UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday reminded the Security Council of the multi-faceted implications of COVID-19 on international peace and security.
“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to profoundly affect peace and security across the globe,” he told the Security Council. “The risks are diverse.”
The consequences can be seen even in a number of countries traditionally seen as stable. But the impacts are particularly apparent in countries already experiencing conflict or emerging from it — and may soon engulf others, he said.
Tensions are rising as a result of the severe socio-economic fallout of the crisis. Trust in public institutions is being eroded further in places where people perceive that authorities have not addressed the pandemic effectively or have not been transparent about its impact, said Guterres.
As pre-existing grievances and vulnerabilities become more accentuated and entrenched, the potential for instability and violence only grows, he warned.
The pandemic is exacerbating gender inequalities, as women make up the vast majority of the sectors most affected. There has been an alarming spike in gender-based and domestic violence, and it is increasingly difficult for victims to report abuse, seek shelter and access justice, he said.
In some countries, fragile peace processes could be derailed by the crisis, especially if the international community is distracted. In other places, conflict actors, including terrorist and violent extremist groups, see the uncertainty created by the pandemic as a tactical advantage, he said.
Many countries have had to consider how to move ahead with elections slated for 2020 while trying to manage the health crisis. In the Central African Republic, there are tensions due to attempts to use the pandemic as a pretext to postpone the holding of elections planned for the end of the year, he noted.
Decisions on postponing or indeed proceeding with elections raise complex legal, political and public health challenges. Difficult as they are, such decisions are best made on the basis of broad consultations with all stakeholders, to avoid fueling political tensions or undermining legitimacy, said Guterres.
COVID-19 has also made diplomacy more challenging. Mediation can be a very personal endeavor, an almost-tactile reading of a person or a room. With movement restrictions limiting such contacts, and with online discussions often the only alternative, it can be harder to establish the trust and nurture the willingness to compromise that are at the heart of preventive diplomacy, he said.
The pandemic also highlights the risks of bioterrorist attacks, and has already shown some of the ways in which preparedness might fall short if a disease were to be deliberately manipulated to be more virulent, or intentionally released in multiple places at once, he said. “So, as we consider how to improve our response to future disease threats, we should also devote serious attention to preventing the deliberate use of diseases as weapons.”
He called for the universality and strengthening of the Biological Weapons Convention, which lacks an oversight institution and contains no verification provisions.
“Given the speed at which pathogens spread in an interconnected world, we must ensure that all countries have resilient and appropriate capacities to respond quickly and robustly to any potential global and deliberate biological event,” he said.
Meanwhile, stigma and hate speech are on the rise. And an epidemic of misinformation online has run rampant, said Guterres.
Another risk for the long term is the shifting of resources away from gender equality initiatives, education and other economic sectors. Indeed, this could have intergenerational impacts, including on women’s rights and participation in political and peace processes, he said.
Humanitarian needs have surged. More than 1 billion children are out of school. More than 135 million people could be on the brink of starvation by the end of this year. Routine immunization services are being disrupted on an unprecedented scale, raising the likelihood of major outbreaks of diseases like measles and polio. The already acute vulnerability of refugees and internally displaced persons has grown more pronounced, particularly those living in confined and congested camps and detention facilities. And health care workers and humanitarian personnel have themselves been targeted for unconscionable attacks.
“The health pandemic has fast become a protection crisis,” said Guterres.
These wide-ranging risks require an urgent and united response, including from the Security Council, he said. “Collective security and our shared well-being are under assault on many fronts, led by a relentless disease and abetted by global fragilities. Our challenge is to save lives today while buttressing the pillars of security for tomorrow.”
The Security Council was holding a high-level debate on the implications of COVID-19 on international peace and security.