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6 January 2021

With Extreme Poverty Rising Amid Covid-19 Pandemic, More Action Key to Ending Vicious Cycle in Conflict-Affected, Fragile Countries, Top Officials Tell Security Council

Humanitarian Needs at Highest Level Since Second World War, Secretary-General Says

With extreme poverty on the rise amid the COVID-19 pandemic for the first time in more than two decades, senior officials briefing the Security Council today called for redoubled efforts to break the “vicious cycle” of poverty, fragility and conflict still devastating many nations.

Briefing the 15-member Council, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized that, even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global conflict landscape was deteriorating.  Conflicts have become more complex, fuelled by greater regionalization, the proliferation of non-State armed groups and their links to criminal and extremist interests.  According to the World Bank Fragility and Conflict Report, one of every five people in the Middle East and North Africa lives in close proximity to a major conflict.  Humanitarian needs have multiplied, reaching the highest levels since the Second World War and the number of people at risk of starvation has doubled.

Warning that such trends have put many countries in a vicious cycle — in which conflict breeds poverty, poverty breeds fragility and fragility decreases resilience to conflict — he went on to note that, for the first time in 22 years, extreme poverty was on the rise in 2020.  The contraction of economic activity in fragile and conflict-affected settings is now expected to push an additional 18 to 27 million people into poverty, the gender equality gap is widening and the climate emergency is exacerbating insecurity.

“If we are to break the cycle of poverty and conflict, we need a more ambitious approach based on two principles enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals,” he said, spotlighting both interdependence and inclusion.  Efforts to prevent and resolve conflict must be driven by the pledge to “leave no on behind”, and the not-yet-fully-realized promise to increase women’s participation in peace processes must be met. 

Noting that fragility in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region has been exacerbated by transboundary threats such as climate change, terrorism, transnational organized crime and the proliferation of armed groups — and spotlighting the continued presence of armed groups and human rights violations in the Great Lakes region — he said the United Nations is working closely with the African Union and regional economic communities to reverse those trends.  The organizations’ joint frameworks have served as key instruments to prevent and sustainably resolve conflicts in Africa, as well as to strengthen the resilience of States to withstand current threats.

At the Fourth United Nations African Union Annual Conference in December, leaders of the two organizations explored new ways to address the root causes on conflicts — including economic and social disparities — and accelerate the “Silencing the Guns in Africa” initiative.  “My call for a global ceasefire [amid the COVID-19 pandemic] goes hand-in-hand with this flagship initiative,” he stressed, underlining the United Nations continued commitment to supporting the African Union’s Agenda 2063.  In that vein, the organizations have also decided to establish a Joint United Nations–African Union Group on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Agenda and Agenda 2063, including in regard to COVID-19 recovery.

While prevention and peacebuilding are cost-effective, he went on to note that they nevertheless require national leadership, political commitment and financial support.  “The international community continues to underinvest in these areas,” he said, reiterating his call for increased financing — in particular at the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund’s upcoming replenishment conference.  He also called upon the Council to finalize its discussions on the question of providing predictable, flexible and sustained financing to operations authorized by the Council, but carried out by African Member States, through United Nations assessed contributions.

Also briefing the Council, Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, said that State fragility and the related challenges for peacekeeping are most acute on the African continent.  Such root causes, from climate change to COVID-19, are playing out, affecting the health and socioeconomic situations of many people.  For its part, the African Union has adopted related policies and guidelines to prevent conflict and tension, which continue to be obstacles to peace and sustainable development.  Moreover, efforts to rebuild peace and foster diplomacy are active continent-wide, alongside tireless work to promote the principle of African solutions to African problems.  Citing other ongoing initiatives, he said the African Union’s agreement on peace and development with the European Union and the United Nations lays the foundation for progress.

The Security Council has been contributing to these efforts, he said, pointing to resolutions supporting such African Union strategies as its Silencing the Guns initiative.  Responding effectively to challenges hinges on the adoption of a strong strategy.  However, access to predictable resources and other related challenges are hindering response efforts.  Exclusion is also a key obstacle, he said, underscoring that women and young people must be included in all peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts.  Innovative approaches have been adopted in this regard, he said, and work is under way to promote solidarity and inclusion.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a member of The Elders and former President of Liberia, said there has never been a time when so many people wanted and needed the previous year to end.  Today’s debate must remain faithful to the promise of 2021 and commit to steps forward.  Emphasizing that the Council has the power to help end the cycle of conflict, poverty and despair that so many continue to face, she called for more attention to the festering root causes of conflict — even before they erupt.  Among other things, she voiced support for local governance responses and for the training of more local women leaders, who can help “put out a smouldering fire before it becomes a major conflagration”. 

