A Fresh Chance for the Security Council to Tackle COVID-19
A Fresh Chance for the Security Council to Tackle COVID-19
First badge of AstraZeneca/Oxford coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines, are being unloaded from a plane upon arrival at Khartoum International Airport in Sudan on 3 March 2021. Anadolu Agency/Mahmoud Hjaj
Commentary / Global 7 minutes

A Fresh Chance for the Security Council to Tackle COVID-19

A 26 February UN Security Council resolution could help facilitate COVID-19 vaccination campaigns in conflict areas. The Council should plan how to best implement these vaccination drives and, once vaccine supplies are sufficient, provide political and material support to those on the ground. 

Can the Security Council help hasten the end of the COVID-19 pandemic? Its role in managing the global health crisis to date has been limited and at times embarrassing. After UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire to facilitate humanitarian and medical responses to the virus in March 2020, Council members agreed to endorse the initiative. But they still took over three months to adopt a resolution on the issue, mainly thanks to bickering between the United States and China. By the time they signed off on a compromise text on 1 July, it was a dead letter: governments and armed groups that had responded positively to the Secretary-General’s initial call had already lost interest in it.

In February 2021, however, the Council returned to discussing COVID-19 with a new sense of purpose. On 26 February – after a mere two weeks of negotiations – it passed Resolution 2565, which both repeats earlier calls for a global ceasefire and demands that conflict parties engage in a “humanitarian pause” to facilitate “full, safe and unhindered” access for aid workers to run COVID-19 vaccination programs. Although the latter initiative (which the media dubbed “vaccine ceasefires”) lacks the sweep of the Secretary-General’s initial proposal from last year, it may be more achievable.

Yet, almost six weeks after its adoption, the Council has done little to follow up on Resolution 2565, primarily because there are not yet enough vaccines available. The COVAX Facility, launched last year by the World Health Organization (WHO) and its partners to funnel COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries, is making slow progress. UN humanitarian and political officials therefore have some time to work out how to put the Security Council’s new mandate into action. The initiative could give Council members, stuck in endless diplomatic feuds over conflicts like those in Syria and Ethiopia, a good cause to rally around.

The speed and ease with which [Resolution 2565] was adopted demonstrated a “Biden effect” on UN diplomacy.

The speed and ease with which the resolution was adopted demonstrated a “Biden effect” on UN diplomacy. While the United Kingdom tabled the new resolution, diplomats saw it as an opportunity to mark a new era of cooperation following the recent change of U.S. administration. In the Trump era, American diplomats negotiating COVID-related texts at the UN were tasked with attempting to insert references to the “Wuhan virus” while blocking positive references to the WHO, which Washington alleged had been complicit in Beijing’s ostensible efforts to hide the origins of COVID-19. The Biden administration by contrast has prioritised re-engaging the WHO, and Resolution 2565 touts the agency’s “key leadership role” in coordinating the global response to the virus.

Veterans of last year’s futile Council debates over COVID describe this year’s discussions as a blessed relief, with all members intent on getting a deal with minimum fuss. When UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab hosted a virtual Security Council meeting on COVID-19 in mid-February that paved the way for the resolution, India and China both offered to donate large quantities of vaccines to UN peacekeeping forces. Minor language issues mildly complicated the negotiations on the resolution, but the UK hurried the process through quite smoothly, with the U.S. engaging constructively on technical elements of the text, in stark contrast to its Trump-era grandstanding.

During the Trump-Biden transition, diplomats shared informed speculation that the incoming administration might go further and turn to the Security Council to pass a sweeping resolution on international cooperation to end the disease, echoing a similar American-backed resolution on Ebola in 2014. While some diplomats assumed that the UK’s resolution was meant to tee up this bigger U.S. initiative, Washington appears to have shied away from the concept, perhaps calculating that it would involve a lot of diplomatic heavy lifting with limited practical results.

Thus, Resolution 2565 represents the likely basis for Security Council engagement with COVID for the foreseeable future. What can it achieve?

In contrast to the Secretary-General’s “global ceasefire” idea in 2020, Resolution 2565’s focus on vaccination campaigns is rooted in decades of humanitarian action.

