COVID-19 as a Threat to International Peace and Security: What place for the UN Security Council?

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The rapid spread of COVID-19 and actions to contain the virus have understandably drawn parallels with previous outbreaks, in particular that of Ebola in West Africa in 2014 and of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 which also arose in China but affected Hong Kong more severely. While the SARS outbreak went largely unnoticed (at least not formally) by the Security Council, in 2014, it designated the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as a threat to international peace and security. Resolution 2177 (2014) was the first time the Security Council had considered and subsequently determined a public health issue a threat to international peace and security in line with Article 39 of the UN Charter. This post examines briefly the Security Council’s response to the Ebola outbreak and considers whether a comparable response may result towards the current COVID-19 outbreak. First, it assesses factors for the Security Council’s designation of the Ebola outbreak as a threat to international peace and security. Second, it considers whether factors attributable to the designation of the Ebola outbreak as a threat to peace and security are comparable to the current coronavirus outbreak. And third, it highlights some legal aspects pertaining to such a designation, including potential effects of that designation.

The Ebola outbreak as a threat to international peace and security

The Ebola outbreak began in December of 2013 in Guinea, spreading quickly to neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. In the course of two years, some 28 600 infections were reported resulting in over 11 000 deaths. In an unprecedented effort to contain and eradicate the infection, the Security Council held an emergency meeting on 18 September 2014 to consider the outbreak (S/PV.7268). Sentiment expressed at this meeting suggests that both the rapid spread and high mortality rate were instrumental in member states’ consideration of the outbreak as an international threat (see in particular statement by France). Australia had for example explicitly referred to the fact that “infections and deaths [were] multiplying exponentially, doubling every three weeks.” Additionally, member states also emphasized the economic, social and political effects the outbreak was having on the West African region. Emphasis was also placed on the outbreak’s threat to post-conflict peacebuilding in the region. Widespread consensus on tackling the outbreak resulted in the unanimous adoption of Resolution 2177 (2014) sponsored by a record 130 states. Consequently, Resolution 2177 (2015) determined that:  “the unprecedented extent of the Ebola outbreak in Africa constitutes a threat to international peace and security”

It seems therefore that the determination of the Ebola outbreak as a threat to international peace and security took into account a combination of issues, which may be highlighted as follows: – the rapid spread of the virus and its corresponding mortality rate (S/PV.7268, this point was however not reflected in the wording of Resolution 2177 (2014))

– the fact that it would outpace the ability of domestic health care systems to respond to it

-its negative impacts on social and economic circumstances in the region

-the threat it posed to post-conflict peacebuilding in West Africa

How comparable is COVID-19 to the Ebola designation?

The designation of the Ebola outbreak as a threat to international peace and security may be comparable to the current COVID-19 outbreak based on several aspects. First, one must note that steps taken by Chinese authorities to both contain the infection and treat individuals infected with the virus have been unprecedented. The quarantine of Wuhan, along with several other major cities, has taken the record as the largest quarantine in human history. Additional travel restrictions and the construction of hospitals entirely dedicated to the outbreak suggests a much more aggressive response than what was seen with the initial response to the Ebola outbreak. On the one hand, in contrast to the current outbreak, the WHO did not declare a public health emergency of international concern until some eight months after the first reported cases of Ebola. On the other hand, in contrast to the Ebola outbreak, there is (not yet) a post-conflict situation involved in the current outbreak, at least not where the virus has already spread to. Economic, social and political stability however continue to be of a real concern.

Contrary to the above notions, however, the spread of COVID-19 compared to that of Ebola rightfully suggests a factor favoring its designation as a threat to international peace and security. Whereas Ebola infected some 28 000 people over the course of two years, COVID-19 has achieved this number in just under two months and is in fact approaching seven times the number of infections of Ebola. Despite its seemingly lower mortality rate when compared to both Ebola and SARS, the high number of infections may result in an equally high number of eventual deaths. Additionally, the Ebola outbreak remained mostly defined to West Africa whereas COVID-19 has already spread to over 155 countries and territories across six continents. The emergence of the virus in Africa may also suggest only a matter of time exists until it does in fact bear potential consequences to states still grappling with post-conflict situations – particularly in the West African region. Additionally, it is worth noting that the African Union’s Peace and Security Council at its 910th meeting on 20 February already expressed “grave concern” at the outbreak, adding that it “could constitute a threat to peace and security on the Continent.”            

