Pandemic Feeding Many Drivers of Conflict, Instability Says Secretary-General
Despite having suffered some of the COVID-19 pandemic’s worst socioeconomic impacts — including inflated debt burdens, job losses and worsening conflicts — Africa has to date received just 2 per cent of vaccine doses produced globally, the Security Council heard today, as it convened a high-level virtual debate on addressing the root causes of conflict in the continent’s post-COVID-19 recovery process.
Through a presidential statement (document S/PRST/2021/10) — issued at the meeting’s outset by Wang Yi, State Councillor and Minister for Foreign Affairs of China, which holds the 15-member Council’s rotating Presidency in May — delegates expressed their concern over those developments. They reiterated the need to enable equitable access to quality, safe, efficacious and affordable COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics, medicines and vaccines to all, including the most vulnerable.
Urging greater national, regional and international cooperation and solidarity — with the United Nations playing a coordinating role — they called for support to strengthen health-care systems and invited the accelerated donation of safe, effective vaccine doses to African countries in need, particularly through the COVAX Facility of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator. In addition, the Council acknowledged ongoing discussions on waiving intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines under the World Trade Organization (WTO) and on easing global trade to support the provision of vaccines to everyone in need.
Members also heard briefings by several senior officials close to the topic. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, recalling his appeal early in the pandemic for a global ceasefire to enable countries to focus on combating the virus as their common enemy, said that, while the call was embraced by some armed groups and Governments — including in Africa — clashes nevertheless continued. Extremist groups in Western and Central Africa and Mozambique have continued and even increased their heinous attacks on civilians, creating additional challenges for societies and Governments. The recent attacks in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, and the increasing insecurity caused by the Allied Democratic Forces group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, are tragic reminders of that serious threat.
In response, he outlined the accelerated efforts of his Special Representatives and Envoys to advance peace negotiations across Africa amid the pandemic, adding that the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission has worked closely with the African Union and regional economic communities to help leaders build back better. The Peacebuilding Fund has also adjusted its work in response to COVID-19, supporting national crisis‑management efforts, social cohesion and dialogue, and working to counter hate speech and disinformation.
“Many communities and countries on the African continent already face a complex peace and security environment,” he said, citing risk factors such as long-standing inequality, poverty, food insecurity, environmental degradation, urbanization and demographic pressures. Climate disruption is a further crisis multiplier, displacing communities and leaving people susceptible to recruitment by criminal gangs, violent extremists and armed groups. Some countries find themselves in a vicious cycle where conflict breeds poverty and fragility, in turn decreasing the resilience of societies and the prospects for peace.
As the world faces the possibility of an uneven recovery from COVID-19, he said it is clear that the crisis is feeding many drivers of conflict and instability. The severe economic fallout is aggravating tensions, and has already pushed an additional estimated 114 million people into extreme poverty. Economic growth on the African continent has slowed, remittances are drying up and debt is mounting. Meanwhile, in the name of fighting the crisis, some Governments have restricted democratic processes and civic space, and divisive rhetoric, hate speech and harmful misinformation are further eroding public trust. The pandemic has also had a disproportionate impact on young people — especially in Africa, the youngest continent — and on women.
Urging Member States to ensure those groups are meaningfully included in the shaping of post-pandemic recovery plans, he said recovery from the pandemic offers an opportunity to address the root causes of conflict, prioritize prevention and implement both the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the African Union’s Agenda 2063. While praising the Africa Taskforce created to ensure a unified approach to fighting the pandemic, he went on to sound alarm that of the 1.4 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine administered to date, only 24 million — less than 2 per cent — have reached Africa. “Equitable and sustainable vaccine roll-out worldwide is the quickest path towards a fast, and fair recovery,” he stressed, calling for the sharing of doses, the removal of export restrictions, ramping up local production and fully funding the COVAX Facility. “This pandemic has shown that we are only as strong as our weakest link and will only achieve recovery in solidarity,” he said.
Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), also briefed Council members, describing Africa as a continent of unparallel promise. It is home to nearly one third of global mineral reserves and nearly two thirds of the world’s arable land, as well as a young and dynamic workforce. It also holds the potential to deliver 40 per cent of the world’s solar energy. However, much of that immense promise remains untapped, blocked by obstacles linked to peace, security and development. “Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals […] will require overcoming complex legacy issues and the challenges that compound them,” he said, citing political instability, weak governance, inequality and now also COVID-19 and the climate emergency — “two of the greatest challenges of this generation”.
