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9 September 2020

Weakest, Most Fragile States Will Be Those Worst Affected by COVID-19 in Medium, Long Term, Humanitarian Chief Tells Security Council

Top peacekeeping and humanitarian affairs officials warned the Security Council during a 9 September videoconference meeting* that wide-ranging implications of the COVID-19 pandemic could erode peace and push more conflict‑affected nations onto its agenda.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefing the Council on the implementation of resolution 2532 (2020) that called for a global ceasefire amid the pandemic, said the weakest, most fragile and conflict-affected countries will be those worst affected by COVID-19 in the medium and long term.  “Woefully inadequate economic and political action will lead to greater instability and conflicts in the coming years; more crises will be on this Council’s agenda,” he said.  “While we may have been surprised by the virus, we cannot say the same of the security and humanitarian crises that most certainly lay ahead if we don’t change course.”

With more than 26 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, he said “the virus is everywhere”.  More than 860,000 people have died, roughly a third of these cases and fatalities in countries affected by humanitarian or refugee crises, or those facing high levels of vulnerability.  Indirect effects of the crisis will be higher poverty, lower life expectancy, more starvation, less education and more child death.  Likewise, given recent research findings, the risks of conflict, instability, insecurity, violence and population displacement are rising, he said, adding that “the agenda of this Council, which you may think is big enough already, is set to grow; that may be one of the main lasting effects of the pandemic.”

In addition, these indirect consequences “are dwarfing the impact of the virus itself”, he cautioned.  Vaccination campaigns have been disrupted in 45 countries facing humanitarian or refugee crises or high levels of vulnerability from other causes, putting more than 80 million children under the age of one at risk of vaccine-preventable diseases.  Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report that food insecurity is spiking, with 27 countries at risk.  More than half a billion children in humanitarian crises and fragile contexts have been affected by school closures, many girls now unable to go to school will never go back and gender-based violence is increasing as services have been curtailed.

“There is little dispute about what ought to be done,” he said.  While the Group of 20 and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations have adopted $10 trillion in domestic stimulus measures to protect their populations, low-income and fragile countries do not have the resources.  They rely on support from elsewhere, but only 7 per cent of the $143 billion in financing from the international financial institutions has been committed to low‑income countries.  This alarmingly low level of support increases the likelihood of the pandemic generating dangerous long-term consequences, he said, underlining the critical role international financial institutions can play.  Indeed, recent experience has shown that costs to taxpayers are minimal because the resources can largely be generated off the international financial institutions’ own balance sheets.

Turning to the response of humanitarian agencies, he said the Secretary‑General’s launch in March of the United Nations coordinated Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19 now seeks $10 billion over the next six months to support 250 million people in 63 countries.  Expressing appreciation at having raised around $2.4 billion since March, he outlined some ongoing efforts, including personal protective equipment for 730,000 health workers, information on the virus and protection instructions for more than 1 billion people in nearly 60 countries and distance learning for almost 100 million children.  However, the Secretary-General’s repeated calls on Member States and others to facilitate the movement of humanitarian personnel and cargo have not been adequately heeded, violence against health workers is rising and aid workers are also vulnerable to the virus.  The number of confirmed cases among United Nations staff alone runs into the thousands, and the death toll is mounting.  Where possible, those who are most sick are evacuated to places where they can get good medical care, but, too often, that does not happen, he said, paying tribute to those taking extraordinary risks with their own welfare in the desire to help others.

Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, highlighting increased political risks during the pandemic, said the erosion of trust in public institutions “increases fragility and has the potential to drive instability in settings where people perceive authorities have not addressed the pandemic effectively or have not been transparent about its impact”.

The aggravation of certain human rights challenges also fuel conflict during the pandemic, she said, citing increased discrimination, gender-based violence and disproportionate impacts on women, as well as a rise in stigma and hate speech, especially against migrants and foreigners.  Tensions are seen rising about decisions to postpone elections or to proceed with a vote, she said.

Despite these risks, she said that the dynamics of several ongoing armed conflicts have not changed as a result of COVID-19, with some situations having deteriorated largely due to other drivers.  In the Sahel, the risk remains that parties to conflict use the uncertainty created by the pandemic to press their advantage.

