On coronavirus or in conflict, UN struggles to remain relevant

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - United Nations diplomats could breathe sighs of relief this week after they finally voted to pass the Security Council’s first resolution on the coronavirus pandemic – six months after Chinese media began reporting on a viral outbreak in the city of Wuhan.

As the virus tore across continents, infecting 11 million people and claiming more than 500,000 lives, the council struggled to agree on how to word the document, with the United States and China rowing over whether or not to reference the World Health Organisation.

For many, it was a case study in everything that is wrong about the UN. The world body, which celebrated its 75th birthday last week, struggles in the face of deepening geopolitical rivalries, Covid-19, climate change and wars in Libya, Yemen, Syria and beyond.

Fionna Smyth, from the charity Oxfam, said the UN resolution was “long overdue” and bashed envoys for “paralysis at this critical time”. Richard Gowan, UN director for the International Crisis Group, a think tank, said the council had been “dysfunctional”.

This time, diplomats agreed. Christoph Heusgen, the UN ambassador for Germany, which on Wednesday assumed the rotating presidency of the Security Council, acknowledged that world powers were not meeting their obligations.

“There is no doubt that multilateralism has seen better times,” Mr Heusgen told The National and other reporters in an online briefing, describing lacklustre co-operation between the council’s 15 members.

Mr Heusgen spoke of suffering in Libya as foreign powers deployed troops and warplanes there despite a UN arms embargo. In Syria, the council could not even agree on how to transport aid to some 11 million civilians who urgently needed handouts, he added.

“The frustration must not lead to a situation where we give up,” added the German envoy. “We have to go every day here to the UN, every member of the Security Council has the obligation to do his or her job and see that we come to a result.”

Council members voted unanimously for the Covid-19 resolution on Wednesday, more than three months after UN secretary general Antonio Guterres called for a global truce to help healthcare workers and those infected by the coronavirus in global hotspots.

The two-page document, drafted by France and Tunisia, calls for “all parties to armed conflicts to engage immediately in a durable humanitarian pause for at least 90 consecutive days” so that aid workers can access the needy.


Coronavirus around the world

Nikolai Petrovsky, research director at Vaxine, an Australian biotechnology company, holds a syringe with a vaccine specimen at the Flinders University lab, in Adelaide, Australia. The first potential coronavirus vaccine developed in the southern hemisphere is set to begin human trials in Adelaide. EPA

A health worker checks a patient with symptoms related to Covid-19 at the coronavirus unit of the San Juan de Dios Hospital in Guatemala City. AP Photo

A police officer directs traffic at a roadblock in suburban Melbourne, Australia. Thousands of residents in dozens of suburbs of Melbourne are preparing to lock down for a month with the Victoria state premier warning a state-wide shutdown is possible if coronavirus cases continue to rise. AAP Image via AP

A customer orders from a taco truck in Los Angeles, California. California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered indoor dining restaurants to close again in Los Angeles County and 18 other counties for at least three weeks amid a surge in new coronavirus cases. Restaurants and food trucks may remain open for takeout and drive-through orders. AFP

Concert-goers hold up a Canadian Flag during a singing of the Canadian national anthem during a drive-in Dean Brody concert to celebrate Canada Day in Markham, Canada. While most events marking the 153rd anniversary of Confederation across the country have been cancelled or moved online due to the spread of the coronavirus, the drive-in concert skirted social gathering rules by allowing attendees to socially distance in and on their cars. AFP

People who want to leave the island, but cannot due to coronavirus disease-related travel restrictions, take part in a "fake" travel experience for tourists simulating the experience of using an international airport at Songshan airport in Taipei, Taiwan. Reuters

A passenger wearing a protective suit and mask collects her luggage after arriving on a flight from Melbourne at Sydney Airport, Australia. EPA

Students wearing face masks talk in the Attarkiah Islamic School in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat as schools across Thailand reopened after being temporarily closed to concerns about the novel coronavirus. AFP

People wearing protective face masks walk past candidate posters for the upcoming Tokyo governor election during the spread of the coronavirus disease in Tokyo, Japan. Reuters

People wearing masks to curb the spread of the new coronavirus wait for businesses to open in downtown Lima, Peru. AP Photo

South Korean army soldiers spray disinfectant to help reduce the spread of the new coronavirus in a class at Cheondong elementary school in Daejeon, South Korea. Yonhap via AP

Rudy Giuliani, personal lawyer to US President Donald , wears a protective mask following a television interview outside the White House in Washington DC, USA. Bloomberg

The 9 de Julio Boulevard is seen almost devoid of traffic during the return to a strict lockdown to curb the spread of ovid-19 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. AP Photo


Still, there were few signs that the council’s call for a truce would quickly lead to rebel and government troops laying down their guns and cutting peace deals in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Congo or other hotspots.

The Syrian government of President Bashar Al Assad has mostly won the country’s decade-long war, helped by Russia and Iran, but a military stalemate with Turkey in the north-western Idlib province could easily reignite into full-scale fighting.

In Yemen, a partial truce was came to an end on Wednesday, with a Saudi Arabia-led coalition resuming military operations against the Iran-backed Houthi rebel movement, which last week launched missiles at the Saudi capital Riyadh.

In Libya, the UN-backed government in Tripoli, the capital, seeks to consolidate gains made in recent weeks with Turkish assistance against the forces of military commander Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Russia, France, Egypt and others.

The Security Council’s main task is to prevent conflicts, but its peace-making efforts often get derailed because its membership includes nations that are involved in those wars, or are allied to a government that is.

The council’s five permanent members – the US, Russia, China, France and Britain – can stop any action dead in its tracks with a veto. On Syria, Moscow has deployed its veto 14 times in defence of Mr Al Assad’s government.

This week, the UN’s former peace envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, launched a bitter attack on Security Council members, saying he had been “stabbed in the back” by the same diplomats who hired him to end Libya’s chaos.

Instead of helping him bolster Libya’s Tripoli-based government, Mr Salame said “most of the Security Council members” had instead started backing Field Marshal Haftar when he launched a surprise attack on Tripoli in April 2019.

Mr Salame’s comments were uncharacteristically strong for a diplomat, but they represent a growing frustration among ambassadors, aid workers and others when the UN’s top body grinds to a halt in an emergency.

UN chief Mr Guterres feels it too. In his message to mark 75 years since the UN Charter was signed in San Francisco in June 1945, amid the chaos of the Second World War, he said now was a good time to “reimagine multilateralism, give it teeth to function”.

Mr Gowan, the UN analyst, agreed. After months of “prolonged failure and bickering between the US and China”, passing the coronavirus resolution was “not enough”. Instead of talking about peace, the council’s heavyweight members should use their leverage to end wars.

“At the same time, Mr Guterres should use the resolution as a means to hold council and other UN members to account for their actions, praising those who support real peace efforts and raising questions about those that don’t,” Mr Gowan told The National.

Updated: July 2, 2020 05:43 PM

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