Jutta Brunnée is a professor of law at the University of Toronto.
“Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding or will it be irrelevant?” This was the challenge issued by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2002 as he advocated for Security Council authorization of military action in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
About 18 years later, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the question of the UN’s relevance is in the air again. Even with states declaring themselves determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, as they do in the UN Charter, it’s not clear they are set on saving the world from a different but equally deadly scourge. And they should be: The Second World War caused 50 to 60 million deaths; left unchecked, COVID-19 could kill 40 million people worldwide.
Of course, notwithstanding some national leaders’ rhetoric, the pandemic itself is not a war. But the economic, social and political upheaval wrought by it threatens the stability that more prosperous regions have come to take for granted. In the world’s conflict zones, COVID-19 risks escalating tensions and unravelling peace-building efforts. And as unimportant as multilateralism may feel as death tolls mount at home, all states now must look ahead as well as abroad, co-ordinating measures and pooling resources to support the weakest states. COVID-19 cannot be stopped anywhere unless it is tackled everywhere.
Despite the usefulness of its charter’s collective-security system, the UN has been largely silent. But as was the case in 2002, the UN may not be the proper target of criticism. After all, the organization can only be as relevant as its members – especially the five permanent members of the Security Council, known as the P-5 – allow it to be.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has rightly called the pandemic “the most challenging crisis we have faced since the Second World War,” and the General Assembly, in rare unanimity, adopted a resolution calling for “intensified international co-operation to contain, mitigate and defeat the pandemic.” But the Security Council has been silent, paralyzed by the veto-bearing permanent members.
That is not for lack of trying. The council’s 10 non-permanent members (Belgium, Estonia, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia, Niger, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, Tunisia and Vietnam) promoted a draft resolution declaring the pandemic “a threat to humanity and to international peace and security.” It called on countries to “provide protection for the most vulnerable in conflict zones,” echoing the Secretary-General’s urgent call for a global ceasefire that would allow war-torn regions to focus on combatting the virus.
France, a P-5 member, sought support among the others for a similar resolution. But the United States insisted on references to the “Wuhan virus,” China resisted characterizing the pandemic as a threat to international peace and security, and Russia demanded that sanctions be lifted to facilitate a response to the virus.
A determination that the pandemic is a threat to international peace and security would not merely confirm the obvious, it would open the door to the council’s unique power to decide on measures that bind all member states, as it did after 9/11, when it required states to take sweeping counterterrorism measures. Although the current threat is immeasurably greater, given the sensitivities about the boundaries of its “peace and security” mandate, the council is unlikely to impose specific pandemic-response measures on states. Still, demonstrating unity in the face of the crisis would send a powerful signal around the world.
But when the Security Council, forced by a vote of its non-permanent members, finally convened a closed-door meeting last week, no resolution emerged. It could muster only a tepid statement recalling the need for unity and solidarity with those affected and expressing support for the Secretary-General’s efforts concerning the pandemic and conflict-affected countries.
Alas, it is not the whole of the Security Council that is responsible for this disgraceful outcome. There is plenty of blame to go around among the P-5, but the Trump administration deserves to be singled out.
Its disdain for multilateralism and the UN is as obvious as its failure to lead. The contrast with the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, when the Obama administration rallied the council behind a resolution declaring Ebola a “threat to international peace and security,” could not be starker.
Donald Trump’s U.S. is a distorted shadow of itself. Its inability to rise to this moment of global crisis will be costly. It is not the UN that risks making itself irrelevant in global politics, but the United States of America – and the world will be worse off for it.
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