The sweeping and devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing to grow, and so too are the risks of instability and tension amidst glaring inequalities in the global recovery, senior United Nations officials warned today during a Security Council videoconference on the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on international peace and security.
The meeting focused on the implementation of resolution 2532 (2020), adopted on 1 July 2020, in which the Council expressed its support for the Secretary-General’s appeal, made 100 days earlier, for a global ceasefire to help unite efforts to fight COVID-19 in the world’s most vulnerable countries. Through that text, the 15-member organ also called for an immediate 90-day humanitarian pause to enable the safe, unhindered and sustained delivery of life-saving assistance.
Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, said that the pandemic’s impact on peace and security has intensified — exacerbating inequality and corruption; breeding misinformation, stigmatization and hate speech; and creating new flashpoints for tension and increased risks of instability. It is hindering diplomatic action and complicated peacemaking efforts, without for the most part affecting the underlying dynamics of armed conflicts. The impact on women, youth and other marginalized groups is particularly alarming, she said.
In some instances, the Secretary-General’s call for a global cessation of hostilities has given new momentum to faltering peace processes, she said, pointing to ceasefires in Libya and Ukraine, ongoing Afghanistan peace negotiations and the start of a disarmament process among insurgent groups in Mozambique. Other places, however, have witnessed a dangerous escalation of tension, including large-scale fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Without exception, United Nations missions and the Secretary-General’s special representatives and special envoys have adjusted to the changing reality, embracing new tools such as digital focus groups. At the same time, since the onset of the pandemic, the United Nations has supported 19 elections and one referendum in 18 countries.
Looking ahead, she warned that as the pandemic’s impact grows, so too will the risk of tensions and instability, magnified by inequalities in the global recovery. As rich countries get vaccinated, the developing world — including countries already trapped in conflict and instability — risks being left behind, dealing a severe blow to peace and security.
“One thing is clear: The pandemic has served as a political stress test as much as a structural and public health one,” she said. It has laid how acute crisis can become an opportunity to gain advantage on the battlefield or as a pretext to perpetuate oppression — but it has also confirmed that almost no barrier is insurmountable when there is real political will, supported by the global community, to make and sustain peace. Going forward, the collective and individual engagement of Council members will remain crucial, she said, adding that “recovering better” in the wake of the pandemic will require more political and financial investment in conflict prevention.
Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, said that already complex political situations continued to feel the strain of the virus. In South Sudan, for example, the pandemic has further delayed the implementation of the peace process. In Lebanon, it has exacerbated a difficult political situation. In Central African Republic, some political actors tried to leverage the pandemic as a pretext to delay elections and establish an unconstitutional transition. Against that backdrop, however, the crisis has put a spotlight on the importance of women’s leadership to mitigate political risks. Notwithstanding these challenges, United Nations peacekeeping missions continue to deliver on their mandated tasks, demonstrating adaptability, resilience and innovation, he said, noting however that pandemic-related restrictions are presenting challenges for the ongoing drawdown of African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID).
While adapting to challenges, peacekeeping operations are emphasizing the health and safety of their military, police and civilian personnel, he said, with preventative measures including physical distancing, travel restrictions, telecommuting and rotations of in-office staff. As of today, across all field missions, and of more than 100,000 personnel, there have been 2,486 cumulative cases of COVID-19 among United Nations personnel and dependents and, unfortunately, 24 fatalities. Seventy-seven per cent of rotations of uniformed personnel scheduled for the second half of 2020 were completed and only 2 per cent postponed, he said, adding that COVID-19 pre-deployment awareness training has been introduced.
He went on to say that since the pandemic began, peacekeeping operations have consistently endeavoured to support host country authorities to contain the spread of the virus. Citing examples, he said that the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) have used their respective radio stations to uphold facts and raise public awareness. Police contingents are meanwhile supporting national police services to combat the spread of COVID-19. Going forward, peacekeeping operations are working to anticipate changing risks through long-term horizon-scanning, with a view to better prepare for them, while also drawing lessons to foster good practices, he said.
