Where’s the UNSC’s response to Corona in Africa?
The risk of Covid-19 intersects with dangers from years of internal wars in many African conflict zones. The UNSC must take measures now to limit the drastic effects of the pandemic on high-risk populations.
‘The Kata Katanga militia is taking advantage of the situation. New military contingents have been deployed. They have started looting and stealing at gunpoint on the streets, and they do not hesitate to kill. They are taking it out on the civilians’. This is the situation in the city of Lubumbashi, Haut-Katanga province, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as described on 30 March by my friend Ana who has lived and worked there for almost 6 months.
While the Covid-19 outbreak is a worldwide sanitary crisis striking almost every country indiscriminately, the pandemic is likely to disproportionately affect those populations that have been living under dire political, humanitarian and security conditions for years in African conflict-affected areas, like in the DRC, South Sudan or Mali.
Disproportionate impact of the pandemic on conflict-affected populations in Africa
The risk of the coronavirus spreading throughout the African continent, especially in conflict-affected zones, is deeply worrying. First, the measures recommended by the WHO are already difficult enough to uphold in non-conflict areas. In metropolises like Nairobi, Kenya, many people cannot afford quarantine and live in poor sanitary conditions. Years of war and humanitarian distress are likely to further hamper the application of the required measures in conflict zones, where there is a long history of rapid contagion, particularly in refugee camps. It will only take one case to spark an overwhelming spread of the virus (compare the calamity looming in the Gaza strip). Second, the International Crisis Group has warned that the confusion caused by the outbreak risks exacerbating ongoing crises. In areas where the institutions are weak and where armed groups are active, it is likely that militias will take advantage of the situation, leading to a drastic increase in violence by the military and armed groups. In the DRC for example, tensions reignited last week with the Kata Katanga militia attacking Lubumbashi and Likasi, claiming the deaths of over 15 persons among militiamen and the police. In 2019, the DRC had faced similar violent episodes in the midst of the Ebola outbreak, with rebels blocking access to affected areas and attacking medical staff.
A much awaited response from the UN Security Council
In September 2014, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2177 in which it determined that the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa constituted a threat to international peace and security. The resolution prompted an international response that significantly contributed to curbing the sanitary crisis and improving the security situation. The Council’s response to the second outbreak in 2018-2019 in the DRC was weaker. In Resolution 2439, the UNSC did not act under Chapter VII UNC. Yet it seized the matter, expressed its concerns at the threat caused by Ebola to the security and humanitarian situation in the DRC, and called for increased action by the relevant actors.
Covid-19 is blatantly absent from the UNSC’s agenda. However, as argued by my colleague Dorine Nauleau (Leiden Law Blog, 27 March 2020), Covid-19 qualifies as a threat to international peace and security, especially in places where it would aggravate already fluid security conditions like in the DRC. As such, it requires a response from the UNSC. At this point, the WHO is at the forefront to prevent the worst happening in Africa, by training health workers, providing test kits and increasing surveillance in communities. Moreover, MONUSCO, MINUSCA, UNMISS and UNAMID have committed to staying mobilised and supporting local authorities in fighting the coronavirus.
But this seems insufficient to ensure the protection of civilians in conflict-affected zones, where the virus may lead to increased disarray. It is vital for vulnerable populations that the UNSC takes up its role as guardian of international peace and security, and recognises the link between increasing violence and the Covid-19 outbreak in conflict areas. Acknowledging such a connection would allow the UNSC to react adequately. The UNSC could use the UN peacekeeping missions established in Africa, which would in turn enable them to fulfil their mandates of protection of civilians at a time when they will be most at risk. Acting under Chapter VII UNC, the UNSC could create corridors of safety for the conveyance of medical supplies and healthcare workers, and expand the mandates of the missions to authorise them to take a more active role in protecting medical staff and vulnerable civilians. This would prevent a scenario like that of 2019 in Eastern DRC from occurring in various war zones throughout the continent. The UNSC could also urge contributing States not to repatriate their troops and continue rotating them. Finally, determining that the Covid-19 outbreak constitutes a threat to international peace and security, especially in African conflict zones, would enable the UNSC to call on UN Member States to help the WHO in preventing the worst and assist, to the best of their ability, with resources, technical expertise and medical equipment and facilities.
The risks of seeing the disease rapidly spread among vulnerable populations and a dramatic increase in the level of violence, are looming all over Africa and particularly in conflict zones such as the DRC, Nigeria or South Sudan. The world is at a turning point and must face an unprecedented crisis that will have disastrous consequences at all levels (political, economic, sanitary, security). However, some will be more affected than others, and this is not the time for the international community to turn away from the populations most at risk. The UNSC must step up and take appropriate measures to prevent the disease from disproportionately striking the most vulnerable areas of the world, where the virus will not only claim lives but will also give way to violence.