The UNSC: An Outdated System facing a Modern Crisis?
Is COVID-19 only a matter of public health? Is it not a threat to international peace and security? Qualifying COVID-19 as a mere matter of “public health” is highly reductive.
The impact of COVID-19 on international peace and security is obvious: from Africa who is told to prepare for the worst, to the withdrawal of diplomatic personnel and the closure of borders which precludes humanitarian aid, the outbreak of COVID-19 has already cost the lives of more than 21,000 people worldwide at the time of writing. It is however shocking to see how little the UNSC has done so far to tackle this global crisis and fulfil its mandate as the organ responsible for international peace and security. While the UN Secretary-General recently called for an “immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world”, China who holds the presidency of the UNSC this month, did not put COVID-19 on the agenda and argued that COVID-19 is a matter of public health which falls outside of the geopolitical scope of the UNSC (see here).
But is COVID-19 only a matter of public health? Is it not a threat to international peace and security? Qualifying COVID-19 as a mere matter of “public health” is highly reductive. Even President Emmanuel Macron and President Donald Trump have qualified the current situation as a “war”.
Adapting the system of the UNSC to COVID-19
COVID-19 is highly contagious and people are being told to practice “social distancing”. The UNSC had to abide by the rules and decided to suspend its meetings.
It is important to note that the UN Charter is quite flexible when it comes to adaptation. Indeed, the UNSC is allowed to meet somewhere else than the UN headquarters for a period that it can define itself (Article 28(3) UN Charter and Rule 5 Provisional Rules of Procedure).
Although it understandably had to adjust to the situation, as we all did, it is important to remember that the UNSC has been created to answer crisis situations. It should, as such, be able to adjust swiftly. It took however 12 days of meetings suspension for the UNSC to hold its first informal virtual session on 24 March 2020. Meanwhile, several UNSC mandates are coming to an end and need to be continued through authorization of said body (see here).
The issue here is that the time the UNSC needed to adapt was not only lengthened by technical issues but also, and most importantly, by a lack of political will from some of its member States to hold virtual meetings. The argument put forward by Russia being that “in the current circumstances it is important to show to the rest of the world that [the] UN and its Security Council are functioning”.
Is suspending UNSC meetings and going silent on a global pandemic showing the world that it is functioning? Does it not show, rather, the inability of the UNSC to react adequately to a crisis threatening international peace and security?
COVID-19: an obvious threat to international peace and security
The practice of the UNSC throughout the years has revealed that it mostly acts in response to military conflicts that threaten the stability of international peace and security (e.g. Syria and Yemen). The question today is to know whether the UNSC can consider a sanitary crisis as an international threat to peace and security?
Firstly, the UNSC is the organ responsible to maintain and restore international peace and security (Article 39 of the UN Charter). Secondly, the UN Secretary General explicitly stated in 2005 that threats to peace and security include “deadly infectious disease”. And thirdly, this would not be the first time that the UNSC reacts to a sanitary crisis: it had to deal with HIV/AIDS and Ebola in the past. Indeed, back in 2014, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2177
on the Ebola outbreak. In this Resolution, the UNSC determined that the Ebola outbreak constituted a “threat to international peace and security”. In a wording which sounds familiar to the current state of the world, it also expressed its concern “about the detrimental effect of the isolation of the affected countries as a result of trade and travel restrictions imposed on and to the affected countries”. It therefore seems that the UNSC has the power to determine COVID-19 as a threat to international peace and security.
Compared to Ebola, COVID-19 is a “global pandemic” spreading worldwide. But States are unfortunately not equal in the fight against this pandemic.In a column published in Le Monde, Youssef Chahed, former Prime Minister of Tunisia, asked the UNSC to help the international community emphasising the need to help developing countries. He argued that the pandemic is not only a threat to peace, but it is also a threat to life. COVID-19 has many implications for our world’ stability: what about humanitarian assistance to countries in need if States are closing their borders? Can UN peacekeeping Missions be maintained? What if the virus spreads across refugee camps? What if States cut their financial assistance to the UN to feed their domestic economies?
It is time for the UNSC to take on its role and act. Having a Resolution from the UNSC on COVID-19 would greatly change the narrative of the crisis. It would allow States to act in concert while confirming their commitment to fight the pandemic. States would also coordinate on the needs of sanitary institutions and cooperate with one another which could, eventually, “flatten the curve” of the spread of the virus. It is not necessarily that the UNSC is an outdated system unable to face a modern crisis. Rather, it is again the lack of political willingness from States to adapt the work of the UNSC to sanitary crisis that impedes the good fulfilment of its mandate. Considering the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the threat is poses to our societies, the UNSC must act to prove that its power is relevant in non-military crisis.