Spotlighting lessons learned from the long conflict in her native Liberia, she said prevention is always better than cure.  “The signs […] of active conflict are usually there, long before any helpful actions are taken,” she said, spotlighting human rights violations, deepening poverty and inequality and the dismantling of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms as red flags.  The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) helped support the implementation of a final peace agreement, protecting civilians even as armed militias contested election results and carried out sporadic violence. 

Today, she said, peacekeepers must also contend with the spread and impacts of COVID-19.  While raising concerns about the value of multilateralism, countries are also questioning the efficacy of peacekeeping operations and the cost of running them, often for years at a time.  Advocating strongly for United Nations peace operations, she said that, like all things, their architecture must “change with flexibility to respond to challenging circumstances”.  She also noted that 2021 marks the seventieth anniversary of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  While praising the agency, she nevertheless declared that “its continued existence is a mark on our collective conscience”.  The Security Council must be an active agent of hope for fragile nations that, for too long, have been left behind.

As Council members took the floor, Kaïs Saïed, President of Tunisia, Council President for January, spoke in his national capacity, saying the open debate’s theme stems from a strong determination to underscore the notion that fragile situations can fuel violence and trigger conflict, sometimes lasting for decades, hindering States’ capacity and threatening their very existence.  Ending wars does not always lead to lasting peace, which should be a long-term goal, and ceasefires do not mean an end to conflict, but a first step towards peace, he said, emphasizing that Africa has suffered greatly from conflict and tragedies that prevent stability.  To address these challenges, there must be a holistic long-term approach for durable peace that tackles the root causes of conflict — including climate change, terrorism, pandemics and weak State institutions, he said, cautioning that this vicious circle can further stoke violence and strife. Peacebuilding efforts must focus on stability and progressively address fragility.  The necessary guarantees — including promoting democracy and inclusive participation — must be provided to uphold peace and security.

Pointing out that instability, violence and terrorism persist in all regions, notably in Africa, decades after countries obtained their independence, he said such challenges require urgent attention, with the Security Council adopting a more comprehensive approach to international security.  Coordinated efforts such as the Silencing the Guns initiative are key.  All countries and relevant stakeholders must work together, including United Nations programmes and funds, international financial institutions and donors.  The result would be a global peacebuilding strategy that supports national efforts to promote stability and sustainable development.  The Council must support conflict-prevention and efforts to strengthen the rule of law and national institutions, he said, calling for collective action to help States cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and address fragile situations.  Recalling a resolution introduced by France and Tunisia on the pandemic, he reaffirmed his delegation’s commitment to security and development to meet the legitimate aspirations of all people worldwide.

Issoufou Mahamadou, President of Niger, said that as further information on fragile States becomes available, from an index on State fragility to the World Bank’s assessment tools, a range of root causes becomes clear.  For instance, almost all fragile States have abundant natural resources, reflecting the consequences of poorly managed institutions, he said, citing a recent African Development Bank report.  Indeed, fragility is one of the twenty-first century’s greatest challenges, often triggering displacement, violence and corruption.  If nothing is done now, more than 80 per cent of the world’s population could live in fragile States.  Citing current examples, he said 65 per cent of the global population that lacks access to clean water live in fragile States, flows of internally displaced persons and refugees are rising, and the broader impact of COVID-19 threatens to erase development gains.

Providing hope for a better existence is the ultimate goal, he said, emphasizing the need to boost efforts by investing in solutions with more resources, aid and data collection initiatives to better understand fragile States.  Inclusive solutions must boost community resilience and tackle the root causes.  The World Bank and the African Development Bank must be encouraged to do more, including by helping the continent to implement the African Union’s 2063 Agenda and addressing terrorism in the Sahel.  Indeed, collective efforts must provide strong support to the Group of Five (G5) for the Sahel Joint Force and must help countries in the region to overcome the deadly violence it currently faces.  The Security Council must also play its important role in supporting all fragile States in their efforts to advance peace and development.

Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, said the fact that the bulk of the Council’s agenda is on conflicts in Africa is testament to the fragility of many countries and regions in the continent.  “If we are to be true to the founding Charter of the United Nations, it follows, therefore, that we should invest more in building more effective approaches, or revitalizing existing mechanisms, that maintain peace and anchor stability in Africa,” he said.  Citing a range of challenges facing nations in fragile situations, he pointed to the COVID-19 response as an example, emphasizing that the biggest difference is not between Eastern and Western approaches, but between States that can provide a strong bridge to allow their citizens and economies to successfully navigate extreme crises versus those that cannot muster such an effort.  In countries afflicted by war, or recovering from it, peace will only be maintained if they are enabled to be strong enough to win control of their territory and provide public services, with the multilateral system, as embodied in the United Nations, helping these States attain such capacities.  The political processes that build peace, and binding resolutions by the Council, should include measurable State strengthening elements.

Offering four proposals to build a multilateralism fit for the times, he first underlined the importance of leveraging the knowledge and buy-in of stakeholders closest to the crisis.  In addition, the Council and associated United Nations bodies must do more to strengthen the capacity of key State institutions during post-conflict reconstruction, with the Peacebuilding Commission playing an invaluable role.  Next, the international community should not let the COVID-19 pandemic be a major driver of insecurity; if fragile countries do not get prompt access to the vaccine, their economic problems will likely turn into political and security challenges.  Finally, it is essential to strengthen the role of Africa and the global South in the multilateral system.  Indeed, the road to revitalizing multilateralism to effectively deliver global peace and security runs through a united Africa and an active and engaged global South.

Ralph E. Gonsalves, Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, called for practical and people-centred solutions that bolster national ownership in countries requiring assistance.  There is no panacea for the root causes of fragility, but through solidarity and collective action, a better future remains within the grasp of those who yearn for it.  Recalling that his country, Council President for November, held a high-level event on the contemporary drivers of conflict and insecurity, he said participants called for a comprehensive, coordinated whole-of-system approach to addressing the root causes of fragility and insecurity, including those that have been left largely unsettled by the rapid process of decolonization.  The Council must work more closely with the other United Nations main organs to foster development solutions to peace and security challenges.  The international community must leverage more often the strategic advisory capacity and convening platform of the Peacebuilding Commission to mobilize multilateral partners to help Member States build institutions, strengthen capacities and address the challenges of fragility.

Greater political will is vital to ensure no one is left behind, he said, appealing to developed countries to honour their official development assistance (ODA) commitments and increase support to conflict-affected countries through concessionary loans, debt relief, and quick impact projects, as well as support for climate adaptation and mitigation.  Reparatory justice must form part of any serious international development agenda, he said, echoing recent calls by Sir Hilary Beckles for the Special Committee on Decolonization to finalize its work and for reparations to be made for the historical crimes of native genocide, African slavery and violent colonization.  Encouraging all countries to not impose unilateral coercive measures on weaker nations, he said that even in the most difficult circumstances, a firm commitment to sovereignty and political independence, within the framework of multilateralism, offers the greatest defense against chaos and disorder.  “Just as the Second World War provided the impetus for the United Nations to emerge from the ashes of conflict, so too can the COVID‑19 pandemic be used as a critical turning point,” he said, calling for a renewed, effective multilateralism that works in the interest of all nations and peoples.

Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Norway, agreed that poor governance and human rights violations, combined with a lack of development, a scarcity of jobs and poor prospects for the future, are indications of countries and regions moving into fragility.  Noting that systemic corruption and inequality are mutually reinforcing and increase the risk of conflict and destabilization, she added that of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change, half are also struggling with violent conflict.  Assisting such nations requires a surge in peace diplomacy, she said, praising the various United Nations reforms aimed at making the Organization’s work more agile and conflict sensitive.  In that regard, she sounded alarms over the continued humanitarian toll of conflict and fragility — which is exacerbated by COVID-19 — and underlined the need to put civilian protection at the core of all interventions.  The Council should also put a stronger focus on early warning — as seen in its informal “situational awareness briefings” — while broadening its analysis and strengthening its capacity to act.

James Cleverly, Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa of the United Kingdom, stressed that women’s meaningful participation can prevent conflict, support conflict resolution and maintain peace.  His country has supported the International Civil Society Action Network to develop the protection framework for women peacebuilders, and it is the Council’s lead on the women, peace and security agenda, he said, urging all Member States to commit to its recommendations.  The United Nations and the African Union are stronger together as peacebuilding partners, he said, citing their collaboration that delivered the Central African Republic peace agreement, and the bloc’s mediation in Sudan.  Interventions also need to span humanitarian, development and peacebuilding operations.  His country worked with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to develop recommendation on the humanitarian-development-peace nexus to guide future interventions.  The United Nations and international financial institutions should continue developing their working partnership.  Noting the Organization’s positive steps aimed at maintaining peace in fragile settings, including the Secretary-General’s reform agenda, he said its capacity to prevent and respond to conflict has been bolstered through the Peacebuilding Fund, the multi-year appeal and the peace and development advisors.  The Peacebuilding Commission is now a critical forum for international cooperation on fragile States and regions.  In an evolving world, “partnerships are our strength, inclusion is our security, and the prize is peace,” he said.