Noting that African countries account for a small fraction of the world’s reported COVID-19 cases and deaths relative to its population, he said those numbers nevertheless mask the crippling financial, social and political effects of the virus on the continent. Some 40 million Africans have already been pushed back into extreme poverty. As the technical lead of the United Nations socioeconomic response to the pandemic, UNDP is focused on saving lives and livelihoods. Its analysis shows that an “SDG [Sustainable Development Goals] push” now — combining bold policies and investments in governance, social protection, digitalization and the green economy — could lift millions of Africans out of poverty by 2030. A push towards vaccine equity is also needed, as less than 1 per cent of the population of most African countries are currently vaccinated.
Meanwhile, he said, the ratio of external debt to gross domestic product (GDP) in Africa has risen to an alarming 65 per cent, and COVID-19 is constraining fiscal space and making it more difficult for Governments to make strategic investments. This week’s conference on debt relief in Sudan, convened by France, is a good example of how world leaders can come together to countries by relieving the debt burden and unleashing development resources. As finance will be crucial to the recovery, UNDP contributed to the drafting of over 40 country-led socioeconomic response plans in Africa, generating new public policy insights at a time of unprecedented complexity. UNDP is also supporting 26 African countries to create Integrated National Financing Frameworks, ensuring that financing for the COVID-19 recovery is fully aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
“For Africa, a sustainable recovery must be powered by sustainable energy,” he continued. Three quarters of the nearly 800 million people with no access to electricity live in sub-Saharan Africa, while, because of the pandemic, 100 million more Africans can no longer afford sustainable energy options. Calling for urgent action to achieve the goal of clean, affordable energy for all by 2030 — and net-zero emissions by 2050 — he went on to draw links between those targets and good governance. From its many projects and studies on the ground, he said UNDP has learned that “when you want to address the root causes of conflict, investing in development works”.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, noted a rising trajectory in the number of COVID-19 infections and fatalities across Africa. Stressing that the pandemic will continue to have a profound impact on the continent’s economic and social development, he said the biggest challenge Africans face today is that of vaccine access. It is folly to think the world secure from the COVID-19 crisis while Africa lacks protection against the virus and its variants, he said, adding that slow economic growth, reduced international trade, increased external debt and rising inflation have further deteriorated the socioeconomic situation in many African nations. Twenty countries currently face the risk of collapse due to debt burden alone. In that context, he called for new thinking and initiatives to address the crisis, emphasizing that economic recovery must focus on fiscal stimulus and debt exclusion rather than austerity.
He went on to point out that global travel bans and national lockdowns have disrupted local economies and affected both formal and informal sectors, causing job losses, inflation and a lowered standard of living in many African countries. The pandemic has also had devastating consequences for African small and medium‑sized enterprises and public hospitals. Massive job loss has stripped many parents of the means to send their children to school, while strains on health‑care systems endanger the lives of citizens suffering from other chronic diseases. Among other things, he stressed the need for urgent coordination on vaccine distribution and debt relief that accounts for the countries’ unique circumstances. Concluding, he urged the international community to not lose its pre-pandemic momentum in recognizing the nexus among peace, security and development, as expressed in the 2030 Agenda.
In the ensuing debate, Council members stressed the primary importance of ensuring equitable, affordable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all and highlighted the necessity of a strong partnership between the United Nations and regional organizations, particularly the African Union. Pointing out that African challenges can only be truly solved by African leadership, many stressed that the continent cannot — and should not have to — tackles these issues alone, calling for increased international support of African-led initiatives. Others linked the continent’s colonial past to its present problems, urging States to lift economic sanctions imposed on African countries to promote socioeconomic recovery in the wake of COVID-19.
Wang Yi, State Councillor and Minister for Foreign Affairs of China, which holds the Presidency of the Council for May, delivered remarks in his national capacity. Stressing that no country in the world can respond to the current pandemic crisis alone — and no country should be left alone to do so — he described Africa as a critical part of the global response. The international community should accelerate its provision of medical supplies and make vaccines affordable and accessible, including through technology transfer, capacity‑building and the provision of excess doses. In the area of peace and security, he spotlighted the crucial partnership between the United Nations and the African Union, calling for more support as the latter works to fight terrorism, achieve sustainable development and prevent the root causes of conflict. States which currently have economic sanctions imposed on African nations, including on Zimbabwe and Sudan, should urgently lift them. Development partners should think creatively to help Africa build its capacity and boost self‑sustained innovation, he said, voicing support for the African Continental Free Trade Area and for initiatives aimed at reversing historic injustices in global governance. In that regard, he noted that African countries now account for more than a quarter of the United Nations membership. The Organization will not be able to hold its moral ground until it finally gives Africa the equal voice it deserves. “This is what true multilateralism is about,” he stressed, outlining China’s strong and long‑standing support for the continent, including its recent decision to cancel the debt of 15 African countries amid the pandemic.
