COVID-19: US Pulls Plug on Global Ceasefire Resolution

Dali ten Hove reports on political in-fighting among members of the Security Council during the pandemic. 

Secretary-General António Guterres holds a virtual press conference to promote a report on his call for a global ceasefire during the Covid-19 outbreak, April 16, 2020. (Loey Felipe, UN photo)

By Dali ten Hove

After six weeks of negotiations, the United States shot down hopes for a resolution to be approved in the United Nations Security Council on May 8, refusing to back worldwide ceasefires as the U.S. continues to castigate China and the World Health Organization for the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, momentum behind tenuous cease-fires is vanishing, experts say.

The long-awaited moment for the Security Council to approve a resolution supporting the UN secretary-general’s March 23 call to pause fighting in war zones during the coronavirus crisis may be gone for now. The resolution had come close to getting through, it seemed, by Thursday night, May 7, according to some diplomats.

France and Tunisia had circulated a redraft of the resolution, obtained by PassBlue, with compromise language about the WHO. The new formulation expressed support for “all relevant entities of the United Nations system, including specialized health agencies,” in obvious reference to the WHO without naming it. The organization is the UN’s only specialized health agency.

France brandished its diplomatic skills as a permanent Security Council member to get the draft put under silence procedure — a span of time allowing parties to object — until 2 P.M. Friday, Eastern Daylight Time.

Hopes were high among most Security Council members that the resolution would see the light of day by the deadline, especially because on Friday the council was holding an enormous meeting, albeit online, with an array of high-level government officials to commemorate the end of World War II in Europe.

The latest draft resolution — it has gone through numerous iterations — had overcome many obstacles laid by the U.S. and China. Estonia was the first council member to submit a draft resolution on the pandemic in early March but was swatted down mainly by China for including human-rights references, one diplomat said.

Then, a French-led draft was circulated, focusing on the global cease-fire; it was eventually merged with one led by Tunisia. That version, with more changes, was the one put under silence procedure late last week.

Around noon on Friday, May 8, silence was broken, even though several diplomats told PassBlue that senior U.S. officials had shown signs the night before that the U.S. was on board. But on Friday, Russia also said it needed more time to consider the draft; as one diplomat put it, Russia woke up and had to insert itself into the process.

In rejecting the draft, the U.S. State Department said that the Security Council should either proceed with a resolution limited to support for a ceasefire or a broadened resolution “that fully addresses the need for renewed member state commitment to transparency and accountability in the context of Covid-19.”

Guterres’s First Appeal

Back on March 23, as the world came to grips with the gravity of the spreading coronavirus, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appealed to warring parties to observe ceasefires to help fight the coronavirus by ensuring that humanitarian aid supplies could get through conflict zones. “The virus does not care about nationality or ethnicity, faction or faith. It attacks all, relentlessly,” he said. “That is why today, I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire.”

Widely viewed at first as noble but impractical, the appeal nonetheless received the backing of governments, civil society and armed groups globally. “I was surprised by the initial success of the call,” said Richard Gowan, the UN director for the International Crisis Group, a think tank in New York. He said he “was inclined to view it a little skeptically in late March, but a significant number of armed groups did respond positively. I think Guterres may have had a greater impact than he first expected.”

UN Security Council members hold open video conference on the situation in Yemen, April 16, 2020. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

The UN says 16 conflict parties in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and East Asia have declared unilateral pauses in fighting since Guterres’s appeal. This has notably included a ceasefire by Saudi Arabia in its war with the Houthi insurgents in Yemen. Nevertheless, the Houthis have not agreed to a pause, and the Saudis have been bombing Yemen during an extended cease-fire they agreed to weeks ago.

According to the Yemen Data Project, the Saudi-led coalition has carried out at least 83 air raids with up to 356 individual strikes from April 9 to April 30, the most recent information available.

Despite the early success of Guterres’s appeal, the Security Council has so far not endorsed it and remains virtually silent on Covid-19, except for issuing “press elements” — the weakest formal response it can offer publicly — when it met in a closed virtual session on April 9.

The statement that emerged from that meeting said that Security Council members “expressed their support for all efforts of the Secretary-General concerning the potential impact of COVID-19 pandemic to conflict-affected countries and recalled the need for unity and solidarity with all those affected.”

“I’m afraid that momentum is now dissipating,” Gowan said about Guterres’s appeal, as several other ceasefires declared in its wake have since broken down, including one announced in Colombia by the ELN militia, or, in English, the National Liberation Army.

“I think that a Security Council resolution supporting the call in late March or early April would have been very positive,” Gowan added. “Sadly, the council has waited too long.”

The U.S., a veto-wielding member, has strongly objected to any expression of support for the WHO in all versions of the Security Council draft resolution.

The draft by France and Tunisia backing the ceasefire appeal, circulated on April 21, said in notes, “compromise related to the language on WHO to be decided at the end of the negotiation.” China had insisted on a clause commending the organization for its efforts against the pandemic, while the U.S., which has suspended its funding of it, refused to agree to a reference to the agency. The Trump administration also pressed for addressing the origins of the new coronavirus to embarrass China, demanding that it be named the “Wuhan virus” in reference to the Chinese province where Covid-19 is believed to have originated.

The call for countries’ obligations to be transparent was also a demand by the U.S., directly challenging China. Other requirements — including lifting sanctions, by Russia and others, and exemptions of combat pertaining to counterterrorism, by the U.S. and Russia — were also overcome, according to diplomats.

The Trump administration’s denunciations of China and the WHO are widely viewed as distractions from its own sluggish response to Covid-19, as recent polling in the U.S. finds that more Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. China’s posturing in favor of the WHO may in turn be meant to embarrass the U.S., Gowan said, and compensate for China’s mishandling of the coronavirus when it emerged.

