The inaction by the United Nations Security Council contrasts sharply with what the leading world body did in 1984, when it addressed the EBOLA pandemic in Africa.
By Tan Sri Hasmy Agam and Prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic*
Further to the points of view undersigned authors expressed nearly two months ago, it is to a deep regret that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) still misses to adopt the much-needed Council Resolution to address the COVID-19 (C-19) pandemic event. This paralysis is largely due to the tensions between two of its five permanent members (P5) — the US and China, with Washington wanting to apportion blame or responsibility to China relating to the pandemic, and Beijing rejecting any discussion or reference to it. Additionally, the two keep opposite views on the role and conduct of the UN Specialised Agency for health matters, Geneva-based World Health organisation (WHO).
This kind of approach is totally misplaced, short-sighted, and uncalled for. It clearly lacks the maturity and wisdom that the international community expects from the principal or Permanent Members of the UN Security Council. Tellingly, petty bilateral differences (and silence of other members) had created an unnecessary wedge between the parties, instead of subduing their differences in the larger scope and broader interests of the international community in the wake of the devastating global event.
Ought to (no-)vote
Interestingly, the very history of voting in the SC indicates that the ratio between adopted and vetoed resolutions is roughly 10 to 1 (2518 adopted SC resolutions, since 1945 until April 2020 vs. 293 vetoed ones for the same period). This shows that other parties, notably the non-permanent members of the UNSC, have usually played a vigilant, persistent, even pivotal role, in ensuring that the Council acts responsibly and timely on matters flagrant to the Charter and of concern to the international community at large.
Arguably, the P-5 states – along with their Big Power concerns, and their frequent mutual deterrence – have often been self-entrenching instead of reaching a consensus in the Council. Conversely, the non-permanent members, with their consensus-building approach, have generally been in a better position to contribute towards ensuring the much-desired and all-embracing stewardship of the Council. This has been the traditional role of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) for decades – ever since Bandung of 1955 and Belgrade of 1961 – with laudable support of neutral countries of the North (so-called N+N group).
Attempts by the Group of 20 (G-20) and the European Union (EU) to bridge the gaps on the C-19 issue have failed to bring the desired result thus far. Given this impasse, it seems better and more efficacious for the NAM/G-77, along with other key regional groupings of huge membership and wide outreach, such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the African Union (AU) – to add to the EU, G-20 and others – by taking a more prominent role in forging the much-needed consensus at the United Nations and its Specialized Agencies – directly or via the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
It is amply clear from the C-19 event that the right to health is an issue for all. The search for a reliable cure for pandemics control is not a matter of private business, but of fundamental individual rights situated on high levels of sociableness, as embedded in the UN Charter, and being obligatory for each of the UN Specialized Agencies to comply with. Even if the vaccine becomes the agreed or preferred optional choice, it must be made available patent-free for all. However, binarization of debate onto a pro-and-con vaccine represents a dangerous reductionism and waste of planetary energy critically needed for a holistic and novel approach. There is no silver bullet for the planetary problems. Consequently, there is no one-directional medical research in response to any pandemic, and no single-blended (or centrally manufactured) and mandated medication for all. (Dogma is based on a blind belief; science necessitates constant multidimensional exploration. Science, especially a medical one, holds no single or absolute truth: The closest it can get is the least wrong answer – which must be contested constantly, literally every day.)
Proportionality of our (current and future) responses is another key issue. Hence, what presents itself as an imperative is universal participation through intergovernmental mechanisms. That very approach has been clearly demonstrated by UN member states, as shown by the active roles played by Indonesia (in the SC, along with another ASEAN and NAM member, VietNam; and on behalf of the general membership of the UN General Assembly), Azerbaijan (on behalf of NAM) and France (on behalf of the P5 and the EU) reaching out to Tunisia – a member of the Arab League (LAS), AU, OIC and NAM. Same line has been also endorsed by the UN Members States on 18 May 2020 in relation to the independent inquiry request over the WHO conduct.
