility among sceptical states and armed groups.

The best compromise at this time may be for the Security Council to get behind a narrow resolution that backs the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call.

A global humanitarian ceasefire is a commendable aspiration, but it is most likely to be embraced by some, rejected by others and – even when accepted – observed with varying and evolving degrees of rigour. Its future appeal could depend in part on the extent to which the pandemic grips highly vulnerable countries where its effects are only now showing up. It is possible that some armed groups that have not taken the Secretary-General’s call seriously to date will do so if large numbers of their fighters or followers succumb to the disease. Equally, some groups that have signed on might defect if they conclude that COVID-19’s effects are less awful than feared.

The Secretary-General has done an important service by framing a debate about the need for international cooperation to handle the political crises and deadly violence that will result from the pandemic and to ensure that extremely vulnerable populations keep getting aid while it lasts. His efforts may have produced limited successes thus far, but that is hardly an excuse for failing to consolidate and build on what he has achieved wherever possible. He deserves the Security Council’s belated but full support.