(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.)
Security Council Backs Call for Yemen Ceasefire
The United Nations Security Council backed calls for an immediate ceasefire in Yemen to focus efforts on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic on April 17. The Council’s statement “stressed that further military escalation in Yemen would hinder the access of humanitarian and healthcare workers, and the availability of healthcare facilities necessary to tackle an outbreak.” It comes after a March 25 announcement from Secretary-General António Guterres urging warring parties to lay down their weapons. Although the Saudi-led coalition unilaterally endorsed the ceasefire on April 8, the truce expired without a permanent deal on April 22.
The call for a ceasefire comes amid heavy fighting between the Saudi-backed pro-government forces and Houthi rebels, despite Yemen confirming its first COVID-19 case on April 10. The violence has been most intense in the central Marib province, with over 500 fighters killed in the area in recent weeks, according to both rebel and Yemeni government figures.
The day before the statement, several U.N. officials briefed the Council via videoconference on the need for a ceasefire. U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths urged the Security Council to back the call for a ceasefire. The head of the U.N. Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement (UNMHA), a U.N.-backed ceasefire plan, told the Council, “Yemen cannot face a war and a pandemic simultaneously.”
U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock had earlier briefed the Council (on April 16) on the status of humanitarian aid in Yemen. He stressed that “epidemiologists warn that COVID-19 in Yemen could spread faster, more widely and with deadlier consequences than in many other countries.” The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of health services in Yemen could end by May without funds. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), these U.N. humanitarian programs assist 13 million Yemenis each month, supporting 3,100 health facilities, providing 17 million medical consultations, and enabling access to clean water for more than 11 million people.
Reuters reported on April 21 that the United States has been preparing a “substantial contribution” to Yemen but is seeking alternatives to the WHO to deliver the aid. An anonymous State Department official told the news agency, “[w]e are caught on this rock of the WHO at the moment, which does a lot of good work in Yemen by the way. So we may have to find alternative avenues.”
Meanwhile, OCHA reported that heavy rains and flooding this week in northern Yemen killed 7 and injured 85. Weeks of flooding have damaged the rebel-held capital Sanaa, hindering humanitarian activities and increasing the risk of cholera and malaria outbreaks.
United States and Russia Block U.N. Efforts at Ceasefire
Despite endorsing the truce in Yemen through a statement, the Security Council has yet to formally back the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire. According to reporting from The Guardian and Foreign Policy, both the United States and Russia have blocked resolutions that would express support for the Secretary-General’s appeal to “silence the guns” and focus on fighting COVID-19. Both countries fear that a global resolution could limit their abilities to conduct ongoing counter-terrorism operations. The Guardian also notes that the Trump administration wants to reserve the right to attack pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.
General Assembly Passes Coronavirus Resolution
The U.N. General Assembly passed resolution 74/274 entitled “International cooperation to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to face COVID-19” on April 20. The resolution, drafted by Mexico and passed via special pandemic voting rules, calls on U.N. Secretary-General Guterres, the WHO and various other agencies and financial institutions:
to identify and recommend options, including approaches to rapidly scaling manufacturing and strengthening supply chains that promote and ensure fair, transparent, equitable, efficient and timely access to and distribution of preventive tools, laboratory testing, reagents and supporting materials, essential medical supplies, new diagnostics, drugs and future COVID-19 vaccines, with a view to making them available to all those in need, in particular in developing countries.
The resolution also seeks increases in funding for medical research, enhanced international coordination and cooperation in working to stem the tide of the ongoing pandemic; requests States to take steps to prevent price-gouging or hoarding of medical supplies; and calls on the Secretary-General and U.N. system more generally “to promote and ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment needed to face COVID-19, and … to consider establishing … an inter-agency task force” to oversee and coordinate such efforts.
Secretary-General Issues “Call to Action” to Combat Global Pandemic and Releases Report on COVID-19 and Human Rights
In a webcast, Secretary-General Guterres outlined a proposed three-point “Call to Action” on Thursday to help address the fallout of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The webcast, organized around the theme “Financing Sustainable Development in the Context of COVID-19,” involved the Presidents of the U.N. General Assembly and Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), along with other high-level U.N. officials.
