UN Security Council to hold first ‘virtual’ debate on coronavirus crisis

UN Security Council to hold first ‘virtual’ debate on coronavirus crisis

Human Rights Comissioner says pandemic no ‘blank check’ for nations to violate civil liberties

In this file photo, the UN Security Council meets at UN headquarters in New York City, February 12, 2020.   (Photo by Johannes Eisele  / AFP)
In this file photo, the UN Security Council meets at UN headquarters in New York City, February 12, 2020. (Photo by Johannes Eisele / AFP)

After weeks of disagreement — especially between the United States and China — the United Nations Security Council will meet Thursday to discuss the coronavirus pandemic for the first time.

Led by Germany, nine of the council’s 10 non-permanent members requested the closed-door meeting — a videoconference to maintain social distancing — last week, fed up with the body’s inaction over the unprecedented global crisis.

Talks are moving in the right direction, diplomats said, and Washington is no longer insisting UN language refer to the virus as coming from China, which had infuriated Beijing.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is expected to focus on efforts to fight the pandemic, peacekeeping missions and fostering unity between the non-permanent members and the five permanent ones.

There are two competing texts up for debate.

One, spearheaded by Tunisia on behalf of the 10 non-permanent members and obtained by AFP, calls for “an urgent, coordinated and united international action to curb the impact of COVID-19” and urges an immediate global ceasefire on humanitarian grounds.

A health worker takes the body temperature reading of migrant workers who just arrived from Malaysia, before they enter a quarantine center at Soewondo Air Base in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, April 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Fauzy Chaniago)

That draft resolution has been in development since March 30, though a vote on it is not yet scheduled.

The second text, proposed by France, focuses on Guterres’s call last month to cease all hostilities around the world as part of a “humanitarian pause” to fight the pandemic.

That one has so far only had input from the five permanent members, which diplomats from non-permanent countries told AFP has been “very frustrating.”

France has argued that the so-called P5 need to smooth out their differences before any wider negotiations with the council.

But efforts to convene a meeting of the five have been stymied by the hospitalization of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chinese reticence to participate without first setting a clear agenda.

Richard Gowen, a specialist at the International Crisis Group, told AFP: “It is important to recognize that the main driving force behind the cooperation of the 10 non-permanent members is the bad behavior of the five permanent members.”

Several of these non-permanent workers “waged a fierce campaign to win their seat” on the Council and “are dumbfounded by the bickering between China and the United States” that prevent the body from “agreeing on the great crisis of our time.”

A Western ambassador, speaking anonymously, said the two blocs needed each other.

“The permanent cannot pass a text without the voices of the non-permanent, the non-permanent cannot impose a text on the permanent because they have a veto. We must necessarily agree and we will try to ‘hear’,” they said.

In the Security Council, at least nine votes out of 15 are necessary to adopt a resolution, without a veto of one of the five permanent members.

Meanwhile the UN human rights commissioner warned earlier Thursday that the coronavirus crisis is not a “blank check” to flout civil liberties, as she criticized some states’ adoption of “unlimited” emergency powers.

“Emergency measures may well be needed to respond to this public health emergency. But an emergency situation is not a blank check to disregard human rights obligations,” said Michelle Bachelet.

The former Chilean president was addressing the first-ever virtual meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“Emergency measures should be necessary and proportionate,” she said. “I am profoundly concerned by certain countries’ adoption of emergency powers that are unlimited.”

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