(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.)
WHO Doctor Warns Coronavirus may “Never Go Away,” as Agency Outlines Reopening Criteria and Highlights Pandemic’s Mental Health Effects
The novel coronavirus “may become just another endemic virus in our communities and … may never go away,” World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Director of Health Emergencies Dr. Mike Ryan said in a May 13 media briefing. He cited HIV as an example of a relatively recent virus that has become treatable but has not been eradicated or limited by an effective vaccine. The comments drew major news coverage (see here, here and here). Ryan went on to state:
I’m not comparing the two diseases, but I think it is important that we be realistic and I don’t think anyone can predict when or if this disease will disappear. We do have one great hope: if we do find a highly effective vaccine that we can distribute to everyone who needs it in the world, we may have a shot at eliminating this virus, but that vaccine will have to be highly effective, it will have to be made available to everyone, and we will have to use it.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in an earlier media briefing on May 11, discussed the need to balance the potential health harms of lifting stay-at-home orders and business closures against the social, economic, and health harms associated with extending the orders indefinitely. Stating that “to protect lives and livelihoods, a slow, steady lifting of lockdowns is key to both stimulating economies, while also keeping a vigilant eye on the virus so that control measures can be quickly implemented if an upswing in cases is identified,” Tedros outlined three key questions for policymakers to consider when deciding when and how to ease lockdown measures:
First, is the epidemic under control? Second, is the healthcare system able to cope with a resurgence of cases that may arise after relaxing certain measures? Third, is the public health-surveillance system able to detect and manage the cases and their contacts, and identify a resurgence of cases?
Tedros emphasized that these are merely criteria to be considered, and no perfect formula exists to balance harms, cautioning that recent resurgences of the coronavirus in locations such as South Korea, Germany, and Wuhan, China, following the easing of restrictions are “signs of the challenges that may lie ahead.”
WHO on May 10 issued a policy brief on surveillance strategies for containing the spread of the virus and procedures for reopening schools. The agency also warned May 13 that the pandemic could undo recent progress in improving global health, and, in a May 14 news release, highlighted the increased prevalence of mental-health issues globally due to the pandemic.
Migrant Lives at Risk in Mediterranean, with “Pushback” Practices, says OHCHR
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated it is “deeply concerned about recent reports of failure to assist and coordinated pushbacks of migrant boats in the central Mediterranean, which continues to be one of the deadliest migration routes in the world.” The May 8 statement came after reports that Maltese authorities were engaging in “pushbacks,” whereby boats containing migrants are towed back out to sea. OHCHR Spokesperson Rupert Colville expressed concern that nations appear to be using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse for closing their borders to vulnerable migrants, especially those fleeing war-torn Libya. He called for the use of “administrative regulations and measures … being used to impede the work of humanitarian NGOs … to be lifted immediately,” noting that “[s]uch measures are clearly putting lives at risk.”
Meanwhile, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also expressed concern that the combined effects of conflict and the coronavirus pandemic are driving more and more civilians to depart Libya on a dangerous sea route.
Renewed Efforts at Security Council for Ceasefire Resolution Amid US Recalcitrance
The United States blocked an attempt by members of the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution imposing a global ceasefire in order to address the pandemic, according to a May 8 report in The Guardian. The U.S. made the move after some representatives thought they had reached a compromise whereby reference to WHO would be replaced by a reference to “specialist health agencies” in the resolution, due to U.S. demands.
Germany and Estonia submitted another proposed global ceasefire resolution on May 12. No date has been set for a vote on the new resolution. Some have speculated that if all reference is dropped to the WHO, even indirectly, in the text of the new proposed resolution, China may exercise its veto instead of the United States.
UNAIDS and World Leaders Call for Free “People’s Vaccine”
More than 140 world leaders and high-ranking experts, including the heads of state of Ghana, Pakistan, South Africa, and Senegal, signed onto an open letter drafted by U.N. AIDS (UNAIDS) calling for any effective coronavirus vaccine that is developed to be made available for free to everyone globally. The letter states that “[g]overnments and international partners must unite around a global guarantee which ensures that, when a safe and effective vaccine is developed, it is produced rapidly at scale and made available for all people, in all countries, free of charge. The same applies for all treatments, diagnostics, and other technologies for COVID-19.”
Coronavirus Fallout May Cause 6,000 Daily Deaths of Children Under Five, UNICEF Warns
In a May 12 appeal for additional funding of $1.6 billion to help it fulfill the needs of vulnerable children amid the ongoing pandemic, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that the “devastating socioeconomic consequences of the disease and families’ rising needs.” The following day, citing a recent publication by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers in the Lancet Global Health journal, UNICEF said, “An additional 6,000 children could die every day from preventable causes over the next six months as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to weaken health systems and disrupt routine services.” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore stated, “The pandemic is a health crisis which is quickly becoming a child rights crisis.”