Citing the epic nature of the threat the pandemic poses, the Secretary-General advised that “[d]eveloping countries need massive and urgent support,” and that “[n]ow is the time to stand by our commitment to leave no one behind.” More specifically, he called for “the pooling of efforts to assist countries at risk, strengthen and expand their health systems and stop transmission through a combination of testing, contact-tracing and quarantine, associated with appropriate restrictions on movement and contact.”
In his “Call to Action,” Guterres outlined three steps:
First, we must take decisive action to suppress the virus and alleviate suffering. … Second, we must adopt a large-scale and comprehensive response to tackle the devastating socioeconomic consequences, with a focus on the most vulnerable countries and people. … The [t]hird step is recovering better. COVID-19 has highlighted global inequalities and injustices that cannot continue, including gender inequality. It has laid bare the way in which economies are sustained through the invisible, unpaid domestic labour of women.
In light of the challenges presented by the pandemic, the Secretary-General concluded that “[r]eturning to our previous path is simply not an option. All our efforts must go towards building sustainable and resilient pathways that enable us not only to beat COVID-19, but to tackle the climate crisis and address the root causes of poverty, inequality and hunger.”
In addition to his webcast comments, the Secretary-General released a policy document entitled “COVID-19 and Human Rights: We are all in this together” on April 23. The report states that human rights laws and principles “can and must” guide the global coronavirus response.
Stay tuned at Just Security for analysis of the report.
U.N. Short of Fundraising Goal in COVID-19 Fight
The U.N. has raised only $595 million of the $2 billion it requested in March to fight COVID-19 in the world’s most vulnerable countries, U.N. organizations said in a joint open letter on April 20 (the total as of April 23 stands at $626 million). The Global Humanitarian Response Plan to COVID-19, announced by Secretary-General Guterres on March 25, aims to mitigate the impact of the pandemic in vulnerable countries while also limiting its spread so that the virus does not keep returning to developed nations. “It is in everyone’s interest to stop the virus from spreading unchecked, destroying lives and economies, and continuing to circle around the world,” the statement says.
The three main goals of the fund are to contain the spread of the pandemic, minimize the impact on livelihoods, and protect refugees, internally displaced people, and migrants. Measures included in the fund include scaling up regional staging areas, air and cargo shipping services, evacuations of front line medical workers, real-time data collection, and the construction of treatment centers.
The announcement that only $595 million had been raised comes just days after President Trump announced he would halt U.S. funding to the WHO while his administration conducts a review of the organization. However, even before the announcement, the U.S. had lagged in donations to the U.N. fund, donating only $15.8 million, compared to $91.2 million from the United Kingdom, $89.4 million from Japan, $40 million from Kuwait, and $20 million from China. The U.N. also raises funds from private donors, the largest of which is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, having donated $3.9 million.
COVID-19 Will Double Global Acute Hunger, U.N. Forecasts
David Beasley, Executive Director of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), told the U.N. Security Council that COVID-19 could result in “famines of biblical proportions.” WFP projects in its Global Report of Food Crises that the COVID-19 pandemic could “almost double the number of people suffering acute hunger” by the end of 2020 unless swift action is taken. The total number of people facing acute food insecurity could rise from 130 million to 265 million. The organization noted that food insecurity is often linked with other ongoing catastrophes. In 2019, the majority of people suffering from acute food insecurity were in countries facing conflict, climate change, or economic crises. Even before COVID-19, parts of South Asia were experiencing a severe drought, while much of East Africa continues to suffer its worst locust swarm in 25 years. WFP Senior Economist Arif Husain said the result of COVID-19 and these crises could be “potentially catastrophic,” while Beasley told the Council that the world is “on the brink of a hunger pandemic.”
