What does the UN Security Council Resolution on COVID-19 mean?

Pauline Chetcuti Conflict, Humanitarian

On July 1st, the UN Security Council (UNSC) unanimously backed U.N. chief Antonio Guterres’ March 23rd call for a global ceasefire amid the coronavirus pandemic. Resolution 2532 (2020) was finally adopted after more than three months of deadlock. Oxfam and our partners have campaigned for this resolution as a first step towards silencing the guns.

The resolution drafted by France and Tunisia had been in the making for months. It finally calls for “all parties to armed conflicts to engage immediately in a durable humanitarian pause for at least 90 consecutive days” to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid. This pause is vital for populations trapped in conflicts, suffering ongoing violence, which have seen the pandemic further disrupt humanitarian flows and access to already weak health care systems.

But a UNSC resolution stating that the COVID-19 pandemic is a threat to international peace and security and giving the authority needed for the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) to call for a global ceasefire, would have been useful much earlier on in the response.  It would have shown unity and solidarity, in the face of one of the greatest challenges of the past decades.

This pandemic is creating an era-defining opportunity. It needs to be used to shape a new commitment to a multilateral, rules-based system that works for all. This resolution has given this system some teeth, but it still needs the political appetite to bite.

What is the resolution really demanding?

The devil is in the detail. The UNSCR demands a “cessation of hostilities in all situations on its agenda”.

By demanding a cessation of hostilities rather than a ceasefire, the UNSC shows little political willingness to use this initiative to foster longer, positive peace despite the urgency.

A cessation of hostilities does not equate to a ceasefire. A cessation of hostilities may be the start of a larger peace process, but it remains provisional and nonbinding. In a conflict that involves many parties, like the conflict in Syria, the cessation may apply to only some parties.

 There is no official legal definition of a ceasefire, but it usually signals an attempt to reach a more comprehensive and permanent settlement of an armed conflict. It implies a negotiated, binding agreement that is meant to last longer than cessations of hostilities.

While the Resolution should help in the short term it will not necessarily foster broader peace processes. With no accountability mechanism for lack of implementation and adherence, at best this resolution could make way to “create a formal framework for the UN to monitor and update ceasefire implementation”. This Resolution is only an incentive for conflicting parties to take the initiative seriously.

Legal experts will notice that by also including “in all situations on its agenda”, the resolution’s text creates a loophole by which conflicts not on the UNSC agenda do not fall under the resolution. Many contexts, like Afghanistan or Myanmar for example, would be currently off the hook.

Will all type of violence cease?

One of the main issues with the resolution, and a clear sign of the decline in respect and support for International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and more broadly for human rights, is the fact that the UNSCR does not apply to military operations against designated terrorist groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaida.

But we know that in the central Sahel, that while jihadi groups are the main contributors to the violence, community-based militias and government forces often perpetrate equally deadly attacks. ACLED data show that abuses by government forces are inherent to prevailing conflict dynamics in the central Sahel, and these actors routinely commit atrocities with impunity. The first casualties are always civilians.

To deliberately exclude these areas and types of violence from the remit of the UNSCR, and therefore civilians from a vital break in hostilities, is denying the very humanity at the core of a ceasefire.

It ultimately undermines the relevance, legitimacy and trust in the institution devoted to protecting civilians and peace, 20 years on from its own Resolution 1265 (1999) on the protection of civilians.

The Resolution also instructs peace-keeping operations to provide support. The Ebola response in Eastern DRC has shown that the use of UN-peacekeepers in the epidemic response lead to a severe deterioration of the population’s trust in the response and to growing tensions.

UN peace-keepers were considered as a party to the ongoing conflict in the DRC. In Beni and Butembo for instance, this greatly impeded access and even led to violence against responders.

While it might be necessary in some instances to use military assets to respond to the crisis, it is essential to maintain the civilian character of the coronavirus response. The UNSC must ensure that the well-established international guidelines on civil-military coordination are respected and that there are clear and strong safeguards to prevent and report abuse against civilians.

Is it too late?

It took an awfully long time, considering the stakes, for the UNSC members to agree on a very short resolution. The UNSC members, particularly the US and China, could not agree on some seemingly innocuous details, namely to refer to the WHO.

For more than three months, despite numerous calls from Oxfam, civil society, decision-makers and other UN member States, the UNSC remained deadlocked. While a few conflict parties had initially announced limited duration, unilateral ceasefires (e.g. Yemen, Colombia), when the news of the adoption of the UNSCR broke, parties to conflict and other armed groups had long resumed their fighting.

This displays how dysfunctional the multilateral UNSC has become. This delay has taken away momentum of an otherwise timely initiative from the UNSG.

The resolution also acknowledges the role that women are playing in COVID-19 response efforts. And highlights the disproportionate negative impact it’s having on more vulnerable groups such as children and persons with disabilities.

This is an important step to ensure the participation and leadership of women, women’s groups and CSOs in pandemic responses. They are central to the design and implementation of the COVID-19 response and meaningful participation in peacebuilding and security efforts.

This UNSC Resolution can still be a force for good, provided that its members genuinely put their political weight behind securing actual pauses in hostilities. The UNSG call had served to draw attention to the impacts of COVID-19 in settings of ongoing armed conflict and received a good initial response. The resolution should allow UN envoys and States diplomats to champion its implementation.


Pauline Chetcuti