The COVID-19 pandemic is “profoundly affecting” peace and security across the globe, Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council in a 2 July videoconference debate*, pressing the Chamber to use its collective influence to protect the millions of people affected by conflict and already facing acute vulnerabilities.
Addressing the 15-member organ on the impact of COVID-19 on international peace and security, Mr. Guterres said the health pandemic is fast becoming a protection crisis. “Collective security and our shared well-being are under assault on many fronts,” he emphasized, led by a relentless disease and abetted by global fragilities. “Our challenge is to save lives today while buttressing the pillars of security for tomorrow.”
The risks are diverse, he said. Trust in public institutions is eroding in places where people perceive that authorities have not addressed COVID-19 effectively or been transparent about its impact. As existing grievances and vulnerabilities become more entrenched, the potential for violence only grows, he said, also highlighting an alarming spike in gender-based and domestic abuse.
In some countries, he said fragile peace processes could be derailed if the international community is distracted. In Sudan’s Darfur region, the pandemic has led to repeated extensions of the deadline for completing the Juba peace process. Elsewhere, terrorist and violent extremist groups see the uncertainty created by the coronavirus as a tactical advantage. In Somalia, there is a risk that Al‑Shabaab could increase attacks while security forces focus, by necessity, on the pandemic.
Many countries have had to consider how to move ahead with elections slated for 2020, he said. Since March, 18 elections or referenda have been held since the onset of the pandemic, 24 have been postponed and the initial dates for 39 elections have been maintained. In the Central African Republic, attempts to use the pandemic as a pretext to postpone the holding of elections planned for year-end are creating tensions. “Difficult as they are, such decisions are best made on the basis of broad consultations with all stakeholders, to avoid fuelling political tensions or undermining legitimacy,” he said.
On the diplomatic front, he said COVID-19 has made mediation, a very personal endeavour, more challenging. With movement restrictions limiting such contacts — and online discussions often the only alternative — it can be difficult to establish trust and nurture the willingness to compromise that are at the heart of preventive diplomacy.
In terms of security, the pandemic highlights the risks of bioterrorist attacks, he said, and has already shed light on how preparedness might fall short if a disease were to be manipulated to be more virulent — or intentionally released in multiple places at once. Urging countries to focus intently on preventing the deliberate use of diseases as weapons, he said the Biological Weapons Convention codifies a strong and long‑standing norm against such abhorrent use of disease.
However, the best counter to biological weapons is effective action against naturally occurring diseases, he stressed: building strong public and veterinary health systems. The Secretary‑General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons — established by the General Assembly and endorsed by the Security Council — is the only instrument of its kind, while resolution 1540 (2004) and its follow-ups remain a key component of the international non-proliferation architecture.
On the human rights front, he expressed concern over the excessive use of force around police lockdowns and curfews, as well as growing manifestations of authoritarianism: limits on the media, civic space and free expression, among them. Populists and nationalists who were seeking to roll back human rights find in the pandemic a pretext for repressive measures unrelated to the disease. Stigma and hate speech are on the rise, misinformation is running rampant and resources are being diverted from gender equality and education — with an intergenerational impact.
Most immediately, humanitarian needs have surged, he said. More than 1 billion children are out of school, 135 million people are facing starvation by year-end and routine immunizations are being disrupted on an unprecedented scale. The vulnerability of refugees and internally displaced persons has grown more pronounced, while health-care workers have been targeted in attacks.
“These wide-ranging risks require an urgent and united response,” he said, welcoming that 180 Member States plus 1 non-member observer State have endorsed his call for a global ceasefire, along with 20 armed movements and more than 800 civil society organizations. But, in some cases, these have since expired or broken down. “This Council has a duty to bring its voice and influence to bear on these situations,” he said.
The United Nations has put in place various medical and support measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, he continued. And through the Global Humanitarian Response Plan, it is addressing the most urgent health and humanitarian needs in 63 countries. Indeed, since the beginning of the crisis, the United Nations family has mounted a comprehensive response — providing medical and material support, advocating for a global economic and financial rescue package and offering policy analysis across the key dimensions of the emergency.
Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), described conflict zones as “the sharp end” of pandemics where, for communities already living on a “knife edge”, the shocks can be catastrophic. ICRC sees first-hand how COVID-19 is deepening fragility, spiking humanitarian needs, accentuating the impact of violence, opening the doors to “alarming” levels of stigmatization and reversing development gains.
“These are deeply complex and fragile places in which to launch a pandemic response,” he said. “It is clear that pandemics cannot be addressed solely as health issues.” Instead, the precondition is a political environment which supports health systems, humanitarian action, simultaneous emergency and development approaches, and a fundamental change in behaviour by belligerents.
Unquestionably, pandemics are changing humanitarian work, he said. The needs are vast and growing, with 100 conflicts across the globe — involving 60 States and 100 non-State armed groups — reflecting a steady rise in the total number of classified conflicts over recent decades. Sharing lessons for pandemic response, he said international humanitarian law must be better respected to protect civilians from future shocks. “Countries where health services have been destroyed by war stand little chance to treat or contain COVID-19,” he asserted.
Health workers and humanitarians — the first and last lines of defence — must be protected, he said, calling resolution 2286 (2016) “fruitless” if it does not result in meaningful change on the ground. Positive influence by those who have leverage over parties to conflict must be a priority. ICRC is doing its part by advising health workers on implementing protective measures, fighting stigma and maintaining neutral and impartial services.
Next, he said assistance and protection must be available to all those in need without the threat of politicization or manipulation. Under international law, impartial humanitarian aid cannot come with strings attached or be withheld from so-called “enemy” groups. “People’s needs are the only reasonable basis on which to respond,” he said.
Third, the response must go far beyond health needs and mitigate the secondary impacts of pandemics, he said. “Pandemic responses cannot be reduced to the delivery of masks,” he assured. Communities need measures to guard against the multiple dimensions of fragility — health and sanitation systems, social safety nets and livelihoods. He warned against compartmentalizing the response into humanitarian or development efforts, noting that ICRC has delivered 200 confidential reports to authorities on conditions in detention facilities, with recommendations for system-wide improvements.
In addition, responses must be built to reach the most vulnerable, he said, namely: people who are displaced, working in the informal sector or in areas controlled by non-State armed groups, and people who are detained or live with disabilities. The elderly, racial minorities, women and girls, and sexual and gender minorities must also be reached. “We must look at the landscape of needs, rather than creating trade-offs,” he said. Proactively preventing roll‑backs of civilian protections is also important, as is building community trust. “Health care at gunpoint is futile,” he stressed. Local authorities can build trust by listening to communities and acting with transparency.
He said the passage of resolution 2532 (2020) represents a chance to “reset” — and strengthen cooperation to protect civilians. (See Press Release SC/14238.) “The choices are there,” he said, pressing delegates to choose to respect the ceasefire, intensify diplomacy, enable humanitarian access, follow international humanitarian law, and to give space to first responders and local communities. “Millions around the world are depending on you to make the choices that protect them from the health crises of the future,” he asserted.
In the ensuing discussion, Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France, said the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire must be put into action, as the situation remains extremely unstable in Syria, Yemen, Libya, the Sahel and Afghanistan, where civilians continue to suffer the consequences of conflict. Commending the work of peacekeepers across the world, he noted that France recently deployed a decontamination team, within the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), to provide expertise and technical support in fighting the pandemic. He called for the full implementation of the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, including by supporting internally displaced persons and refugees, and defending women’s sexual and reproductive health rights. “It is our collective responsibility to rethink the post-COVID-19 world and mitigate the economic and social consequences of this crisis,” he said. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change must guide post-pandemic recovery. “There is no alternative to a united front and cooperation in dealing with our common problems,” he assured.
Noureddine Erray, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Tunisia, said that, since the early weeks of the pandemic, at the initiative of his country and France, the Council started working on a draft resolution to address the impact of COVID-19 on issues under its mandate. The resolution adopted on 1 July after a three-month delay bears an important message: that consensus is possible. He welcomed the Secretary-General’s appeal for an immediate global ceasefire and launch of the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19, stressing that the virus has reversed assumptions about the current world order. “It is telling us that the hierarchy of global security threats is changing rapidly,” he said. Defeating this pandemic will require solidarity and unity at the international, regional and national levels. Beyond the heavy death toll of more than half a million people, the global economy is heading towards another great depression. Strained food supplies, rising prices and expanding unemployment could quickly escalate into political unrest, violence and conflict. Uncertainty created by the pandemic has encouraged some actors to promote divisions, with disastrous consequences for civilians. It is important to recognize new threats to international peace and security emanating from pandemics, climate change and cybercrime. “It is clear that we cannot face such dangers using the same instruments we have inherited from the old times,” he said. “A change of paradigm is highly needed.”
