(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.)
President Trump Halts U.S. Funding to the World Health Organization
President Donald Trump announced that he is halting funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) while his administration reviews what he characterized as the organization “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” He cited what he called the WHO’s “disastrous decision to oppose travel restrictions from China and other nations,” apparently referring to a standard statement the WHO issued February 29 under International Health Regulations endorsed by the United States that called restrictions on movement “ineffective.” In his April 14 comments, Trump also criticized the WHO for failing to “get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground and to call out China’s lack of transparency,” saying the organization “pushed China’s misinformation.” While China did initially ignore WHO requests to send observers, it allowed a multinational team, including two Americans, to conduct an assessment in February.
In response, United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated his position that the WHO “must be supported, as it is absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19.” While he acknowledged the need to examine “lessons learned,” Guterres emphasized that “now is not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organization or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus.”
In a virtual press conference on April 15, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed “regret” over Trump’s decision to halt funding. He said that “in due course, WHO’s performance in tackling this pandemic will be reviewed by WHO’s Member States and the independent bodies that are in place, to ensure transparency and accountability.” The director-general emphasized that the WHO, like COVID-19, “does not discriminate between rich nations and poor, large nations and small. It does not discriminate between nationalities, ethnicities or ideologies.” Accordingly, Tedros called on “all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat – a dangerous enemy.”
The WHO biennial budget for 2018-2019 was about $6.3 billion, with the United States contributing about $553 million in 2019. The White House’s fiscal 2021 budget, released in mid-February, asked Congress to cut the organization’s funding by more than half.
WHO Cautions Against Lifting Social Distancing Restrictions Too Early
WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus outlined six criteria for countries considering lifting restrictions: 1) “transmission is controlled;” 2) “health system capacities are in place to detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact;” 3) “outbreak risks are minimized in special settings like health facilities and nursing homes;” 4) preventive measures are in place in essential settings like workplaces and schools; 5) “importation risks can be managed;” 6) “communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to adjust to the ‘new norm.’” In the April 13 statement, he cautioned that stay-at-home orders and other restrictions may not be practical in countries with large poor populations and food insecurity. The director-general also called on countries to ensure that stay-at-home measures are not imposed “at the expense of human rights.”
In an April 14 update to its strategic advice to governments, the U.N. health agency warns that “the premature lifting of physical distancing measures is likely to lead to an uncontrolled resurgence in COVID-19 transmission and an amplified second wave of cases.” Via videoconference the same day, WHO spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris told journalists that governments should only start to ease restrictions on people’s movement once they are sure that transmission is controlled, which requires “the ability to test for that virus and … the ability to track all the contacts of the people that you know who are currently infectious.” Despite a slight deceleration of cases in Spain and Italy, “we are certainly not seeing the peak yet,” she observed, referring to the global spread of the infection. The latest data from the WHO, as of April 17, reports over 2 million cases and 135,000 confirmed deaths across 213 countries, areas, or territories since the novel coronavirus emerged in central China in December. On April 13, the WHO announced a new coordination effort consisting of over 125 experts, representing hospitals, government agencies, and private industries from a range of countries, working toward developing vaccines for the COVID-19 virus.
U.N. Warns of COVID-19 Misinformation, Appeals to Religious Leaders
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres released a video message highlighting the “dangerous epidemic of misinformation” accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic. He observed, “Harmful health advice and snake-oil solutions are proliferating. Falsehoods are filling the airwaves. Wild conspiracy theories are infecting the Internet. Hatred is going viral, stigmatizing and vilifying people and groups.”
Guy Berger, one of the lead officials on disinformation at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), observed in an interview, “There seems to be barely an area left untouched by disinformation in relation to the COVID-19 crisis.” He continued, “When disinformation is repeated and amplified, including by influential people, the grave danger is that information which is based on truth ends up having only marginal impact.”
In response to this phenomenon, Guterres advised viewers of the April 14 video to “trust in science,” and called on social media companies to “do more to root out hate and harmful assertions about COVID-19.” He also counseled the audience to “trust in institutions – grounded in responsive, responsible, evidence-based governance and leadership,” and “trust in each other,” stressing that “mutual respect and upholding human rights must be our compass.” In an effort to combat misinformation, the WHO has added a “mythbusters” section to its website, and UNESCO is circulating reliable public-health information in partnership with the WHO.
The U.N. is also calling on religious leaders to promote solidarity. In an address marking Easter, Passover, and Ramadan on April 11, Guterres made a “special appeal to religious leaders of all faiths to join forces to work for peace around the world and focus on our common battle to defeat COVID-19.” He remarked, “Let us renew our faith in one another and draw strength from the good that is gathering in troubled times as communities of diverse faiths and ethical traditions unite to care for one another. Together, we can and will defeat this virus – with cooperation, solidarity and faith in our common humanity.”