Othman Jerandi, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Tunisia, pointing out the disastrous health impacts of the pandemic to date — 3.4 million deaths and more than 160 million infections, only expected to increase — said that the coming phase will be even more difficult as the pandemic’s socioeconomic and security consequences may continue for several years to come, worsening conflicts and making addressing the same more complicated. He urged an equitable global response to pandemic recovery — so that disparities between States do not deepen — calling for the international community to address debt sustainability and liquidity issues, to alleviate the debt burden for developing and least developed countries and to ensure equitable global vaccination. COVID-19 vaccines have brought with them renewed hope for recovery and a return to development and normalcy, but least developed countries are lagging — while 10 States in the world retain 75 per cent of these vaccines, less than 2 per cent of all Africans have received any dose thereof. He called on the Security Council to adopt a more comprehensive concept of peace and security that accounts for existing vulnerabilities and the impact of the coronavirus.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Foreign Affairs of France, underscoring that public health, the planet and security “are common goods that we can only defend together”, said that his country’s first priority is guaranteeing universal, equitable access to vaccines for the people of Africa, who deserve more than announcements and “vaccine cronyism”. France was the first country to provide the COVAX mechanism with financial support and vaccine doses — because of this, Mauritania has benefitted from 100,000 doses already, and four other countries in Africa will receive doses by the end of May. Noting that any discussion centred on equitable vaccine access necessarily includes a discussion of intellectual property, he supported an immediate lifting of impediments to the export of vaccine components. France’s second priority is to support African peace and security initiatives; for example, a political and civil leap is necessary in the Sahel to provide basic services in vulnerable areas as a complement to military action in the region. He added that the international community must support Africa on the path to sustainable development, as the current crisis has only exacerbated poverty and food insecurity on the continent.
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Minister for External Affairs of India, said the deep solidarity between his country and Africa is expressed through the India‑Africa Forum Summit, “Group of 77” developing countries and China, Non-Aligned Movement, and most evidently, at the United Nations itself. “It is a matter of continuing regret for us that the voice of Africa is not given its proper due in its most pivotal institution,” he said, expressing support for the Common African Position, as stated in the Ezulwini Consensus and the Sirte Declaration. As Africa’s capabilities in facing COVID-19 are “still in the making”, the world must stand by the continent. India has supplied medicines, vaccines and health equipment, and post‑pandemic, its approach, as articulated in the 2018 Kampala Principles, outlines support without conditionalities and in line with African expectations. Pointing to India’s peacekeeping presence in South Sudan, Somalia, Abeyi, Western Sahara and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he endorsed the call to support Africa’s counter-terrorism operations with sustained funding. Bilaterally, India has partnered in the establishment of defence institutions in Nigeria, Ethiopia and the United Republic of Tanzania.
Bui Thanh Son, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Viet Nam, said centuries of slavery and colonialism have dragged the great continent of Africa into poverty, strife and underdevelopment. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely worsened Africa’s socioeconomic prospects, exacerbated ongoing conflicts and undermined efforts to address their root causes of these conflicts. While Africa’s challenges can only be solved by African leadership, the continent cannot — and must not — do it alone. International support and assistance are essential, including to putting in place the peace, stability and security that are prerequisites for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and addressing the challenges posed by COVID-19. It is critical to fully implement Council resolutions 2532 (2020) and 2565 (2020), particularly their calls for a global ceasefire and a durable, extensive and humanitarian pause. Much more also needs to be done to reduce poverty and inequality, address underdevelopment and rectify social injustice. In that vein, he called for close partnerships between the United Nations and African regional and subregional organizations in Africa, particularly the African Union, and the ongoing engagement of the Security Council.
