The UN Security Council’s response to COVID-19

The United Nations Headquarters in New York, USA. Photo: Osugi/Shutterstock
Associate Professor; Associate Dean (Research), ANU College of Law
Thursday 28 May 2020

On 9 April 2020 UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned the United Nations Security Council that the COVID-19 pandemic was the world’s "gravest test" since the UN was founded. He further declared that the pandemic posed "a significant threat to the maintenance of international peace and security".

As the body with primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, the Security Council might have been expected to lead global efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the Council’s location in the New York epicentre of COVID-19 in April and May meant that it could be under no illusions concerning the gravity of the COVID-19 threat. Yet its response to that threat has been meek.

While the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, declared "a public health emergency of international concern over the global outbreak of novel coronavirus" as early as 30 January, it was not until almost two months later that the Security Council gave the first formal indication that it was paying attention to COVID-19. That came on 24 March, when the Council moved from in-person meetings to Video Teleconferences (VTCs). It then took a further two weeks before the Council agreed to hold a meeting on 9 April dedicated to the topic ‘Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic’.

Even at that long-awaited meeting, the Council was unable to take meaningful action to respond to the COVID-19 threat. It did not act on the proposal by some members to endorse the UN Secretary-General’s plea for a global ceasefire during the pandemic. Ultimately, the best the Council could do was to express "support — for all efforts of — the Secretary-General — concerning — the potential impact of COVID-19 pandemic to conflict-affected countries" and to recall "the need for unity and solidarity with all those affected".

This essay explores why the Security Council has not responded more assertively to the COVID-19 threat. It argues that the Council’s approach to COVID-19 illustrates three increasingly entrenched features of Council decision-making in a crisis. First, the Council struggles to act when there is friction between permanent members (P5). Second, the Council is hesitant and ill-equipped to respond to unorthodox threats to international peace and security. Third, when all else fails, the Council can still do reliably well on process.

Feature 1: The Security Council struggles to act when there is P5 friction

The UN Charter granted five states permanent membership of the Security Council, along with the power to veto prospective substantive Council decisions. The threat and/or use of the veto power create a perennial pragmatic constraint on the principled aspirations of Council decision-making. While industrious and innovative elected (E10) Council members have been able to exercise influence over the content and contours of some Council decisions, if one or more of the permanent members have substantial misgivings about prospective action, then efforts to take such action through the Council are destined to fail.

In relation to the COVID-19 crisis, negotiations in early-April towards a formal Security Council response unravelled due to squabbling between China and the United States on how to characterise the name of the virus and early responses thereto. The escalating differences between these permanent members, which the Chinese Foreign Minister recently described as a ‘new Cold War’, suggest that the Council will not agree on a meaningful response to COVID-19 anytime soon.

It is ironic that permanent members have prevented the Council from taking meaningful action against COVID-19, given the damage the pandemic has wrought not just on the Council’s New York home, but also on the domestic populations of all permanent members. At the time of writing, the only permanent member who sits outside the COVID-19 top ten infectious countries is China, where the virus originated. 

It is ironic that permanent members have prevented the Council from taking meaningful action against COVID-19, given the damage the pandemic has wrought not just on the Council’s New York home, but also on the domestic populations of all permanent members.

Feature 2: The Council is ill-equipped to respond to unorthodox threats  

The Security Council’s interpretation of threats to international peace and security has expanded considerably since the UN Charter was drafted. In 1945, the UN’s founders would have assumed that the Council would typically respond to conventional security threats to national political independence and territorial integrity. But in recent decades the Council has increasingly characterised non-conventional phenomena, including civil wars, international terrorism, serious violations of human rights, and even climate change, as threats to international peace and security. In fact, the Council has identified previous global health crises as a threat to international peace and security, doing so in relation to HIV/AIDS, SARS and Ebola. 

However, despite these precedents for identifying global health crises as a threat to international peace and security, the Security Council is not well-equipped to respond to these unconventional types of threats. The main instruments in the Council’s toolkit for responding to threats to the peace are coercive Chapter VII measures such as sanctions and the use of force. With the benefit of hindsight, and suspending the political reality constraints posed by prospective P5 vetoes, an assertive Council might have sought early to ascertain the facts on the ground by deploying a fact-finding mission. At the same time, it might also have applied a travel ban to slow the spread of COVID-19 across international borders. These responses might have slowed the escalating pandemic, providing crucial additional time for UN member states to strengthen their capacity to cope with COVID-19’s eventual arrival. But effective action to halt COVID-19 would have required the Council to develop new, unorthodox responses. To borrow a cliche, not every global problem is a nail requiring a hammer.

Feature 3: When all else fails, the Security Council can still achieve progress through process

Last, but not necessarily least, despite its inability to take assertive substantive steps to address the COVID-19 pandemic, the Security Council has responded nimbly and innovatively on the procedural front. As noted above, when New York entered lockdown the Council moved to VTC meetings. On 27 March China, in its capacity as President of the Council, circulated a letter setting out new, temporary written voting procedures, according to which members would have a 24-hour period following the circulation of a draft resolution in blue to send a letter electronically to record their vote. The President of the Council would then convene, within the subsequent 12 hours, a VTC of the Council to announce the outcome of the vote. The Presidents for April (Dominican Republic) and May (Estonia) each renewed and expanded the Council’s procedures for operating virtually.

By following these procedural innovations, between 24 March and 21 May the Council was able to hold a total of 41 VTC meetings, including 17 open meetings, 12 closed meetings, and 12 combining open briefings with closed consultations. These meetings led to a total of 18 decisions/outcomes, including 5 resolutions, 1 presidential statement, 1 press statement by the president, and 11 sets of elements for press announcements by the president.    

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team