WHO Warns the Worst is Still to Come, Loses U.S. Funding Indefinitely, suffers a Cyber Attack and Sponsors Online Fundraising Concert
At a press conference on April 20, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that without national unity and global solidarity, “the worst is yet ahead of us.” Without directly addressing President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would suspend its funding contributions to WHO, Tedros emphasized the WHO’s longstanding collaboration with the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the need for continued cooperation. On April 22, he said the WHO had noticed “worrying upward trends” in Africa and South America, even as epidemics in Europe appear to be declining. “Make no mistake: we have a long way to go,” Tedros said.
Commenting on a recent study conducted by Stanford University suggesting that coronavirus infection rates in California may be significantly higher than previously thought, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, an American scientist who leads the WHO’s technical team, cautioned against reading too much into individual, pre-publication reports. Emphasizing the degree to which various factors, such as the methodology of selecting test subjects and the area where the test subject pool is drawn from, is apt to influence results, Dr. Kerkhove indicated that WHO is working with various countries that have conducted “validated serologic assays to be able to test for [COVID-19] antibodies” and as such cautioned that “before we go too much into detail of what this means we need to have a better understanding of how all these studies were done and to put these into context over a large number of studies across multiple countries.”
Following Trump’s announcement that he would suspend funding to the organization, China announced on April 23 that it would donate $30 million to the WHO to “show support.” Over the past two years, China has donated $86 million to the WHO, compared to $893 million from the United States. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that the United States may never resume funding the WHO. He said the organization needs a “structural fix” and that “it may be the case that the United States can never return to underwriting, having U.S. taxpayer dollars go to the WHO.”
The Washington Post reported on April 22 that 25,000 email addresses and passwords from the National Institutes for Health (NIH), Gates Foundation, and WHO had been dumped online. The WHO said 6,835 of its passwords had been exposed, but only 457 were active and valid, and none of which had been compromised. Although the report did not identify who was behind the list, it appears to have been capitalized on by right-wing extremists. “The distribution of these alleged email credentials were just another part of a months-long initiative across the far right to weaponize the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rita Katz, director of an extremism monitoring group, told the Post.
Last weekend, WHO co-organized the “One World Together at Home” concert, which raised $127 million in support of organizations fighting COVID-19, including $55 million to the WHO’s Solidarity Response Fund. The concert, which was broadcast globally, included performances by Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder, and The Rolling Stones during the 8-hour show.
U.N. Refugee Agency Reports Surge in Violence in Sahel and Lake Chad regions of Africa
On April 23, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported an increase over the past month in violence in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions of central and west Africa, as “security forces from Niger, Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon launched a military crackdown on armed groups in border regions that have seen numerous attacks on citizens and national military forces.”
Approximately “50,000 people, including thousands of women, children and the elderly, have been displaced in the region this year” and longstanding violence and conflict in the region has “left some 3.8 million internally displaced across both regions and triggered 270,000 to flee to neighbouring countries.”
The UNHCR reminded governments of their obligations to civilians in the region, including specific commitments made last year during high-level regional dialogues in Mali and Nigeria.
U.N. Middle East Peace Process Coordinator Reports to Security Council
Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mlandenov outlined both positive and negative developments in the Israel-Palestine peace process in his report to the Security Council on Thursday. While noting recent outbreaks of violence in the West Bank and Gaza, Mlandenov also reported “inspiring examples” of cooperation in efforts to contain COVID-19 in the region, “strongly urg[ing] Israeli and Palestinian leaders to seize this moment to take steps towards peace (and) to reject unilateral moves that will only deepen the wedge between the two peoples and undermine the chances for peace.”
While cooperative efforts to stem the advance of the coronavirus pandemic in the region are promising, recent news that Israeli politicians had agreed on a plan to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank beginning on July 1 tempered the optimism of Coordinator Mlandenov, who stated “[m]oves to annex land and to accelerate settlement expansion, combined with the devastating impact of COVID-19, can ignite the situation and destroy any hope of peace.”
U.N. Support Mission to Libya Warns of Looming Humanitarian Crisis due to Combined Effects of Recent Violence and COVID-19
Head of the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Stephanie Turco Williams told journalists on April 23 that the situation for civilians in Libya is continually deteriorating, due to the further damage caused to an already “decimated” health system by recent “horrible, intense shelling” and the use of new forms of weaponry being used in the ongoing conflict. While the heaviest shelling has occurred in the southern suburbs of Tripoli, the effects of the violence is also being felt in core parts of the city.
