Ebola has rapidly morphed from a major public health emergency to a threat to international peace and security, severely challenging U.N. efforts to support stability in the West African heart of the deadly epidemic.
In a sign of the seriousness of the threat, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council that he wants to delay the gradual drawdown of the U.N. Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which was established in 2003 to help Liberia through a vexing transition from civil war to democracy.
Several governments with police and troops serving in the U.N. mission are worried about the risk of infection to their nationals, informing U.N. peacekeeping planners that they are weighing whether to pull out, U.N. officials told Foreign Policy.
U.N. efforts to ship equipment, personnel, and humanitarian and medical supplies into the region have been hampered by flight restrictions imposed by neighboring governments and large international carriers, including British Airways and Air France, which have suspended flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone, the hardest-hit countries.
"A lot of regional countries, in our view unwisely, have interrupted communications and flights and are not allowing planes to land," according to a senior U.N.-based diplomat who has been discussing the crisis with the U.N.’s top leadership. "You can’t get medical staff into the region to tackle the disease."
The diplomat joined other top U.N. officials in warning that the humanitarian and peacekeeping operations could be disrupted. "There are deep concerns about the impact on the actual peacekeeping missions," said the diplomat. "The troop-contributing countries are getting nervous."
The Philippine government is withdrawing its peacekeeping forces from both Liberia and the Golan Heights, where anti-Syrian militants abducted 43 peacekeepers.
"[T]he Philippines prioritizes the safety and security of its troops," said Philippine Department of National Defense spokesman Peter Paul Galvez, according to the Associated Press. Galvez said the Philippines’ 115 peacekeepers in Liberia would be withdrawn as soon as possible because of the "rising health risk posed by the outbreak of Ebola virus in Africa."
Other countries participating in the Liberia mission also "have signaled their intention to pull out of Liberia" because of Ebola, said a senior U.N. official, noting that the organization is trying to persuade them to stay put. "We have been talking to them," the official said. "Some are sending experts to assess the risks by themselves before taking a final decision."
The move comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Thursday, Aug. 28, that the Ebola epidemic is spreading even faster and could infect as many as 20,000 people. The organization confirmed that some 3,069 people have been infected, including 1,552 who have died, in four West African countries: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Senegal, meanwhile, on Friday recorded its first case of Ebola infection — in a traveler from Guinea.
The United Nations and the WHO have urged international airlines to maintain regional service, saying it will help the effort to contain the virus. The U.N. also said that aircrews run little risk of being infected. However, top U.N. officials this week were forced to turn to Germany to obtain medical treatment for a WHO doctor who was infected by Ebola in Sierra Leone.
Liberia — a country that lost more than 150,000 lives to civil war from 1989 to 1997 — has struggled with the U.N.’s help to rebuild itself and establish democratic institutions. The United Nations, which once had more than 15,000 troops deployed in the country, had hoped to turn over the task of securing the country to the Liberian security forces by the middle of 2016. But those plans are now on hold.
As Liberia emerged as the epicenter of the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, Ban made it clear that he is reconsidering plans to downsize the mission there. In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. chief asked to put off the decision for at least three months, expressing concern that the "scale and scope of the epidemic exceeded the capacity of national institutions."
"Ebola is having a devastating impact on Liberia, with the Ministry of Health recording, as of 24 August 2014, a cumulative total of 1,378 cases, resulting in 743 deaths," Ban wrote. "While the Ebola outbreak began primarily as a medical emergency, it has become more complex, with political, security and humanitarian implications that are significant and dynamic."
While Ban highlighted the seriousness of the epidemic, he also sought to assure governments that fears of infection are overblown.
"All United Nations personnel in Liberia have been educated about the appropriate preventive measures that would minimize the risk of contracting Ebola, which is not airborne and requires direct contact with the bodily fluids of a symptomatic infected person or the deceased," he wrote. "I am therefore confident that United Nations personnel may continue their important work in Liberia."
Liberia’s president has imposed extraordinary measures, deploying Liberian soldiers and police to enforce quarantines in areas of the country affected by Ebola.
On Aug. 20, Liberia’s president declared a nationwide curfew as the effort to contain the virus led to clashes with community groups.
The country’s National Elections Commission, meanwhile, has called for putting off October Senate elections, saying it is "neither possible nor appropriate" to hold a vote. Liberia’s "judiciary is considering the constitutionality of postponing the senatorial elections."
Liberian security forces seeking to enforce a quarantine in West Point, a slum in the capital city of Monrovia, set off "deadly clashes" with locals, according to Ban. On Aug. 16, he recalled, local residents stormed an Ebola isolation center. But the security forces’ efforts have done little to halt the spread of the virus. "Notwithstanding the efforts of the government of Liberia to contain it, the Ebola virus continues to spread, fueled by fear, denial, tradition, and lack of public trust in national institutions," Ban said.
In August, the U.N. chief issued a report calling for the gradual reduction in the size of the U.N. mission, noting that the government no longer faces a serious military threat. Ban proposed trimming the 4,619-strong mission by 900 by the middle of 2015, and he proposed that Liberia be given full responsibility for maintaining its own security by mid-2016, leaving behind a force of 1,500 troops.
In the short term, Ban said that he would temporarily send home a "small number" of U.N. election officials, saying it is unlikely that Senate elections will take place in October. But he said he would increase the number of medical personnel and other U.N. staff to address the Ebola crisis and deliver humanitarian assistance.
"The present and continued operations of UNMIL in Liberia remain critical, including the deterrent effect of its uniformed personnel, deployed in 11 out of 15 counties," Ban wrote. "The mission has an important role to play in protecting civilians. Though it has not, and will not, enforce the government-imposed isolation of affected areas."