On 8 May 2020, the United States blocked a UN Security Council resolution calling for a global ceasefire to allow the world to concentrate on battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Weeks of careful negotiation over the text crashed, first because of a reference to the World Health Organisation, one of the Trump administration’s current nemeses, and ultimately because of an attempted compromise draft that made only a generic reference to specialized health agencies was rejected by Washington.
The United States refused to endorse a resolution that mentioned the international health agency. China initially insisted it should be in there, but then removed the stipulation as negotiators sought a mutual compromise. Yet after the initial agreement to move the resolution to a vote, the US representative blocked the vote in a volte-face that left negotiators and other UN Security Council members stunned.
It is easy to be cynical and argue that UN proclamations are unlikely to persuade militaries and militias to lay down their weapons. Yet over one hundred nations have expressed their support for the ceasefire, and armed factions in more than twelve countries have observed a temporary truce. An international ceasefire endorsed and supported by the Security Council would be unprecedented and indicate united global leadership for the challenges ahead.
Seeking a solution to this diplomatic impasse, Germany and Estonia submitted another resolution on 12 May that borrows and builds on the failed French-Tunisian proposal, as well as what has already been agreed on by the UN Security Council. This new resolution makes no reference to the World Health Organization.
But the real travesty does not come from this war over words. Nor does it come from the way in which the Trump administration continues its damaging attacks on the United Nations’ international health agency during a global pandemic. It lies in the fact that the proposed ceasefire resolution has been emptied of all meaning; even if it passes, this global call for peace will be partial and hollow.
It is nearly two months since UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres made the appeal for a global ceasefire in a commentary carefully crafted to capture the international imagination. On 23 March, Guterres called on the world to “silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes.” Ten days later, he repeated his appeal, adding that “to silence the guns, we must raise the voices for peace.”
But one voice that has remained conspicuously silent is that of the UN Security Council. Charged with ensuring international peace and security, the Security Council is the United Nations’ most powerful agency and has the authority to make and impose legally binding decisions on member states. In other words, when the Security Council speaks, the world takes notice.
Explanations for this absence have emphasized bickering between China and the United States, especially after this recent debacle.
There is no doubt that rivalry between the Security Council’s permanent five members (P5) blocks debates and the passage of resolutions. Yet the earlier delays were not down to rivalry but due to diplomatic maneuvering designed to ensure the resolution does not impinge on the interests of the P5.
The resolution proposed by France and Tunisia, and now this one by Estonia and Germany, excludes any military operations defined as counterterrorism. And there will be no halt to the international trade in the weapons of war.
During this global pandemic, none of the P5 have halted their military interventions or stopped selling weapons to their allies. By excluding these issues, the proposed resolution lets the P5 off the hook. But surely to raise the voices for peace, we must try to silence the guns of all. Furthermore, violent conflict is sustained by the global arms trade and the P5 are the world’s top exporters to other nations. Yet there has been no pause in the international trade in weapons.
Some regard the coronavirus pandemic as signalling the end of the September 11 era. This is wishful thinking. The P5 seem desperate to cling on to this era because it created a permissive environment for international intervention. Under cover of the “global war on terror,” military actions increased and the international laws of war were shrugged off as a frivolous extravagance or relics of an era long gone.
Being able to label military operations as counterterrorism is not a convenience extended to everyone. But it is for the P5 and their allies.
A comprehensive ceasefire resolution would have interfered with the military operations of the P5, so what is being proposed instead is a watered-down version—a ceasefire that does not apply to the most powerful states. Any Security Council ceasefire resolution that is passed now will allow exceptions to be made at the discretion of individual states.
Backroom diplomacy has emptied the secretary-general’s call of all meaning. So, it appears to be business as usual for the Security Council, pure and simple.
The United States lobbied to have its operations excluded because it wants to be able to continue attacks in Iraq, and to carry out targeted assassinations of foreign leaders as it did against Iran in January. And it would resist any attempt to inhibit Israel’s ability to engage in military operations in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and the occupied Palestinian territory.
Russia lobbied too because it does not want its hands tied from involvement in Syria or Libya, or to halt its operations in Ukraine, particularly its daily shelling of the Donbas region. And it does not want key strategic allies, such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, hampered by restrictions.
China’s position is more complex. While neighbours fear its growing military prowess in the Asia-Pacific, China largely uses “soft power” aid and investment as an international intervention strategy. A global ceasefire, of any description, will not obstruct China’s plans. But a new cold war with the United States could.
Even the P5 members that openly back Guterres’s call have continued with their military interventions abroad. Only one week after giving its support to the global ceasefire, the United Kingdom carried out airstrikes in Iraq. And French special forces operations continue in the Sahel even while President Emmanuel Macron campaigned for a Security Council ceasefire resolution.
COVID-19 is a decisive test for the relevance of the United Nations in the twenty-first century. The Security Council is failing the test.
The most we can expect from the Security Council will be a global ceasefire resolution underpinned by a common hypocrisy: do what we say but not as we do. The guns of the P5 will remain loaded and engaged, and their arms industries will continue to enjoy a booming trade. Because of this, international peace and security will just have to wait.