The World of International Organizations

Security Council halted by U.S. on ceasefire

On the 75th anniversary, Russians reconstruct the 1944 Vyborg offensive against the Finnish Army (ARÊTE/Ninara)

The United States blocked a U.N. Security Council vote on Friday calling for an end to global hostilities amid a pandemic — the same day diplomats emphasized lessons from World War II’s end in Europe 75 years earlier.

The Trump administration’s antipathy towards China and the World Health Organization halted six weeks of efforts by members of the 15-nation council to enact a resolution in support of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’s call for a global ceasefire during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guterres exhorted all warring parties in March to disarm and fight the virus as a “common enemy.” A council resolution would have confirmed the coronavirus pandemic is a threat to international security.

But the U.S. delegation told the council, the United Nations’ most powerful arm, that it could not support the resolution. The council’s five permanent seats, each with veto privileges, are held by Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, reflecting a power structure frozen in time since World War II.

Americans wanted the resolution to drop any mention of general support for WHO or any other U.S. agencies, and to specify the coronavirus originated in China, a condition that Beijing opposed. Russia also wanted the resolution to suspend sanctions on nations such as Iran and Venezuela. A council resolution needs at least nine votes to pass; any of the five permanent members can block it.

The United States and China haggled over the resolution calling for a cessation in fighting and 90-day “humanitarian pause” to let nations focus on COVID-19. The resolution, a mix of rival texts from France and Tunisia, also emphasized an “urgent need” to support all countries and “relevant” U.N. agencies, including “specialized health agencies,” a reference to WHO.

It demanded an immediate ceasefire and “durable humanitarian pause” for aid to flow in Congo, Libya, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and other places the council considers an international security concern. The resolution did not apply to military campaigns against Islamic State, al-Qaida and other extremist groups.

An earlier version mentioned the U.N. health agency. The move to block the resolution came weeks after U.S. President Trump vowed to halt all further payments to WHO until a White House review of up to 90 days assesses WHO’s role in “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.”

Trump accused WHO of failing to do enough to stop the virus after it was first detected in Wuhan, China last last year. WHO has pushed back against White House attempts at scapegoating and threats of budget cuts, admonishing all attempts to “politicize this virus.”

China, normally opposed to anything but strict uses of the council’s mandate, supported the resolution on condition it specify WHO — and call attention to China’s role in calling for action on the virus.

When China held the council’s monthlong revolving presidency in March, however, it did not argue for taking action. Its U.N. envoy, Zhang Jun, said the virus fell outside the council’s purview because it was a matter of global public health and security, according to a U.N. account of his press briefing.

Diplomats and other U.N. observers expressed frustration over the political impasse, saying a council resolution backed by the force of international law is needed to show nations that they must cooperate.

“Disagreement over whether to mention U.N’s specialized health entities is petty when global cooperation is badly needed to fight COVID-19 effectively,” said Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand and ex-administrator of the U.N. Development Program, who added the “blame game over COVID-19” had again prevented council agreement on a resolution.

Simon Chesterman, dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law, noted that “in the seven weeks that the UNSC has dithered over this” confirmed coronavirus cases grew from 300,000 to almost 4 million, and deaths rose from 14,000 to 270,000.

“The sticking point? Whether even to refer indirectly to the WHO in a resolution,” said Chesterman, who formerly worked at the International Crisis Group, U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

“Two months into a global pandemic, over 270,000 people are dead, and the U.N. Security Council has still not passed a single resolution on COVID-19,” echoed Simon Adams, executive director of the New York-based Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect. The battle over naming WHO is the veritable dictionary definition of small-minded petty obstruction and dysfunctionality.”

Appeals for ‘collective action’

On the same day as its impasse over the virus, the council emphasized a need to combat ideologies of hatred and division that could spark another global catastrophe. Its video meeting marked Friday’s 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe when Germany surrendered to the Allies in May 1945.

The global war, which began in September 1939, finally ended with the armistice in August 1945 and the formal surrender of Japan a month later. It killed more than 60 million people and led to the creation of the United Nations, replacing the failed League of Nations, and the formation of the European Union.

“The voices of populism, authoritarianism, nationalism, and xenophobia are making themselves heard ever more loudly. We must confront those who would drag the world back to a violent and shameful past,” Rosemary di Carlo, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, told the council.

The video meeting led by Estonia, which holds the council’s presidency for May, featured dozens of speakers, including over 45 foreign ministers. Their common message: multilateralism is vital.

“Gratitude towards those who made immense sacrifices to liberate our country from the National Socialist tyranny. Gratitude also to the countries of the world who accepted Germany back into the family of peaceful nations — despite our responsibility for two world wars which caused infinite suffering,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.

He noted that insufficient political backing for multilateralism and international organizations such as the Security Council, whose mandate is to maintain international peace and security, has led to repeated failures to stop horrific wars and proxy conflicts stretching from the Middle East to Ukraine.

“This commitment to global solutions, to multilateralism, is based on our historic experience — that nationalism leads to destruction,” he said in his speech. “In Germany, we have a saying: ‘He who closes his eyes to the past will be blind to the present.’ ”

European Commission Vice President Josep Borrell, who serves as the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said the pandemic has unleashed the biggest global crisis since the end of World War II, providing lessons for humanity.

“The outbreak of COVID-19 clearly demonstrates that global challenges require collective action. It is a test for humanity, but also for the multilateral system itself. The current crisis is shaking the foundations of our societies and exposing the vulnerabilities of the most fragile countries,” Borrell said in his speech.

“It has the potential to deepen existing conflicts and generate new geopolitical tensions. It is a reminder that peace, democracy and prosperity must constantly be nurtured, expanded, and made more inclusive,” he warned. “The rules-based international order, with the United Nations at its core, must be upheld and strengthened.”

The greatest lesson of the war may have been that “mankind realized the need for a vaccine against the ideology of hate,” said Russia’s U.N. envoy Vassily Nebenzia.

“Current international relations,” he said, “show some trends that are reminiscent of those before World War I and World War II — deep distrust among major international players, attempts to achieve hegemony, unilateral actions, scapegoat — to name a few.”

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