Urmas Reinsalu, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Estonia, said the COVID-19 crisis underscores how crucial multilateral cooperation is to collective health, prosperity and security. “This Council must remain regularly involved with the peace and security implications of the COVID-19,” he said, highlighting the need to create a more secure cyberspace. He expressed concern over the increase in attacks against hospitals, stressing that actors that use cyberspace for malicious purposes will be investigated. Noting that Estonia and the United Arab Emirates will organize a global business summit to address the grave effects of COVID-19, and that his country and Singapore have already launched a global declaration on the digital response to the virus, he said it is important that the response to COVID-19 not hamper the free flow of information. “We can only succeed when the freedom of expression, and the role of free, independent and pluralistic media online and offline is secured,” he said. “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” He called for unimpeded humanitarian access in Syria, where all arguments not to extend and widen the United Nations cross-border aid mechanism in July do not correspond to the reality on the ground. He expressed regret that the pandemic is being used as a pretext to curb peacekeepers’ free movement, by accusing them of spreading the virus. All responses to COVID-19 must fully comply with international law.
To Anh Dzung, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Viet Nam, described COVID-19 as the greatest challenge ever to the United Nations, which has shown the world how a global health crisis and non-traditional security threats could inflict profound consequences on peace, security and prosperity of every Member State. His delegation considers protecting the most vulnerable from impacts of pandemics the utmost priority and the primary responsibility of every State. Accordingly, he urged the Council to send a strong message resonating the Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire and take every action to help de-escalate tensions and build trust towards lasting conflict settlements. The Council should also closely monitor and instruct United Nations peacekeeping and special political missions to ensure safety, security and health of all personnel on the field and effectively assist host countries to deal with COVID-19 and prepare for future infectious disease outbreaks, he said, expressing strong support for the Secretary-General’s appeal to waive sanctions that can undermine countries’ capacity to respond to the pandemic. Viet Nam has achieved encouraging initial results in keeping the pandemic under control. As the Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for 2020 and a non-permanent Council member, Viet Nam has put forth initiatives and joined efforts in coordinating regional and international response to the pandemic and beyond. With global solidarity and strengthened multilateralism as a common denominator, the international community will overcome hurdles ahead and seize new opportunities to build a brighter future envisaged in the 2030 Agenda.
The representative of the Dominican Republic said that the potential and unprecedented magnitude of the COVID-19 outbreak globally constitutes a threat to international peace and security and could critically harm human security across the world. In Yemen, Afghanistan and many other places, including Latin America and the Caribbean, COVID-19 is developing into a perfect nightmare for millions of people, including children. Developing countries must have better access to COVID-19 research data and affordable access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment as outlined in General Assembly resolution 74/274. All decision-making related to COVID-19 must include the participation of women, youth and civil society. Drawing reference to Security Council resolution 2532 (2020), he urged all parties to conflict to put an end to all hostilities and facilitate the much‑needed humanitarian operations that serve the needs of the affected people.
The representative of the United States said that President Donald J. Trump early on rightly pointed out the unquestionable need for complete transparency and the timely sharing of public health data and information with the international community, noting that timely age- and sex-disaggregated data‑collection and accurate, science-based analysis of the origins, characteristics and spread of the virus also continue to be crucially important. Her country continues to lead the world’s humanitarian and health assistance response to the COVID-19 pandemic, making available more than $1.3 billion in emergency health, humanitarian and economic assistance to combat COVID-19, in addition to the funding it already provides to non-governmental and international organizations. She also expressed her country’s support for the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, adding that the United States will continue to conduct legitimate counter‑terrorism operations. The crisis is having a disproportionate social and economic impact on women and girls. The Trump Administration proudly supports organizations that are responding to the increased risk of violence against women.
