Editor’s Note: This is the latest in Just Security’s weekly series keeping readers up to date on developments at the United Nations at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law.
World Meteorological Organization Releases Climate Change Report
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, released its annual report on Tuesday highlighting the “tell-tale physical signs of climate change.” The survey reviews input from national meteorological agencies and focuses on the impacts of climate and weather on socio-economic development.
The report confirms that 2019 was the second-warmest year on record, second only to 2016. The five-year period from 2015 to 2019 was the warmest on record, and 2010 to 2019 was the warmest decade on record. Since the 1980s, each successive decade has been warmer than any preceding decade. In a foreword to the report, Secretary-General António Guterres said “we are currently way off track to meeting either the 1.5°C or 2°C targets that the Paris Agreement calls for.”
The report also notes that nearly all climate indicators point towards increased warming. Concentrations of greenhouse gases reached new highs at 407.8 parts per million (ppm), and the report projected that emissions grew 0.6 percent in 2019. At least 84 percent of the oceans experienced at least one marine heatwave. The oceans also absorbed 23 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, contributing to increased ocean acidification. Due to the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, the global mean sea level reached its highest on record in 2019. While Antarctic sea ice had shown a slight long-term increase before 2016, sea ice levels dropped again in 2016 and have remained relatively low since then.
The report also details how the changing climate affects human health, food security, and migration. Heatwaves in Japan and France led to 1,462 excess deaths in 2019. Warmer temperatures have made it easier for mosquitos to transmit dengue virus, leaving half of the world’s population at risk of contracting the disease. World hunger has also risen with food insecurity, as over 820 million people suffered from hunger in 2018. The report notes that “unusually heavy precipitation in late 2019 was a factor in the severe desert locust outbreak” — the worst in East Africa in 25 years and the most serious for Kenya in 70 years.
Climate change also exacerbated other high-impact events in 2019. After record rainfall in the U.S., flooding resulted in national economic damages in excess of $20 billion last year. Australia experienced its seven hottest days on record, and an “exceptionally prolonged and severe fire season” resulting in about 7 million hectares being burnt. Tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall in Mozambique last March as one of the strongest known storms ever to hit the east coast of Africa, displacing over 180,000 people. Similarly, Hurricane Dorian was the most intense storm ever recorded to strike the Bahamas and the worst natural disaster in the country’s history.
WHO Declares COVID-19 a Pandemic
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the COVID-19 outbreak constitutes a global pandemic. “We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference. “The WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we’re deeply concerned by both the alarming levels of spread and severity and the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized [as a] ‘pandemic.’”
The declaration came after the WHO announced that the novel coronavirus has infected over 120,000 people in over 114 countries, with the numbers expected to “climb even higher.” The WHO had previously held off on labelling the outbreak a pandemic, stating that the outbreak could still be contained. Dr. Tedros Adhanom maintained that outlook, stating “all countries can still change the course of this pandemic … [as] we have never before seen a pandemic that could be controlled at the same time.”
The WHO also noted that the declaration does not change the threat assessment nor the approach that countries should take. “Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by the virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”
The last time the WHO labelled an outbreak a pandemic was the 2009 H1N1 Swine Flu, which infected nearly 1 in 5 people worldwide but had a much lower mortality rate than COVID-19. While the Zika outbreak and 2014 and 2018 Ebola outbreaks were declared public health emergencies, the WHO never declared them pandemics.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimated that the outbreak is likely to cost the global economy at least $1 trillion. At a “doomsday scenario” level, the world economy would grow at only 0.5 percent in 2020 compared to 2.9 percent in 2019. The world’s 5,000 most valuable companies revised down earnings forecasts by an average of 9 percent, while the automotive and airline industries revised down earnings by 44 and 42 percent, respectively. As a result, foreign direct investment (FDI) flows could fall to their lowest levels since the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
Richard Kozul-Wright, the Director for the UNCTAD Division on Globalization and Development Strategies, said that “governments need to spend at this point in time to prevent the kind of meltdown that could be even more damaging.” He also noted that European growth had already been performing poorly towards the end of 2019 and is “almost certain to go into recession over the coming months.” Least Developed Countries, which tend to have economies based on the sale of raw materials and commodities, may face a “particular threat” from a strong dollar as investors move away from other investments, Kozul-Wright said.
U.N. Scales Back Meetings and Conferences
As the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to mount, the U.N. has closed its New York headquarters to the general public and postponed major conferences originally slated to take place this month. CBS News reported that delegations from the 15 member states on the U.N. Security Council would receive training on conducting virtual Council meetings, which would be a first in U.N. history. AFP also reported that the U.N. also asked Cambodia, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Nepal, South Korea, and Thailand to delay the rotations of their U.N. peacekeeping forces while the COVID-19 outbreak continues in their countries.
In Geneva, U.N. personnel were notified that essential activities, including the ongoing session of the Human Rights Council, should continue but that all other activities are subject to postponement or cancellation. The U.N. Commission on Science and Technology for Development indefinitely postponed its twenty-third session, originally slated to take place from March 23 to 27 in Geneva.
