Implications of COVID-19 on international peace and security
The Spanish Flu pandemic spread so rapidly in the world due to security conditions, in the context of the First World War. Almost one hundred years later (2014-2016), the Ebola epidemic also gave a place to global health in the field of international security.
While the COVID-19 pandemic itself was less the result of a conflict context, it still radically affects security and peace from different analytical frameworks. On the one hand, the pandemic has deteriorated peace and security and the living conditions of the population in the field. On the other hand, the pandemic also affected the United Nations machinery on peace and security.
The impact of the pandemic on the United Nations peace and security machinery
Disarmament and security
The circumstances of little to no preparation before the CO VID-19 pandemic spread forced the United Nations to postpone until 2021 several key meetings. The Biennial of States of the Programme of Action on Small Anns and Light Weapons was postponed while the illicit transfer of arms and ammunition continues to affect peace and security around the Globe. The Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which commemorated its 50th anniversary in 2020, was postponed until 2021, first to January, then to August 2021 (the final date is still to be determined at the time of writing).
Different proposals have been put on the table to downscale the Review Conference due to COVID-19, however States, in particular those against the existence of nuclear weapons, are insisting on the importance of a full-fledged meeting. At the same time, a full meeting in its regular format (in terms of days for negotiations of the outcome), with the traditional main committees and subsidiary bodies, including the participation from delegations from capitals, remains uncertain at this point. This is in part due to travel restrictions, as well as due to elements as practical as the insufficient number of conference rooms in the United Nations Headquarters due to the massive postponement of other relevant meetings.
While the challenges seem only logistical, the consequences could be substantive when we face an unbalanced implementation of the three pillars of the NPT. In the absence of the Review Conference, programs to modernize these weapons continue as well as the quantitative increase in various arsenals around the world, despite general progress previously achieved in the frame of the NPT implementation.
The timing to put pressure on the need to strengthen the implementation of the NPT was significant in 2020, being 75 years after the atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As explained in the introduction of this chapter, the
Future of international peace and security 121 symbolic of dates can provide the momentum depending also on other circumstances. Experts know that a nuclear war cannot be won. Along these lines, the collective security of all States requires the elimination of these weapons, as recognized by consensus in the final document of the First Special Session of the General Assembly dedicated to Disarmament in 1978:
The increase in weapons, especially nuclear weapons, far from helping to strengthen international security, on the contrary weakens it. The vast stockpiles and the tremendous build-up of armed forces and the competitions for qualitative refinement of weapons of all kinds, to which scientific resources and technological advances are diverted pose incalculable threat to peace. This situation both reflects and aggravates international tensions, sharpens conflicts in various regions of the world, hinders the process of detente, exacerbates the differences between opposing military alliances, jeopardizes the security of all States, heightens the sense of insecurity among all States, including the non-nuclear-weapon States, and increases the threat of nuclear war.23
Far from changing, this reality is actually worse in the context of threats of a new nuclear test, in the midst of the current pandemic. To put it into context: while the WHO budget for the biennium 2018-2019 was $4.4 billion, it is estimated that the nine armed countries expended S72.9 billion on their more than 13,000 nuclear weapons in 2019 alone.24 This means that a year of nuclear weapons budget can fund more than 30 years of the WHO operations. The budget for Nuclear weapons and military expenditure is even more obscene in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To add further perspective: one day of world military expenditures25 is higher than the biennial WHO budget.26
The Fourth Conference on Nuclear Weapon Free Zones was also postponed as was the Disarmament Commission. The year 2020, the first of the decade of action was also the year of the review of the United Nations peacebuilding architecture. The latter slowed down due to restrictions on in-person meetings and consultations. Member States preferred to have as an outcome only a procedural plus resolution, not to open the pandoras box, in particular in the challenging circumstances of virtual negotiations. The pandemic also affected several other consultations, and the work of Geneva-based disarmament Conventions.
Though the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) programme was affected, several virtual briefings where organized on the impact of COVID-19 on peacebuilding and sustaining peace in the Lake Chad Basin, Pacific Islands, Guinea-Bissau, Central African Republic, Papua New Guinea, Liberia, West Africa and the Sahel respectively. During the first meeting on COVID-19, held on 8 April 2020, the Chair of the PBC also regretted the Security Council was acting as if the pandemic did not represent a threat to peace and security.27 In this, different United Nations organs showed different levels of flexibility or even creativity to ensure the continuity of their work.
The main committees of the General Assembly, including the First Committee on international security, did not reconvene in their full format in the Fall of 2020. Dynamics in negotiations were strained as well, with delegations blocking introductions of new substantive language to periodical resolutions, preferring to rollover discussions until such a time as they could be held in person. This put to question the value of their deliberations. As a result, the United Nations really faced an institutional emergency break in this domain.
Some Member States took it upon themselves to push forward new proposals; the United Kingdom introduced a resolution on outer space, and Russia on the United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons. Though neither proposal in general, consultations were held by virtual means and therefore did not offered the advantages of an in-person negotiation. The only advantage was that subject-matter experts could participate in negotiations regardless of their duty stations, and without needing to travel. For example, an expert handling the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna could tune in to negotiations in New York on weapons of mass destruction — a clear benefit for countries with limited experts in different parts of the world, particularly developing countries. This provided a temporary solution for previous budget restrictions, in particular for developing countries, that did not facilitate their delegates’ travel.