Atul Khare, Under-Secretary-General for Operational Support, said that the Department of Operational Support has activated its supply chains to support field missions, procuring and distributing over 4 million in personal protective and intensive care unit equipment, along with 35 testing machines, and 150,000 antibody test kits. Medical facilities in Juba and Goma were upgraded, adding over 30 medical staff, and creating polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing and intensive care unit capacities. Public heath colleagues have provided guidance and training materials. The Department conducted virtual walk throughs in 22 duty stations, 43 contingents living arrangements, and 83 clinics and hospitals across 11 missions. The Field Remote Infrastructure Management technology platform uses sensors to remotely manage field mission engineering and facilities infrastructure, overall reducing the exposure to COVID-19. The MEDEVAC Task Force, led by the Department, has now conducted 140 medical evacuations as part of an inter-agency and system-wide effort. Regional hubs have been established in Nairobi, Accra, Costa Rica, and Kuwait with the facilities in Nairobi and Accra now receiving the largest number of Medevacs. “The mechanism has been a success and has given our personnel and partners the confidence to stay and deliver in some of the United Nations most difficult duty stations around the world,” he underscored.
The rotation policy, he added, has allowed for the quick detection of cases and the ability to isolate and replace personnel without delay. Pre-deployment cases have been detected among uniformed personnel before their arrival. The new long-term air charter agreements introduced in July 2020 were designed to reduce troop movement costs by 15.5 per cent, he said, noting that since the resumption of the rotations savings have been significant. The Department is working with other partners, including the African Union and the European Union, to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in various operational contexts and exchange lessons learnt.
The Secretary-General has tasked the Department to coordinate a system-wide vaccination effort for all United Nations personnel and dependents world-wide, he said, adding that they positively responded to the Secretary-General’s call for host countries to include United Nations personnel in their national roll-out programmes. Thanking Israel for becoming the first country to have provided the first doses to seven peacekeepers in Camp Ziouani, he said that in cases where vaccine delivery will not be possible through the host country, the Department will identify alternate arrangements. A “Group of Friends” of troop- and police-contributing countries has been convened to agree upon a pragmatic, coherent and common approach to vaccinate personnel.
Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, focused on the humanitarian crisis, recalling that 10 days ago, the world passed the grim milestone of 2 million deaths from COVID-19. Of the almost 98 million people confirmed to have contracted the virus across the world, 24 million — almost one quarter — live in countries facing humanitarian or refugee crises. “That’s the tip of the iceberg,” he said, adding that most cases are still not reflected in the figures. The secondary consequences of the virus are even more lethal. In 2021, an estimated 235 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection, up 40 per cent from 2020, almost entirely due to COVID-19. The worst global economic contraction in 90 years has hit the poorest, most fragile countries the hardest. Noting that in 2020 aid agencies provided lifesaving assistance to almost 100 million people, he said the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19 received nearly $4 billion from 160 donors. The funding enabled transport of over 26,000 health and humanitarian personnel and 118,000 cubic meters of critical COVID-19 cargo, as well as the provision of critical water and sanitation supplies and services to 74 million people, among other things. But it has become harder to reach people. More must be done to improve access to the most vulnerable and to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian and health workers.
While the humanitarian community has managed to sustain and scale up assistance to an unprecedented level, that effort has been outpaced by the growing scale of the crisis, he said, seeking the Council’s help in three areas, including immediate and generous funding of the Global Humanitarian Overview published in December. In 2021, the United Nations-coordinated humanitarian system needs $35 billion to reach 160 million people. Shareholders must do more to strengthen the support international financial institutions provide to their most vulnerable members. “It is staggering to me that of the $110 billion pledged by the international financial institutions since March, only $11.7 billion, just 10 per cent, was targeted at low-income countries,” he said. And only $7 billion has actually been disbursed — the equivalent of about $10 per person, he said, calling for urgent action to ensure vaccines reach the most vulnerable people in the world. Countries should scale up their support for the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and the COVAX Facility.