Simon Coveney, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence of Ireland, said peace and security in Africa is a key focus of his country’s international development programme. Citing COVID-19’s uneven impact, he declared: “Our efforts to respond in a collective and coherent manner have been insufficient.” The pandemic must be addressed everywhere at the same time, he said, saying Ireland is providing €100 million to global public health in 2021 — including bilateral support to the COVAX Facility — and is part of the European Union’s broader €860 million contribution. Calling for a focus on conflict settings and the related challenge of climate change, he cited the multiple and repeated shocks of drought and flooding currently affecting the Horn of Africa. He voiced support for the African Union’s efforts to advance socioeconomic development, including through the new African Continental Free Trade Area, calling on all parties to live up to their international legal obligations. That includes in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, which has seen many people killed, injured or displaced in recent months. Among other things, he went on to call for the promotion and protection of human rights for all; redoubled efforts to achieve gender equality; good governance; and for the rule of law to be meaningfully integrated into COVID-19 recovery strategies.
Eva-Maria Liimets, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Estonia, underlined the need to work collectively to overcome the pandemic and address the root causes of conflict. For the recovery to be meaningful, partners must ensure unhindered humanitarian access to conflict areas. Reiterating Estonia’s support for the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, she said it is now crucial for the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines and other immunization programmes. Estonia will never stop underscoring the importance of good governance, accountability, compliance with international humanitarian law, the protection of human rights and respect for the rule of law — all of which play an important role in the conflicts in Africa. To help the continent build back better, its partners must work to get COVID-19 under control faster. The European Union is leading in that regard, having already contributed over €2.47 billion to the global COVAX Facility. Europe also remains the leading exporter of vaccines worldwide, exporting almost as many doses as it provides to its own citizens. Estonia supports Africa in that regard, and also recently adopted its first-ever comprehensive strategy for Africa (2020-2030) which focuses, among other things, on digital transformation, e-governance, innovation and a green transition.
Mutahi Kagwe, Cabinet Secretary for Health of Kenya, said Africa’s security challenges have grown more difficult to manage, due to the emergence of new threats from climate change, migration, terrorism and violent extremism, among others. African States must strengthen their capacities and institutions to respond to pandemics and invest in human security. “A greater focus on the people is needed to ensure that Africa has enough skilled workforce,” he stressed. Africa has special needs, and thus, must be integrated differently in the world economy with a focus on value addition and manufacturing. The causes of conflict relate to poverty and unequal resource distribution, making job creation for young Africans a priority, along with greater State capacity to reach and administer ungoverned spaces, build cohesion among diverse peoples and embrace inclusion in all spheres. He called for boosting the COVAX Facility and enabling easy access to it by all African countries; debt relief and restructuring; investment in national and regional transport and energy infrastructure; and climate change adaptation programmes. He similarly called for greater cooperation between the Council and the African Union to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts, adequate resourcing through assessed contributions of all such peacekeeping missions, including the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and a unified voice in tackling terrorism.
Dag-Inge Ulstein, Minister for International Development of Norway, stressed that COVID-19 is compounding the impact of conflict and climate change in Africa, widening the poverty gap and undermining development gains. Pandemic response, meanwhile, has been used as a pretext to limit civil liberties and human rights. “This is not the way to build trust,” he said. The pandemic must be met with leadership, partnership and a willingness to address the causes of conflict, as demonstrated by the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Mali. Attempts to limit the spread of the virus are hampered when State authorities are absent or too weak to play their role, making it “extremely challenging” to roll out vaccines. He called for a long-term, dynamic, fair and inclusive approach to addressing the causes of violence. Stressing that the African Union’s normative work on democracy, good governance, human rights and rule of law is essential, he encouraged the bloc to take further steps to resolve the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia, noting that national and local voices must be brought to the table — and heard — especially those of women. Indeed, post‑pandemic recovery cannot wait. He called on States to start planning now — addressing the causes of conflict — through partnerships and preventive diplomacy.
The representative of the United States said it is not only challenges, but also opportunities, that connect human beings across the globe at this critical moment. Noting that the decisive actions taken by many African leaders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 saved countless lives, she outlined the United States’ long‑term partnerships and investments across the continent, which among other things have greatly reduced child and maternal deaths and prevented the spread of HIV. On 17 May, President Joseph R. Biden announced that 80 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine will be donated “where they are needed most” outside the United States, with no strings attached. Turning to the serious impacts of climate change in Africa, which is a source of conflict and insecurity in countless communities, she said economic recovery will be a key piece of the continent’s post-COVID-19 recovery. In that regard, she called for engagement by the international community that supports more equitable growth and more transparent, market-based development strategies. The United States supports the initiative of the G20 and the Paris Club to provide debt suspension to some countries, as well as plans by IMF to provide special drawing rights. Underlining her country’s long‑standing belief that democracy is the most powerful way to prevent conflict, she outlined its support for electoral processes and good governance, emphasizing: “If people have a voice and a vote, they are less likely to turn to violence.”