Last Ebola Patient Discharged from DRC Hospital
On Monday, March 9, the WHO announced that the last Ebola patient in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was discharged from a hospital. While it has now been three weeks since a new Ebola case and four days since the last patient left a treatment center, 46 patients remain under WHO monitoring for the presentation of symptoms. In previous Ebola outbreaks, flare-ups of the disease still occurred even after no active cases were known to authorities. Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, emphasized that “it is not yet the end of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We must stay vigilant in the coming weeks and beyond.”
The Ebola outbreak in the DRC began on August 1, 2018 and is the second-worst Ebola epidemic after the 2014-2016 outbreak in West Africa. So far, there have been 3,444 cases and 2,264 deaths.
U.N. Women’s Commission Hosts Truncated Conference
This year’s U.N. Commission on the Status of Women conference, beginning on Monday, March 9, was supposed to gather nearly 7,000 people in New York to assess the 25-year period since the Beijing Declaration stating that “women’s rights are human rights.” Instead, The Commission decided to cut the conference from twelve days to one, urged delegations to refrain from traveling to the U.N.’s headquarters, and limited the event to procedural matters. Secretary General Guterres said he was “truly saddened [by] the extraordinary circumstances” but that the Commission remains “an opportunity to further galvanize the momentum for gender equality and women’s rights.”
After opening remarks and procedural matters, the Commission adopted a declaration reaffirming the Beijing Declaration and calling on Parties to recognize the right to education for all women, equal participation for women in leadership roles and to address the disproportionate impacts of climate change and violence on women.
The Commission also published a report concluding that the picture of gender equality “falls far short of the vision that was laid out in the Beijing Platform for Action,” even if women around the world are presented with “more opportunities than ever before.” It notes that only one in four seats are held by women in national parliaments, while women are 25 percent more likely to live in extreme poverty. Globally, women are paid 16 percent less than men on average and constitute 31 percent of the labor force, a figure that has remained stagnant for 20 years. However, the report also notes that 131 countries enacted reforms over the past decade in support of gender equality, more girls are in school than ever, and the global maternal mortality rate has fallen 38 percent since 2000.
Security Council Votes in Favor of U.S.-Taliban Peace Deal
The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution expressing support for the U.S.-Taliban peace deal. In the resolution, the Council encourages “the sustained support of the United Nations and international partners and their significant and ongoing contributions to the cause of peace.” It also urges the Government of Afghanistan “to advance the peace process, including by participating in intra-Afghan negotiations,” and emphasized the importance of continued support for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The Council vote now fulfills the U.S. obligation from the peace deal that required it to “request the recognition and endorsement of the United Nations Security Council.”
U.N. Commission Calls for End to Violence in South Sudan
On Monday, the Chair of the U.N. Commission on South Sudan told the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that “killing, torture, rape, intentional starvation of civilians, intimidation, displacement, enforced disappearances and corruption have become the norm” in South Sudan. Presenting the Commission’s 58-page report to the UNHRC, the Chair of the U.N. Commission, Yasmin Sooka, expressed a cautious optimism at achieving long-term peace but said “six years of brutal conflict have left the country bitterly divided along ethnic lines.”
Last month, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and former rebel leader Riek Machar (who had previously served as Vice-President from 2011-2013) agreed to form a coalition government aimed at stopping national violence, with Machar returning to his former post as Vice-President. The U.N. strongly supported the deal, with head of the U.N. Mission in South Sudan David Shearer praising “the political willingness of two men who put the interests of their country first.” However, Commission Chair Sooka told the UNHRC that those responsible for the commission of grave human rights violations, including presumptive war crimes and crimes against humanity, must still be held to account. “Global experiences teach us that peace can only be sustained if those responsible for atrocities are held accountable for the grave crimes they have committed,” she said, calling upon the new South Sudanese government to proceed with all three elements of the recent Revitalized Peace Agreement: the Hybrid Court, the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, and the Compensation and Reparation Authority. The Commission itself has, thus far, “identified a new list of 26 individuals linked to specific violations and to patterns of violations that meet the threshold to warrant further investigations and possibly prosecutions.”
Former U.N. Chief Dies at 100
Javier Pérez de Cuéllar died last Wednesday at age 100 in his home in Lima, Peru. Pérez de Cuéllar served as U.N. Secretary-General for two terms from January 1982 to December 1991. During that time, Pérez de Cuéllar presided over a number of diplomatic successes by the U.N., including the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the independence of Namibia from South Africa, an end to the Iran-Iraq War, and a negotiated peace agreement in El Salvador. Under his leadership, U.N. Peacekeeping forces were awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. Current Secretary-General Guterres, said that he was “profoundly saddened at the passing of [his] predecessor,” calling Pérez de Cuéllar an “accomplished statesman, committed diplomat, and a personal inspiration.”