Williams described the recent increase in violence as a “burgeoning proxy war” that amounts to a “perfect storm” of escalating conflict, all while Libya struggles to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with an already-crippled healthcare system.
African Great Lakes Region Special U.N. Envoy Warns of Economic Regression in Region due to COVID-19 Pandemic
Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for the African Great Lakes Region Huang Xia reported to the Security Council on April 22 that while preventative measures seem to be curbing the spread of COVID-19 in the region, the economic impact of the global pandemic threatens hard-won gains made along the long road back to peace and stability.
According to Xia, currently strict travel and other restrictions in the region appear to be keeping the coronavirus from spreading in the region with as much speed and devastation as it has in other regions of the globe. However, Envoy Xia cautioned that “in the long term, these preventative measures – combined with the reallocation of resources to address the health crisis – are likely to weaken the already fragile economies, with possible implications for peace, security and development in the region.”
U.N. Human Rights Chief Welcomes Internal Investigation in Cameroon, Condemns Executions of Minors in Iran
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet issued statements welcoming the Cameroonian government’s acknowledgment that members of the country’s military were involved in recent killings of 13 civilians and condemning the execution of two individuals in Iran convicted of offenses while under the age of 18.
In relation to the extrajudicial killings in Cameroon, Bachelet issued a statement referring to Cameroon’s decision to investigate the incident a “positive step.” The government investigation concluded that the February killings occurred as part of a counter-terrorism effort gone wrong. The UN summary of the development states:
According to a presidential statement, the national commission found that two soldiers and a gendarme, aided by 10 members of a vigilante committee, stormed the village, shooting dead five members of an armed separatist group. The statement said that when the servicemen discovered that as a result of the operation three women and 10 children had been killed, they panicked and burned down houses to try to cover up their actions.
While Bachelet “welcome[d]” the government’s decision to investigate and “applaud[ed] the fact that the commission created under the authority of the Ministry of Defence worked with the participation of civil society representatives, religious leaders and the president of the national human rights institution,” she cautioned that “it is now essential that all those responsible for the deaths … are held fully to account in a fair and transparent judicial process.”
Concerning recent executions of minors in Iran, Bachelet called last week’s executions, along with previous executions of minors by Iran “both regrettable and, given the clear illegality of these actions, reprehensible.” Bachelet reiterated her call on “Iranian authorities to honour its international human rights obligations, immediately halt all executions of juvenile offenders and commute all such death sentences.” She also expressed concern that the pace of executions appears to have quickened in Iran at a time when prison protests related to COVID-19 fears have occurred, noting that “the fact that two of these child offenders who have lost their lives in the past three weeks had been involved in protests driven by fear of the spread of COVID-19 in places of detention raises grave concerns about the possibility of expedited executions of other death-row prisoners who were involved in those protests.”
Leaked U.N. Report Details Lax Enforcement of U.N. Sanctions Against North Korea
A U.N. panel has detailed continuous violations of U.N. sanctions by North Korea in 2019. A leaked 267-page report from a U.N. Security Council Panel of Experts, originally due out this week (it has not been released as of the time of the publication of this article), finds that North Korea has violated several U.N. sanctions, earning hundreds of millions of dollars, advancing its nuclear program, and illicitly importing fuel and luxury goods. “Exports of commodities, notably coal and sand … provide a revenue stream that has historically contributed to the county’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” the leaked document states.
The report first focuses on violations of sectoral and maritime sanctions. Despite a Security Council-imposed cap of 500,000 barrels of refined petroleum imports per year, a U.S. report to the U.N. shows that amount “was exceeded many times over.” Ship-to-ship transfers, a “relatively new practice,” played a large role in the illicit supply of petroleum to North Korea and exports of coal and sand while also obfuscating efforts to trace the supply chains. An unnamed member state reported to the U.N. that the coal exports are valued at $370 million, while the sand exports are worth $22 million. Although the report declines to name responsible member states specifically, many of the images show these ship-to-ship transfers occurring off the coast of China. In addition to commodity sales, North Korea earned money on the illicit sale of fishing rights in violation of Security Council resolutions.