The representative of Mexico, noting the numerous challenges to achieving sustainable peace across Africa, urged the international community to focus on improving institutional strength and the rule of law, on ending the illicit traffic of small arms and light weapons and on addressing the exploitation of the continent’s natural resources. Further, it is necessary to promote the active participation of all members of society — particularly girls and young women — in all stages of post-pandemic recovery to ensure that process is effective and inclusive. Citing World Bank data that the pandemic has pushed some 40 million people in Africa into abject poverty, he called on the Security Council to guarantee all countries on the continent access to COVID-19 vaccines, as political tensions and conflicts might worsen if vaccinations continue at the current, slow rate.
The representative of Niger, noting that African issues represent more than half of the items on the Council’s agenda and account for 70 per cent of peacekeeping interventions, cited a range of challenges that have plagued the continent since colonial times. Today, climate change and the pandemic are compounding those challenges, but also provide an opportunity to finally address Africa’s many intersecting crises. In that context, he called for a lifting of patent rules and intellectual property rights; relaxation of global trade rules; and efforts to make technology and know-how accessible to all. Describing COVID‑19 as a “widow-maker”, he said development and poverty‑reduction efforts must address the needs of widows and orphans, thereby preventing their radicalization by armed groups and reducing social unrest. At a time when many developed countries have already vaccinated huge swaths of their population, he emphasized that Africa’s population remains vaccinated at a rate of less than 1 per cent. Countries on the continent have also suffered severely from the pandemic’s socioeconomic impacts, and require substantial debt relief, special drawing rights and other support to reviving their economies. Such measures should also be applied as the continent addresses the “silent pandemic” of climate change, he added, while echoing the call to urgently overhaul the global governance structures that have long rendered African countries onlookers as others make decisions about their destiny.
James Duddridge, Minister for Africa at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the United Kingdom, noting that the challenges of recovering from the pandemic are numerous and interconnected, called for a comprehensive approach across the pillars of human rights, peace and security and development. The United Kingdom has worked with its partners towards equitable access to COVID‑19 vaccines around the world, and under its presidency, the Group of Seven (G7) doubled its contributions to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ACT‑Accelerator and the COVAX Facility. Citing the risks posed by conflict, he said “vaccination ceasefires” are crucial. Turning to the post-pandemic recovery, he urged Member States to consider ways to ensure that everyone, particularly women, girls and young and marginalized people, have the chance to fulfil their potential. In that regard, he called for increased access to health care, education, poverty reduction and efforts to end preventable deaths. As climate change also continues to magnify challenges, especially in Africa, the United Kingdom has pledged more than $15 billion in international climate finance over the next five years and will continue to support sustainable development and peace processes across the continent.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said that, against the backdrop of the pandemic, security risks in Africa have become accentuated, social contracts have faltered, public trust has diminished and ethnic, intercommunal and political divisions have deepened. Stressing that “lasting solutions can never be imposed”, she said the surest pathway to peace and security in Africa is through home-grown solutions. The expertise of local and regional actors — grounded within the unique context of Africa — must be leveraged through enhanced partnerships among the United Nations, African Union and subregional organizations that span the continent. She called on developed countries to honour their official development assistance (ODA) commitments, to provide greater debt-relief and long-term capacity-building assistance in line with national priorities and to withdraw prejudicial constraints — including unilateral coercive measures — imposed on African countries in favour of inclusive, people-centred and climate-informed solutions delivered in accordance with the Sustainable Development Goals.
The representative of the Russian Federation pointed out that the relevance of today’s debate is evidenced by the fact that the Council devotes upwards of 70 per cent of its discussions to crises in African countries that face threats like terrorism, organized crime, arms and drug trafficking and exploitation of natural resources. While the Council often hears of the relationship between development and security, the “theoretical interdependence of various processes” should be left to the academic community; United Nations entities should instead focus their efforts on practical solutions to existing problems within the scope of their mandates. She said that, in many ways, the root causes of conflict in Africa are the consequences of the continent’s colonial past, and colonialism is taking on new forms — in addition to unfair trade policies and restricted market access, there is active interference in the internal affairs of States. If such interference does not achieve the intended result, then the “sword of Damocles” of unilateral coercive measures hangs overhead, inhibiting swift economic recovery and preventing true independence. She said that, despite this, it is encouraging that African countries, guided by the principle of “African solutions to African problems” are forging an independent path to recovery.
For information media. Not an official record.