Although much of the world is closing temporarily due to the rapid spread of Covid-19, the United Nations Security Council must stay open — meeting physically if possible and virtually if not — in order to fulfill its Charter responsibilities not only to address the threats posed by the pandemic but also to respond to all threats to international peace and security.
As of March 24, the World Health Organization reported that more than 370,000 people have been infected with the virus — of which 80 percent are located in seven countries: China, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, the United States and Iran. It also confirmed that more than 16,000 people have died — of which 90 percent are also located in these seven countries.
For the third time since 1918, the human race is confronting a deadly pandemic capable of causing millions of deaths. In 1918, the Spanish flu resulted in 50 million deaths worldwide. In 1957-1958, the Asian flu caused around two million deaths globally. Unless the dire warnings of doctors and scientists about the potential loss of life from Covid-19 are heeded, 2020 will be another dark chapter in human history.
The World Health Organization and its director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have taken the lead in identifying the virus, classifying the pandemic, providing clear and actionable guidance and offering assistance and support to UN member states and the world at large.
Now it is high time that the Security Council address this threat to international peace and security — the same way it recognized Ebola as well as the effects of climate change as threats to international peace and security. National leaders across the world have characterized their efforts against Covid-19 as a war. Although the enemy is invisible, it is real, it is lethal and it is global.
The Security Council has a responsibility to coordinate a prompt and effective global response to address the threat posed by the pandemic to human health and to the world economy and the consequential threats to international peace and security.
If the Security Council continues to be missing in action, the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, should invoke his authority, under Article 99 of the UN Charter, to bring the matter to the Council’s attention and to offer realistic and actionable recommendations. These could include some or all of the following elements for the Council’s consideration and action:
- To express support for the efforts of the World Health Organization and its director general;
- To encourage member states to report timely, complete and accurate updates to the WHO and to contribute to the Covid-19 response fund;
- To call on member states to implement the technical guidance issued by the WHO, including, in particular, on critical preparedness, readiness and response actions;
- To encourage UN member states to respond to the needs of all their citizens without discrimination and to ensure that the most vulnerable populations are not left behind;
- To encourage member states to ensure the necessary infrastructure to protect the safety and well-being of doctors and other health workers and to provide them with the necessary medical supplies, protective gear and equipment;
- To call on member states to facilitate the production, provision and delivery of adequate medical supplies, protective gear and equipment and to respond to the Covid-19 crisis in an efficient, effective and humane manner;
- To urge member states to make every effort to ensure the stability of the global economy and to refrain from any intentional actions that create uncertainty during the Covid-19 crisis;
- To urge member states to refrain from any action that will further endanger international peace and security during the Covid-19 crisis; and/or
- To remind member states that any measures taken to respond to the crisis, whether at the local, national, regional or international level – must respect international law, including international human-rights and refugee law.
Dag Hammarskjold, the former UN secretary-general, once said that the UN “was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.” The Security Council must meet immediately — physically if possible and virtually if not — to respond to the threats arising from the Covid-19 crisis, potentially the worst global crisis since World War II.
The Council must take prompt and effective action in order to save humanity from the converging hell of the threats it poses to human life, the world economy and the international order as we know it.
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Mona Ali Khalil is an internationally recognized public international lawyer with 25 years of UN and other experience, including as a former senior legal officer in the UN and in the IAEA, with expertise in peacekeeping, peace enforcement, disarmament and counterterrorism. She holds a B.A. and an M.A. in international relations from Harvard University and a master’s in foreign service and a J.D. from Georgetown University. She is an affiliate of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict and a nonresident fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. She is the Founder and Director of MAK LAW INTERNATIONAL, a legal advisory and strategic consulting service, assisting governments and intergovernmental organizations in the service of “We the Peoples.”