U.N. Security Council Paralyzed as Contagion Rages

A major player in the Ebola outbreak, the council has turned into the site of a U.S.-China showdown over the coronavirus.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
U.N. Security Council members
U.N. Security Council members during a pause in proceedings in New York on Jan. 9. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The United Nations Security Council is watching the greatest global health crisis in a century unfold from the sidelines, quarreling over the wisdom of working online, batting down proposals to help organize the response to the pandemic, and largely ignoring the U.N. secretary-general’s appeal for a global cease-fire.

The United Nations Security Council is watching the greatest global health crisis in a century unfold from the sidelines, quarreling over the wisdom of working online, batting down proposals to help organize the response to the pandemic, and largely ignoring the U.N. secretary-general’s appeal for a global cease-fire.

The paralysis comes at a time when the United States is pressing the 15-nation council to adopt a resolution that would largely blame China for unleashing the pathogen on the world. The initiative—which appears to be part of a broader U.S. strategy to deflect responsibility for its own sluggish response to the spread of the virus—is certain to be blocked by China, which wields veto power.

The council’s inaction marks a stark contrast from the Security Council’s previous response to international threats, from al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on the United States to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. During that health crisis, the Obama administration rallied the council behind a plan to flood the region with medical workers and to shift the mandate of a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the region—working with the support of the U.S. military—to help contain the spread of disease, which killed over 10,000 people.

In an effort to fill the current political vacuum, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday issued a call for a sweeping global cease-fire to allow war-wracked countries and insurgent forces to turn their attention to battling the virus. His peace envoys in Yemen and Syria have taken up the call for a cease-fire.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he said. “That is why today, I am calling for an immediate global cease-fire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”

Some council diplomats have weighed in on the issue. But the council has yet to lend its concerted voice to the appeal.

Kelly Knight Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a teleconference on Thursday that Libya must find “a political path to stability, as continued conflict threatens to fuel the spread of COVID-19.”

“This is not the time for violence, but rather for all actors to immediately suspend military operations, reject toxic foreign interference, and improve the ability of health authorities to combat this global pandemic,” she said in her prepared remarks.

The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement calling for a humanitarian pause in some regional armed conflicts, as well as an end to economic sanctions. But it insisted that such a pause would not apply any constraints on its military operations in places such as Syria, where it says it is fighting terrorism.

“We are highly concerned over the situation on territories controlled by terrorist groups, who could not care less about people’s wellbeing,” according to the Russian statement. “We are confident that counter-terrorist measures must be carried on.”

On Friday, the president of the U.N. General Assembly Tijjani Muhammad Bande, organized a televised press conference with the U.N. Secretary-General, the Security Council president, and the president of the U.N. Economic and Social Council to draw attention to the crisis.

During the press conference, China’s U.N. ambassador defended the council’s response to the crisis, saying “we are calling for cessation of hostilities, we are calling for ceasefire, and we are calling for unhindered access for humanitarian access.”

Meanwhile, six governments, Ghana, Indonesia, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland, and Singapore, proposed the 193-member General Assembly step in and adopt a resolution underscoring the “central role” of the U.N. in addressing the crises. By late Friday, the co-sponsors had secured signatures of support for the measure from 147 nations.

“In this moment of great uncertainty and global anxiety, it is important for the voice of the U.N. General Assembly to be heard loud and clear,” according to a letter from the co-sponsors of the resolution. “We believe that the United Nations system has a central role to play in mobilising and coordinating the global response to this pandemic.”

The U.N. Security Council—which held its last meeting on U.N. premises on March 12—has been riven by a range of procedural and political disputes.

In the days following the suspension of meetings, China, which holds the presidency of the Security Council this month, and the U.N. secretariat have labored to construct a secure teleconferencing system to conduct meetings remotely.

The United States, meanwhile, proposed the council officially acknowledge the need to continue its work online.

“In the event of a serious public emergency, including a public health emergency, that renders a physical meeting of the Security Council impractical, the Security Council may hold meetings using video conferencing as a last resort to ensure the participation of all members and to function continuously,” reads a U.S. proposal presented to the council. “Security Council meetings held through virtual means are deemed to be meetings pursuant to the United Nations Charter and the Security Council’s Provisional Rules of Procedure.”

But Russia blocked the U.S. proposal, arguing that all formal sessions of the Security Council must take place inside the U.N. Security Council chamber.

“We shouldn’t be afraid to gather from time to time in [the] UNSC Chamber,” Russia’s Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia wrote in a March 16 letter to the Chinese ambassador. “In the current circumstances it is important to show the rest of the world that [the] U.N. and its Security Council are functioning.”

Nebenzia said Moscow was prepared to explore, on a case-by-case basis, the possibility of letting some delegations participate in council discussion by teleconference, but only if Russia and other members were permitted to meet inside the U.N. Security Council chamber. So far, Russia has agreed to discuss U.N. activities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Libya on Tuesday and Thursday with the council by teleconference. But it has insisted that the meetings carry no official weight. On Thursday, the council managed to issue a press statement condemning a terrorist attack at the Dharamshala Sikh temple in Kabul, which killed 25 people.

