With China having a stranglehold over the Security Council, the UN must step up and be a leader during times of pandemic
When the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was asked on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the United Nations as to what was the greatest achievement of the international organisation was so far, he did not say that the UN prevented a Third World War. He said, “The UN immunised the world’s children against deadly infectious diseases.” It had prevented more deaths of children through immunisation than by saving the succeeding generations from the scourge of war.
Will the present Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, be able to claim that the UN stopped the onslaught of COVID-19 and prevented a catastrophe? As of now, it does not appear that the UN will be able to play a decisive role in ending the pandemic because of its inherent inadequacies and the dwindling of multilateralism.
“At a time when the world is desperate for the international leadership that only an organisation like the UN can provide, the organisation itself has never seemed so dysfunctional and ineffective.” (Kurt von Hippel and Randolf Kent)
As if by some inscrutable design, China became, by rotation, the President of the UN Security Council for the month of March 2020, the crucial month in which the true dimensions of the pandemic came into full view. The Security Council should have met in an emergency session by video conferencing and adopted a resolution to give a direction to the entire system to undertake action on a war footing.
Instead, China began delaying tactics by raising issues like the Council’s mandate and the name of the pandemic. Having got the World Health Organization (WHO) to name the pandemic without any reference to its place of origin, China resisted efforts by the US to insert China or Wuhan in its name.
For a whole month, China blocked a meeting also because a draft resolution contained the word ‘transparency’ in it, which was anathema to China because they were far from transparent in their handling of the virus.
As for the mandate of the Security Council, China was on a weak wicket because there were clear precedents of the Security Council encompassing other pandemics within its mandate to deal with ‘International Peace and Security’.
Now that Dominican Republic has taken over the Presidency of the Security Council for the month of April 2020, things may move in the Security Council. But if a permanent member is determined to oppose anything, it will be difficult even if the other 14 members act in unison.
China has now moved itself from the position of villain to hero by supplying ventilators and masks to the whole world. There have been efforts by Estonia, France and Tunisia to provide draft resolutions for consultations, but no progress has been reported.
The first action for international cooperation to fight the virus was the Indian initiative to revive the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to decide on a programme of action to fight the pandemic jointly in South Asia. India pledged USD 10 million for this purpose, but the meeting ended in disharmony when the Pakistan representative made lifting of restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir conditional to SAARC action.
It was on India’s initiative that Saudi Arabia called an online conference of G-20, which had taken decisive steps in the economic crisis of 2008. At a summit of the Group of 20, convened remotely on March 27, members pledged to inject USD 5 trillion in fiscal spending into the global economy to blunt the economic impact of the coronavirus and committed to implement and fund all necessary health measures needed to stop the spread of the virus.
The General Assembly has the powers to consider any important issue, which cannot be considered in the Council because of the veto of a permanent member under its ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution and adopt the same resolution that has been vetoed.
Though it was not formally under this provision, the General Assembly adopted a resolution on the COVID-19 pandemic co-sponsored by 188 countries that emphasised the importance of global solidarity to fight the disease. The resolution expressed the General Assembly’s “strong support for the central role of the United Nations system in the global response to the coronavirus”, and it called for “intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat the pandemic”.
Among the forms of intensified international cooperation highlighted were, “Exchanging information, scientific knowledge and best practices and… applying the relevant guidelines recommended by the World Health Organization”. The Secretary-General launched on March 25, a USD 2 billion global humanitarian response plan to fund the fight against COVID-19 in the world’s poorest countries.
Aware that an exceptional situation demands extraordinary initiatives, the Secretary General, in his capacity as the “Conscience of Mankind” proposed an immediate global ceasefire on March 23, to “silence the guns” and “focus together on the true fight of our lives”.
On April 03, he delivered a detailed update, underlining that while parties had expressed their acceptance for his call for a global ceasefire, there were challenges to making ceasefires a reality and robust diplomacy was needed. He also proposed, rather half-heartedly, that economic sanctions, both multilateral and unilateral should be lifted.
The Secretary General received wide support from the civil society, but the countries concerned did not heed his advice, particularly on sanctions. “A global pandemic demands game-changing actions by all nations in order to halt its global spread, provide relief in terms of medical supplies and to rebuild shattered lives… One way of dealing with the emergency in an emergency mode is to consider lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations and individual countries on developing countries,” I wrote in the Hindu on March 28, 2020.
World Health Organization (WHO) is the UN Specialised Agency for public health issues. It monitors epidemics and advises member states to take necessary action and also provides help wherever necessary.
The undue influence that China wields in the Organization has influenced WHO action in a negative manner because it underplayed the gravity of the situation and delayed declaring it a pandemic.
Other Specialised Agencies, such as UNDP, WTO, UNESCO, UNICEF have to be involved in order to deal with the pandemic. The agencies are notoriously incapable of working together as many of them are competing with each other to secure funds from donors.
There is a Committee on Programme and Coordination (CPC), which used to coordinate the work of the Agencies. But having chaired this Committee for two years, I know that the heads of Agencies do not even attend the meetings of the CPC. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called them “Barons” as they never listened to him.
The Security Council should meet as fast as possible and devise a way to coordinate the international effort before the virus reaches the less developed countries where there will be no infrastructure or healthcare facilities. The action has to be on a war footing.
The UN Charter has, in its Chapter VII, a scheme to deal with the threats to peace or breach of peace. Peacekeeping by the United Nations is a role held by the Department of Peace Operations as "a unique and dynamic instrument developed by the organization as a way to help countries torn by conflict to create the conditions for lasting peace".
That can also include humanitarian supplies like medicines and ventilators. In these exceptional circumstances, the Council should consider constituting a peacekeeping force under Chapter VII to deal with the pandemic.
Nothing short of such an intervention will help restore the credibility and faith in the United Nations.