Introduction

In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) published the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework report. The R2P framework, which was adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 2005 in the World Summit Outcome document,1United Nations resolution 60/1, 2005 World Summit Outcome—Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly A/RES/60/1, 2005, https://undocs.org/A/RES/60/1. stipulates that the international community has an inherent obligation to intervene within other sovereign states with a view to countering the commission of mass atrocity crimes “for the purpose of protecting people at risk.”2International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001): vii, http://responsibilitytoprotect.org/ICISS%20Report.pdf.

While the framework envisages preemptive and reactive interventions for humanitarian considerations in states at risk of, or currently experiencing, violent conflict, other global threats to human security not considered in the regime—for instance the Covid-19 pandemic—may find relevance in its application.

Covid-19 Global Crisis

On December 31, 2019, China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) of the disease after experiencing an outbreak of new coronavirus infections in Wuhan. In response, the Director-General of WHO, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, declared Covid-19 disease a pandemic on January 11, 2020.

The debate about how China, and the UN, responded in terms of containing and preventing the spread of the new coronavirus has underpinned contestations on the responsibility of states, and of the WHO, in countering pandemics that expose humanity to unimaginable suffering and death. The spread of the virus across the globe also heightened discourses on the role of regional agencies in containing Covid-19. This has exposed the state of the global community’s lack of preparedness in suppressing pandemics that would have adverse humanitarian effects. Despite WHO’s presumably belated alert for immediate global attention and response, how did the UN respond?

UN Interventions in Response

On March 23, 2020, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire in all armed conflict situations with a view to channeling international attention to the Covid-19 crisis.

In mitigating its global impacts, the Secretary-General’s launch of the $2 billion Global Humanitarian Response Plan for Covid-19 on March 25, 2020, demonstrated the intended action of the UN in combating the pandemic, especially in the world’s least developed states and vulnerable populations.

Addressing the Security Council on April 9, 2020, Mr. Guterres remarked that the Covid-19 crisis would have far-reaching implications capable of increasing social unrest and violence. On April 10, 2020, Guterres further warned that the Covid-19 health crisis could threaten global peace and security.

The continued tensions between China and the US, however, demonstrably stalled immediate United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions that would have deployed its agency to work towards halting the spread of the pandemic. In addition, President Donald Trump’s halting of US funding to the WHO demonstrated the perceived politicization of the responses to the pandemic, an assertion that has been reiterated by Dr. Ghebreyesus.

While President Trump demanded an explanation from China through the US Congress, especially regarding the origin and spread of the virus, Beijing, which currently holds the presidency of the UNSC, blamed Washington for politicizing the pandemic.

In a press conference, the President of the UNSC, Ambassador Zhang Jun, argued that the Covid-19 crisis is not on the Council’s agenda, implying that it be addressed by other agencies, particularly the WHO.

The UNSC’s failure to pronounce Covid-19 a threat to international peace and security demonstrated the unwillingness of the Council, or at least of its members, to mobilize immediate multilateral action. Although the Council’s mandate on peace and security does not extend to global threats such as pandemics, the magnitude of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in states experiencing conflict, would perhaps add to the emerging discourse on the need to review the scope of the R2P.3Adrian Gallagher and Garrett Wallace Brown, “Coronavirus: Why the World Must Monitor Response of Countries that Have Had Mass Atrocities,” The Conversation, April 22, 2020, https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-why-the-world-must-monitor-response-of-countries-that-have-had-mass-atrocities-136342.

The Case of Regional Response(s) to the Covid-19 Crisis

Apart from the UN, regional agencies have activated their intervention mechanisms.

In a statement,4African Union, “African Union Mobilizes Continent-Wide Response to COVID-19 Outbreak,” press release, February 24, 2020, https://au.int/en/pressreleases/20200224/african-union-mobilizes-continent-wide-response-covid-19-outbreak. the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Mr. Moussa Faki Mahamat noted that the African Union (AU) has strengthened its coordination and partnerships across the continent with a view to building the needed intervention synergy to suppress the pandemic. This is, perhaps, invoking the AU’s principle of non-indifference that elevates the African agency in responding to emerging threats to peace and security in the region.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDC) has, with support of the WHO, also established the Africa Task Force for Coronavirus to enhance early detection and cross-border control. The ACDC also initiated a program to distribute testing kits across the continent.

The AU, in collaboration with Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also noted that food supply and production remains an essential service. FAO emphasized the need for strategic interventions to ensure Africa’s most vulnerable populations continue to have uninterrupted access to food during the pandemic.

Human and Socio-Economic Impacts of the Covid-19 Crisis

The pandemic has occasioned unprecedented suffering and death. As of June 1, 2020, WHO reported 6,040,609 cases of infections, and 370,657 deaths globally—of which 2,614 deaths were recorded in Africa. Despite the containment interventions including lockdowns and curfews, the increasing cases of infections across the globe pose a great threat to human security. This is accentuated by insufficient numbers of testing kits, and the shortage of health equipment such as ventilators, and the delayed development of a vaccine to prevent the spread of the virus.

The pandemic has disrupted markets and supply chains across the globe, with international trade suffering a slump. In addition, it has adversely impacted other key sectors including energy, manufacturing, agriculture, services, and international travel.