Indonesia’s representative called on the United Nations to devise a coordinated global response to the pandemic, welcoming the Council’s unanimous adoption of resolution 2532 (2020), which was long-overdue. “We must ensure that this call manifests in real action by all parties to put armed conflict on lockdown,” he said. For countries in conflict and post-conflict situations, the pandemic could reverse gains. Mitigation and containment strategies could strain State capacity to ensure security and foster conditions that could create instability. Thus, the pressures following the crisis must be seriously contained. A long-term comprehensive strategy is needed to meet basic needs and transform socioeconomic conditions, he said, also calling for the transfer of knowledge from vaccine producers to encourage the development of affordable vaccines and create a fair mechanism for their distribution.
The representative of South Africa said that, by adopting resolution 2532 (2020), the Council has finally pronounced on this global challenge, and its possible peace and security implications. The Council’s attention on global public health emergencies should be clear and directly linked to issues that fall under the purview of its mandate, he said, urging members to be cautious and not focus on international public health matters and economic measures addressed by the broader United Nations system, the Secretary-General and the General Assembly. Further, he expressed concern that COVID-19 has disrupted peacekeeping activities, electoral processes and progress on conflict-resolution processes. The Council can do more to alleviate the plight of innocent civilians affected by armed conflict and the spread of COVID-19, he said, expressing regret that the organ has not been able to take the necessary action to alleviate the impact of the pandemic on the humanitarian situation in affected conflict areas.
The representative of the Russian Federation said that his country supported the Secretary-General’s call for a ceasefire, welcoming the consensual adoption of resolution 2532 (2020). Through that resolution, the Council helped raise awareness of an extremely destructive effect of economic sanctions on the ability of countries to purchase vital personal protective equipment and medications, he noted, calling for an urgent review and abolition of this illegal practice. The Council’s efforts to help combat the pandemic should focus first and foremost on ensuring that peacekeeping missions continue to function, peace processes proceed and the Secretary-General’s initiative for a ceasefire is implemented. A sharp deterioration in the humanitarian situation in armed conflicts due to COVID-19 should be considered mostly in relation to the situation in specific countries on the Security Council’s agenda. Attempts to generalize such a discussion are clearly outside of the scope of the Council’s mandate.
Heiko Maas, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany and Council President for July, spoke in his national capacity to stress that the world is facing its biggest crisis since 1945, with more than half a million people who have lost their lives from a virus for which there is no cure. The emergency rippling through the global economy will deepen humanitarian crises and destroy trust in State institutions. The Council finally sent a sign of unity by endorsing the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire. Resolution 2532 (2020) was long overdue. “Let us now implement it, together,” he asserted, by working towards country-specific ceasefires, which can serve as entry points for political talks. Going forward, the Council must address the effects that pandemics have on conflicts and humanitarian crises on the Council’s agenda. Peace operations will need to adapt by monitoring the dynamics of conflicts, protecting staff and local populations, and keeping missions fully operational. Germany, with other European Union members, signed a letter assuring the Secretary-General that it will uphold its military, police and civilian contributions. Safe and rapid access for humanitarian workers is even more important during the pandemic and it is up to the Council to make this happen. Noting that Germany contributed €4 million to the COVID-19 emergency window of the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund, he called on others to follow suit. The Council must finally embrace a broader understanding of peace and security. While the founders may well have had artillery bombers in mind when they drafted the Charter of the United Nations, “today, we know that a virus can be deadlier than a gun, that a cyberattack can cause more harm than a soldier, and that climate change threatens more people than most conventional weapons”, he said. “Closing our eyes to this reality means refusing to learn.” He called for early preventive action, based on good reporting and adequate capacities throughout the United Nations system. “This is what maintaining peace and security means in the twenty-first century,” he observed.
Also participating in the meeting were senior officials and representatives of Belgium, China, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and the United Kingdom.
Amira Elfadil Mohammed Elfadil, African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs, briefed from Addis Ababa.
[In addition to the participants in the videoconference meeting, non-Council members, observers and other delegations were also invited to provide written statements for the debate (under Rules 37 and 39), to be compiled and circulated as an official document of the Council, in accordance with the letter from its President for May (Estonia) on provisional measures and working methods during the COVID-19 pandemic (document S/2020/372).]
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.