Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 04, 2020
The United Nations Security Council and securitization of COVID-19


The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the foremost forum for global security governance, has become incapacitated in the face of what is arguably the greatest security challenge humankind has faced since the turn of the millennium. As a recent report mentions, the members of the UNSC have been busy bickering amongst each other, rather than organizing a coherent response to battle the COVID-19 (SARS-CoV2) pandemic. At a time when even the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres urged warring parties across the world to agree to a ceasefire in response to COVID-19, the absenteeism and apathy of the UNSC is disconcerting. While matters of global health are usually routed through another United Nations specialized agency – the World Health Organization (WHO), the UNSC has previously debated global health emergencies surrounding infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, SARS and Ebola.

As the UNSC continues to be in a state of repudiation of current events, the question is whether, marking COVID-19 as a security issue is a viable path towards bringing nations together to collaborate on an intelligible roadmap in tackling the pandemic. A global pandemic that as of 3rd April, has spread to 206 nations and territories with close to 1 million confirmed cases of contraction, and more than 50,000 deaths. The five countries that are permanent members of the security council in fact account for nearly 40% of confirmed cases of contraction worldwide. Securitizing the issue of the virus, might help states mobilize global resources in a more efficient manner and put in actionable safeguards that are currently reserved for traditional security threats.

UNSC & Global Health

Health is typically construed as an individual and domestic concept and unless its dimension is enlarged to include the larger society, international interactions have little role to play in this subject. At the turn of the millennium, we saw the issue of HIV/AIDS being raised at the United Nations Security Council, marking the first instance when a disease was being discussed with a frame of security at one of the highest echelons of global governance. This instigated debates on including prevention of HIV/AIDS in the ambit of peacekeeping operations in parts of Africa. In 2000, the UNSC declared the disease a security issue via Security Council Resolution 1308, underscoring that: ‘the HIV/AIDS pandemic, if unchecked, may pose a risk to stability and security’. Similarly, in 2014, when the Ebola epidemic became widespread in West Africa, the UNSC mounted a response via its peacekeeping operations to counter the disease. Subsequently, Security Council Resolution 3177, emphasized: ‘the need for coordinated efforts of all relevant United Nations System entities to address the Ebola outbreak in line with their respective mandates and to assist, wherever possible, national, regional and international efforts in this regard’. This time around, no such resolution has been forthcoming, and members have been unable to reach a consensus on even what to call the ongoing pandemic.

The Political Backdrop of COVID-19

The competitive politics surrounding the UNSC makes it difficult for any substantial measures to be adopted. The United States and China has been engaged in a blame-game over the origins of the virus, rather than employing a cooperative approach that bring all nations together in a global effort to battle the pandemic. The Chinese state apparatus should be spared no blame for its initial censorship of the spread of the virus where it attempted to surreptitiously portray it as a disease that does not involve human transmission. The COVID-19 virus originated in China and began spreading inside the country as far back as 17th November, 2019, but attracted worldwide attention only when the entire international society started feeling its ripples. The WHO itself, declared the disease a pandemic on 11th March, 2020. This proliferation of misinformation prevented other states from taking action to safeguard their borders and arrest the spread of the disease inside their communities. Ironically, this period of inaction at the UNSC also came during a time when China was holding the presidency of the body in March 2020.

Yet now that Western states are severely affected, they have still lacked the decisiveness and the appropriate response that is required to manage a pandemic of this scale, both domestically and internationally. The WHO, despite all its successes and its failures, remains a Western-centric global institution that derives its power from UN member states. It can be safely assumed that Western hegemonic powers enable the organization with their funding to follow a path that suits their vision of a healthier world. Such political problems bring us to the basics of how health is socially construed today. Unless global health issues are presented in a manner that makes the individual in the international society threatened or insecure, there remain no necessity for international actors to tackle global health.

Securitization of COVID-19

The Security Council needs to adopt measures that puts international cooperation at the centre of the ‘threat-defence’ logic, and the ‘decision-action’ cycle. A possible solution is establishing a playbook within an UNSC resolution that grades nations as per their vulnerability to the virus, and then devising specific measures to assist these countries in tackling this global health crisis.  Nations have vast military resources that could be possibly put into action to stop the spread of the disease domestically and across borders. In the past few weeks, we have seen how nations such as India, U.S., and China have had their international credentials put under the spotlight. The extent of these states’ domestic power become a key determinant in their fight against this spread of a novel respiratory syndrome. Similarly, the failure of the UNSC to mark the ongoing pandemic raises doubt on the sustainability of the current architecture of global security. The UNSC needs to mediated in regions with ongoing conflicts such as Libya and Syria, and follow the example of Yemen, in declaring an immediate ceasefire. Failure to do so may lead to further spread of the disease as the influx of medical personnel and supplies are prevented in these war zones. The UNSC needs to mobilize peacekeeping forces at its disposal and deliver rapid testing kits, safety equipment and respirators to such vulnerable populations at the earliest.

Expectations from Global Governance

It would be naïve to suggest that the solution lies only in centralization of state power via securitization of the pandemic. On the examination of diseases in a historical context, we see that how a disease such as plague and the problems associated with it are handled by the community depends largely on the manner in which the community understands that particular disease. As such, despite diseases not being the result of social construction, the response mechanisms depend on how society reacts at that point in time. The ongoing pandemic of COVID-19 drives this last point deeper. Security forces around the world are already burdened with assisting health officers in carrying out error free quarantine programs with minimal training. In certain nations, the entire state machinery is geared towards solving a single problem that is not yet fully understood.

In a crisis such as this, a speedy global response has been lacking as citizens demand accountability from institutions that constitute global governance. The United States is failing in its response under President Trump, whereas nations constituting the European Union operate as separate entities. Totalitarian states such as China and Russia, are occupied with sustaining their respective state apparatus, rather than focusing efforts on a global response. The time for individual state action isolated from one another is over. The UNSC needs to take up the issue of COVID-19 immediately and galvanize the global community towards a response coalesced around international security. As responsible stakeholders of global governance, the permanent members of the UNSC need to step up their game and deliver a resolution that provides a platform for the securitization and timely containment of COVID-19.

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Rob McInerney

Rob McInerney

Rob McInerney Chief Executive Officer International Road Assessment Programme Australia

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