Salvaging the Security Council’s Coronavirus Response
Salvaging the Security Council’s Coronavirus Response
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is seen on a video screen during a virtual climate summit, known as the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, in Berlin on 28 April 2020. Michael Kappeler/Pool via REUTERS

Salvaging the Security Council’s Coronavirus Response

On 1 July, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling for a global COVID-19 ceasefire, as the Secretary-General had urged months earlier. Their appeal has fallen flat. Council members should use their August downtime to look at how it might still do some good.

Just over a month ago, on 1 July, the UN Security Council passed a resolution addressing COVID-19 that looked hugely ambitious on paper. Echoing an earlier initiative by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Resolution 2532 centres on a call for “all parties to armed conflicts to engage immediately in a durable humanitarian pause” lasting 90 days in response to the pandemic. This document will earn a footnote in histories of the UN, as it is the first time the Council has advocated such a global ceasefire. But beyond that, it seems unlikely to be widely remembered, as its practical effects have been all but nil. Only one conflict party – Colombia’s National Liberation Army or ELN – has explicitly cited the resolution in offering to suspend hostilities and the Colombian government rejected the overture. Elsewhere, governments and armed groups engaged in fighting have shown no sign of heeding the Council’s call.

Resolution 2532’s lack of impact to date is disappointing in part because, earlier in the pandemic, it briefly looked like the Council could lend momentum to Secretary-General Guterres’ aspirational but worthy ceasefire effort, and so play a part in the global response to COVID-19. Guterres first floated the ceasefire idea in late March, and he declared that armed groups in almost a dozen countries had responded positively by early in April. Yet rather than seizing the moment to back the initiative, the Council stumbled into three months of fighting about it, while many of the armed groups that welcomed the UN appeal resumed hostilities.

With Council members looking forward to an August lull in business – especially after the tedium of months of online meetings – it is time for them to take stock of what the Council’s halting reaction to the pandemic reveals about the body, and to consider how the Secretary-General and Council members might still salvage something useful from Resolution 2532.

A Trivial Process

The Council’s disarray over the novel coronavirus has certainly been a setback for its aspirations to address “non-traditional security threats”, as UN officials term a grab bag of challenges including pandemics, climate change and organised crime.

The Council has engaged to some degree with these challenges in the post-Cold War era, first taking up health in the context of HIV/AIDS in 2000 and then climate change starting in 2007. With a handful of exceptions, its work in these areas has been fairly tentative, and some current members of the body would like to see it take a more active role. Belgium and Germany have, for example, prioritised climate change, while Estonia has made cybersecurity its flagship issue. But these members face considerable pushback from China and Russia, which insist that the Council should concentrate on more traditional peace and security issues, and the present U.S. administration, which has a particular dislike for talk of climate change. In July, Germany decided to drop proposals for a resolution focusing on climate security – authorising a UN envoy to tackle the subject – after the U.S. promised to veto it.

Of these non-traditional threats, pandemic response has often seemed to be the most promising area, aside from organised crime, for Security Council action. In 2014, otherwise a difficult year of UN diplomacy over Syria and Ukraine, the Council united around a resolution endorsing international efforts to stamp out Ebola in West Africa. Through 2019 and 2020, the Council monitored a further Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo where UN peacekeepers worked with health experts to get aid into volatile regions. Prior to COVID-19, Germany clairvoyantly signalled that it wanted to use its Council term to spur discussion of pandemics, a personal priority for Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as climate change.

Yet COVID-19 demonstrated at least two significant weaknesses – concerning its policy tools and major power politics – in the Council’s capacity to deal with global health crises.

As the pandemic spread, it was not entirely evident what the Security Council could concretely do about it, beyond expressing concern.

First, as a practical matter, the Council’s toolkit is still limited. As the pandemic spread, it was not entirely evident what the Security Council could concretely do about it, beyond expressing concern. In 2014, the Council’s tools for dealing with Ebola in West Africa were pretty clear. The UN had peacekeepers in Liberia who could assist with logistics and other aspects of the medical response, as well as a significant humanitarian and development presence in the other two countries affected by the disease, Guinea and Sierra Leone. By throwing its weight behind use of these UN assets to counter the disease, and encouraging member states to pledge additional resources to the effort, the Council added urgency to the global response to Ebola, while the U.S. largely coordinated the successful effort to contain the outbreak. (It helped that the U.S. and China worked collaboratively to fight the disease, rather than lobbing political grenades at each other as they have in the COVID-19 era.)

By contrast, COVID-19 presents a threat of a different scale and nature. As of March, there were reported cases on every inhabited continent. In most places where it struck early, like Iran and Italy, there was little if any UN humanitarian or security presence, reducing the Security Council’s ability to forge a response. Had a major power launched a global effort to marshal resources to meet the crisis, as the U.S. did with Ebola in 2014, the Council might have lent its political heft to supporting that. But that did not happen: Washington sat on the sidelines and its biggest competitor, Beijing, did not step into its shoes.

Lacking many of the options that had been available to the UN in the Ebola crisis, the Council members spent early April tussling over the scope of any potential resolution. All agreed that the Council should endorse efforts by UN peace operations to help tackle the disease in their areas of deployment – a task that the blue helmets undertook even without Council urging, while trying to avoid spreading the disease themselves. But while Tunisia, which led discussions among the ten elected Council (E10) members, initially envisaged a broad resolution with passages calling for international cooperation on public health issues, including training medics and developing a COVID-19 vaccine, the majority of diplomats felt that the Council should not (in the words of one European official) “bite off more than it can chew” by commenting on non-security-related matters.

