The world faces a pandemic: where is the security council?

Rosemary McCarney, Paul Heinbecker and Allan Rock are former ambassadors of Canada to the United Nations, and members of the World Refugee & Migration Council. Lloyd Axworthy is chair of the World Refugee & Migration Council.

The UN Security Council is sitting on its hands while the novel coronavirus continues its lethal march across the planet. Over 750,000 people in many countries around the world have been infected and infection rates and hourly death counts are growing exponentially on a daily basis. 

Scientific and medical projections indicate that the situation will get much worse before it gets better. The health systems of rich countries are reeling, but those most at risk are the poor, the dispossessed and the displaced in countries with broken health-care systems, few health-care workers and scant access to medicines and medical equipment.

Right now, we need the Security Council to lead, to support the World Health Organization and the UN High Commission for Refugees and other international organizations protecting the most vulnerable. The council needs to step up and call for all countries to cooperate with the WHO on managing the pandemic, to share data and information and to cooperate in bolstering public health-care systems, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of health-care workers, to press for cease fires in every conflict, to coordinate on economic measures in the face of deepening recession, and to mobilize resources to assist refugees and displaced and to leave no one behind.

In normal times our global governance system, with the UN and its agencies at the centre, ensures that children get vaccinated, refugees are protected, peace agreements are monitored, international criminals are brought to justice, fair elections are held, the hungry get fed when crops fail, weapons aren’t trafficked and the rules of the road for most global interactions are followed.

But these are not normal times. On March 11 the WHO declared a global pandemic. This rarely taken declaration was a siren warning that the speed and scope of the spread of the virus across borders called for unprecedented, urgent global coordination, action and investment.

On March 23 the UN Secretary General called for a global truce so that all warring parties across the globe would suspend hostilities and focus on fighting their new common adversary—the virus. 

The UN High Commission for Refugees and UNICEF are leading the international response to the needs of vulnerable third world populations. Plurilateral and regional organizations like the African Union, the G7 and the G20 have met to address this health crisis affecting the entire planet. 

National governments and their civil societies are striving to get ahead of the virus overtaking their own stressed health-care capacity. Canada has announced a strategic package of domestic investments to assist those hardest hit at home and an international assistance support package for those less fortunate and well equipped than Canada. The announcement by International Development Minister Karina Gould put a strong and needed focus on refugees. 

Canada is exhibiting the kind of leadership we need from the Security Council.

It is both a moral imperative and enlightened self-interest to help those countries whose systems are inadequate to surmount this unprecedented challenge. What remains lacking today is global leadership and coordination.

So, where is the Security Council in this time of global need and danger? 

In the notional political hierarchy of global governance, the Security Council sits at the top, with primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. Peace and security are threatened not only when wars break out but also when hunger and poverty overwhelm societies, natural resources are degraded, human rights violations are pervasive and health crises threaten entire populations, forcing people to flee. The world needs the council to lead, not to debate its own mandate.

This pandemic threatens millions of people, but especially the vulnerable and dispossessed, trapped in refugee camps, sleeping rough on the streets of major cities, strung across landscapes unfit for human survival, taking to unsafe boats because the land is even less safe. Now they face a hidden adversary that will kill them by the scores of thousands across the globe. Do the most powerful members of the Security Council really believe that this pandemic, with its massive threat to life and political stability is not their business?

Precedents are not lacking. In July 2000, the Security Council passed a binding resolution on HIV-AIDS calling on all member states of the UN to provide access to treatment and to cooperate to address the spread of the disease. In September 2014, the Security Council declared Ebola a threat to international security and urged the world to send more health workers and supplies to the hardest hit countries.

If the Security Council is kept on the sidelines during this massive threat to international peace, security and stability by its powerful members, its relevance will be further and perhaps irreparably undermined. The Council this week called on the members, both elected and permanent, of the Security Council to engage effectively. 

For the most vulnerable, the dispossessed and displaced, who count on the global governance system working, time is running out.

This article was first published in The Toronto Star.