Security Council

02 July 2020

Remarks to Security Council Open Video-Teleconference on the Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Implications of COVID-19

António Guterres

I thank the German Presidency for convening this important discussion.
 
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to profoundly affect peace and security across the globe.
 
The consequences can be seen even in a number of countries traditionally seen as “stable”. 
But the impacts are particularly apparent in countries already experiencing conflict or emerging from it – and may soon engulf others.
 
The risks are diverse.
 
Tensions are rising as a result of the severe socio-economic fallout of the crisis.
 
Trust in public institutions is being eroded further in places where people perceive that authorities have not addressed the pandemic effectively or have not been transparent about its impact. 

As pre-existing grievances and vulnerabilities become more accentuated and entrenched, the potential for instability and violence only grows.
 
The pandemic is exacerbating gender inequalities, as women make up the vast majority of the sectors most affected.  There has been an alarming spike in gender-based and domestic violence, and it is increasingly difficult for victims to report abuse, seek shelter and access justice.
 
In some countries, fragile peace processes could be derailed by the crisis, especially if the international community is distracted.
 
In Darfur, for example, the pandemic and other challenges have led to the repeated extension of the deadline for the completion of the Juba Peace Process.
 
In other places, conflict actors -- including terrorist and violent extremist groups -- see the uncertainty created by the pandemic as a tactical advantage.
 
In Somalia, Al-Shabaab continues to launch frequent attacks, with no noticeable impact of COVID-19 on its operational tempo. Rather, there is a risk that Al-Shabaab could increase such violence while security forces focus, by necessity, on the pandemic.
 
Many countries have had to consider how to move ahead with elections slated for 2020 while trying to manage the health crisis.  Since March of this year, 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 to date.
 
In the Central African Republic, there are tensions due to attempts to use the pandemic as a pretext to postpone the holding of elections planned for the end of the year.
 
Decisions on postponing or indeed proceeding with elections raise complex legal, political and public health challenges. Difficult as they are, such decisions are best made
on the basis of broad consultations with all stakeholders, to avoid fueling political tensions or undermining legitimacy. 
 
COVID-19 has also made diplomacy more challenging. Mediation can be a very personal endeavour -- an almost-tactile reading of a person or a room.  With movement restrictions limiting such contacts, and with online discussions often the only alternative, it can be harder to establish the trust and nurture the willingness to compromise that are at the heart of preventive diplomacy.
 
The pandemic also highlights the risks of bioterrorist attacks, and has already shown some of the ways in which preparedness might fall short if a disease were to be deliberately manipulated to be more virulent, or intentionally released in multiple places at once.
 
So, as we consider how to improve our response to future disease threats, we should also devote serious attention to preventing the deliberate use of diseases as weapons.
 
The Biological Weapons Convention codifies a strong and longstanding norm against the abhorrent use of disease as a weapon, and now has 183 States Parties. I urge the 14 States that have not yet joined the Convention to do so without any further delay.  We also need to strengthen the Convention, which lacks an oversight institution and contains no verification provisions, by enhancing its role as a forum for the consideration of preventative measures, robust response capacities and effective counter-measures. 
 
Fortunately, the best counter to biological weapons is effective action against naturally occurring diseases. Strong public and veterinary health systems are not only an essential tool against COVID-19, but also an effective deterrent against the development of biological weapons.
 
All of these issues must be on the agenda next year at the Convention’s Review Conference.
 
At the moment, the Secretary-General’s Mechanism, established by the General Assembly and endorsed by the Security Council, is the only instrument that provides a framework for an investigation of alleged use of biological weapons.
 
Security Council Resolution 1540 and its follow-ups remain a key component of the international non-proliferation architecture, and have provided an overarching framework to prevent the nightmare scenario of bioterrorism.
 
Given the speed at which pathogens spread in an interconnected world, we must ensure that all countries have resilient and appropriate capacities to respond quickly and robustly to any potential global and deliberate biological event.
 
I am also concerned that the pandemic is triggering or exacerbating human rights challenges. My Call to Action for Human Rights is more relevant than ever and requires robust follow-up.
 
We have seen the excessive use of force to police lockdowns, curfews and other confinement measures.
 
There are growing manifestations of authoritarianism, including limits on the media, civic space and freedom of expression.
 
Populists, nationalists and others who were already seeking to roll back human rights are finding in the pandemic a pretext for repressive measures unrelated to the disease.
 
Meanwhile, stigma and hate speech are on the rise.

And an epidemic of misinformation online has run rampant.

To help counter the spread of untruthful and harmful information, the United Nations has launched the “Verified” initiative, to increase the volume and reach of trusted, accurate information surrounding the crisis.

Yet another risk for the long term is the shifting of resources away from gender equality initiatives, education and other economic sectors.  Indeed, this could have intergenerational impacts, including on women’s rights and participation in political and peace processes.

And most immediately, humanitarian needs have surged. 
 
More than 1 billion children are out of school. 
 
More than 135 million people could be on the brink of starvation by the end of this year. 
 
Routine immunization services are being disrupted on an unprecedented scale, raising the likelihood of major outbreaks of diseases like measles and polio.
 
The already acute vulnerability of refugees and internally displaced persons has grown more pronounced – particularly those living in confined and congested camps and detention facilities.
 
And health-care workers and humanitarian personnel have themselves been targeted for unconscionable attacks.
 
The health pandemic has fast become a protection crisis. 
 
These wide-ranging risks require an urgent and united response, including from the Security Council.
 
One hundred eighty Member States plus one non-member observer State have endorsed my call for a global cease-fire, as have more than 20 armed movements and other entities and more than 800 civil society organizations.
 
The call yielded some positive results, but these have since expired or in some cases broken down.
 
The Council has an important role to bring its voice and influence to bear on these situations, and I welcome your support, expressed in the resolution adopted yesterday.
 
Our peacekeeping operations and special political missions continue to bring hope and stability to all corners of the world, supporting national authorities and vulnerable communities, including by ensuring that missions themselves are not a vector of contagion.
 
We have put in place a number of medical and other support measures to mitigate the spread of the virus within our missions and to protect our personnel.  We have also adapted the rotations of our uniformed personnel, for which we are grateful to troop- and police-contributing countries.

We are also adapting our tools to the new circumstances.
 
In Colombia and Libya, for example, we have been able to maintain a good level of engagement with the parties and other actors using virtual and other means.
 
The Office of the Special Envoy for Yemen carried out a first-of-its-kind large-scale virtual dialogue with more than 500 Yemenis -- 30-35 per cent of whom were women -- on the opportunities and challenges for peace in the country.
 
And through a Global Humanitarian Response Plan, we are addressing the most urgent health and humanitarian needs in 63 countries -- although the plan is just 21 per cent funded and much more is needed.
 
Since the beginning of the crisis, the United Nations family has mounted a comprehensive response -- providing medical and material support on the ground, advocating for a global economic and financial rescue package, and offering policy analysis across the key dimensions of the emergency.
 
The pandemic has brought us all to a wide-ranging reckoning.
 
Collective security and our shared well-being are under assault on many fronts, 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.
 
I remain ready to support the Security Council in any way possible as this body carries out its essential part of the response.
 
Thank you.