Le Hoai Trung, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Viet Nam, said the COVID-19 pandemic has shown more clearly the fragility of the world and its capacity to address global challenges.  The biggest health crisis in a century has affected security and poverty and hunger increased more in 2020 than in the past decade, and rising numbers of displaced persons havw been seen alongside food and water insecurity.  Rarely has the call for multilateralism been so strong.  As such, maintaining peace and security in a fragile context requires a comprehensive approach involving all stakeholders, with the root causes of conflict and fragility at the centre of long-term solutions that respect national ownership and ensure capacity-building.

In this regard, he said the Security Council must adopt effective approaches and make efforts to better use the tools at its disposal, including diplomacy, peacemaking and peacekeeping at the outset and after a conflict has been resolved.  Multilateralism, with the United Nations at its centre, must prevail.  In addition, cross-regional cooperation must address all related challenges.  Indeed, these efforts are critical along the path to peace in fragile situations, before, during and after a conflict, and in the face of such threats as climate change and pandemics.

Micheál Martin, Taoiseach of Ireland, said national priorities during his delegation’s Council membership will include building peace and addressing fragility.  Early warnings of conflict must be heeded, and all parties must be included in conflict resolution and dialogue.  In addition, the Council must use all tools available, as doing so can make a real difference on the ground.  Peacebuilding efforts are stronger when they are inclusive.  Noting Ireland’s more than 60 years of involvement with United Nations peacekeeping, he said that operations must have a clear mandate to be effective.  In terms of strengthening conflict prevention, efforts must address the causes of conflict, including climate change and socioeconomic inequality, he said, emphasizing that COVID-19 and climate change have only amplified existing challenges and must be viewed through a security lens.

Cooperation is needed, he said, pointing to the African Union’s Silencing the Guns initiative as an example of a strong regional response.  Efforts must also promote the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, he said, adding that human rights violations are a root cause of conflict and must be addressed.  There is power in prevention, and when crises occur, efforts must aim at protecting individuals and ending impunity for perpetrators.  Moreover, the Council’s decisions must be respected and implemented.  Around the Council’s virtual table, it is important to recognize differences and work together to maintain international peace and security, he said, pledging Ireland’s commitment to contributing to the Council’s work.

Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, Minister of State for Tourism, French Nationals Abroad and Francophonie of France, underlined the need to better understand the drivers of conflict in fragile States and to develop enhanced support modalities.  Agreeing that “endless cycles of crises” often share an underlying factor, namely weak or absent governance, he spotlighted the importance of conflict prevention and capacity-building in that regard.  Addressing climate change, health crises, inequality and the lack of inclusivity in peace processes is therefore crucial.  The United Nations has successfully reformed itself into a stronger and more agile presence on the ground, he said, also calling for more mobile and reactive troops equipped with the multilingual skills needed to work with civilians.  He welcomed the growing role of the Peacebuilding Commission and the Peacebuilding Fund, noting that France plans to quadruple its support to the latter.  Meanwhile, United Nations support to the G-5 Sahel Joint Force is an important partnership — which can serve as an example for other collaborations — and the management of post-conflict transitions requires more flexibility.  In that regard, he cited the important establishment of United Nations peace operations in the wake of peacekeeping missions’ drawdowns.

Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Minister for Foreign Affairs of India, said fragility stems from the absence or breakdown of the social contract between people and their Governments.  These can also be caused by extremist political ideologies, and there is a strong correlation between such breakdowns and the conditions of poverty, terrorism, radicalism and violent extremism and pandemics — as well as the predations of regional powers and international actors.  Meanwhile, climate change, water scarcity and resource wars are adding new dimensions to these complexities.  Noting that democracy is undoubtedly gaining ground in Africa, he echoed concerns about drivers of instability and poverty, among them over-exploitation and conflicts such as the one in Libya. 