Effects of determining 2019-nCov as a threat to international peace and security?

Much like that of the Ebola outbreak, designating COVID-19 a threat to international peace and security could produce mutual benefits for states seeking to avoid infections and those dealing with the current outbreak. On the one hand, a call from the Security Council for member states to assist affected regions may produce desirable results where funding and the provision of additional measures are required. This was in particular echoed by Resolution 2177 (2014) during the Ebola outbreak in which the Security Council called for, among others:

  • The provision of urgent resources and assistance, including deployable medical capabilities, laboratory services, dedicated clinical services, technical expertise,

  • That international organisations (the AU, ECOWAS and the EU) mobilize capabilities to ensure rapid diagnosis, training of health care workers, and coordinated assistance

On the other hand, taking up the issue of COVID-19 and designating it a threat to international peace and security may also alleviate an increasing isolation towards China as well as several other states dealing with the outbreak. Such was the case with the Security Council’s call in Resolution 2177 (2014) that member states were to ‘lift general travel and border restrictions, imposed as a result of the Ebola outbreak’ to the extent that those restrictions contributed to undermining efforts in responding to the outbreak.

As far as a possibility exists that the COVID-2019 outbreak be determined a threat to international peace and security, one needs to consider also potential resistance from China. Given the implications which correspond to making such a determination, it is reasonable to expect that China may not be willing to allow such a determination in the Security Council. At most perhaps, what may result is a more often than not strategic formulation of the determination carefully excluding certain associations to any state.


Where the Security Council stands with COVID-19 remains yet uncertain. At a press conference on 3 February, Security Council President Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve (Belgium) indicated that as of yet, no member state had requested discussions on the issue of COVID-19 and that it would only be discussed if it poses a threat to international peace and security. Similar sentiment has been shared by the Chinse permanent mission to the Security Council, Zhang Jun, who assumed presidency for March indicating there were no plans to take up the issue. Given the alarming rate at which the infection is spreading, one may well question at what point such a determination should be made. Since Resolution 2177 (2014) set the stage for Security Council action on public health crises and in particular threats caused by infectious diseases, one may well bear in mind the Security Council’s call in that resolution’s preamble that: “the control of outbreaks of major infectious diseases requires urgent action and greater national, regional and international collaboration.”

Should the Security Council decide on discussing the matter and subsequently designate COVID-19 a threat to international peace and security, it may call for a range of measures. Probable is the possibility that these measures may echo its actions on the Ebola outbreak. As such and in line with the World Health Organisation’s call, primary measures may include calling on states to implement mechanisms for rapid diagnosis, isolation of suspected cases, increasing capacity for treatment of cases and bolstering public health care systems. Secondary measures may include calling on states to mitigate the social and economic impact of the virus, which has already taken a severe toll on global economies. Additionally, the Security Council may, in light of increasing travel restrictions globally, call for lifting of travel bans which hamper efforts in the fight against COVID-19. At the same time, it may choose to praise domestic measures such as national lockdowns, and particularly the efforts of health care workers in the increasing efforts to counter the spread of the virus. Finally, given the widespread trend particularly taking place online regarding disinformation around COVID-19, the Security Council may well call on states to ensure effective, reliable and timely information and communication to the public about COVID-19. It is worth noting that the Security Council’s meetings for the remainder of the week of 16 March have been called off due to the COVID-19 crisis. Whether this presents an occasion for virtual Security Council discussions on global issues including the COVID-19 outbreak, and perhaps even the possibility of the adoption of a resolution in a virtual meeting, remains to be seen.

Nonetheless and bearing the above in mind, one may note that the emergence of infectious diseases as threats to international peace and security was already in 2005 addressed by UN Secretary-General in his report “In Larger Freedom”. In that report, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anna highlighted that:

threats to peace and security in the twenty-first century include not just international war and conflict but civil violence, organized crime, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. They also include poverty, deadly infectious disease and environmental degradation since these can have equally catastrophic consequences.


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March 27, 2020

I fully agree with this excellent comment. As a former PR at the UN, I am surprised by the passivity of the Security Council, and the indifference of P5 members towards a global phenomenon that will reshape the international relations in a large measure.

Kriangsak Kittichaisaree says

March 28, 2020

This is where the UNSC stands, at least at the moment: