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.
U.N. Releases Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19 Pandemic
On Wednesday, the United Nations announced a $2 billion humanitarian response plan to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic in vulnerable countries. The plan aims to limit the spread of the coronavirus in countries already affected by conflict or natural disaster, while also working to make sure the virus does not “circle back around the globe.” U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said that while countries have been protecting their own citizens at home, “the hard truth is, in order to protect their own people, it’s going to be smart to help the poorest countries engage for this response too.”
The plan will be implemented by U.N. agencies, including the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), World Health Organization (WHO), and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF). It will focus on delivering essential laboratory equipment to test for the virus, installing handwashing stations in refugee camps and settlements, launching public information campaigns on how to best protect against the virus, and establishing hubs across Africa, Asia, and Latin America to move humanitarian workers as needed.
“COVID-19 is menacing the whole of humanity – and so the whole of humanity must fight back,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said. “We must come to the aid of the ultra-vulnerable – millions upon millions of people who are at least able to protect themselves. This is a matter of basic human solidarity. It is also crucial for combatting the virus.”
[Readers may also be interested in Christine Bell, “COVID-19 and Violent Conflict: Responding to Predictable Unpredictability,” March 24, 2020]
U.N. Leadership Calls for Rolling Back Conflict and Sanctions
Secretary-General Guterres called for an immediate global ceasefire to combat the coronavirus pandemic on March 23. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” Secretary-General Guterres said, “I am calling for an immediate ceasefire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”
In a press conference on Wednesday, the Secretary-General’s office noted that some groups had welcomed the call for ceasefires. For example, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces called for a ceasefire to deal with the virus. The Secretary-General also noted that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been working together on the virus despite their “extreme division.” Additionally, the New People’s Army, a Philippine rebel group, agreed to observe a ceasefire until April 15. The group called their move “a direct response to the call of [the] U.N. Secretary-General,” although the move also could be a reaction to a unilateral ceasefire declared last week by President Rodrigo Duterte to focus on the fight against COVID-19.
Meanwhile, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for countries to “urgently re-evaluate” sanctions and consider their “potentially debilitating impact on the health sector and human rights.” In a statement released online, Bachelet encouraged countries to discontinue sanctions that risk harming the medical systems of other countries. “In the context of a global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us,” Bachelet said. Although she did not call on any specific country to end its sanction regimes, Bachelet noted that more than 50 Iranian medics have died treating COVID-19 in their country. She also said that sanctions on Cuba, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe have created especially high strains on their medical capacities.
U.N. Events and Conferences Postponed Indefinitely
Although the U.N. New York headquarters remains open to diplomats and essential employees, the U.N. has pushed back conferences and meetings originally slated to take place over the next month. The U.N. Conference to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is likely to be postponed, the New York Times reported. The conference takes place every five years to review the efficacy of the Nonproliferation Treaty, which had its 50-year anniversary on March 5. A decision on how and when to resume the conference “is expected to be taken in the coming week.” Other conferences, including a climate conference and a women’s equality conference, were postponed earlier this month.
Meanwhile, AFP reported that the Security Council conducted a virtual test run meeting on Tuesday for the first time in history. However, as noted in this recent Just Security piece, the Security Council has mostly been inactive in the past month. The Security Council has not physically met since March 12 and has not voted on any measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic since that time. NBC News reported on Wednesday that a Security Council resolution on the coronavirus stalled after the United States insisted on referring to China as the country of origin, despite President Trump telling Fox News on Tuesday that he would stop calling it the “Chinese virus.” According to NBC News, Russia insisted that members convene in person to vote, despite state recommendations for residents to stay at home if possible.
Separately from the U.N., world leaders met at the G-20 on Thursday via a teleconference chaired by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. At the conference, Secretary-General Guterres urged parties to coordinate research, increase production of medical equipment, and to remove tariffs, trade restrictions, and sanctions. He also told the G20, which represents 85 percent of the global GDP, to launch large-scale stimulus packages, including funds for recovery in developing countries. Finally, the Secretary-General told member states that the pandemic serves as a “stark reminder” of humanity’s common fate and the need to work together to address other problems like sustainable development and climate change.
WHO Warns Pandemic is Accelerating
WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on Tuesday that the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating: “It took 67 days from the first reported case to reach the first 100,000 cases, 11 days for the second 100,000 cases, and just four days for the third 100,000 cases. You can see how the virus is accelerating.” However, WHO noted on Thursday that it had seen “encouraging signs” from Italy, where the infection rate dipped, although the numbers did not indicate that the virus had yet peaked.
Director-General Tedros also called on countries to prioritize the production and use of personal protective equipment for medical personnel, saying further that “[s]olving this problem requires political commitment and political co-ordination at the global level.” He also encouraged research on treatments to maintain standards of “robust, high-quality evidence.” He rebuked “using untested medicines” that could “raise false hope and even do more harm than good.” These remarks came four days after President Trump promoted hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial treatment, as a potential treatment for COVID-19 despite slim medical evidence of the drug’s efficacy for this use. In Arizona, a man died after overdosing on a form of chloroquine used to treat aquariums, while patients with lupus have reportedly struggled to fill the regular hydroxychloroquine prescriptions critical to their health.
U.N. Calls for End to Migrant Violence at Turkey-Greece Border
U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants Felipe González Morales called for “immediate action to end the violence against migrants and asylum seekers at the Turkey-Greece border” on March 23. The statement comes after Greece suspended asylum applications for anyone who crossed the border irregularly, which Special Rapporteur González Morales said “has no legal basis in international human rights law.”
On February 26, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared he had “opened the gates” for refugees seeking to enter Europe after he claimed that the European Union had failed to live up to its 2015 refugee deal. Since then, tens of thousands of refugees have moved to Turkey’s western shore in hopes of crossing into Greece. Major European leaders had planned on meeting in Istanbul with Turkish officials to discuss the situation, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced leaders to settle on a 75-minute video call.
UNICEF Warns of Water Cuts in Syria
A series of interruptions to the water supply in Syria “puts children and families at unacceptable risk,” UNICEF Representative in Syria Fran Equiza said in a March 23 statement, especially because “[h]andwashing with soap is critical in the fight against COVID-19.” The Allouk water station, which provides water for 460,000 people in northeast Syria, has been disrupted several times in the past week.
UN-Habitat Highlights Importance of Access to Clean Water to Combat Coronavirus
The U.N. Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) has also warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could be considerably worse for the urban poor living in slums, due to the lack of water access points and difficulty of social distancing. A coalition of U.N. agencies has been working to ensure water access in urban slums to help combat the spread of the coronavirus. A panel appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council also emphasized the need for “continuous access to sufficient and affordable water.”
[Readers may also be interested in Rob Berschinski, “What the UN Security Council Can Do on Coronavirus: A Global Goods Coordination Mechanism,” March 24, 2020]