In the short term, the pandemic could also derail fragile peace processes and conflict‑prevention initiatives due to restrictions on travel and in-person contacts, she continued.  “Our own ability to support political processes has certainly been limited by such restrictions,” she admitted.  “With many of our engagements moving online, we have had to develop our digital skills and work even harder to nurture the trust and willingness to compromise that are at the heart of preventive diplomacy and mediation.”

Turning to the status of the Secretary-General’s global ceasefire call on 23 March, she said that the initial response was encouraging, with several temporary truces announced, from Colombia to Ukraine, and from the Philippines to Cameroon.  However, many expired without extensions, resulting in little improvement on the ground.  Recalling the Security Council’s backing for the ceasefire call in resolution 2532 (2020), she said leadership from the Council and the support of Member States with leverage are essential to changing the calculations of conflict parties, opening the space for dialogue and ending wars.

The United Nations has adapted operations amid the pandemic, including the creation of a joined-up support structure for missions.  The cross-departmental field support group on COVID-19 has been working to strengthen United Nations risk management systems and to protect personnel and their capacity to continue critical operations, and missions are strongly committed to aid host countries in their COVID-19 response.

To mitigate COVID-19-related risks in situations of armed conflict and prevent the possible deterioration of other situations into instability and violence, the collective and individual engagement of Council members is indispensable, including in a follow up to the Secretary-General’s ceasefire call.  “The better the global response to the pandemic, the better our prospects for the prevention, management and resolution of armed conflicts around the world,” she said.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, said the Council’s ongoing support will be indispensable as the world continues to address challenges posed by the pandemic.  Briefing on measures being taken to address challenges facing peacekeeping operations and the countries where they are deployed, he said the pandemic has had a significant impact and has complicated efforts to support national authorities and other actors while discharging mission mandates.  With the guidance and support of United Nations Headquarters and the Security Council’s unified and consistent backing, peacekeeping operations have quickly and effectively put in place a range of measures to ensure operational continuity and ongoing mandate implementation, he said, highlighting a strategy set up in April that focuses on supporting national authorities, protecting personnel, mitigating the virus’ spread and ensuring operational continuity.

However, he cautioned, many countries where peacekeeping operations are deployed suffer from a combination of weak health and governance structures and a lack of the resources required to effectively combat the pandemic.  As such, the spread of COVID-19 can lead to exacerbated socioeconomic tensions, undermine governance and local institutions, slow down or derail fragile political processes, worsen already‑volatile security situations and contribute to a recurrence of intercommunal conflict.  The overall effect can be to further destabilize these countries and erode peace gains.  The pandemic has also given rise to hate speech, incitements to violence and harmful misinformation.  Moreover, heavier burdens face Governments already under pressure to deliver on political processes.  In South Sudan, a considerable slowdown of implementing a ceasefire agreement is partly due to an increased focus on COVID-19-related challenges, at a time when parties have been in a three-month-long deadlock over appointing governors and have yet to reconstitute Parliament.

While these combined effects of the pandemic can negatively impact the missions’ mandate implementation, he said that helping to prevent and contain the virus’ spread where peacekeeping operations are deployed is not only a moral imperative, but also a political priority and an operational requirement.  Measures are already contributing to preventing and containing the spread among field personnel, he said, noting that, as of today, across all field missions and their more than 100,000 personnel, a total of 1,049 cumulative cases had been recorded, with 609 recovered, 440 active cases and 18 deaths.  The rotation and repatriation of uniformed personnel have resumed in close coordination with both police- and troop-contributing countries, and all missions have been provided with a COVID-19 risk mitigation plan.  Peacekeeping operations continue to find innovative and proactive ways to implement their mandates, including a recent agreement in Sudan among transitional authorities and participating armed groups.