He went on to emphasize that Governments must also fulfil their responsibility to include in their national vaccination plans all high-risk populations within their territories, including refugees, internally displaced people, and people living in areas under the control of non-State armed groups. It is also vital to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines do not get financed at the expense of other life-saving activities in the very poorest countries. If money is diverted from routine immunization, famine relief or other health services to pay for the COVID vaccine, the result will be more not less loss of life. However, “we have reasons for hope,” he said. “The speed with which effective vaccines have been developed is a historic achievement for humanity […] The next six months will be crucial.”
In the ensuing discussion, delegates reiterated their support for a global ceasefire, but also emphasized the need to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of affordable COVID-19 vaccines, particularly in conflict hotspots. “No one is safe until everyone is safe,” several speakers said, warning that, as long as the pandemic continues, the risk of conflict and tension — and the threat to international peace and security — will only grow.
The representative of France said the cessation of hostilities is vital for the fight against COVID-19 to be effective. Despite some progress, especially in Libya with the conclusion of a ceasefire agreement, and support by over 180 countries for the Secretary-General’s appeal, the situation remains fragile in many countries. The COVID-19 vaccine must be a global public good accessible to all, she said, fully supporting the COVAX initiative. Global access will be a test for a new multilateralism. Underscoring the importance of supporting implementation of the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19 and funding the various humanitarian response plans, she said France will continue increasing its humanitarian aid to reach 500 million euros in 2022 and such aid will be a top priority of the country’s European Union presidency in 2022. Efforts must be bolstered to limit the negative and disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women, girls, refugees and internally displaced persons especially, who must be enabled to participate fully in developing and implementing the pandemic response. Stressing the need to consolidate the multilateral health architecture around the World Health Organization (WHO), she said that the current health crisis has also highlighted the need for reliable, science-based information on the links between human, animal and environmental health and expressed support for the launch of the “One Health” high-level council.
The representative of Ireland said that the Council cannot ignore the threat to peace and security posed by the pandemic, which has increased poverty, disrupted education and worsened food insecurity — all factors that can lead to, or exacerbate, conflict. The Council must act now to prevent conflicts resulting from the interaction between the pandemic with pre-existing fragilities, she said, calling for full implementation of resolution 2532 (2020). It must also carefully consider the impact of COVID-19 on peacekeeping operations, with the “Blue Helmets” taken into account during the roll-out of vaccines. She went on to stress that national restrictions on movement should not hamper the ability of humanitarian and health workers to reach those in greatest need.
The speaker for Kenya, underscoring the impact of COVID-19 on the most fragile countries, said that a lack of vaccines in wide parts of the world for extended periods of time could lead to mutations of the virus that would endanger everybody. Warning against vaccine nationalism, he urged Council members, including those with above-average resources and industrial capacities, to show global leadership by ensuring vaccine availability and affordability for the most fragile countries and regions. With the world on the brink of a rapid unravelling of global order, vaccine access for all would be “a shot in the arm” that would make billions of people feel that the United Nations and its Member States can reach out to them, regardless of wealth or race, he said.
The representative of the Russian Federation said his country was among the first to support the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire. The immediate cessation of hostilities and the introduction of a humanitarian pause in conflict zones should not apply to the fight against terrorist groups. It is important to bear in mind that a ceasefire is not the only thing resolution 2532 (2020) calls for, he said, noting that the text supports the Secretary General’s call for lifting illegal unilateral sanctions that limit the capacity of developing and least developed countries to respond to the challenges due to the virus’ spread and socioeconomic consequences. Highlighting the introduction of Moscow’s “Green Corridors” — which are free of trade wars and sanctions — for delivering vital goods and medicines to countries in need, he said humanitarian aid must be provided in full respect for the sovereignty of the recipient States without any preconditions. He voiced concern about growing efforts to remove these fundamental provisions from resolutions to renew the mandates of United Nations peacekeeping operations. Expressing support for the role of WHO, he said the Russian Federation created and registered the world’s first vaccine against coronavirus, namely “SPUTNIK-V”, and is providing the vaccine on a bilateral basis. The proposal to provide the Russian vaccine free for United Nations personnel remains on the table, he added.