“Let us not fail to acknowledge that the legacy of colonialism constitutes the foundational basis of the current instabilities that plague the African continent,” he stressed, adding that “we should not paint all fragility issues with the same brush”.  The Council should remain primarily concerned with those directing affecting the maintenance of international peace and security.  He also underlined the importance of respecting national ownership, emphasizing that the Council should remain respectful of the regional approach adopted by countries, including those in Africa.  United Nations peacekeeping and special political missions, along with the G5 Sahel Joint Force and similar initiatives, must also be sufficiently mandated and resourced, he said, drawing attention to India’s significant contributions.

Marcelo Luis Ebrard Casaubón, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Mexico, said threats to international peace and security are not just military in nature, but are often linked to human rights violations, discrimination, environmental degradation, the irresponsible trafficking of weapons and now COVID-19.  Underlining the need for full and inclusive civic participation by all members of society, he went on to echo support for enhanced prevention and efforts aimed at tackling the root drivers of conflict.  The Council must always put people at the centre of all of its activities, he stressed.

The representative of the United States said fragility can result from ineffective or unaccountable Governments or leaders who disrespect human rights.  The rise of terrorism and violent extremism makes States more vulnerable and is exacerbated by COVID-19.  Some actors, including Iran, use fragile States or non-State actors as proxies for their malign activities, and humanitarian needs continue to outpace assistance.  The international community must support fragile States “lest they become failed States”, as the issues with which they grapple do not stop at national borders.  She warned against politicizing humanitarian, development and peacebuilding efforts.  She also spotlighted the United States Global Fragility Act of 2019 as well as a related strategy aimed at putting partnership, accountability and national ownership at the heart of Washington’s foreign assistance.  Indeed, 70 per cent of United States foreign aid goes to fragile States, and the country has provided some $30 billion to fragile countries in recent years.  Pledging to continue such support, she also pointed out that the United States leads the way in funding United Nations peacekeeping operations, providing 25 per cent of their budget.

The speaker for China said that, after a turbulent 2020, multilateralism is more crucial than ever.  The COVID-19 pandemic is surging in a new wave and all countries should respect science, joining hands to stop the spread as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, more mediation and conflict prevention efforts are required, and COVID-19 vaccines should be equitably distributed around the globe.  He outlined China’s massive humanitarian response to the pandemic, noting that it is supporting 150 countries and ten international organizations and was the first to make vaccines a public good.  Strengthening economic and social “weak links” is also crucial as developing countries face new difficulties, which threaten to further expand the gap between the global North and South.  In that context, he called for more efforts to support peacebuilding, strengthen Government capacity, build consensus and provide development assistance aimed at building resilience.  “No country can work alone,” he stressed, adding that countries have no choice but to safeguard the international system and support each other.

The Russian Federation’s representative said factors impacting peace and security in fragile contexts are pertinent for discussions in the Council and other United Nations bodies.  However, issues not directly linked to international peace and security should be addressed in the relevant fora with a view to identifying effective solutions.  At the same time, duplication of efforts must be avoided.  Some factors undermining stability mentioned in the concept note for today’s meeting, such as climate change and other environmental issues, require practical measures through decisions made in the General Assembly and Economic and Social Council, he said, adding that each United Nations body should work within its own mandate.  In Africa, environmental issues must be considered on an individual basis, and external actors must not illegally exploit Africa’s natural resources for their own aims.  Links between human rights and development should not automatically be made nor should they be based on arbitrary definitions.  External interference, including illegally overthrowing a Government, must not be tolerated.  Raising concerns about illegal sanctions that bypass Security Council decisions, he voiced support for the Secretary-General’s call to lift unilateral coercive measures.  In terms of regional efforts, he emphasized that Africans know best the situation on their own continent.

The speaker for Estonia urged the Council to treat not only the symptoms but also the causes of violence, highlighting the importance of acknowledging the interdependence of security and sustainable development.  Climate change exacerbates existing conflicts and contributes to the onset of new ones.  The Council must take climate-change-related threats to peace and security seriously, he said, expressing hope that in 2021 it is finally able to adopt a thematic resolution on climate and security, mandate the Secretary-General to report on climate change’s impact on international security, and provide robust mandates to the relevant missions the Council authorizes.  A dedicated climate expert in the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) is a good start.  In addition, rule of law, access to justice and human rights are essential for maintaining peace and security in fragile contexts.  It is also vital to include persons belonging to marginalized groups, especially women and girls.  Greater efforts are needed to win the trust of youth.  The Council must make all the relevant mandates robust in these aspects and constantly adapt to changing times.  This includes being open to new topics, being willing to employ new tools to tackle emerging issues and reviewing its current practices, he said.

For information media. Not an official record.