COVID-19: A new challenge for the UN for peacekeeping

June 25, 2020

Juan Alberto Rial (Guest article) 

Professor of Public International Law
Secretary of the Institute of International Relations
Universidad Nacional de La Plata (Argentina)

Today the United Nations has thirteen active missions with about 83,000 troops from 119 of its members. The largest mission is deployed in South Sudan and consists of 13,795 people; The smallest, spread across several countries in West Africa and the Sahel, consists of only 2 troops. Regardless of the size of the mission, the renewal of its personnel is carried out every six months. With this we try to draw attention to the enormous challenges that COVID-19 implies in the task of preserving the health of the peacekeeping missions members, which may well have arrived to the host country of the mission on different conditions, and represents a challenge to the almost 120 diverse health systems: The risk is less if the contingent was deployed four months ago from a region without COVID-19 circulation, to the one that can generate a rotation from or to a country with high circulation of the Coronavirus.

Let us recall, for example, the gravity of the situation: in 2016 the former UN Secretary General had to acknowledge the responsibility of the organization in the spread of the cholera outbreak in Haiti (SPA) after it was demonstrated that members from the peace mission in that country where the ones who introduced the disease (SPA), which, according to the Pan American Health Organization, claimed nearly 10,000 lives and infected more than 820,000 people. All this began in 2010, the same year in which the country suffered a devastating earthquake.

The introduction of a highly contagious disease, such as COVID-19, can generate enormous problems in an environment that presents fragility in various fronts, given that the political tension, the negative consequences in economic and social terms of an armed conflict (internal or international), as well as the processes of transition to a robust democracy are often the circumstances that have led to the deployment of peace operations. That such operation adds difficulties to an already complex environment, instead of being the tool to create solutions, would undermine its legitimacy.

On the other hand, the introduction of an illness or the aggravation of it in the event of an epidemic outbreak, threatens peace directly in a broad sense, in terms of “positive peace”, as stated by the UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali in his “Program for Peace”:

This new dimension of insecurity cannot be allowed to overshadow the devastating and constant problems [caused by] disease spread… These are elements that are a source and consequence of conflicts that require incessant attention and a high degree of priority in the activities of the United Nations. Drought and disease can decimate the population with the same cruelty as war weapons [Own translation]. 

Development, security and human rights are not only indispensable, but they are also mutually reinforcing. Thus, the notion of human security acquires tangible validity in these extraordinary circumstances that we have to live. Consistent with this, the UN Secretary General stated that:

Threats to peace and security in the 21st century include not only war and international conflict, but… deadly infectious diseases… since they can also have catastrophic consequences. All these threats can be a cause of death or seriously reduce the chances of life. All of them can undermine States as basic units of the international system [Own translation]. 

Any measure taken to avoid that Peace Missions turn into focal points of COVID-19 transmission strengthens the legitimacy of the UN presence in the host countries, and contributes to the maintenance of peace and international security. All which remains is to accompany the request from the Department of Peace Operations and the Department of Operational Support to meticulously review the rotations of troops in the next six months, as well as the request to delay by three months the rotations that were in imminent compliance, to keep the forces operating. Even if rotation of personnel flights are allowed, prudence must prevail in order to minimize risks.

Without a doubt, the men and women who make up the United Nations peacekeeping missions have been harmed by the delay to return to their homes, but their vocation to serve and the fact that they know that the well-being of all prevails over individual difficulties, will make up for it.

The COVID-19 pandemic puts the International Society as a whole in check. Multilateralism and its greatest expressions are facing a new challenge, magnified by many others that precede it: Permanent attacks against multilateralism by central international actors; Against the main agreements that protect the environment, international trade or promote disarmament and non-proliferation. Those attacks damage the social fabric and the weak international solidarity that has cost so much to build.

In an era of global interdependence, the common interest is a binder that should unite all States around this cause, just as the impulses of our common humanity should. Probably, the COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest collective challenge of our generation. And perhaps it will allow us to consolidate the achievements that peace can offer us. This will depend on us.

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