The speaker for the United Kingdom said implementation of the ceasefire resolution continues to be mixed, citing examples in Yemen, South Sudan and Sudan. In addition, women’s voices have been side-lined in peace processes, he said, calling for their full participation alongside youth, religious groups and non-governmental organizations. Clearly, the pandemic threatens international peace and security, and ending it requires equitable global access to vaccines, yet there are barriers to delivery in conflict contexts. When the United Kingdom assumes the Council presidency, it will convene a meeting to address potential obstacles to vaccine access such as ceasefires, logistics and funding, he said.
The representative of China, describing 2021 as a critical year in the fight against COVID-19, said that the Council should bolster implementation of resolution 2532 (2020). All parties to conflict should unconditionally cease hostilities and focus instead on the front line of the pandemic, in coordination with United Nations missions. Supply chains should be stabilized to guarantee the delivery of humanitarian supplies, and the health and safety of United Nations personnel ensured, including through a feasible vaccination programme. He called for the lifting of unilateral sanctions as soon as possible, adding that the politicization of the pandemic will only lead to the further spread of the novel coronavirus.
The speaker for India said many ceasefires announced after the global call were not negotiated, and have either expired or broken down, with conflicts intensifying in some cases. He nonetheless reiterated the call for a comprehensive ceasefire in Afghanistan, welcoming that resolution 2532 (2020) had the foresight to recognize the threats posed by State sponsors of terror and ensure that the Secretary-General’s call did not apply to Council listed individuals and terrorist entities. India’s response to the call included the provision of health and medical supplies to more than 150 countries and $15 million pledged to GAVI. Moreover, India’s scientists, medical fraternity, industry, academia and Government worked in tandem to develop a vaccine, with three candidates now in advanced trial stages. Countries engaging in cross-border terrorism must be called out and held accountable, he said, pressing the Council to prioritize support for efforts that ensure economic recovery in conflict areas, as well as speedy, equitable distribution of vaccines and therapeutics.
The representative of Norway said her country echoed the call for a global ceasefire by encouraging parties to conflict to adhere to that appeal. “However, as we have all seen, the response has not been sufficient,” she said, acknowledging that most ceasefires announced were unilateral, limited and lacking follow-up mechanisms for coordination, monitoring and conflict management. She underscored the importance of encouraging parties to make mutual commitments, allowing ceasefires to serve their purpose — whether vaccine distribution or steps towards a settlement. She commended the Secretary-General’s swift response to Norway’s proposal to establish the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund in March 2020, advocating continued support for national authorities, protection of United Nations personnel, and more broadly, for human rights, the rule of law and gender equality to underpin the global response to COVID-19. It is the Council’s duty to watch the shifting dynamics around conflicts, coordinate efforts and facilitate both humanitarian access and peaceful resolution, when possible, she stressed.
The representative of the United States pledged to work with other countries and international organizations, stressing that the new United States President signed a letter on 20 January retracting his predecessor’s decision to withdraw from WHO. Despite the devastating impact of COVID-19, there is “light at the end of tunnel”, he said, citing the development of numerous vaccines and therapeutics within a year of the outbreak. As stated by chief medical officer Anthony Fauci, the United States will play a key role in strengthening global health security and provide support to the COVAX Facility, while seeking to reform WHO. He expressed concern over the capacity of conflict-affected countries to fight COVID-19, urging parties to either abide by their ceasefire agreements or reach new accords that ensure aid delivery. Condemning terrorist groups for exploiting the pandemic, he said Washington, D.C., will continue to pursue its legitimate anti-terrorism operations, and to support vulnerable countries and populations dealing with the second-order effects of COVID-19.