As the COVID-19 crisis abates in certain parts of the world, he said, missions see opportunities to achieve more.  In Cyprus, for example, the quarantine and closure of crossing points restricted movement between the north and south of the island, and now both sides are working on the reopening together.  Missions also continue to prevent and respond to threats to civilians, which have not decreased in the past six months despite the Secretary-General’s global ceasefire call, including in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mali.  In operational terms, the pandemic has, however, affected the footprint of United Nations missions, and to a certain degree, their capacity to perform patrols or monitoring activities.  Peacekeeping missions have been approaching their protection of civilians activities primarily through the lens of “do no harm”, prioritizing the need to prevent the virus from spreading among the local populations.  Reductions in mission capacities have also affected the effectiveness of situational awareness tools, such as the use of air assets for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

During the pandemic, regular meetings have been held virtually, he said.  The integrated effort by the Secretariat in support of peacekeeping operations is complemented by strengthened synergies with the United Nations country teams and sister organizations, including the World Bank, and with partner organizations on the ground, including the African Union and European Union.  The role of women peacekeepers is key to addressing the COVID-19-related challenges to mandate implementation.  As part of the response to the pandemic, the comprehensive performance assessment system has aided several missions in planning, tracking and showing the impact of their efforts to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their area of operations.  This has strengthened their capacity both to support the host countries’ efforts and ensure continuing delivery of mandated activities.

Council members, commending peacekeepers and partners assisting in COVID-19 response plans, agreed that resolution 2532 (2020) is a step in the right direction, with many urging all parties to respect the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire.  Some shared concerns about escalating violence and the fragility of some States that are struggling to address the pandemic while brokering or building peace.

Tunisia’s delegate said that, while resolution 2532 (2020) marks the Council’s clear engagement, two months after its adoption, more must be done to translate its provisions into concrete reality on the ground.  Today’s debate is a timely opportunity to reiterate the Council’s resolve, but the ceasefire appeal needs stronger diplomatic efforts.  On the humanitarian front, the impact of COVID-19 on conflict-affected settings has been much worse than expected, he said, adding that:  “If we fail to provide a coordinated international response to the pandemic, we would risk losing gains on health, poverty, education, women’s empowerment, development and stability.”  Solidarity and unity at the international, regional and national level must guide the world though this volatile and unstable new phase, where assumptions about threats to international peace and security must evolve as humanity faces new types of enemies that are invisible, transboundary and global.  To do this, he said, “we cannot face such dangers using the same instruments we have inherited from the old times”.  As the nature and scope of threats evolve, it is imperative to rethink security and adapt approaches and tools.  For its part, the Council must discuss these issues to be able to deliver on its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.

The representative of France said it is time for a collective awakening, with the top priority being the implementation of a cessation of hostilities and a humanitarian pause.  Ending hostilities is an indispensable condition for an effective fight against the pandemic.  While the Secretary-General’s appeal was supported by more than 180 countries, more than 20 armed groups and numerous regional and civil society organizations, much remains to be done, including in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and the Sahel.  The Council must continue to support peacekeeping operations by enabling them to fully implement their mandates despite the pandemic.  Turning to other concerns, he said the Council must collectively support the full and complete implementation of the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19.  France will continue to work to that end, he said, calling attention to the European Union’s efforts, including the coordination of more than 65 flights as part of a humanitarian airlift.  Everything must be done to ensure safe and unimpeded humanitarian access and to protect aid workers and medical personnel.  Stability and peace also depend on the resilience of health systems.  The World Health Organization (WHO) must be strengthened in its normative, warning and coordinating role.  Resolution 2532 (2020) recognizes the essential role that women play in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the negative and disproportionate effects that this health crisis has on women, girls, refugees and displaced persons, he said, noting that France and Mexico will organize the Generation Equality Forum in the first half of 2021, in partnership with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women).

