Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Implications of COVID-19 - Security Council Open VTC

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02-Jul-2020 02:26:05
COVID-19 ‘profoundly affecting peace across the globe’, says Secretary-General, in address to Security Council.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is “profoundly affecting” peace and security across the globe, Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council in a 2 July videoconference debate*, pressing the Chamber to use its collective influence to protect the millions of people affected by conflict and already facing acute vulnerabilities.

Addressing the 15-member organ on the impact of COVID-19 on international peace and security, Mr. Guterres said the health pandemic is fast becoming a protection crisis. “Collective security and our shared well-being are under assault on many fronts,” he emphasized, led by a relentless disease and abetted by global fragilities. “Our challenge is to save lives today while buttressing the pillars of security for tomorrow.”

The risks are diverse, he said. Trust in public institutions is eroding in places where people perceive that authorities have not addressed COVID-19 effectively or been transparent about its impact. As existing grievances and vulnerabilities become more entrenched, the potential for violence only grows, he said, also highlighting an alarming spike in gender-based and domestic abuse.

In some countries, he said fragile peace processes could be derailed if the international community is distracted. In Sudan’s Darfur region, the pandemic has led to repeated extensions of the deadline for completing the Juba peace process. Elsewhere, terrorist and violent extremist groups see the uncertainty created by the coronavirus as a tactical advantage. In Somalia, there is a risk that Al‑Shabaab could increase attacks while security forces focus, by necessity, on the pandemic.

Many countries have had to consider how to move ahead with elections slated for 2020, he said. Since March, 18 elections or referenda have been held since the onset of the pandemic, 24 have been postponed and the initial dates for 39 elections have been maintained. In the Central African Republic, attempts to use the pandemic as a pretext to postpone the holding of elections planned for year-end are creating tensions. “Difficult as they are, such decisions are best made on the basis of broad consultations with all stakeholders, to avoid fuelling political tensions or undermining legitimacy,” he said.

On the diplomatic front, he said COVID-19 has made mediation, a very personal endeavour, more challenging. With movement restrictions limiting such contacts — and online discussions often the only alternative — it can be difficult to establish trust and nurture the willingness to compromise that are at the heart of preventive diplomacy.

In terms of security, the pandemic highlights the risks of bioterrorist attacks, he said, and has already shed light on how preparedness might fall short if a disease were to be manipulated to be more virulent — or intentionally released in multiple places at once. Urging countries to focus intently on preventing the deliberate use of diseases as weapons, he said the Biological Weapons Convention codifies a strong and long‑standing norm against such abhorrent use of disease.

However, the best counter to biological weapons is effective action against naturally occurring diseases, he stressed: building strong public and veterinary health systems. The Secretary‑General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons — established by the General Assembly and endorsed by the Security Council — is the only instrument of its kind, while resolution 1540 (2004) and its follow-ups remain a key component of the international non-proliferation architecture.

On the human rights front, he expressed concern over the excessive use of force around police lockdowns and curfews, as well as growing manifestations of authoritarianism: limits on the media, civic space and free expression, among them. Populists and nationalists who were seeking to roll back human rights find in the pandemic a pretext for repressive measures unrelated to the disease. Stigma and hate speech are on the rise, misinformation is running rampant and resources are being diverted from gender equality and education — with an intergenerational impact.

Most immediately, humanitarian needs have surged, he said. More than 1 billion children are out of school, 135 million people are facing starvation by year-end and routine immunizations are being disrupted on an unprecedented scale. The vulnerability of refugees and internally displaced persons has grown more pronounced, while health-care workers have been targeted in attacks.

“These wide-ranging risks require an urgent and united response,” he said, welcoming that 180 Member States plus 1 non-member observer State have endorsed his call for a global ceasefire, along with 20 armed movements and more than 800 civil society organizations. But, in some cases, these have since expired or broken down. “This Council has a duty to bring its voice and influence to bear on these situations,” he said.

The United Nations has put in place various medical and support measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, he continued. And through the Global Humanitarian Response Plan, it is addressing the most urgent health and humanitarian needs in 63 countries. Indeed, since the beginning of the crisis, the United Nations family has mounted a comprehensive response — providing medical and material support, advocating for a global economic and financial rescue package and offering policy analysis across the key dimensions of the emergency.

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), described conflict zones as “the sharp end” of pandemics where, for communities already living on a “knife edge”, the shocks can be catastrophic. ICRC sees first-hand how COVID-19 is deepening fragility, spiking humanitarian needs, accentuating the impact of violence, opening the doors to “alarming” levels of stigmatization and reversing development gains.

“These are deeply complex and fragile places in which to launch a pandemic response,” he said. “It is clear that pandemics cannot be addressed solely as health issues.” Instead, the precondition is a political environment which supports health systems, humanitarian action, simultaneous emergency and development approaches, and a fundamental change in behaviour by belligerents.

Unquestionably, pandemics are changing humanitarian work, he said. The needs are vast and growing, with 100 conflicts across the globe — involving 60 States and 100 non-State armed groups — reflecting a steady rise in the total number of classified conflicts over recent decades. Sharing lessons for pandemic response, he said international humanitarian law must be better respected to protect civilians from future shocks. “Countries where health services have been destroyed by war stand little chance to treat or contain COVID-19,” he asserted.

Health workers and humanitarians — the first and last lines of defence — must be protected, he said, calling resolution 2286 (2016) “fruitless” if it does not result in meaningful change on the ground. Positive influence by those who have leverage over parties to conflict must be a priority. ICRC is doing its part by advising health workers on implementing protective measures, fighting stigma and maintaining neutral and impartial services.

Next, he said assistance and protection must be available to all those in need without the threat of politicization or manipulation. Under international law, impartial humanitarian aid cannot come with strings attached or be withheld from so-called “enemy” groups. “People’s needs are the only reasonable basis on which to respond,” he said.

Third, the response must go far beyond health needs and mitigate the secondary impacts of pandemics, he said. “Pandemic responses cannot be reduced to the delivery of masks,” he assured. Communities need measures to guard against the multiple dimensions of fragility — health and sanitation systems, social safety nets and livelihoods. He warned against compartmentalizing the response into humanitarian or development efforts, noting that ICRC has delivered 200 confidential reports to authorities on conditions in detention facilities, with recommendations for system-wide improvements.

In addition, responses must be built to reach the most vulnerable, he said, namely: people who are displaced, working in the informal sector or in areas controlled by non-State armed groups, and people who are detained or live with disabilities. The elderly, racial minorities, women and girls, and sexual and gender minorities must also be reached. “We must look at the landscape of needs, rather than creating trade-offs,” he said. Proactively preventing roll‑backs of civilian protections is also important, as is building community trust. “Health care at gunpoint is futile,” he stressed. Local authorities can build trust by listening to communities and acting with transparency.

He said the passage of resolution 2532 (2020) represents a chance to “reset” — and strengthen cooperation to protect civilians. (See Press Release SC/14238.) “The choices are there,” he said, pressing delegates to choose to respect the ceasefire, intensify diplomacy, enable humanitarian access, follow international humanitarian law, and to give space to first responders and local communities. “Millions around the world are depending on you to make the choices that protect them from the health crises of the future,” he asserted.

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