US-China Spat Ensures UN Security Council is Missing in Action on COVID-19 Pandemic

The UN's political arm's silence is defeaning, especially when compared to its response to the Ebola crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic, with reportedly close to 600,000 confirmed cases and more than 27,000 deaths across 177 countries (numbers which will only rise in the coming weeks), has presented humanity with, perhaps, its greatest threat since the end of the Second World War.

As national leaders have issued rallying cries in their “war” against the virus, large swaths of populations across the world have been faced with unprecedented lockdowns, leaving the global economy is a state of disarray. More worryingly, national healthcare systems across the world are under tremendous strain, and there is an acute shortage of necessary medical equipment and resources. In such times of global turmoil, the continued silence of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on the COVID-19 outbreak is deafening.

The fifteen-member UNSC is one of the six principal organs of the United Nations (UN) responsible for the “maintenance of international peace and security”. The UNSC is by far the most powerful, with the prerogative to issue “binding” decisions upon state parties, regardless of their consent or treaty obligations, when it determines that there is a “threat” to international peace and security. These “decisions” are not constrained by any particular form, and have been used in the past to authorise use of force, set up ad hoc criminal courts, issue economic sanctions and constitute committees to freeze accounts of terror suspects.

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In 2014, when the Ebola epidemic devastated a number of poor west-African countries, the UNSC adopted resolution 2177(2014), determining that the unprecedented extent of the outbreak in Africa was a “threat to international peace and security”. In exercise of its emergency powers under the UN Charter, it inter alia, called upon member states, to “lift general border and travel restrictions that further contributed to the isolation of affected countries”. The resolution also asked states to “provide urgent resources and assistance, including deployable medical capabilities, such as field hospitals with qualified and sufficient expertise, staff and supplies, laboratory services, logistical, transport and construction support capabilities, airlift and other aviation support and aeromedical services, and dedicated clinical services” to the affected countries.

The historic resolution adopted by the UNSC set in motion a concerted and well-executed global effort that likely saved many thousands of lives. At the adoption of the resolution, US ambassador Samantha Power, perhaps with a sense of foreboding, stated that “owing what we know now about the exponential spread of this deadly virus, we will have no excuse if we still fail to come together to do what is needed…. Nobody will be able to say we didn’t realize it could get so bad.”

Healthcare workers during the Ebola crisis in the eastern Congolese town of Beni, October 8, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

In this context, it is therefore quite telling, that despite the extent, scale and effect of the highly contagious COVID-19 pandemic, the UNSC has continued to remain a mute spectator. It is important to appreciate that the UNSC can play a major role during a contagion, as so visibly demonstrated during the Ebola crisis in Africa. As noted by a former diplomat, apart from the symbolically important function of reflecting a concerted global cooperative effort, through setting up of an international committee staffed by senior civil servants and health experts in battling the virus, the UNSC can play a critical role in ensuring the availability and equitable distribution of necessary resources – such as testing kits, trained medical personnel, ventilators, masks, medicines, particularly amongst the poorer regions of the world affected by the virus. Although several specialised agencies such as the World Health Organisation exist and will continue to play an important role in fighting the virus, they cannot be a substitute for the political arm of the UN, which occupies a unique and special place in the post Second World War global order.

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As per reports, efforts to coalesce necessary consensus to adopt a UNSC resolution on the COVID-19 pandemic have been stymied by the stalemate between officials of China and the US. On one hand, China has remained reluctant to address the issue of COVID-19 in the UNSC and had at the beginning of its presidency of the UNSC, stated that it had no plans to discuss the virus, asserting that the defeat of the virus was not far away with the “coming of spring”. On the other hand, the Trump administration has been insistent on stating in the text of any resolution, that the virus had originated in Wuhan, China which has not been agreeable to China.

The failure of the UNSC to act amidst the global pandemic, once again, underscores the problem with the structure and membership of the UNSC, particularly the availability of veto to the five permanent members and the need for urgent reform of the UNSC. In the words of a senior UN diplomat “the silence of the Council on an issue impacting human security in such a profound manner reflects that it’s obviously not fit for purpose for the challenges of our times”.

Jay Manoj Sanklecha is an LL.M in international law (summa cum laude) from the IHEID, Geneva and B.A/LL.B (honours) from NUJS, Kolkata. Views expressed are personal.