China’s delegate, noting that COVID-19 is still raging across the world, and some countries are seeing a looming second wave, said nothing is more important and urgent than combating the virus, saving lives and restoring peace.  Hostilities should end, and parties to conflicts should stop fighting immediately and unconditionally.  Life should be prioritized, and humanitarian assistance be increased, he said, emphasizing that WHO should be supported to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on fragile countries and vulnerable populations.  Unilateral sanctions should be lifted to lessen the sufferings of affected peoples, he said, urging nations to lift coercive measures.  Equal emphasis should be put on ceasefires and containing the pandemic.  In the spirit of putting people’s lives first, China prevents and contains the pandemic in a comprehensive, prompt and effective manner, while promoting international cooperation, having sent 34 medical expert teams to 32 countries, provided 283 batches of anti-epidemic supplies to 150 countries and 4 international organizations, and exported medical supplies to more than 200 countries.  Last week, China proposed an international mechanism on mutual recognition of COVID-related health certification.  China President Xi Jinping announced at the World Health Assembly in May that a COVID-19 vaccine, when developed and deployed in the country, will be shared with other nations through various channels.  Making vaccines accessible to everyone is the only way to realize universal health, he said, adding that:  “We should stick to a win-win concept rather than [a] zero-sum mentality.”  Vaccines should not be stockpiled or monopolized, nor should they be used as political tools.  His delegation hopes to see countries cooperate to advance vaccine development and production, making them accessible and affordable to all, he said, noting that China is ready to join other countries in implementing resolution 2532 (2020), form a united front against the pandemic and build a community based on a shared future for mankind.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said resolution 2532 (2020) marked an important milestone for the Security Council and the wider multilateral system by successfully navigating divisions and divergent views to deliver a clear message of unity and hope.  But, more must be done to preserve hard won gains across the peace-security-development nexus, especially since many parties have disregarded calls for a global ceasefire.  Addressing COVID-19-related challenges will require the political will to fully implement resolution 2532 (2020).  Approaches to managing the COVID-19 crisis must be conflict-sensitive and sovereignty supporting, she said, reiterating calls on all parties to abandon unilateral actions.  She appealed for greater regional and international cooperation to better tackle arms trafficking, illicit exploitation and trade of natural resources and other activities that embolden armed groups and organized criminals.  Only through a total cessation of hostilities will conflict‑affected countries be able to manage this health crisis as they mend their social fabrics, advance peace processes and strengthen governance, she said, underlining the need to amplify calls for a global ceasefire and to strengthen capacities to assist those made most vulnerable.

Viet Nam’s delegate said that the pandemic and its impacts have been alluded to in most if not all contexts on the Council’s agenda, multiplying and exacerbating the already difficult challenges of conflict-affected countries and populations.  Going forward, a ceasefire is a must.  The United Nations and regional organizations can and should continue to support effective implementation of the ceasefire, including through mediation efforts.  People must be protected, so the Council must continue to galvanize collective efforts to assist conflict‑affected countries in reinforcing preparedness, response and recovery from COVID-19 and to fight for sustainable peace.  At the same time, peacekeeping remains an integral tool to multilateral strategies to establish a stable environment for sustaining peace and triggering development, which must be part of a long-term response to pandemics.  It is essential that peacekeeping and political missions continue to make peace work in the “new normal”, he said, reiterating his delegation’s call for international cooperation and coordination in fighting the pandemic as no country is safe from and can fight COVID-19 alone.

The representative of the United States said that, in the early days of the virus, the Chinese Communist Party hid the truth about the outbreak from the world and prevented researchers from accessing vital information.  The result was innumerable deaths that could have been prevented.  The Party must answer to the parents around the world trying to home-school their children while working full‑time jobs from home, those mourning loved ones without the ability to honour them with a funeral and those who have lost their jobs or their businesses.  WHO’s failures in the early days of the pandemic also contributed to needless suffering and the worsening of this pandemic.  The agency needs to reform, including by demonstrating its independence from China.  Describing how significantly his country contributes to counter the pandemic, including the development of vaccines, he stressed that the Administration of United States President Donald J. Trump will continue to lead on this issue and will work hard to make the world safer and more secure from infectious disease threats.

The representative of the United Kingdom, responding to China’s remarks on sanctions, said “it’s a shame that there has been some intentional blurring of issues on sanctions and attempts to take advantage of a potential COVID-19-related tragedy”.  His country and the European Union impose sanctions on Damascus, specifically targeting those responsible for human rights abuses against ordinary Syrians and those who support or benefit from the Assad regime’s “corruption and murderous activity”.  Sanctions don’t apply to food, medicine, medical equipment or medical assistance.  “Put simply, the problem facing Syria’s health sector is not sanctions, but rather that the regime is more intent on bombing hospitals than building them and the restrictions imposed on cross-border aid”.  Humanitarian exemptions apply to sanctions regimes mitigating the impact of sanctions on humanitarian programmes.  The issue in Syria is a chronic mismanagement of its economy by a corrupt regime and its friends.