U.N. Calls for “Digital Ceasefire” to Spare Medical and Other Institutions
Hospitals, medical facilities, government health agencies, testing centers, “and even the World Health Organization (WHO) have faced targeted cyberattacks perpetrated by criminals and other malicious actors” in the month of March alone, wrote U.N. Under-Secretary-General Fabrizio Hochschild in an op-ed in Vox. “The purpose of these crimes, it can be assumed, is to undermine our Covid-19 response capabilities,” he commented.
Hackers linked to Iran have reportedly been targeting WHO staff with phishing attacks since March 2. A cyberattack attempted to overload the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services servers on March 15, and a cyberattack against the Brno University Hospital in the Czech Republic on March 14 forced the hospital to “take its entire IT system offline, cancel surgeries, and move patients to other hospitals.” Hochschild urged “better international cooperation” to protect digital infrastructure. He called on the global community to “commit to an immediate digital ceasefire,” noting that “maintaining and ensuring trust and security in the digital world during this global health crisis is imperative.”
First “Solidarity Flight” Departs Ethiopia with Vital Medical Equipment
The first U.N. “Solidarity Flight” departed Addis Ababa on April 14. In collaboration with the WHO and the Ethiopian government, the World Food Programme (WFP) is transporting 1 million face masks, along with ventilators, face shields, gloves, goggles, gowns, and other supplies. The China-based Jack Ma and Ali Baba Foundations aim to provide each of the 54 African countries with 20,000 testing kits, 100,000 masks, and 1,000 protective suits and face shields, according to a press release. The first shipment will be distributed across 32 African countries. John Nkengasong, the director of the Addis Ababa-based Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, a technical arm of the African Union, remarked, “The medical supplies are timely, as the continent still has a window of opportunity to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Collective and fast actions as exemplified by the Solidarity Flight are therefore critical.” However, the WFP notes that it “has received only 24% (US$84 million) of the US$350 million it requires” to provide these humanitarian services.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres shared his view with the African Group, consisting of the 54 African nations at the U.N., on April 15 that, “as with the climate crisis, the African continent could end up suffering the greatest impacts” of the COVID-19 pandemic. He commended the African governments “for the early leadership and action taken … to suppress transmission and control the spread of COVID-19” and assured them that the U.N. is “doing its utmost to provide support in building and complementing the capacities needed to address the spread.”
The U.N. has engaged in a wide variety of humanitarian efforts in response to the pandemic, including boosting governments’ public health capacity, reinforcing economic stimulus efforts, supporting communication strategies, mobilizing the private sector, facilitating the transition to online education, and assisting local governments to protect the safety and security of women and girls.
IMF Projects Significant Economic Decline in Updated World Economic Outlook
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) released its April 2020 World Economic Outlook report, which projects the global economy will contract by 3 percent in 2020. This outlook is “far worse than during the 2009 global financial crisis” and assumes the pandemic fades in the second half of 2020 and containment efforts are gradually relaxed. This would be a downgrade of 6.3 percentage points from January 2020. Gita Gopinath, economic counsellor and director of the IMF’s Research Department, said in a blog post that following the global lockdown in response to the coronavirus, “the magnitude and speed of collapse in activity that has followed is unlike anything experienced in our lifetimes.” The IMF also released its Global Financial Stability Report on Tuesday, which further highlighted that the outbreak of COVID-19 has dealt an “unprecedented blow to global financial markets” as risk asset prices “have plummeted and borrowing costs have soared, especially in risky credit markets.” The report indicates that “emerging and frontier markets have experienced the sharpest portfolio flow reversal on record.”
Nevertheless, with significant fiscal, monetary, and financial market support, along with multilateral cooperation, the World Economic Outlook report projects the economy could grow by 5.8 percent in 2021, as economic activity normalizes. The cumulative loss to global GDP over 2020 and 2021 from the pandemic crisis, Gopinath projects, could be around $9 trillion. This would be greater than the economies of Japan and Germany, combined.
The IMF said on April 14 that it was extending immediate debt service relief over the next six months to its 25 poorest and most vulnerable member countries to help them address the crippling economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The action is being taken under the IMF’s revamped Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust measures, which can provide about $500 million in grant-based relief to countries in emergency need. IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said in a statement that the debt relief “will help them channel more of their scarce financial resources towards vital emergency medical and other relief efforts.”
COVID-19 Puts Women and Children at Heightened Risk
U.N. Women released data disaggregating the effect of COVID-19 by gender. Infections among female healthcare workers are twice that of their male counterparts in some countries, and women represent 70 percent of workers in the health and social sectors globally. The agency also highlighted increased risks of domestic violence and poverty, which disproportionately affect women.