The report accuses North Korea of importing “luxury goods and other sanctioned items, including luxury vehicles, alcohol, and robotic machinery.” Through third-party intermediaries, North Korea was also able to “access international banking channels in violation of [U.N.] sanctions” and illegally “acquire virtual currencies and to conduct cyberattacks against global banks to evade financial sanctions.” Finally, the report noted that North Korean nationals continue to work overseas, including as professional athletes and medical workers, in violation of U.N. resolutions.
The document then focuses on violations related to nuclear and ballistic missiles. North Korea “continued maintenance and construction of nuclear facilities, though it declared no nuclear tests and carried out no intercontinental ballistic missile launches,” the report said. However, North Korea still conducted “13 other launch tests, launching at least 25 missiles, including new types of short-range ballistic missile and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile.” Additionally, the report noted that North Korea continued to rely on external missile technology, despite its own “extensive indigenous capability.”
Finally, the report detailed the “unintended impact” of sanctions, noting that while U.N. sanctions “are not intended to have adverse consequences for the civilian populations.” Some effects of the sanctions include income decreases for workers in sanctioned industries, marginalization of scarce resources, lack of fuel and agricultural equipment, disruptions in medical supply chains, and the collapse of banking channels and financial institutions.
The panel made 39 recommendations, including one call for 14 specific ships to be blacklisted as in violation of U.N. sanctions, either for petroleum imports or engaging in ship-to-ship transfers. This includes the Chinese-flagged Yun Hong 8, which is accused of delivering refined petroleum to North Korea 10 times in 2019. Two of the other ships are flagged under North Korea, one under Vietnam, one under Sierra Leone, and six formerly under Sierra Leone. Many of the other recommendations focus on ensuring member states are in compliance with the sanctions. Though without calling out any particular member. The panel also recommends the creation of a banking channel for humanitarian activities in the country.
WHO Staffer Killed in Myanmar
On April 20, Pyae Sone Win Maung was killed by gunfire in Myanmar while driving a WHO van collecting COVID-19 samples. The U.N. Mission to Myanmar and Secretary-General Guterres condemned the killing, which also seriously wounded a Myanmar government official. The U.N. did not identify who was responsible for the killing, but it did call for a full investigation and for perpetrators to be brought to justice. The WHO driver was transporting COVID-19 samples in the western Rakhine state to support the Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports when the U.N.-marked vehicle came under fire. The Rakhine state has recently seen intensified violence between government troops and the insurgent Arakan Army. Both sides denied responsibility for the attack.
Htay Win Maung, the driver’s father, told reporters, “I am trying to calm myself thinking he died in serving his duty at the front line,” he added. “He went there in the midst of fighting when many people didn’t dare to go.”
U.N. Marks Earth Day, Calls for End to Fossil Fuel Subsidies
Secretary-General Guterres marked Earth Day, April 22, by warning that the COVID-19 pandemic is “an unprecedented wake-up call” for the need to address scientific emergencies. He called on countries to “act decisively” to protect the world from climate change, which could cause devastation “many times greater” than the coronavirus pandemic. The Secretary-General also emphasized that economic recovery efforts must be used to build a more sustainable economy, saying, “[w]e must deliver new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition.”
Without naming any specific country, Guterres urged the world’s largest polluters to use public funds for sustainable investments. “Fossil fuel subsidies must end, and polluters must start paying for their pollution,” he said. Currently, China provides the most subsidies to fossil fuel companies, followed by the United States and Russia.
The U.N. also released the preliminary results of a survey of 40,000 people across 186 different countries on global trends, finding that “climate” and “the environment” are the most concerning trends, followed by “conflicts” and “health risks.” The survey was commissioned by Secretary-General Guterres, and the results will be released in full in September to help mark the 75th anniversary of the U.N.