After all, this is well recognised by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres himself, who recently stated that “With two thirds of UN Member States, the Non-Aligned Movement has a critical role to play in forging global solidarity”.
Storm, yet no Reform
It is rather disappointing that despite widely held expectations, the (French-Tunisian sponsored) draft SC Resolution did not address the C-19 issue per se and on ways of tackling its rapid spread. Instead, it focused on the need to effect a global ceasefire in existing conflicts in specific member states, as called for by SecGen Guterres, much to his credit, so as to facilitate distribution of much-needed food and medicines to the people in these conflict-torn countries.
This inaction by the UNSC contrasts sharply with what this leading world body did in 1984, when it addressed the EBOLA pandemic in Africa and unanimously adopted a far-reaching Security Council Resolution (UNSC 2439 (2018) — containing 18 preambular paragraphs and 17 operative ones, on specific instructions to, or demands, on a number of African states in conflict, to take effective steps to control or impede the spread of the EBOLA virus.
Nevertheless, even with the limitations of the latest French-Tunisian draft Resolution, it would have resulted, if adopted, in a humanitarian pause for at least 90 consecutive days crucial for the delivery of aid to the hardest-hit communities, and giving time to the international community to focus on combatting the C-19. But this was not to be, due to the bad dynamics in the UNSC, and the consequent results will be continued conflicts and unimpeded spread of the secondary effects of C-19 event in those countries in conflict, much to the disappointment and chagrin of the international community.
To an extent, the problem lies in the unwillingness of the international community to do the needful to stop, mitigate, shorten, localise or avoid, the spread of the pandemic and its grave lasting, and expectedly asymmetric, secondary effects. However, it is far more the failure of the UNSC – the most influential and authoritative organ of the world body – to live up to international expectations and to deal decisively with this global calamity that has repercussions to international peace and security, as it did during the EBOLA pandemic.
The lack of unity within the UNSC in addressing the current challenge raises that never-ending question of the urgent reform of the Council with its inherently undemocratic decision-making process. It is largely due to the outdated power of the Veto that stultifies and blocks architecture of consensus, vital to the UN as it grapples with the many grave problems confronting the increasingly globalised and inter-connected international community.
The failure of the UNSC to reach a consensus is due to the inherent weakness of its decision-making mechanism, as well as paucity of unity among its non-permanent members. It is also to the lack of stronger involvement – on the very work of the UNSC – by the larger UN membership, as represented by the NAM/G-77, but also at other principal organs of the OUN– primarily in the UN General Assembly (GA) and ECOSOC. Thus, the UNSC in times of critical conjunctures – as this event and its yet not fully anticipated secondary effects are – appears as still stuck in a kind of a time warp, oblivious of the changes that have taken place, and are unfolding all over the world.
It goes without saying that exceedingly sluggish, lackadaisical and endless consultative/negotiation process on the Council reform and restructuring that has been going on for over two decades, needs to be urgently expedited. It is a sine qua non if we are any serious with the times, demands and expectations of the Member States’ present and future populations, and with consolidation of international and cross-generational solidarity.
Clearly, complex world demands smooth fast and multifaceted coordination and collaboration among the various agencies of the UN system, under the leadership of the UN Secretary-General. It must be dynamic, socially responsible, innovative and holistic, so as to enable our Universal Organisation and all other intergovernmental FORAs – that architecture our world – to anticipate and speedily deal with the challenges that will surely emerge periodically in the future.
A restored trust necessitates a proactive, transparent, and timely response but also energetically calls for an enlarged, not reduced, participatory base.
- Amb. Hasmy Agam, formerly Permanent Representative of Malaysia to the United Nations, and President of the UN Security Council (July 1999 and August 2000); Head of the Diplomatic Academy; Chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) – retired.
- Prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic, Chairperson and professor in international law and global political studies, Austria; authored 7 books and numerous articles on, mainly, geopolitics energy and technology; Per-Rep to the UN Vienna and UN Geneva.