Politics Paralyzes Policy over Covid-19 at the UN

Longstanding problems at UN exacerbate response to pandemic

By: Hasmy Agam and Anis H. Bajrektarevic

With the Covid-19 coronavirus sweeping the world, with 5.7 million cases and nearly 360,000 dead, the United Nations Security Council remains paralyzed, unable to adopt a much-needed Council Resolution to address the pandemic.

This paralysis is largely due to tensions between two of its five permanent members, the US and China, with Washington wanting to apportion blame 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 Geneva-based World Health Organization.  

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 members of the council. Tellingly, petty bilateral differences and the silence of other members has created an unnecessary wedge between the parties instead of subduing their differences in the larger scope and broader interests of the international community.

Ought to (no-)vote

Arguably, the permanent states – along with their Big Power concerns and their frequent mutual deterrence – have often been self-entrenching instead of reaching consensus. 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 ever since Bandung of 1955 and Belgrade of 1961 – with laudable support of neutral countries of the North.

Attempts by the Group of 20 and the European Union to bridge the gaps on the Covid-19 issue have failed thus far. Given this impasse, it seems better for the non-aligned nations, along with other key regional groupings such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the African Union – to add to the EU, G-20 and others – by taking a more prominent role in forging the much-needed consensus – directly or via the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

It is amply clear from the onset of the pandemic that the right to health is an issue for all. The search for a reliable cure is not a matter of private business, but of fundamental individual rights as embedded in the UN Charter, and being obligatory for each of the UN specialized agencies to comply with. Even if a vaccine becomes the agreed or preferred optional choice, it must be made available patent-free for all.

However, debate, pro-and-con over a vaccine, represents a dangerous reductionism. There is no silver bullet. There is no one-directional medical research in response to any pandemic, and no single-blended (or centrally manufactured) and mandated medication.

The proportionality of our responses is another key issue. 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, Vietnam, Azerbaijan and France reaching out to Tunisia – a member of the Arab League. The same line was endorsed by the UN member states on May 18 in relation to the independent inquiry request over the conduct of the WHO on the origins of the virus. 

It is rather disappointing that despite widely held expectations, the (French-Tunisian sponsored) draft Security Council resolution did not address the Covid-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 Secretary-General  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 Security Council 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 resolution 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 combating the Covid-19. But this was not to be, due to the bad dynamics in the security council, and the consequent results will be continued conflict and an unimpeded spread of the secondary effects of the coronavirus in those countries in conflict, much to the disappointment and chagrin of the international community.

The problem lies in the unwillingness of the international community to stop, mitigate, shorten, localize or avoid the spread of the pandemic and its grave and expectedly asymmetric, secondary effects. However, it is far more the failure of the security council,  the most influential and authoritative organ of the world body – to live up to international expectations and to deal decisively with this global calamity.

The lack of unity within the Security Council 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 and blocks the architecture of consensus, vital to the UN as it grapples with the many grave problems confronting an increasingly globalized and inter-connected international community.

The failure of the Security Council to reach a consensus is due to the inherent weakness of its decision-making mechanism, as well as the paucity of unity among its non-permanent members. It is also to the lack of stronger involvement by the larger UN membership, as represented by the non-aligned movement, but also at other principal organs of the UN– primarily in the UN General Assembly and Economic and Social Council. Thus, the Security Council 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 the exceedingly sluggish, lackadaisical and endless consultation and negotiation process on 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 the consolidation of international and cross-generational solidarity.

Clearly, a complex world demands smooth fast and multifaceted coordination and collaboration among the various agencies of the UN system, under the leadership of the secretary-general. It must be dynamic, socially responsible, innovative and holistic, so as to enable our Universal Organisation and all other intergovernmental forums that provide the architecture of our world to anticipate and speedily deal with the challenges that will surely emerge periodically.

A restored trust necessitates a proactive, transparent, and timely response but also energetically calls for an enlarged, not reduced, participatory base.

Hasmy Agam was formerly Permanent Representative of Malaysia to the United Nations, and President of the UN Security Council, as well as Chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia.

Anis H. Bajrektarevic is a professor of international law and global political studies in Austria and author of seven books. He is the permanent representative to the UN Vienna and UN Geneva.