In 2020, the General Debate of the First Committee was held in the General Assembly hall. Almost every delegation connected the efforts on disarmament and international peace and security with the challenges from COVID-19. The thematic debates would have been a good opportunity for delegations to deepen their conversations on specific issues, including on specific impacts of COVID-19 on different domains, however they were suspended, although delegations sent written statements to be included in a general report. The interactive debate with multiple stakeholders was held through virtual platforms, with no real opportunity for delegates to really interact and coordinate with the non-governmental organizations and academia, for example.
The disarmament and international security committee had planned to adopt all 73 decisions and Resolutions from 27 October to 4 November 2020. When the United Nations Headquarters reopened in early September 2020, everything was moving slowly but in the right direction, until all in persons meeting were suspended for a week on 26 October due to a reported case of COVID-19. This affected, once again, the disarmament and security portfolio of the United Nations, ironically during the disarmament week, celebrated every year from 24 to 30 October.
It is interesting to note that, for the most part, coffee and corridor coordination efforts were replaced by phone calls, emails and even by WhatsApp messages. These included delicate questions that, in the pre-COVID-19 world, would not have been asked through those platforms: “how are you voting?” or “I believe we should proceed in that direction, however please read and delete my message.”
Diplomacy also depends on coffee and corridor interactions. Even at the few in-person meetings, with distancing measures, the use of masks limited proper interaction and the subtleties of body language - notably facial expressions - leaving everything to the eyes.
The Security Council and CO VID-19
Another defining characteristic of the year 2020 was that it began with one of the greatest geopolitical tensions of the Century in the Middle East - as described by the UN Secretary-General with reference to the US-Iran crisis, for which he called for maximum restraint from all parties. In a Security Council Debate, on 9 January 2020, there was a general call for peace and to focus on development during this decade.28 Three months later, the work of the Security Council was carried out exclusively by Videoconference for four months, from March to July 2020, and started to work on a hybrid basis only since the middle of July 2020. As such, some meetings were held through virtual means, while those convened in the United Nations headquarters had to be moved from the Security Council Chamber to the Economic and Social Council Chamber, because of the size of the room.
Interestingly, in February 2020, during the negotiations on the Security Council Reform Process cochaired by the United Arab Emirates and Poland, the representative of Ecuador went beyond mentioning the ideal composition of a more democratic, transparent and effective Security Council, and its methods of work, and addressed something that usually is not in the menu of that discussion: the shape of the Security Council Chamber.
The Ecuadorian delegation insisted on the importance of flexibility to achieve a council without the barriers that even its Chamber has, in which there is a strong division between the semicircle where permanent and non-permanent members have a seat and a table, while the rest of the United Nations Member States have just a chair without a microphone and without a table. In contrast, the ECOSOC Chamber was designed in a way that offers member states and observers more or less the same facilities. While that could have been addressed 10 years ago within the capital master plan of the building, the point was to highlight the multidimensional nature of the Council’s exclusionary dynamics, that need to be surmounted. Unfortunately, that key process was not spared by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Coming back to the work of the Security Council, it was only in October 2020 under the Russian Presidency, that the main organ returned to its Chamber, albeit with social distance measures, and plastic panels separating each of the 15 members. The other 178 Member States were not allowed to enter the room during 2020, not even to deliver individual national statements in Open Debates — a privilege afforded to non-members of the Council by rule 37 of the provisional rules of procedures29 of the work of the Security Council. Instead, only written statements have been compiled and circulated in a
posteriori report, with little-to- no impact as the debate has been held between the 15 members of the Council alone.
Although the question of the end of traditional diplomacy has been raised30 as well as the new “Zoom-plomacy,” the reality is that negotiating by virtual means such as Videoconferences, is not the same. To put this into perspective: the Security Council took four months to reach consensus on resolution 2532 on the COVID-19 pandemic, originally planned for adoption in early April.
The COVID-19 pandemic has directly impacted Peacekeeping Operations, as have humanitarian support mechanisms in conflict zones. To overcome these challenges, the Secretary-General called for a global ceasefire, as a first step to permanent peace in the first quarter of 2020.
It took four months for the Security Council to demand a general cessation of hostilities in all situations. It called to all parties to armed conflicts to engage immediately in a durable humanitarian pause for at least 90 days to facilitate humanitarian assistance and requested the Secretary-General to instruct peace-keeping operations to provide support to the countries hosting them, to help contain the pandemic.31 It is relevant to note that the Resolution does not mention the World Health Organization. In fact, the reason for the delay in the adoption of the resolution from March 2020 was the lack of agreement on whether to reference the WHO. The position of the host country with regards to the WHO was made clear early in 2020, whereas every other member of the Council differed in their perspective from the host. Though the impasse was seen as a reflection of broader geopolitical tensions, it did raise questions among the public about the agility and effectiveness of the Council.
Right before the Security Council adopted the above-mentioned resolution 2532, Ecuador, Malaysia, Jamaica, Japan and Sweden, with a few other delegations, brought together 172 countries in support of the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire. The delegations applied one of the diplomatic tools that were used the most during the COVID-19 pandemic: a joint communiqué, with the aim to facilitate access to humanitarian assistance in conflict zones.32 This brings us to our next point: the impact of COVID-19 on peace and security in the field.