The representative of Niger underscored the imperative of ensuring fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, warning countries against using these medicines as a way to advance their hegemonistic ambitions or expand their influence. Fighting the pandemic requires international and regional cooperation. Noting that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is implementing measures to guarantee the distribution of vaccines to low-income countries through the COVAX Facility, he said the pandemic has “added a new layer” of development challenges in the Sahel, an area that is already dealing with the impact of climate change. He called for the lifting of unilateral sanctions, which undermine the delivery of humanitarian aid.
The representative of Estonia said the pandemic is an unprecedented situation that requires greater cooperation, strong multilateralism and, in the Council, strength and unity in dealing with its security implications. Resources must go towards tackling the virus, not attacking health organizations and citizens only, he said, emphasizing that all Member States must follow the norms of responsible State behaviour in cyberspace. Using COVID-19 as justification for lifting sanctions is misleading, as targeted sanctions play no role in how well a country deals with the pandemic, he said, adding that curtailing human rights and restricting civil space under the pretext of the virus is unacceptable.
The representative of Viet Nam said mixed success prevails in implementing a global ceasefire. Access to the vaccine remains uneven at a time when underlying causes of conflict are likely to be affected in the long run while facing risks of exploitation by extremists and terrorists. Offering several recommendations, he said the ceasefire must be strengthened to protect people from both conflict and COVID-19. United Nations peacekeeping operations must be made safer and stronger, with increased medical capacities to better protect peacekeepers and civilians. Indeed, Member States should support a robust and resilient global health system, with WHO playing a crucial role. While being a “first step” in recognizing the immediate danger of COVID-19 to global security, resolution 2532 (2020) requires a follow-up to ensure its effective implementation, he said, adding that: “The people in countries in situations of armed conflict or affected by humanitarian crises look to the Council for its continued unity, solidarity and leadership; we must not fail them.”
The representative of Mexico, commending Tunisia and France for leading the adoption of resolution 2532 (2020), urged the Council to both renew and strengthen its commitment to a common purpose. The resolution was a step in the right direction, but it should have been adopted “much earlier”, he said, calling for redoubled efforts to ensure post-pandemic recovery, and pressing the Council to play a more active role in the search for solutions through a prevention approach. Welcoming the decision by the United States to join the COVAX Facility, he said the move is in line with General Assembly resolution 74/274, introduced by Mexico in April 2020 and co-sponsored by 178 countries. He also recognized efforts by the Group of Friends of Solidarity for Global Health Security in raising awareness about the impact of global health crises on international security. “Not recognizing such a dimension is to shirk our responsibility,” he said.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said that successfully addressing the simultaneous challenges of COVID-19 and conflict requires greater political will; scaled-up humanitarian and developmental assistance; full respect for international law, including international humanitarian law; and earnest efforts towards pursuing dialogue, compromise and reconciliation. No effort must be spared to ensure that vaccines are equitably available to all. In that regard, she called for greater financial support for the COVAX initiative as well as a rules-based compact between all States and major pharmaceutical companies to ensure the universal distribution of affordable COVID‑19 vaccines. “As we seek to recover from this pandemic, let us also seek to advance peace and justice for all in accordance with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” she added.
The representative of Tunisia, Council President for January, spoke in his national capacity, stressing the importance of a joint and coordinated response to the pandemic under United Nations auspices. Recalling that resolution 2532 (2020) was adopted by the Council following an initiative by Tunisia and France, he reaffirmed the urgent need for a global ceasefire. He also emphasized the need for equal access to vaccines, stating that failure in that regard is liable to deepen sentiments of injustice and, in turn, raise tensions. It would also run counter to the principles of human solidarity and collective security. He went on urge the Council to follow up on resolution 2532 (2020) by developing mechanisms for its implementation.