Is All Hope Lost for a Global Cease-Fire Resolution at the UN?
(May 14, 2020) — Is it too late for the United Nations Security Council to make even a modest contribution to international stability during the coronavirus pandemic? After negotiating for the better part of two months, the council’s member states have yet to agree on a resolution addressing the security consequences of COVID-19.
Last Friday, the United States refused to endorse a text that the body’s 14 other members were ready to back. It is not clear that a compromise is possible.
This is a pity, because the draft resolution the US nixed—worked out by France and Tunisia, the former a permanent member of the council and the latter an elected one—centers on a fairly straightforward proposal to limit the suffering stemming from the pandemic. It repeats UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ appeal back in March for a general cessation in hostilities so that aid workers and health experts could help conflict-affected communities navigate the coronavirus.
The draft calls for a 90-day humanitarian pause in armed conflicts in general, in addition to a more specific demand for an immediate halt to violence in crises that are already on the council’s agenda, such as in South Sudan and Libya.
Guterres’ initial appeal resonated quite widely, as armed groups from Colombia to the Philippines committed to cease-fires in late March. Had the Security Council moved faster to endorse the idea, it might have gained momentum earlier on. But a series of disputes among council members, including a battle between China and the US over whether the resolution should contain a positive reference to the World Health Organization, prevented them from giving Guterres early, clear backing.
These disputes, and the UN’s resulting inaction, offer hard lessons about the growing dysfunction of the Security Council—already painfully evident in previous disagreements over crises like those in Libya and Syria—and how tensions between Beijing and Washington could exacerbate it in the future.
When France first floated the idea for a more general resolution to respond to the coronavirus pandemic with the other four permanent members of the Security Council in March, US diplomats reportedly insisted that the text refer to the origins of the virus in Wuhan, China. The Chinese predictably refused. With the council’s permanent members deadlocked, their 10 elected counterparts began to work up a draft resolution of their own.
Yet this process also revealed significant differences over the council’s priorities. Tunisia tabled an expansive draft praising the WHO and discussing the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic. But other elected members felt Tunisia’s draft covered matters beyond the council’s purview. South Africa, in particular, objected to the Security Council asserting a right to interfere in global health issues.
The UN’s inaction on a global cease-fire resolution offers hard lessons about the growing dysfunction of the Security Council.
During these discussions, and the parallel talks among the five permanent members, it became clear that the call for a global cease-fire offered a relatively strong central plank for any resolution. Some powers, including the US and Russia, insisted that any endorsement of the call should include a significant carve-out for their own counterterrorism operations. But none opposed offering a general declaration of support for the cease-fire with that caveat.
By mid-April, France and Tunisia were able to agree on a joint draft pivoting toward the cease-fire idea. In attempting to forge a consensus, they dropped references to issues that might provoke other members, including sanctions relief and human rights.
The resulting draft resolution, which has been circulating among diplomats and UN officials in New York for some weeks, also only makes a perfunctory reference to COVID-19’s impacts on women and girls. But while it is a lowest-common-denominator product, it could give Guterres a chance to renew his cease-fire push, which has lost steam as some armed groups that welcomed his appeal have returned to violence.
Yet the Security Council has proven unable to agree on the French-Tunisian draft for reasons unrelated to the cease-fire appeal. The US attempted to include language on the need for “transparency” over the origins of COVID-19 — a fairly obvious attempt by the Trump administration to embarrass China.
And Washington has refused to countenance even a passing reference to the WHO after Trump announced a freeze in US funding to the organization over its alleged deference to Beijing. The Chinese pushed back on both points, corralling other council members to back a reference to the WHO, resulting in yet more weeks of gridlock.
Late last week, China agreed to compromise on the WHO issue, accepting a coded reference to UN “entities” fighting COVID-19, while US diplomats appeared willing to drop the transparency issue. Yet when France and Tunisia circulated a final text, Washington refused to accept it at the last minute. There are rumors that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has frequently attacked China for its handling of the outbreak, made this final call.
The US has said that it could still accept a resolution solely focused on a global cease-fire, excluding even an indirect nod to the WHO, and Germany and Estonia have already worked up a minimalist text along these lines. But it is not clear that China will accept that. Beijing may actually gain some satisfaction from the current impasse, which it could count as a tactical success given the isolation of the US.
Other members of the Security Council feel that the Trump administration basically got almost all that it demanded out of the prolonged negotiations on the text, which made its last-minute refusal look especially petty.
While most members might still like to see a resolution pass, some may doubt there is much point in passing such a minimal endorsement of a global cease-fire after so much toxic diplomacy.
The Security Council’s unified backing of the cease-fire might have carried weight with governments and armed groups that were considering whether to suspend violence, as it would have looked like a fairly clear statement of support for the secretary-general from major powers. A similar resolution today will have far less clout, as China and the U.S have already demonstrated that they have other priorities and little real desire to cooperate.
Still, even a slim endorsement for the global cease-fire at this point could offer Guterres a morsel of political support for his worthy, if aspirational, effort to promote peace amid the pandemic. It could also prop up the Security Council’s own damaged credibility. If the UN’s most powerful decision-making body cannot agree to a straightforward call for peace and calm in a moment of global uncertainty, after all, it implies that great-power tensions will weigh very heavily on it in any future crisis it faces.
Richard Gowan is the UN director at the International Crisis Group. Ashish Pradhan is the senior UN analyst at the International Crisis Group.
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