It was against this backdrop that both the E10 and the five permanent (P5) Council members, led by France, began to focus on Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire as a well-defined flagship topic that both served the purposes of pandemic response and clearly fell within the body’s remit of preserving international peace and security. Although some of the P5, including Russia, the UK and the U.S., made it clear that they would not sign onto any text curtailing their conduct of counter-terrorism operations (and indeed Resolution 2532 contains caveats allowing them to fight on), nobody was fundamentally opposed to the ceasefire idea.

While everyone could get behind a global ceasefire, China and the U.S. in particular had bigger point-scoring goals to pursue.

The second Council weakness that the episode highlighted is that, even when confronting a true global threat like the virus, policy is often beholden to politics. While everyone could get behind a global ceasefire in theory, it was not anyone's overwhelming priority, and China and the U.S. in particular had bigger point-scoring goals to pursue. The U.S. saw the resolution as a chance to try to assign China responsibility for the disease (at first demanding that any Security Council text refer to “Wuhan virus”) while refusing to accept even a passing reference to the World Health Organization (WHO) after President Donald Trump suspended funding to that body in April. China’s immediate priority was to block any implicit or explicit criticism of its handling of the disease, but it also saw an opportunity to embarrass the U.S. for abandoning the WHO and cast Washington as a spoiler on the Council. While Chinese and U.S. officials in New York were ready to compromise on an indirect reference to the WHO in May, Washington nixed this deal, killing off further Council discussions of COVID-19 until late June.

The basic reason that the Security Council underperformed in the face of COVID-19 was, therefore, exactly the reason the Council underperforms on many issues: big power tensions. This fact hardly went unnoticed in New York. Some Council members favoured calling a vote on the COVID-19 resolution in early May, to see if either Beijing or Washington would really veto it. France, which had led P5 discussions of the process, demurred, along with Tunisia. One diplomat observed that the whole process was “trivial”, as both China and the U.S. placed throwing political punches above securing a resolution, while other Council members did not feel strongly enough about the idea to challenge them.

While France and Tunisia eventually found a formula for referring to the WHO that everyone could accept, the whole episode was discouraging for those who would like to see the Council do more to address non-traditional threats. It left the sense that the Council presently has neither a solid policy framework for dealing with pandemics on the scale of COVID-19 or their security implications nor the collective political will necessary to tackle such challenges.

What Now?

With Resolution 2532 wrapped up, the Council has turned to other matters, although none is a cause for celebration. July saw Russia succeed in pressing to reduce the number of crossing points for humanitarian assistance into rebel-held areas of Syria to just one; by 2021, the number is likely to be zero. The main topic of conversation around the Council these days is the possibility that the U.S. will force a major crisis among the P5 in the coming months by demanding the renewal of sanctions on Iran. New York-based diplomats are aware of the pandemic’s ongoing challenges, of course. They have heard sobering reports from UN officials on the disease’s potential to spark food crises, which could in turn lead to violence. But there is little sign that Council members will use Resolution 2532 as a starting point for initiatives to address particular conflicts or even engage the UN Secretariat on how to follow up.

Can any good still come out of the Secretary-General’s call or out of Resolution 2532? Back in April, when it still seemed possible that the Council could move quickly to a resolution, Crisis Group argued that it could have two main benefits. The first, as noted above, was simply to send a positive political signal about the main UN powers’ unity in the face of the pandemic. This nod, we argued, might also encourage those conflict parties that signed onto the Secretary-General’s ceasefire idea early to maintain their cessations of hostilities. Whether or not the gambit would have worked – and there are, of course, strong reasons to doubt that it would have – the Council missed that chance.

But we also suggested in April that a Council resolution could have a second, more procedural, benefit, noting that it could create a formal framework for Guterres to monitor and update the Council on ceasefire implementation. The idea was not so much that the Council would use its enforcement powers – such as sanctions – to compel states or guerrillas to honour COVID-19 ceasefires. It could, however, offer the Secretary-General a platform to report on where conflict parties were taking real steps to contain the virus and where others were failing to do so.

This idea may still be salvageable: Resolution 2532 does offer Guterres a platform, requesting that he “provide updates to the Security Council on the UN efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic in countries in situations of armed conflict or affected by humanitarian crises”. This matter is partly technical: the Secretary-General will need to keep the Council up to date on how peacekeeping operations, political missions and other actors are adapting to the virus. But with a bit of creativity, he can also interpret this mandate as permitting him to talk far more generally with Council members about how the pandemic is affecting the international security landscape. After all, it is clear that the coronavirus is not merely a pathogen causing a health crisis but also is a catalyst for economic shocks that can (as we have already seen in Lebanon) lead to political crises and disorder. It is not clear how the disease will play out region by region – and so far it has not been quite as destructive in some weak countries as seemed likely in March – but it would be a brave ambassador at the UN who would bet that the health, economic and social fallout from COVID-19 will not lead to more political instability.

Secretary-General Guterres should take an expansive view of his mandate to report on COVID-19 to the Council – offering Council members early warnings of potential virus-related crises and conflicts based on UN economic and humanitarian analysis as well political reporting. If the Secretary-General feels uncomfortable about calling out specific states in writing, he can also offer these warnings orally in closed meetings.

[Antonio] can at least use Resolution 2532 as the basis to warn Council members of the pandemic’s evolving security implications.

To date, the Council has proved ill prepared to respond to a global challenge on the scale of COVID-19. Secretary-General Guterres cannot resolve the rifts among the P5 that severely hamper the Council. But he can at least use Resolution 2532 as the basis to warn Council members of the pandemic’s evolving security implications, in the hope that they will respond a little better to the risks it creates than they have so far.


UN Director
Senior Advisor to the President

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