UN Leaders Urge Additional Coronavirus Protections for Prisoners
The heads of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), WHO, OHCHR and UNAIDS issued a joint statement on May 13 seeking to “to urgently draw the attention of political leaders to the heightened vulnerability of prisoners and other people deprived of liberty to the COVID-19 pandemic, and urge them to take all appropriate public health measures in respect of this vulnerable population that is part of our communities.” The statement called attention to the special vulnerabilities of people deprived of their liberty, such as their inability to practice physical distancing, the prevalence of preexisting conditions that render them more vulnerable to COVID-19, and lack of access to proper medical care and hygiene facilities, among other factors.
First COVID-19 Cases Confirmed in Bangladesh Refugee Camp Housing Rohingya
A refugee in Bangladesh’s crowded Cox’s Bazar refugee camp tested tested positive for the coronavirus, UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic confirmed on May 15. The news raises concerns of a potentially massive outbreak of the virus, as 860,000 Rohingya refugees are living in the area’s refugee camps in very close quarters.
UN Officials Issue Joint Statement on Libya
Seven prominent U.N. officials released a joint statement on the situation in Libya and the special risks civilians in the country face due to the combination of conflict and COVID-19. In the statement, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, Executive Director of UNICEF Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the U.N. Population Fund Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the World Food Programme David Beasley, Director-General of WHO Tedros and Director General of the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration António Vitorino reiterate the urgency of a ceasefire to allow the pandemic to be addressed. They single out attacks on water supplies as especially troubling, calling for all parties to the conflict to protect such resources and infrastructure.
Envoy Reports “Significant Promise” in Yemeni Ceasefire Negotiations
U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths informed the Security Council of “significant progress” in ceasefire negotiations in Yemen, although he qualified his assessment: “I am coming to this Council yet again to express hope, instead of to report success.” More from the U.N. News Service here.
U.N. peacekeeping forces in Sudan reported the first confirmed positive coronavirus test in a Protection of Civilian (PoC) site, as confirmed by a May 13 briefing by the Office of the Secretary-General’s Spokesperson. The same day, the U.N. News Service reported that the South Sudanese government confirmed that two confirmed cases of the virus were identified within a PoC in Juba. There is major concern that an outbreak within PoC sites could be devastating. In South Sudan, more than 190,000 civilians are sheltering at such sites, including 30,000 in the Juba location. Given that such sites tend to be crowded, an outbreak would be exceedingly difficult to contain.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet referred on May 8 to the potential for a dual threat of a surge in violence and in coronavirus infections in Syria as a “ticking time bomb.” “Various parties to the conflict in Syria, including ISIL, appear to view the global focus on the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to regroup and inflict violence on the population,” she said.
UNAIDS issued a warning on May 11 that disruptions to the delivery of antiviral medicines critical to treating HIV/AIDS attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic could cause hundreds of thousands of additional deaths and increase transmission rates significantly. UNAIDS chief Winnie Byanyima said, “The right to health means that no one disease should be fought at the expense of the other.”
The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) released its third special report (Spanish only) on May 12 on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, entitled “The Social Challenge in Times of COVID-19.” The commission “proposes that governments ensure immediate temporary cash transfers to meet basic needs and sustain household consumption, which will be crucial for achieving a solid and relatively quick reactivation,” according to an English-language ECLAC press release. “In addition, in the long term, the organization reiterates that these transfers should be made permanent.” This support for a universal basic income echoes a recent statement in support of a universal basic income by U.N. Development Programme Asia-Pacific Bureau Chief Kanni Wignaraja.
Three senior U.N. officials called for the immediate release of all Palestinian children detained by Israeli authorities. In a May 11 joint statement, they noted that Israeli government data shows “194 Palestinian children were detained by the Israeli authorities in prisons and detention centres” as of the end of March. The statement was issued by U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in the Occupied Palestinian Territory Jamie McGoldrick, UNICEF Special Representative in the State of Palestine Genevieve Boutin, and Head of the U.N. Human Rights Office in the Occupied Palestinian Territory James Heenan. “The best way to uphold the rights of detained children amidst a dangerous pandemic, in any country, is to release them from detention and to put a moratorium on new admissions into detention facilities,” they said.
Various U.N. agencies and officials condemned two attacks in Afghanistan on May 12 that killed at least 14 people. Among those who issued condemnations were U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Toby Lanzer, and the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA).
The U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), held an informal video briefing on May 11 on “Joining Forces: Effective Policy Solutions for Covid-19 Response.” ECOSOC President Mona Juul released a statement on May 12 summarizing key takeaways from the briefing. Echoing the rallying call of the U.N. to “build back better” from the pandemic, Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed referred to the sustainable development goals as “a clear compass” that can guide the world in rebuilding.
