posted on Wed 8 Apr 2020 7:41 PM
Informal Council Meeting on the COVID-19 Pandemic via Videoconferencing

Tomorrow afternoon (9 April), Security Council members will convene a closed meeting with Secretary-General António Guterres on the COVID-19 pandemic via videoconferencing. The meeting is expected to focus on his appeal for a global ceasefire and the pandemic’s impact on Council agenda situations, including peacekeeping operations, special political missions and humanitarian responses. The briefing was requested on 2 April by nine of the Council’s elected members (Belgium, Dominican Republic, Estonia, Germany, Indonesia, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia and Vietnam). The session comes as Council members have been discussing two separate draft resolutions on COVID-19: a reportedly French-led draft resolution that has been discussed exclusively among the P5, and, more recently, a Tunisian-produced draft resolution that elected members have been negotiating. Council members may issue press elements, which has been their practice since they began holding remote sessions last month due to the pandemic’s outbreak in New York.

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, the Secretary-General issued his appeal for an immediate global ceasefire on 23 March, to “focus together on the true fight of our lives”. In a report last week providing an update on his global ceasefire appeal, Guterres described the COVID-19 pandemic as “the greatest test the world has faced since the formation of the United Nations”, which “has and will have profound social, economic and political consequences, including relating to international peace and security”.  The report indicates ways that the pandemic could become destabilising: “The postponement of elections or limitations on the ability to vote, sustained restrictions on movement and access to food and other resources, as well as spiraling unemployment and discontent over the capacity of public institutions to respond, may all increase political tensions”.

In addition to his ceasefire call, during his briefing tomorrow Guterres is likely to focus on the pandemic’s impact on and risks to Council agenda situations. In his global appeal, he highlighted the particular challenges to conflict-affected countries where “health systems have collapsed,” “health professionals are few in number and have often been targeted”, and refugees and displaced persons are “doubly vulnerable”. In his 2 April report, Guterres observed how some actors may seek to take advantage of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, leading to increased violence; the potential for terrorist groups to try to exploit the situation; and the pandemic risks diverting international attention from mediation and conflict prevention work.

Guterres is expected to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on UN peace operations and their ability to fully carry out their mandated activities. The UN has suspended troop rotations until 30 June, other than under exceptional circumstances. Missions have been working to put in place measures to protect the safety and health of peacekeepers, while also trying to support host governments’ responses to the pandemic.

As reported in last week’s update, Guterres may mention some of the positive responses to his appeal by a number of conflict parties, including ceasefires announced by parties in Cameroon, the Philippines and Sudan. Initial positive overtures to the appeal by parties in Libya and Yemen have not yet translated into changes on the ground; however, today the Saudi Arabia-led coalition announced a two-week unilateral ceasefire to its operations in Yemen, starting tomorrow, due to the threat of COVID-19. Speaking last week, Guterres stressed that his “Special Representatives and Special Envoys – and in some countries, the Resident Coordinators — with full support from Headquarters and whenever required my personal involvement—are engaging with conflict actors” to achieve ceasefire agreements.

Council members’ discussion of the impact of COVID-19 has so far been in the context of the conflict situations that it has discussed.  In press elements from meetings last month on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Libya, Syria, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and earlier this week on Mali, members have issued calls for missions to work with government authorities to prevent the pandemic’s spread and for parties to de-escalate or reach ceasefires, ensure access for humanitarian aid, and ensure the safety and security of UN mission personnel. Members have yet to agree on a statement or resolution on the broader global health crisis, however. Estonia first proposed a press statement on 18 March, with some members, including South Africa and China, expressing concerns about the text going beyond the scope of the Council’s mandate of addressing threats to international peace and security.

It seems that the main obstacle for any Council product is overcoming differences within the P5, in particular China-US divisions over identifying the origins and name of the virus, and describing early responses. The French initiative, apparently instigated by President Emmanuel Macron, is under discussion at the highest levels among the P5, with the objective of supporting the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call and related efforts. In addition to a resolution, it seems France has also sought to organise a P5 meeting to overcome differences within the group. Meanwhile, since last week the E10 have been discussing the Tunisian draft resolution that would call for a global ceasefire to enable efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, echoing the Secretary-General’s appeal.

Initially, there were concerns by P5 members about having tomorrow’s briefing, including over its timing, as efforts were still continuing to ease the US-China tensions. One of the considerations in deciding to hold a closed meeting appears to have been a desire to facilitate discussion among members to develop a common position.  (If the meeting were in an open VTC format, only the briefer’s statement would be webcast, but Council members would be able to submit their statements, which would subsequently be made public.)

In expressing support for the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, members may underscore that this is imperative for an effective COVID-19 response. They could be interested in discussing what else the Council can do to support countries on its agenda, as the pandemic is likely to become more widespread in conflict-affected or fragile states. They are likely to raise concerns about the humanitarian impact of the virus, especially the threat posed to vulnerable groups, the importance of maintaining humanitarian space and actions, and protecting humanitarian workers. The meeting could be an opportunity for members to ask further questions about the impact on peace operations, including its effect on UN missions’ performance of their mandates and the risk of peacekeepers transmitting the virus.

Some members can be expected to recall the need for the Council to focus on the pandemic’s link with international peace and security and avoid encroaching on the mandates of other UN bodies. At the same time, some members may highlight the challenges that the pandemic poses not only to conflict-affected countries, but also to other fragile and developing countries with limited capacity to respond to the health and economic impacts of the pandemic. Members may also emphasise the importance of collaborative efforts to address the pandemic, call for international solidarity, and underscore the importance of supporting the World Health Organisation and UN system efforts. Sanctions-related issues may also be discussed. In a 25 March letter to the Council president and the Secretary-General, China, Russia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines were among 18 member states that urged “the complete and immediate” lifting of “unilateral coercive measures” to ensure an effective COVID-19 response. Guterres has encouraged “the waiving of sanctions imposed on countries to ensure access to food, essential health supplies, and COVID-19 medical support” in a letter last month to the G20.