In its assessment, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) argues that as a result of the crisis, developing countries would suffer an estimated loss of at least US $220 billion. UNCTAD has called for US $2.5 trillion to cushion developing countries through special drawing rights, debt cancellation, and grants. The crisis has further contributed to an economic meltdown with plunges in world stock market exchanges. In addition, the pandemic has led to increasing unemployment, reduced foreign direct investment, as well as the unprecedented plummeting of global oil futures pricing to below a dollar per barrel.

Although the pandemic has disrupted education at all levels, it has unevenly affected vulnerable populations, including Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), refugees, migrants, and ethnic minorities in conflict situations, who have limited or no access to digital learning platforms at the basic and higher education levels.

Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Vulnerable Populations

Displaced persons—including IDPs, refugees, and asylum seekers—who are estimated at 70 million worldwide, have continued to suffer from risks associated with the pandemic. Cases of coronavirus infections—as reported, for instance, in crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, which is hosting over a million Rohingya refugees,5See: Michael Sullivan, “COVID-19 Has Arrived in Rohingya Refugee Camps and Aid Workers Fear the Worst,” NPR, May 15, 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/05/15/856584129/covid-19-has-arrived-in-rohingya-refugee-camps-and-aid-workers-fear-the-worst. as well as among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon6See: NPR, “COVID-19 Reaches Lebanon’s Overcrowded Palestinian Refugee Camps,” NPR, April 25, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/04/25/845026662/covid-19-reaches-lebanons-overcrowded-palestinian-refugee-camps.—indicate the exposure of displaced persons to further humanitarian crisis.

The concentration of camps in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and DRC hosting millions of refugees fleeing conflict zones in the Great Lakes, East and Horn of Africa could exacerbate the refugee crisis already constraining humanitarian efforts in those regions. The renewed fighting in Jonglei, South Sudan, in May 2020, which led to the death of at least 300 people, has aggravated the refugee crisis and exposed thousands of IDPs to the scourge of conflict, amidst the pandemic.

On March 26, 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued an emergency appeal requesting US $255 million from the UN to deploy immediate interventions to constrain the pandemic within populations facing refugee crisis.

Reports of 119 confirmed cases of migrants who tested positive for the virus while seeking passage into Europe through Turkey and Greece as they fled conflict zones in the Middle East also demonstrate the risks suffered by asylum seekers. The pandemic may expose international migrants, estimated at around 272 million worldwide, to further vulnerabilities.

In a technical brief, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) posits that, in times of crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, there are increased cases of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) suffered by women and girls. This is due to tensions caused by a breakdown, or disruption, of interventions caused by containment measures such as lockdowns and curfews.7See: Titilope Ajayi, “Violence against Women and Girls in the Shadow of Covid-19: Insights from Africa,” Kujenga Amani, May 20, 2020, https://kujenga-amani.ssrc.org/2020/05/20/violence-against-women-and-girls-in-the-shadow-of-covid-19-insights-from-africa/?source=forumsnav. In Kenya, for instance, the ministry in charge of gender reported that cases of SGBV during the pandemic have risen by 42 percent. Underscoring this, the Chief Justice reported a 35.8 percent increase in the number of cases of rape and defilement in the country during the Covid-19 crisis. While cases of violence against women are well-documented, SGBV against men and boys during this pandemic remain under-reported.

R2P amidst Covid-19

Since the pandemic is a threat to global human security, how then could the UNSC have better responded in terms of suppressing the spread of Covid-19? The contestations between the two veto powers, China and the US, as to whether the former should bear the responsibility for the pandemic stalled the Council’s resolutions that would have perhaps called global attention to mobilizing sufficient resources to suppress the virus.

The proliferation of the pandemic nevertheless attracts discourses on the application of the R2P, especially in situations where the spread of Covid-19 would expose vulnerable populations in conflict situations to further atrocities that are within the purview of the framework.

As argued by Simon Adams, Chief Executive of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, there is a risk that perpetrators of atrocities within the purview of the R2P framework may “weaponise the pandemic” thereby leading to further violations of humanitarian law.

The international community should deploy the Responsibility to Prevent component of the R2P to protect vulnerable populations such as IDPs and refugees from the activities of militant groups that would compromise safety and security within camps and thereby lead to mass infections.

The displacement of minorities in conflict situations during this pandemic—for instance, the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and migrants in Greece and Turkey—should attract the attention of the international community and its deployment of the Responsibility to React component of the R2P to provide access and protection for minorities. While the UN Secretary-General has called for ceasefire during this pandemic, the international community should monitor renewed cases of conflict—for instance, the fighting in South Sudan, DRC,8AFP, “UN Warns of Possible War Crimes in Northeastern Congo,” The East African, May 28, 2020, https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/africa/UN-warns-of-possible-war-crimes-in-northeastern-DRC/4552902-5566166-316xdcz/index.html. and Burkina Faso, and the continued militant activities in Syria—that have constrained humanitarian interventions, denied populations access to healthcare, and exposed victims to risks associated with the pandemic.

The economic crisis associated with Covid-19 would, if unmitigated, incentivize conflict and thereby lead to anarchy and state collapse that would attract further atrocities in conflict-affected and fragile states. The international community may, in deploying the Responsibility to Rebuild component of R2P, require a “Marshall Plan” targeted to economic recovery of conflict-affected and fragile states in the (post-) Covid-19 era.

Conclusion

A review and updating of the R2P framework would be necessary in order to prescribe provisions that would elicit timely intervention by the UNSC during global health crises. This is with a view to protecting vulnerable populations from atrocities that may be committed during pandemics.

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