“The relationship between Washington and Beijing has grown worse and worse recently,” said Jeremy Greenstock, a former British ambassador to the UN, who spoke with PassBlue from Oxfordshire, England. “It’s pathetic, really, that they are scrapping like this when they need to be cooperating.”

At a press conference on April 30, Guterres expressed disappointment about Security Council infighting in the middle of a deadly pandemic. “The relation between the major powers in the world today is very dysfunctional,” he said. “It is obvious that there is a lack of leadership.”

As Gowan said: “What’s depressing about this is that basically everyone would sign onto the cease-fire. It’s being held hostage by this WHO issue, which is sort of pathetic.”

Dali ten Hove is the researcher on the memoirs of former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Resolved: Uniting Nations in a Divided World,” to be published in 2021. He is a general director of the United Nations Association of the Netherlands and a former trustee of the UNA-UK. He has a master’s in international relations from Oxford University.

This article is from PassBlue.

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8 comments for “COVID-19: US Pulls Plug on Global Ceasefire Resolution

  1. Anonymot
    May 13, 2020 at 17:28

    “It’s being held hostage by this WHO issue, which is sort of pathetic.”

    Yes, but everything America has done for 20 years in international affairs is pathetic. First it was intentionally pathetic under Bush-Cheney. Beyond pathos, in the Obama-Clinton years it threw oil on the fires Bush-Cheney had lit. The current incompetent has not needed new fires to demonstrate that his economic stranglehold is sufficient to kill entire countries that were not killed by his predecessors. No bullets needed is the latest pathos. Use the garrote!

    Let’s be clear, we are a nation of sleepwalkers led by a clutch of madmen who make Frankenstein look friendly.

    So the establishment puts up a slug to confront the wild ape in the White House, because the slug has been in that building before. And he has boxed himself into a woman VP, competence be damned.

    So we have no real choice. No one really competent wants to be stripped naked in public by our media. That is how we play the game and assure ourselves that we cannot even talk about peace. not even a little prayer for one at the UN!

    We are in a pandemic of fascism, of ignorance, incompetence, corruption and of endless horrors made by those who have been, are or would be masters of of the planet – or at least their country.

    As seen from the all-White House it is a way to get rid of a lot of those useless people who live in those shacks with just a small quantity of our own old folks as collateral casualties.

  2. Eric
    May 12, 2020 at 23:55

    Next month, General Assembly members will be choosing the next group of rotating Security Council members. Rebuffed around 2012, Canada is trying again, vying with Norway and Ireland for two (more or less) North Atlantic seats.

    Progressive Canadians are arranging for letters to be sent to all UN ambassadors urging them to vote against Canada, mainly due to its blatantly pro-Israel advocacy. This hasn’t changed under Trudeau from the disgusting Harper years; in fact Canadian foreign policy pretty much follows the U.S. line on Ukraine, Venezuela, Bolivia, Russia, etc. Canada even voted against a resolution to ban nuclear weapons, a longstanding (though nominal) Canadian policy and of course backs Canada-based mining companies as they plunder resources and people around the world.

    Unless General Assembly members think the United States deserves another pro-Israel stooge on the Security Council, they should choose Norway and Ireland.

  3. Fitzroy Herbert
    May 12, 2020 at 10:43

    Frankly, Greenstock did enough in his time at the UN for anybody to treat what he has to say about ‘pathetic’ behaviour with a good degree of cynicism. He was there during the build up to the second Gulf War. Then later he worked alongside Paul Bremer in Iraq. It’s amazing how all these career diplomats write books after their retirement where they suddenly find the ability to tell the truth. (His memoirs were blocked for publication by the FCO for over a decade). Pity they couldn’t do so at the time, or resign when they saw it being transgressed..Perhaps so many hundreds of thousands of lives might have not been lost?

  4. AnneR
    May 12, 2020 at 10:36

    Well, Richard Gowan would appear to be pushing the US line that China is to blame in one way or another for the USA’s having to deal with this virus; all part of the deflection and distraction program that I would suggest reflects both sides of the Janus party’s position. (I doubt strongly that the blue faces will not exploit the fact that, at present, it looks as if the virus gained initial ground in Wuhan, China. The exceptionalist US ruling elites, whether blue or red faced, cannot, ever, admit to their own failures. Always caused by someone else.)

    The fact is that the UN is governed by the US in every significant way. Meanwhile, it, the US, ignores the UN whenever it wishes and stops all truly humanitarian decisions by the Security Council. The whole membership of the UN should have equal voice, be fully part of this Council (but the US, UK and more often than not FR would never permit that because whenever they want UN backing of one of their warmongering, inhumane, imperialist operations – so-called R2P, “humanitarian interventions” and the like, they do not want the world to have a real voice).

    May 12, 2020 at 06:14

    I don’t think America’s reputation will ever recover from the country’s nightmarish behavior in the pandemic.

    • John R
      May 13, 2020 at 14:49

      I don’t believe that america’s reputation was worth a damn before the epidemic. With nearly 900 military bases around the world and a history of violence toward other nations, we are clearly not the good guys. In this election year I am as usual not the least bit hopeful for a better future. What I do hope for is that the winner of the coming election at least behave like an adult.

  6. Jeff Harrison
    May 11, 2020 at 22:41

    Let’s be clear. It’s being held hostage by the US which has an agenda it wants to cram down the world’s throat. Somebody should sue the US for all the people that have been killed as a direct result of American actions/inactions.

    • AnneR
      May 12, 2020 at 10:39

      I would agree – and wonder if part of the reason behind their reprehensible behavior has owt to do with American Big Pharma wanting to make an unconscionable fortune via either a vaccine or a curative – or both. And to prevent China from beating them to this end.

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