The U.N. also raised concerns regarding the impact of the crisis on children’s health. A statement by the Measles & Rubella Initiative (M&RI) – a global partnership founded by the WHO, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the American Red Cross, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.N. Foundation – flagged that over 117 million children in 37 countries may miss out on receiving the measles vaccine due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Measles immunization campaigns in 24 countries have already been delayed and more will likely be postponed. The WHO has issued new guidelines to help countries sustain immunization activities. The guidelines recommend that governments temporarily pause preventive immunization campaigns where there is no active outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease and undertake a careful risk-benefit analysis when deciding whether to delay vaccination campaigns in response to outbreaks. Despite having a safe, effective vaccine for over 50 years, a measles surge in 2018 claimed more than 140,000 lives – mostly children and babies.
In addition, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore noted that “hundreds of thousands of children currently detained [in juvenile justice systems] … are at ‘grave risk’ of contracting COVID-19” due to overcrowding and “inadequate access to nutrition, healthcare and hygiene services.” UNICEF called on authorities to “urgently release all children who can safely return to their families or an appropriate alternative,” such as community-based care. Fore also called for an “immediate moratorium on new admissions of children to detention facilities.” UNICEF and other U.N. organizations separately raised concerns that children are at increased risk of online sexual exploitation, cyberbullying, and other threats as they spend greater time on virtual platforms during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Coronavirus Threatens Colombia Peace Agreement
Carlos Ruiz Massieu, special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Colombia and head of the U.N. Verification Mission in Colombia, briefed the Security Council by videoconference on April 14. Ruiz Massieu reported that, despite quarantine measures designed to stop the spread of COVID-19, violence “continues unabated,” with six deaths reported in recent weeks. He continued, “COVID-19 is and will continue affecting the implementation of the Peace Agreement and the Mission’s verification activities. However, we have a collective obligation to ensure progress in its implementation. Peace in Colombia cannot be, and should not be, a casualty of this pandemic.”
Ruiz Massieu stressed the importance of ending the violence to ensure the functioning of mechanisms established under the 2016 U.N.-backed peace deal that ended five decades of fighting between government forces and the rebel group known as FARC. He also called for improved security for nearly 9,500 ex-combatants living outside former camps for demobilized fighters, saying they have “more precarious access to basic services like clean water and sanitation.”
COVID-19 Risks Heightened in Syria and Libya
The U.N. raised concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on people across Syria and Libya. To date, the Syrian government has confirmed 25 cases with two fatalities. The WHO and other U.N. agencies are stepping up their prevention and mitigation efforts in Syria by training healthcare workers, augmenting testing capacity, distributing personal protection equipment, and providing hygiene resources, including 2 million bars of soap.
The U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) expressed alarm on April 15 regarding intensified fighting in recent days, resulting in civilian casualties and risking new waves of displacement. UNSMIL reported attacks on civilians and allegations of human rights violations in western coastal towns recently seized by the Government of National Accord forces. The mission also condemned the Libyan National Army forces for “indiscriminate bombardment of Tripoli with rockets, many of which many have landed on civilian neighborhoods.”
UNSMIL called on parties to “immediately respect the repeated calls … for a humanitarian pause.” The Spokesperson for the Secretary-General said in an April 15 briefing, “Libya has reported 35 COVID-19 cases and 1 death and is at high risk of further spread due to the protracted conflict, ongoing insecurity and … a weak health system.” In addition, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported on April 13 that “more than 2 million people, including 600,000 children, who live in Tripoli and surrounding towns, have suffered from water cuts for at least a week.” The humanitarian coordinator for Libya, Yacoub El Hillo, had stressed on April 10 that water should never be used as a weapon of war, especially when Libya is fighting the COVID-19 virus.
Security Council Calls for Help to Africa on Terrorism, as Delegates Denounce “Insufficient” Current Approaches
In a statement issued by China’s U.N. representative Zhang Jun, the Security Council president for the month of March, the 15-member body underlined “the importance of prompt and effective implementation of its resolutions” dealing with terrorism, including sanctions aimed at the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), al-Qaeda, and their affiliates. The statement called on the international community to “consider mobilizing more sustainable and predicable resources and expertise to strengthen the capacity of African countries in countering terrorism and violent extremism.” The council called for stronger interagency cooperation, sharing good border security practices, developing fair and effective criminal justice systems, preventing the acquisition of weapons by terrorists, and developing and implementing plans to respond to terrorist attacks on critical infrastructure.
Rosemary DiCarlo, under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, told the Security Council that Al-Shabaab and ISIL/Da’esh continue to pose significant security threats and terrorize local populations, especially women. Fatima Kyari Mohammed, permanent observer of the African Union, said terrorism and violent extremism are expanding in terms of both geography and intensity.
Several representatives described African anti-terrorism efforts as fragmented, military-oriented, and incommensurate with the scale of the threat, calling for more robust coordination mechanisms. They highlighted the need to build capacity in criminal-justice systems and address local grievances exploited by terrorist groups. Several delegates also called attention to the effects of climate change on extremism, noting that the impact could foster a fertile breeding ground for terrorism if left unchecked. Partner countries emphasized their support, including the European Union spending €465 million ($505 million) to counter and prevent terrorism and extremism in Africa.