Russia has denied it is holding up deliberations, saying it has allowed televised video conference meetings to take place. The “Security Council remains active,” Russia’s U.N. mission wrote Thursday on Twitter. “Discussions of #DRC via VTC on Tuesday initiated by [Russia] clearly demonstrated that. Today #Libya was discussed int his format. #Syria is pending on 30 March.”

The council, however, has so far been unable to convince Russia to renew the mandates for U.N. operations in Somalia and Sudan, or to grant an extension to a panel of experts monitoring sanctions against North Korea.

But Russia was not alone in gumming up the council’s works.

Don't Touch Your Face podcast Listen on Apple podcasts Listen on Spotify

Listen Now: Don't Touch Your Face

A new podcast from Foreign Policy covering all aspects of the coronavirus pandemic

Last week, Estonia, one of the council’s 10 temporary members, sought support for a Security Council statement that voiced concern that the pandemic “may constitute a threat to international peace and security” and called for greater international cooperation in confronting the pathogen.

But that initiative was blocked by South Africa and China, which argued that the pandemic did not constitute a threat to peace and security and should be addressed in institutions like the World Health Organization.

France, meanwhile, has since opened discrete discussions involving the council’s four other key powers, Britain, China, Russia, and the United States, on a resolution that would address the pandemic. The French initiative infuriated some of Paris’s European colleagues, which claim they were not consulted. In any event, the French draft appeared unlikely to be adopted. The United States proposed an amendment to the text that would refer to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus,” a move in line with Trump administration efforts to blame China for the initial spread of the virus. The U.S. initiative—which was first reported by NBC—is certain to be blocked by China.

The initiative comes after foreign ministers of the G-7 industrial powers, meeting via videoconference, failed to adopt a statement on the pandemic after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that it refer to the pathogen as the “Wuhan virus.”

The council’s inaction contrasts with its previous approach to global health crises in Africa over the past two decades.

In January 2000, U.S. Vice President Al Gore presided over a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss the threat posed by HIV to regional security in Africa. The then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, who spearheaded the effort, subsequently insisted the U.N. supply its peacekeepers with condoms to halt the spread of HIV. Shortly after, the National Security Council declared HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, a national security threat.

In September 2014, Samantha Power, then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, presided over the first emergency session of the Security Council to address the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. During the meeting, the council adopted a resolution declaring Ebola a “threat to international peace and security” and urged the world to send more health care workers and supplies to the hardest-hit countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

“This would be a good moment for an initiative from the Security Council to get out in front of this, rather than appearing irrelevant in the face of a global crisis,” said Karin Landgren, the executive director of the Security Council Report, a nonprofit. “The big picture is that countries have largely turned inward and there isn’t an immediate thought to how they could best come together to address this.”

“It is high time that the Security Council address this threat to international peace and security,” Mona Ali Khalil, a former U.N. lawyer, wrote on the news site PassBlue. “The Security Council has a responsibility to coordinate a prompt and effective global response.”

If the council is unwilling, she added, the U.N. chief should “invoke his authority” under the U.N. Charter to bring the matter before the council.

Rob Berschinski, who was involved in negotiations over the Ebola resolution for the United States, told Foreign Policy it defies logic to contend that the current pandemic is not a threat to international peace and security.

“It’s likely that various conflicts and crisis scenarios are going to be directly impacted by this,” said Berschinski, who outlined a series of steps the council could take to coordinate the international response in a piece published by Just Security.

“It’s reasonable to say, ‘We’re going to take care of America first,’” Berschinski told Foreign Policy. “But at the same time it would be a massive mistake not to be setting up structures that are undoubtedly going to be necessary to fight this disease internationally, for months, and perhaps years.”

As for assigning responsibility for the virus’s spread, that can wait until later, he said.

“I think China deserves a considerable amount of blame for the way its government covered up in the initial stages of the pandemic,” Berschinski said. “But at this point we need to make the global health security that threatens hundreds of thousands of lives, if not more, a priority over this seemingly petty argument over who is more to blame.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

More from Foreign Policy

An aerial display of J-10 fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation.

The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets

Snazzy weapons mean a lot less if you don’t have friends.

German infantrymen folllow a tank toward Moscow in the snow in, 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The image was published in. Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Panzers, Beans, and Bullets

This wargame explains how Russia really stopped Hitler.

19th-century Chinese rebel Hong Xiuquan and social media influencer Addison Rae.

America’s Collapsing Meritocracy Is a Recipe for Revolt

Chinese history shows what happens when an old system loses its force.

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces.

‘It Will Not Be Just a Civil War’

Afghanistan’s foreign minister on what may await his country after the U.S. withdrawal.