Expressing its “concern that least developed countries such as Haiti will be disproportionately affected given the weak health infrastructure and underlying social and economic inequalities characterizing these countries,” ECOSOC’s Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Haiti issued a statement on May 8 cautioning that “the COVID-19 health emergency, and its socio-economic impact, could become a humanitarian catastrophe” in Haiti if immediate action is not taken to address the country’s health and humanitarian needs. More from the U.N. News Service here.
U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director-General Qu Dongyu reported May 11 that while “significant gains had been made in the fight against the desert locust upsurge in East Africa and Yemen … more needs to be done to prevent a food security crisis, as the ongoing rainy season not only provides livelihoods for farmers and pastoralists but also favourable conditions for locusts to breed.” The locust outbreak is the worst in decades in East Africa.
Three U.N. peacekeepers from Chad were killed in northern Mali on May 10 when their convoy hit a roadside bomb. Four others were injured in the attack, which Secretary-General Guterres noted in a statement “may constitute war crimes under international law.” He called on the Malian authorities to “spare no effort in identifying the perpetrators of these attacks so that they can be brought to justice swiftly.”
Three U.N. experts issued a joint statement on May 13 urging Hong Kong not to charge peaceful protestors with crimes. Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye and Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Mary Lawlor expressed concern that the recent arrest of 15 prominent pro-democracy activists will have a “chilling effect” on peaceful protests, calling for the charges against the arrested activists to be dropped.
In remarks to a video-conference on the role of religious leaders in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, Secretary-General Guterres said that leaders from all religions have a shared “responsibility to promote solidarity as the foundation of our response – a solidarity based on the human rights and human dignity of all.” Additional reporting on the remarks from the U.N. News Service available here.
The U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) on May 13 released a report on ocean conditions in the region. According to ESCAP, the report, entitled “Changing Sails: Accelerating Regional Actions for Sustainable Oceans in Asia and the Pacific,” “explores the key areas around which regional platforms can rally interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral solutions for the ocean.” Notably, the study finds that the ongoing global pandemic has created “breathing space” for the ocean habitat to begin to rehabilitate itself as the pressure of ocean traffic, overfishing and pollution are eased due to reduced activity. See the U.N. News report on the release of the report here.
In a statement on last week’s deadly gas leak that killed 12 people and sickened 1,000 more at a chemical plant in India, Special Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak reiterated calls for the industry to “implement human rights due diligence.” Tuncak, whose brief covers the implications of the handling of hazardous substances and wastes on human rights, welcomed the opening of an investigation into the incident, including the possibility of charging perpetrators with homicide offences. The statement was endorsed by the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and environment David Boyd, and the Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health, Danius Pūras.
The world economy will shrink by 3.2 percent due to the coronavirus pandemic, the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) forecasts in its mid-2020 report, producing $8.5 trillion in reduced economic output over the next two years. DESA also estimates that the pandemic will push over 34 million people into extreme poverty this year due to its economic impacts.
Secretary-General Guterres called it “unlikely” that leaders will gather in New York in September, as had been planned to mark the 75th anniversary of the formation of the General Assembly, the Brussels Times reported on May 14. The reported quote is from a French-language interview in the magazine Paris Match.
The United States accused Iran of violating a U.N. resolution by launching a satellite last month according to a May 14 news report from the Associated Press. On May 12, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. reportedly referred to the U.S. assertion that it continues to have rights as a participant in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, including the right to reinstate sanctions on Iran for alleged violations of the deal, as “ridiculous,” given that President Donald Trump announced in 2018 that the United States would be leaving the agreement. China also reportedly rejects the United States’ position that it can unilaterally reinstate sanctions against Iran, also citing Trump’s withdrawal from the deal.
WHO representatives are seeking answers after Burundi unexpectedly expelled its staff. Burundian officials requested that WHO officials leave the country May 13. The WHO’s ouster comes as the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Burundi has expressed concern that the ongoing election campaign in the country has been marked by “an increase in political intolerance and numerous acts of violence and human rights violations.” In its May 14 statement, the commission expressed its concern regarding “the decision by the Burundian authorities not to apply [WHO] recommendations on social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus during the electoral campaign, while thousands of people interact on a daily basis during political rallies.” The commission also expressed regret at the ouster of a WHO official from the country.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) warned that “the current gaps in social protection could compromise recovery plans, expose millions to poverty, and affect global readiness to cope with similar crises in future.” The cautionary note came in two policy briefs, the first entitled “Social protection responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in developing countries” and the second entitled “Sickness benefits during sick leave and quarantine: Country responses and policy considerations in the context of COVID-19.”
Image – Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the High-level Video Conference on “The Role of Religious Leaders in Addressing the Multiple Challenges of COVID-19”. 12 May 2020. U.N. Photo # 841387