Belgium’s representative, recalling that resolution 2532 (2020) adopted on 1 July called for a 90-day ceasefire, said that the outlook does not look promising and the call for a global ceasefire did not have the effect hoped for, while the COVID-19 pandemic is still spreading and weakening the health systems in conflict areas.  Libya, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan are just a few of the worrisome examples in this respect, he said, stressing the need to continue implementing that resolution.  He urged Member States to provide the United Nations with the support it needs to implement its mandates, while commending the work done by the Organization in countering hate speech, mis- and disinformation, including through the “Verified” initiative.  He also highlighted the plight of refugees and internally displaced children as education came under attack.  “To fight these multiple crises, a coordinated global response is the only way forward,” he said.

Indonesia’s representative highlighted the need to step up calls for a global ceasefire, support the work of United Nations missions on the ground and ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance.  Council resolution 2532 (2020) is merely a first step in addressing the impacts of COVID-19 to international peace and security, he said, emphasizing the importance of following it up with concrete actions.  In the longer term, it is essential to ensure that disruptions created by the virus will not reverse the gains achieved in countries in conflict and post‑conflict situations and think beyond pandemic response towards a comprehensive strategy.  Indonesia, with five other United Nations Member States, took the initiative to launch the first General Assembly resolution on global solidarity to fight COVID-19, standing ready to contribute further in this concerted effort.

Estonia’s delegate said some countries that are ravaged by conflicts, violence and human rights violations have made dealing with the pandemic nearly impossible.  As such, he reiterated the Secretary-General’s call for a humanitarian ceasefire.  “We must focus our efforts to dealing with the pandemic, not fighting,” he said, citing cases where the pandemic was used as a pretext, including a campaign for lifting restrictive measures, a rise in disinformation and attacks against the health-care sector, both physical and cyber.  Some Governments have curbed United Nations peacekeepers’ freedom of movement, which, in turn, affects the ability to help people in need.  There are also undeniable risks posed by the pandemic for the rights of women, including through gender‑based violence and violations of human rights.  Women’s role in their societies’ response to COVID-19, including in conflict and post-conflict situations, is crucial, as they represent the majority of health workers.  To beat the pandemic, he said, “we need to show solidarity and trust; we need to be transparent with each other.  Without a coordinated response, we cannot win.”

South Africa’s delegate said the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire has not been broadly respected, the pandemic has burdened countries affected by conflict, and some armed groups and terrorists have taken advantage of the impact of the coronavirus to intensify activities and launch attacks.  South Africa urges parties to conflict to heed the call for a ceasefire, prioritize efforts to consolidate durable peace and stability, and allow for the safe delivery of, and access to, humanitarian assistance.  Noting improvements to fast‑track applications for humanitarian exemptions, he said the impact of sanctions and its resultant socioeconomic effects are preventing countries from effectively combating the pandemic, exposing already‑vulnerable civilians.  As such, he called on Council members to continue their efforts in this regard.  He also supported the Secretary-General’s call to lift sanctions, given the broader impact of unilateral coercive measures.  It is vital that the Security Council remains steadfast in its support of countries experiencing armed conflict, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The pandemic has illustrated that it is imperative for countries to cooperate closely in the face of global public health and other emergencies.

The representative of Niger, Council President for September, spoke in his national capacity, saying that the adoption of a resolution is never an end in itself.  In fact, the adoption of a resolution on the COVID-19 pandemic, which echoes the Secretary‑General’s call for a global ceasefire, calls for a sustained follow-up in more ways than one, because the political, economic, and above all, security repercussions will continue to manifest themselves in the years to come.  In the Sahel, a region affected by climate change, armed conflicts and fragile health systems, the pandemic has added a new layer of challenges.  The campaign of disinformation and stigmatization carried out by terrorist groups does not facilitate State efforts.  The pandemic is seriously affecting the economies of African countries in general, and the Sahel in particular.  Electoral processes under way in the region must receive greater support to avoid pre- and post‑electoral crises.  Resolution 2352 (2020) offers an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of international cooperation, multilateralism, the role of such global organizations as WHO and regional and subregional organizations in the fight against this pandemic.  The cacophony and blame games at the beginning of the pandemic must give way to an awareness that all are potential victims unless stakeholders work collectively to find a vaccine against this dangerous virus.  “We hope that, once a cure is found, it will be accessible to the weakest and the less fortunate,” he said, thanking China for its renewed commitment to this goal.

Also participating in the meeting were representatives of the Dominican Republic, Germany and the Russian Federation.

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* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.