Former Malaysian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Tan Sri Hasmy Agam, along with Anis H. Bajrektarevic, urge for a greater UN role to tackle the COVID-19 crisis.
The COVID-19 situation is not just a global health and biosafety issue, but also a global security challenge.
While the pandemic is being dealt with by the World Health Organisation (WHO), along with other relevant United Nations specialised agencies, the situation is deteriorating rapidly. In a scenario growing more and more likely, it could engulf the entire world - and have consequences akin to those of a Third World War.
It is a matter of surprise and concern that the UN Security Council (UNSC) has not stepped in. Given the Covid-19 pandemic’s devastating impact on the entire international community in almost every dimension - including international peace and security - it indisputably falls under the mandate of the UN Charter. The WHO and other concerned UN agencies, much to their credit, are still dealing with the issue – but from their own (narrow) perspectives, and with rather limited mandate and resources.
Especially as the Security Council has in the past dealt with issues of much less importance or urgency, we are puzzled and alarmed to see that it has chosen not to come to grips with the pandemic as a matter of planetary urgency.
If the members of the Council, for their own internal reasons, have not felt compelled to act, should not other members of the world body—individually or collectively (in international or regional groupings such as the European Union, the Non-Aligned Movement, G-77, the African Union, or Association of Southeast Asian Nations)—demand the Security Council address this global pandemic?
In this regard the EU especially would be well-positioned to exert much-needed pressure on the Council, given the devastation that the virus has wreaked on a number of its member states - notably Italy and Spain.
An Emergency Special Session of the Security Council at this time would be applauded by the entire international community. It would accord the United Nations the leadership role that its members expect it to play at such a critical point in post-World War II human history.
In the current dire situation, the big powers need to set aside their ideological and policy differences – and focus instead on galvanizing concerted international action to ensure the safety, full respect of humanitarian law, and the non-discriminatory wellbeing of the entire human race.
By acting decisively and urgently, the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council would be sending a bold and reassuring signal. They would be establishing a reference point for others, especially crucial agencies such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR); the International Labour Organisation (ILO); the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO); and the World Tourism Organisation - as well as by the Red Cross (IFRC); Bretton Woods institutions (synchronised with the UNDP and UNCTAD work); the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); the Federation of Trade Unions; the Council of Europe (CoE), including other specialised or non-UN FORAs; most notably developmental entities such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB); the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB); the Asian Development Bank (ADB); and the African Development Bank (AfDB). The list is long but critically important.
Following the bold signal from the Security Council, we need to achieve global observance and protection of human rights - including health as a universal, indispensable human right under public scrutiny - and also of jobs, for the benefit of the economy and overall security. Recovery—which from now on calls for formidable biosafety—will be impossible without social consensus. Recovery will be unsustainable if it is at the expense of labour or if it involves the erosion of basic human rights – embedded in the UN Charter and recognised as essential to the very success of UN-set Sustainable Development Goals. It must be remembered that countries are not just economies, but most of all societies.
States—and the often glorified markets—have failed humans far too many times in history. There can be no true exit from the current crisis without strengthening labour and human rights.
Multilateralism is the most effective planetary tool at our disposal in this time of planetary crisis. It is the only way for the human race to survive, socioeconomically and politically as well as in health terms.
Covid-19 is a challenge that comes from the world of biology. In international relations as well as biology, it is not the big that eat the small - rather it is the fast which eat the slow.
It is high time to switch off the autopilot. The UN Security Council needs to display courage and leadership.
Tan Sri Hasmy Agam is the former Malaysian Permanent Representative to the United Nations (including a term on the UN Security Council).
Professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic is chairperson and professor at the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, Vienna.
This article was first published by the Asia Europe Institute, University of Malaya on April 20, 2020.
Banner image credit: UN Security Council meet in New York, December 15, 2017. A Katz/Shutterstock.