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Institutional Illusion: UN Security Council and Covid-19

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is an international institution responsible for maintaining global peace and security. Born out of the outcome of the Second World War, it comprises fifteen members, out of which five members are permanent, and each member has a vote. The UNSC plays a key role in determining the existence of a threat to peace and acts of aggression. It mediates in cases of dispute and can even resort to imposing sanctions and authorizing the use of force to restore international peace and security. 

In the recent past, we have seen the rise of infectious diseases and their ability to spread rapidly, causing global pandemics or epidemics in certain regions. A lot of literature has been produced about the connection between diseases, which have the potential of turning into pandemics, and  threats to international security. Infectious diseases have the ability to disrupt socio-economic and political relations worldwide. As a result, the UNSC has played a key role in the past, by pro-actively tackling diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, etc. However, the Council has faced a lot of criticism and backlash in the last couple of months for its inertia with respect to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UNSC had expanded its mandate in September 2014 to effectively combat the Ebola crisis in Africa. In the UNSC Resolution 2177, the Council characterized a public health issue – specifically a communicable disease – as a threat to international security and highlighted the need for an enhanced and coordinated regional and international response due to the uniqueness of the threat. With this resolution, the concept of ‘securitization of health’ became popular and has been the major reason for the criticism of the UNSC in the current CoronaVirus pandemic.

US-China feud and a silent Security council 

On the 11th of March, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the CoronaVirus as a pandemic, which was a matter of global concern since late November, 2019. During March 2020, China held the presidency of the Security Council, as a result of which the matter went unaddressed until the presidency was transferred to the Dominican Republic in April. The origins of the virus were traced back to China; consequently, the United States of America wanted China to be held accountable on an international platform. Following the demand of the US, a proposal was drafted by Tunisia, on behalf of the non-permanent members, which escalated the situation further. This caused a feud between the two countries and led to the constant postponement of any meeting of the Security Council or rejection of the proposals put forth by member nations. 

The United Nations Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire, to ensure all efforts were made on the humanitarian front, went unnoticed by the UNSC for nearly four months. Being at loggerheads with each other, the United States and China blocked the draft resolution, which called for a 90-day humanitarian pause in conflicts worldwide in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. The feud was initially about holding China accountable for the pandemic and later took the form of the reference to the WHO in the Council’s resolution. This came in the wake of the Trump Administration’s disbelief in the WHO’s abilities and the cancellation of funding of the organization by the States. China, on the other hand, responded by providing additional funding to the health institution. 

As a result of the ongoing feud between the two nations, UNSC faced major criticism for watching the pandemic from the sidelines and turning down proposals to help organize a coordinated response in light of the unprecedented public health emergency. Some UN leaders had termed this pandemic as the biggest international threat in over 75 years and highlighted the need for an immediate response from the Council to ensure that the Secretary General’s calls for help do not go unnoticed. Richard Gowan, UN Director at the International Crisis Group said: “The Council sent out a signal of symbiotic disunity which I think is resonating quite wildly.” Distressed at the SC’s inaction, some members of the UNGA collectively proposed a resolution expressing support for a strong and unified response to the pandemic. The role of the UNSC became extremely crucial because it was felt that securitizing the issue would result in better mobilization of global resources in a more efficient manner while placing actionable safeguards which were reserved for traditional security threats – taking a similar stance to what was taken in the Ebola epidemic in 2014. 

It was only after 111 days of the Secretary General’s call for a worldwide ceasefire that the UNSC passed a resolution on 1st July 2020, declaring an immediate cessation of hostilities in all situations and ensuring unhindered and sustained delivery of humanitarian assistance. By then, 10.3 million cases had been reported across the globe with over half a million lives already lost to Covid-19. The lack of agreement among members of the Security Council highlighted the intrinsic shortcomings of the Council and brought them to fore yet again. The permanent membership of countries and the right to veto decisions again proved problematic in effective decision-making. The reason for the delay in passing the resolution is because the two antagonistic permanent members had a major disagreement on a number of things and the veto power they possess, would have made any early attempts at passing the resolution futile. Further, lack of representation in the Council has resulted in the strategic and political interests of only a few being taken seriously, while lesser importance is given to far more pressing matters. A case for the few and by the few!  

The failure of the Security Council to respond to the ongoing pandemic at an early stage raises major concerns about the sustainability of the current architecture of global security. Moreover, this has led critics to question the overall structure, membership, and veto power of the P-5 countries. The Council has been criticized majorly in the past for its more than tepid performance, but such criticism has only escalated in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Obviously, the UNSC in its present form is a necessary but not sufficient condition for ensuring peace and stability.  

Amisha Singh is a second-year student at Ashoka University pursuing her bachelors in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

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