Is COVID-19 a threat to international peace and security?

During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the UN Security Council in Resolution 2177 (2015) determined that: “the unprecedented extent of the Ebola outbreak in Africa constitutes a threat to international peace and security”.

For the first time, the Security Council had considered and subsequently determined a public health issue a threat to international peace and security in line with Article 39 of the UN Charter.

 

What was the context back then?

 

The Ebola outbreak began in December of 2013 in Guinea, spreading quickly to neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. In the course of two years, some 28,600 infections were reported resulting in over 11,000 deaths.

 

In an unprecedented effort to contain and eradicate the infection, the Security Council held an emergency meeting on 18 September 2014 to consider the outbreak.

UN Security Council members expressed that given the rapid spread and high mortality rate, it was perfectly reasonable to designate the Ebola outbreak as an international threat.

More specifically, the determination of the Ebola outbreak as a threat to international peace and security took into account a combination of issues, which may be highlighted as follows: the rapid spread of the virus and its corresponding mortality rate; the fact that it would outpace the ability of domestic health care systems to respond to it; its negative impacts on social and economic circumstances in the region; and the threat it posed to post-conflict peacebuilding in West Africa.

To COVID-19, as I write this piece, and the fact the number of confirmed cases and deaths is exponentially day by day, globally there are 1.6 million cases and 95,000 deaths. The US alone has at least 500,399 confirmed cases and 18,693 deaths.

Given the number of confirmed cases and deaths cases, COVID-19 is, by far, incomparable to Ebola on all counts. In other words, the designation of the Ebola outbreak as a threat to international peace and security may be comparable to the current COVID-19 outbreak based on several aspects.

But one most important is the rapid spread of the pandemic and unprecedented number of deaths. A string of lockdown measures imposed by 184 countries in major cities is seen as the largest quarantine in human history.

Unfortunately, even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to make situation more precarious, no vaccine and medication.

From IMF grim assessment, the coronavirus pandemic has created an economic crisis “like no other”—that’s worse than the 2008 global financial crisis. “Never in the history of the IMF have we witnessed the world economy come to a standstill,” Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the IMF, said at a news conference.

That “humanity’s darkest hour, a big threat to the whole world and it requires from us to stand tall, be united and protect the most vulnerable of our citizens. Imagine the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is worse than the 2008 global financial crisis.

Yet, the financial crisis of 2007–08 was considered as a severe worldwide economic crisis. In fact, it is considered by many economists to have been the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Like in the Ebola outbreak, UN Security Council would rightly designate the spread of COVID-19 as a threat to international peace and security given favouring factors noted above.

In my view, designating COVID-19 a threat to international peace and security could produce mutual benefits for states seeking to avoid infections and those dealing with the pandemic.

Perhaps, a call from the UN Security Council for member states to assist affected regions may produce desirable results where funding and the provision of additional measures are required.

What’s the legal basis for designation and effect?

To begin with, under Article 24 of the UN Charter defines the constitutional framework within which the Security Council carries out its responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.

More particularly, Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations provides the framework within which the Security Council may take enforcement action. It allows the Council to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and to make recommendations or to resort to non-military and military action to “maintain or restore international peace and security”.

That’s to say UN Security Council has monopoly of determining a threat to international peace and security. The general interpretation is that the determination of situation as a threat to international peace and security is not limited to war-like situations.

It’s noteworthy that the emergence of infectious diseases as threats to international peace and security was already in 2005 addressed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his report “In Larger Freedom”.

Should the Security Council decide on discussing the matter and subsequently designate COVID-19 a threat to international peace and security, it may call for a range of measures.

In line with lockdown measures already imposed by countries to contain and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, such a designation may choose to praise domestic measures taken, and particularly the efforts of health care workers in the increasing efforts to counter the spread of the virus.

The writer is a law expert

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