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Hara-kiri Multilateralism: United Nations Response to COVID-19

Rajeesh Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 21, 2020

    In recent years, multilateral cooperation has encountered unprecedented crises. From Brexit to burgeoning populist-nationalism across the globe as well as apathy of the once patron power, the United States (US), a range of issues threatens the very existence of multilateral institutions. While in the United Nations (UN) the crisis has manifested in the form of fund cuts and ever-increasing policy paralysis in its Security Council, other institutions, like Bretton Woods, have faced scepticism of effectiveness.  

    The COVID-19 pandemic is latest in the list of issues, which pushed the idea and practice of multilateralism into a profound dilemma. For the international community, COVID-19 was an opportunity to reinvigorate multilateral cooperation. The pandemic is the world’s biggest challenge since World War II. The deadly virus is affecting societies at their core, claiming millions of lives and destroying countless livelihoods. As of May 20, 2020, the virus has spread to 213 countries and territories with nearly five million confirmed cases and more than 318,789 casualties.1 COVID-19 revealed that pandemic has no national boundaries and such issues require international cooperation and multilateral solutions, not unilateral national responses.

    However, the politics of blame game and opportunism have dominated almost all the multilateral deliberations on COVID-19. The UN response to COVID-19, particularly of the Security Council, is a case in point. The primary responsibility of the UN is to maintain international peace and security. Though scholars and practitioners are divided on the question of whether health emergencies constitute a threat to global peace and security, the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic shows that it is one of the gravest dangers the modern nation-states ever faced.2 UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the pandemic “gravest test since the founding of the UN” and noted that it “poses a significant threat to the maintenance of international peace and security.”3 Guterres has also called for a global ceasefire and submitted a plan to tackle the disastrous consequences of the pandemic.4

    The response of the UN Security Council (UNSC) on COVID-19 was not only disappointing but self-defeating as well. The Security Council took almost a month to discuss this pressing matter even after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Estonia initiated the first effort to discuss COVID-19 in the Security Council; however, accusations and counter-charges hindered a positive outcome. In the initial days, it was China and allies like Russia and South Africa who prevented the Security Council’s efforts, and later it was the US that became a stumbling block in producing a joint statement on the pandemic.

    Throughout March 2020, China blocked every effort to discuss the pandemic in the Security Council. In Beijing's view, COVID-19 did not constitute a threat to peace and security and should be addressed in institutions like the WHO.5 Ironically, China was holding the presidency of the Security Council during the month. Next month, under the presidency of the Dominican Republic, the efforts were resumed, and on April 9, the UNSC convened a closed-door meeting to discuss COVID-19. At the meeting, the US hit out at China by calling for transparency and timely sharing of public health data.6 China, however, urged the members to reject any acts of stigmatisation and politicisation of the pandemic.7

    In the first week of May, a draft resolution co-authored by Tunisia and France that called for a global ceasefire in the context of the pandemic also met the same fate. This time, the US opposed an indirect reference to the WHO in the draft and blocked a vote in the Security Council. A US spokesperson at the UN mission stated that “the council should either proceed with a resolution limited to support for a ceasefire, or a broadened resolution that fully addresses the need for renewed member state commitment to transparency and accountability in the context of Covid-19.”8 The US-China friction in the Security Council was more explicit this time. Beijing dismissed Washington’s concerns and insisted that the resolution should mention and endorse the works of the WHO.

    In the latest development, Germany and Estonia submitted a new draft resolution in the Security Council on May 12. The new draft makes no mention of the WHO. The possibility of adopting this compromised resolution is very high since it focuses only on supporting ceasefires. However, if adopted, the resolution will strengthen the criticism that the UNSC is incompetent in solving issues in which interest of the P-5 is involved. COVID-19 is one of the most significant threats that the P-5 members ever faced since the formation of the UN. More than half of the reported cases and casualties are in these five countries. Other non-permanent members of the Council – Germany, Belgium and South Africa as well as the allies of the P-5 nations – Italy, France, Japan, South Korea and the Gulf countries, have also reported a large number of cases and causalities.

    The Security Council’s inaction in the context of COVID-19 also marks a stark contrast from its past response to global public health challenges. For instance, during the discussion on HIV/AIDS in July 2000, the Security Council observed that “if unchecked, the pandemic may pose a risk to stability and security” and passed a resolution that called for a coordinated international response to the HIV/AIDS.9 Similarly, in 2014, the Security Council described the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as “a threat to international peace and security.”10

    COVID-19 is the ‘exact threat’ that multilateral enthusiasts have been predicting and warning for the last few decades. For instance, since the Millennium Summit in September 2000, almost all the UN General Assembly meetings have emphasised the need for a stronger multilateralism to tackle complex global challenges. In the meetings, leaders warned of issues such as global terrorism, climate change, and pandemics. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO’s consultations for anticipating epidemics and continuous warnings are significant. The 2005 International Health Regulations (IHR), an agreement between 196 countries to work together for global health security, is a case in point. The IHR aims to prevent, protect against, control, and provide a public health response through multilateral actions.11

    No pandemic in the past led to the collapse of the international economy in a manner that is witnessed today. In the absence of a coordinated multilateral response, it would be difficult for the states to effectively tackle the socio-economic fallout of the pandemic, individually. Similarly, in the absence of a multilateral institution, it will be costlier and difficult for the states to collect information and data on the origin and spread of the pandemic. This would affect not only the vaccine research but the progress of global public health as well. In the past, the global community had successfully mustered a coordinated response to similar crises. It has been aptly observed that the “threats posed by SARS in 2003, H1N1 (swine flu) in 2009, MERS in 2012, Ebola in 2014-2016, and the 2008 global financial crisis were all contained through rapid multilateral action.”12

    The COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed vulnerabilities of the international system, particularly those of multilateral institutions. When the much spoken borderless threat became a reality, the multilateral institutions were found not only unprepared but acting in a self-destructive mode. A UNSC resolution could have galvanised the global community towards a collective response, coalesced around international security, against COVID-19. However, what the world is witnessing is self-destructive multilateralism. The conflict over the WHO’s role and subsequent paralysis of the UNSC is the most striking example. By side-lining the role of its health agency, the UNSC is performing nothing but a Hara-kiri. The member states should act before such actions become a contagion and kill other multilateral institutions.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

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