By Ulku Halatci Ulusoy (Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ankara University, Law School and Honorary Lecturer, University of Aberdeen)
The United Nations (UN), which was given the primary responsibility for protecting and ensuring international peace and security, is incapable of responding to COVID-19, as with many other issues. The World Health Organization (WHO), the specialised organization of the UN, has declared the COVID-19 disease caused by a new coronavirus as a pandemic due to its presence in more than 114 states on March 11, 2020. Criticisms have been raised that the WHO made this declaration too late and that it has not been able to take effective measures. U.S. President Donald Trump halted funding to the WHO over its handling of the pandemic. He accused the UN agency of mismanaging and covering up the spread of the virus after it had emerged in China.
It has also been a great disappointment that the UN has remained extremely passive in the fight against COVID-19, which it considers to be the biggest threat that the world has faced in the last century. The insistence of the US on using the "Chinese virus" and "Wuhan virus" discourses for COVID-19 was challenged by China and Russia, and delayed the meeting of the Security Council. The UN Security Council has the primary responsibility for international peace and security. According to Article 39 of the UN Charter “The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.” As well as the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Secretary-General play important and complementary roles, along with other UN offices and bodies.
Finally, UN Secretary General Guterres called on the UN Security Council, which has been criticized for not taking a long step on COVID-19, to unite and to fight against the pandemic. Pursuant to Article 99 of the UN Treaty, the Secretary General has the power to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter that may endanger international peace and security protection. Speaking at the international body's first meeting on the matter, Guterres stressed that the engagement of the Security Council will be "critical" to mitigate the peace and security implications of the pandemic. He pointed out that all states are struggling with the devastating consequences of the coronavirus epidemic, thousands of people died, hospitals collapsed, and healthcare workers struggled to lift this burden. He also highlighted tensions and a legitimacy problem, violence and conflict fuelling, terrorist threat, biological terrorist attacks and human rights violations. "The intervention of the Security Council is critical to preventing threats to peace and security caused by the epidemic," said Guterres. According to Gutteres, in such anxious time, the Council signalling unity and resolve to find a solution means a lot.
Lessons from the Ebola Outbreak
The fast spread of the Ebola epidemic in 2014–2016 resulted in a multidimensional emergency that presented unexpected challenges on a global scale. The former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established the UN’s first-ever emergency health mission, the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), in response to the Ebola outbreak which was uncontrolled in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The UNMEER was mandated by the UN General Assembly on September 19, 2014 after the unanimous adoption of General Assembly Resolution 69/1.
In addition to the actions of the General Assembly, the Security Council also took a decision on September 18, 2014 with its Resolution numbered 2177, on the grounds that the Ebola outbreak threatened international peace and security due to the rapid spread of the disease in West Africa. This decision was an important milestone for the Security Council; for the first time, a public health problem was considered a threat to international peace and security. Although the Security Council took decisions regarding HIV/AIDS in 2010 and 2011, the security threat did not get mentioned in these decisions like it did in the decisions regarding Ebola. International cooperation on public health threats took a step forward with Resolution 2177 (2014). The decision was taken unanimously and the states were called to help the region to prevent the Ebola epidemic, which was considered a threat to international peace and security. The Council determined in a preambular paragraph that ‘… the unprecedented extent of the Ebola outbreak in Africa constitutes a threat to international peace and security’. Even though the Council did not accept enforcement actions as part of Resolution 2177 (2014), its decision on the security-related consequences of the Ebola outbreak had normative effects and indirectly impacted the Council’s actions under Chapter VII of UN Charter regarding West Africa. On the other hand, the Council adopted on 9 December 2014 Resolution 2188 (2014) with regard to the arms and travel sanctions against specific targets in Liberia. The Council decided to extend the sanctions in force at that time because of the concerns that Ebola could affect the political stability of the region and reverse its peacebuilding gains. However, in the relevant decisions, no obligation was imposed on the states for the realization of the right to health. It was seen as a major deficiency that the states did not refer to their obligations regarding human rights, especially the right to health.
There is no doubt that determining COVID-19 a threat to international peace and security could provide mutual benefits for states seeking to avoid infections and those dealing with the current outbreak. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anna highlighted in the Larger Freedom Report (2005) that: “threats to peace and security in the twenty-first century include not just international war and conflict but civil violence, organized crime, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. They also include poverty, deadly infectious disease and environmental degradation since these can have equally catastrophic consequences.” Due to its global nature, inter-state cooperation and solidarity is of great importance in the fight against the pandemic. Unilateral measures taken by states to close their borders will not be sufficient in overcoming the crisis. Given that the states are in need of each other in economic and commercial matters, they are therefore supposed to be transparent and share information on COVID-19 cases. In the management of the socio-economic crises that COVID-19 will cause, the UN should play an important role and guide the states and support them. Resolutions of the Security Council on the Ebola outbreak under Chapter VII can provide guidance on the struggle with COVID-19. It was a sign of progress that Resolution 2177 (2014) was adopted unanimously and supported by some 130 states, the highest number in the history of the Council. In contrast, to date, no conclusions have been received from the recommendations made to the Security Council on COVID-19.
How to Overcome the Veto Handicap in the Security Council
Although the permanent members of the Security Council account for almost 50% of current COVID-19 cases in the world, disagreements among them on the issue prevent a decision being taken on combating COVID-19. The US Permanent Representative to the UN, Kelly Craft, called for full transparency and timely sharing of public health data with the international community. It does not seem possible to achieve consensus in the Security Council because the US blames China. Under these circumstances what can be done? In such a case the UN General Assembly may come into play. The UN General Assembly approved Resolution 74/270 on April 2 2020, calling for "international cooperation" and "multilateralism" in the fight against COVID-19, in the first text to come out of the international body since the outbreak began. Resolution 74/270 states that the 193-member UN General Assembly notes "with great concern" the threat to human health, safety and well-being caused by COVID-19, which continues to spread globally. The UN resolution stresses the central role of the body in the global health and economic crisis. It was submitted by Switzerland, Indonesia, Singapore, Norway, Liechtenstein and Ghana, and adopted by 188 of the 193 states that make up the body. The Resolution is the first to be adopted by the UN General Assembly on the pandemic that is sweeping the world and causing great global concern. It was adopted under a silence procedure, as the UN General Assembly is not holding meetings due to the pandemic.
At the next stage, decisions must be taken to which states are obliged to comply on COVID-19. The General Assembly Resolution 377(V), known as the Uniting For Peace resolution, shall be a guide in this regard. Adopted in 1950, the resolution states that if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility to act as required to maintain international peace and security, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with the view to making recommendations to Members in order to restore international peace and security. If not in session, the General Assembly may meet using the mechanism of the emergency special session for COVID-19. Consequently, the UN should put all its capacity into action as soon as possible to combat the pandemic.