In contrast to the Secretary-General’s “global ceasefire” idea in 2020, which was a welcome but ultimately quixotic appeal, Resolution 2565’s focus on vaccination campaigns is rooted in decades of humanitarian action. The WHO and other UN agencies have developed a significant repertoire of mechanisms for facilitating public health efforts in war zones since the 1980s, including “days of tranquility” (truces to allow aid and health workers to reach otherwise inaccessible areas) and creating safe corridors for health workers and medical supplies. These have sometimes enabled impressive vaccination drives: in 2005, over 5 million children in Sudan received polio vaccines during three UN-negotiated days of tranquility in Sudan.

In technical terms, therefore, the WHO and other UN agencies know how to roll out COVID-19 vaccines in volatile areas when the supplies are available. Over the last year, UN agencies and missions have also gained a good deal of experience in addressing COVID-19’s specific challenges in conflict settings, such as managing public information campaigns about the disease and advising local security forces on how to deal with lockdowns. This, however, does not mean that vaccination drives will be easy – each will require a complex mix of medical logistics, security planning and humanitarian diplomacy with conflict actors.

Where possible, Security Council members will be well advised to let the professionals get on with these tasks under their own steam. Most studies of humanitarian pauses and related mechanisms conclude that they work best when the terms are worked out on the ground, not imposed from above, and combatants see pausing hostilities as in their interest.

Nonetheless, the Council may be able to provide top-level political as well as material support to these initiatives. The most obvious way would be for Council members that are major vaccine producers and donors to the WHO and other relevant agencies to ensure that the COVAX Facility can ramp up distribution as soon as possible. Once UN agencies have the supplies in place for vaccination campaigns, the Council could also issue more specific calls for particular conflict parties to respect humanitarian pauses and safeguard health workers.  Where the UN has peacekeepers on the ground, the Council could temporarily adjust their mandates to prioritise providing logistical and security assistance to health workers – much as blue helmet forces facilitated anti-Ebola campaigns in conflict-affected areas of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

At least on paper, Resolution 2565 holds out the possibility that the Council could take more robust action where health workers face major obstacles.

At least on paper, Resolution 2565 holds out the possibility that the Council could take more robust action where health workers face major obstacles. The Council promises to review situations flagged by the Secretary-General “where hostilities and the activities of armed groups” impede vaccinations, and “to consider what further measures are necessary to ensure such impediments are removed and hostilities paused”. But while it might conceivably take political steps to pressure uncooperative parties, it is extremely unlikely to look to coercive measures for these purposes.

Yet although Resolution 2565 has thus far been a showcase for Council unity, there is a risk that problems with COVID-19 vaccine campaigns could sow further divisions among its members. Syria is the most obvious case in point. A fully effective COVID-19 vaccination campaign across the shattered country would inevitably involve delivering vaccines to non-government-controlled areas, such as the north-western governorate of Idlib. Some Council diplomats hope that this process could cement local ceasefires that have taken hold around Syria in the last year, by creating a practical incentive to cooperate. But it is equally possible, and perhaps more probable, that the reverse will happen. Council members are already locked in a difficult debate over humanitarian aid to Syria, with Russia arguing that the Damascus government should have ultimate authority over all aid flows – a proposition that the U.S. and its allies resist. It is easy enough to imagine a similar division over how COVID-19 vaccines should be distributed to non-government-controlled areas, with Russia insisting that Damascus should control the process – and blaming rebel groups for any interruptions – while the U.S. and its allies insist that it cannot. 

But even if Resolution 2565 may become a source of contention in some circumstances down the road, Council members should do what they can for as long as they are able to preserve the good diplomatic spirits that surrounded the resolution’s passage. The current delays in overall vaccine production and distribution at least give UN officials and diplomats time to plan. It might be useful to establish a working group of Council members to organise with UN officials how delivering COVID-19 vaccines will work in specific conflicts, and what the Council can do to help on a case-by-case basis. To avoid the Council putting Resolution 2565 on the back burner amid the welter of other topics on its agenda, Secretary-General Guterres should also propose an overall briefing on prospects for vaccination drives in volatile regions in the coming months.

The Council cannot go back in time to make up for its initial mishandling of the crisis, but this new resolution creates the chance for it to leave a positive mark on the critical vaccine rollout period that lies ahead.

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