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High-Level Open Debate on Pandemics and the Challenges of Sustaining Peace

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Tomorrow (12 August), the Security Council will hold a high-level open debate on “Pandemics and the Challenges of Sustaining Peace” via videoconference (VTC). Indonesia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Retno L.P. Marsudi, will chair the session, which will include briefings by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on behalf of the Elders, and Sarah Cliffe, who is the Director of the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. Due to the Council’s special procedures because of the COVID-19 pandemic, non-Council members will submit written statements that will be included in the future meeting record.

The COVID-19 pandemic, beyond being a global health crisis, has exacerbated what are often common root causes and drivers of conflict such as economic conditions and social tensions. The debate’s concept note, prepared by Indonesia, observes how the pandemic has in particular “magnified the challenges” for countries affected or emerging from conflict, as they grapple with trying to respond to immediate challenges created by COVID-19 while maintaining inherently difficult peacebuilding and peace processes. According to the concept note: “The [pandemic’s] multidimensional disruption, with additional layers of grievances and discord at multiple levels, augurs negatively for institutions, service delivery, governance, rule of law, social cohesion, and sustainable development. The pandemic is raising known risks for intensifying conflict such as food insecurity, hate speech, mass migration, instability in border areas, and unequal delivery of basic goods and services.” The concept note further highlights, as an example of the economic stress, that in conflict-affected countries 18 million additional people will be pushed into extreme poverty, according to the World Bank.

Tomorrow’s meeting is meant to promote an exchange of views on these impacts and discuss ways to harness support for conflict-affected countries during the pandemic. Resolution 2532, adopted on 1 July following an arduous negotiation, demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities in all situations on the Council’s agenda in support of the Secretary-General’s global ceasefire appeal to combat the pandemic. The resolution also recognised the risks to fragile states that have been affected by conflict, stating that peacebuilding and development gains made by countries in transition and post-conflict countries could be reversed as a result of the pandemic. It further requested the Secretary-General to help ensure that all relevant parts of the UN system accelerate their response to the crisis.

As outlined in a list of guiding questions provided by Indonesia, participants may address the immediate and longer-term challenges created by COVID-19 for conflict-affected and post-conflict countries. In exploring ideas to support these countries, the session is expected to consider the role of peace operations, capacity-building, regional organisations and south-south cooperation, as well as how to enhance cooperation between the Council and the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC). The PBC has been active over the course of the crisis in considering the pandemic’s multi-faceted impacts. On 22 July, Council members and PBC representatives held an informal interactive dialogue that similarly considered the pandemic’s effect on conflict-affected countries.

This will be Guterres’ third briefing to Council members on the pandemic. In his April and July briefings, Guterres highlighted the risks that COVID-19 poses to peace and security by worsening conflict drivers: increasing tensions from the socio-economic fallout of the pandemic and around upcoming elections, eroding trust in public institutions and aggravating pre-existing grievances – all factors to which conflict-affected and post-conflict countries are most vulnerable. He even added at last month’s 2 July debate that, while most apparent in conflict-affected and post-conflict countries, such factors could “soon engulf” other countries.

The concept note observes that, as a multidimensional crisis, the pandemic response could be an opportunity to improve international cooperation and the integration of the UN system, which has been the focus of UN reforms for “sustaining peace” to bridge its humanitarian, development and security pillars. Guterres could therefore speak of ways that the UN system is working to address the crisis and its interconnected impacts.

Ban Ki-Moon will brief on behalf of The Elders, an NGO of public figures founded by Nelson Mandela that strives to promote human rights and peace. The former Secretary-General is likely to emphasise the importance of multilateral action, which The Elders advocate for addressing global challenges but which has been lacking during the pandemic. During a Chatham House speech last month, Ban commented on the strife that hindered Council action on the pandemic. He mentioned his experience as Secretary-General during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014. Although the UN and the World Health Organisation (WHO) were criticised for not recognising sooner the severity of the outbreak, once the danger was realised, Ban observed that the Security Council quickly adopted resolution 2177. In comparison, US-China tensions during the COVID-19 pandemic—fuelled by US criticism of and rhetoric about China amid the major US outbreak—led to over three months of negotiations for the Council to agree to resolution 2532. An agreement was particularly held up by US objections to mentioning the WHO, having also criticized its handling of the pandemic and announcing its plan to withdraw from the specialised health agency.

Sarah Cliffe of the Center on International Cooperation is expected to focus her briefing on the pandemic’s secondary impacts that could affect peace and security. She may comment on the significant economic risks, including from the unequal impacts and burdens that have been experienced. These could also include risks posed to peace processes and elections, increased food insecurity, the significant trend in declining remittances on which conflict-affected countries are often heavily reliant, and the potential that unequal access to vaccines could be a conflict driver. Commenting on opportunities for peacebuilding, Cliffe could underscore the importance of conflict prevention activities and for the UN system to integrate more conflict-sensitive analysis.

Other issues outlined in the concept note for tomorrow’s session include the impact on financing for peacebuilding as a result of the global economic slowdown due to the pandemic, and the effect of COVID-19 on women in conflict-affected countries. The open debate is further meant to contribute to the ongoing 2020 review of UN peacebuilding, mandated by the April 2016 Council and General Assembly resolutions on the previous review of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture—the PBC, the Peacebuilding Fund and the Peacebuilding Support Office.

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