Coronavirus Pandemic and Countries in Internal Conflict WHO has to step in
Gautam Sen

While the world is grappling with the pandemic caused by novel Coronavirus or COVID-19, some countries like Myanmar, Syria and South Yemen seemed to have practically fallen off the map for nearly the past two months. The attention is relatively less on them as compared to the major countries like USA, China, those part of the European Union, India, South Korea, Japan and some Latin American countries. Human Rights groups have been trying to highlight the plight of the above-referred minor countries, but the acuity of the problem is still to be realized in the public domain. The problem of these minor countries including those of Middle East and North Africa (MENA), have been accentuated because, they have been in a conflict-ridden state for quite some time with normal livelihood activities impaired, and the recent Coronavirus is likely to only compound the misery of the people in these countries.

United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) Antonio Gutteres has appealed last month for a global ceasefire in all corners of the world and spoken dramatically `to put all armed conflicts on lockdown`. The tragedy of the minor countries are so great that, nearly all of them have huge number of their people already suffering from deprivation and distress, most of them man-made, caused by regimes in power, political contention among rival political forces and other related circumstances. Myanmar has more than 350,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in its northern, north-western, middle-eastern, western, southern and south-western regions encompassing Kachin, Chin, Shan, Rakhine, and Karen states. Most of these persons staying in temporary shelters and under makeshift arrangements are vulnerable to Coronavirus attack. Yemen, afflicted by civil war and two million cholera cases over the past five years, and suffering the consequences of the Saudi Arabia launched military operation ‘Decisive Storm’ in 2015 against the Iran-backed Houthi tribals controlling substantial parts of the country, is also not in a position to grapple with a Coronavirus attack. World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that, Yemen is a `perfect case of a storm of a disaster waiting to happen`, should this virus enter that country. The virus may already be there in substantial measure with a badly affected Iran in the vicinity, and undetected in the Yeminis with asymptomatic or explicit symptoms because of practically non-detection facilities. Martin Griffith, UN Special Envoy on Yemen, has appealed for nationwide de-escalation among all political groups and armed forces. Syria, in internal conflict since 2011, with makeshift living conditions for a large portion of its population and health infrastructure in shambles, is another hapless country. Though the first confirmed Coronavirus case in Syria has been detected only on 23rd March this year, the country is just not in a position to control the pandemic outbreak should it occur and adopt mitigation measures.

In the above-mentioned conditions, the role and responsibilities of the UN and WHO, naturally become extremely onerous. The UNSG has called for a global and coordinated response inter-alia emphasizing that developed countries must assist those less developed. While the problem of the less developed countries is adverse in general, the situation is grim in respect of the select less developed countries as above, which are in prolonged internal conflicts with governance in disarray. UN as an universal institution and WHO as the specialized international agency concerned, are yet to work out an implementable policy response and assured funds, as per the present acute need. An intervention across sovereign states is essential. Under international law and norms, and any intervention under United Nations’ aegis, has to reckon with the aspect of state sovereignty. However, in case of states where the national sovereign authority is under challenge internally or sovereignty does not rest with a universally accepted political authority, a humanitarian intervention under UN auspices is warranted. Such intervention to deal with a health emergency or pandemic has necessarily to be consensus based with a modus vivendi among all internal interested parties and stakeholders, and most importantly, without application of armed force. The moot point is whether, such a mechanism with international consensus and under an UN regime, can be worked out.

The present problem of COVID-19 is enormous in its content and spread. The issue under consideration here is focused on a specific group of countries which do not have the capacity to contend with the pandemic as it is unfolding. International organizations like Medecines Sans Frontieras, Refugee International, International Red Cross and International Red Crescent, etc, are required to be activated conjointly with deployment of UN resources and political support of the international body as a whole. The intervention of the UN Security Council will be of essence, considering the threat to human lives in these countries already suffering huge deprivation, as a threat to humanity as a whole. A mechanism needs to be evolved which facilitates such comprehensive intervention without militating against the political and other interests of the contending parties in these disturbed states. Unless such a framework of action or intervention is put in place, the lives of entire population in the minor states and MENA countries may be jeopardized. The Internationally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Lebanon and Tunisia total more than one and half million. South Sudan of the MENA region, and Venezuela of Latin America - both can also be categorized as minor countries, with four million and one and a half million IDPs respectively, are also in need for attention and similar support.

The UNSG has described the present situation as virtually World War-III and the most serious challenge to the UN after World War-II. The challenge of COVID-19 in respect of the most incapacitated countries cited above, needs to be appropriately considered and countered in the light of the UNSG’s statement. The leaders of the permanent UN Security Council member states, the European Union countries and BRICS in particular, have also an inherent role and responsibility in the existing international system and within the ambit of the UN, towards initiating the requisite prophylactic containment measures to the fullest extent while assisting in the adoption of mitigation action against the pandemic. In a totally different Cold War backdrop in 1950, the Fifth UN General Assembly (UNGA) had adopted a Resolution 377A termed `Uniting for Peace` Resolution at the behest of USA and its Allies, to launch a massive countervailing military action to thwart Communist North Korean military campaign against West-backed South Korea across the 38th parallel latitude aligned border. Resolution 377A was to bypass the UN Security Council and activate the UN system for the above-cited military intervention. It is time for adoption of another ‘Uniting for Peace’ Resolution in a true sense and jointly by the two highest principal UN organs i.e. the UNGA and UN Security Council, for containment of COVID-19 and recovery from its scourge, enjoining on all UN agencies and multilateral organizations to dovetail their organizational and financial resources to execute a Coronavirus suppression and mitigation plan. As a concomitant, a resuscitation economic plan will also be required to be mandated.

While countries draw up their individual pandemic oriented health measures, the world community should through the instrumentality of the UN organs and specialized agencies and the multilateral funding agencies, set in motion a parallel set of activities towards combat and control of the pandemic and the resultant scourge on the people of the minor countries including of the MENA, in particular. After a long time, the UN, its organs and affiliated agencies have a chance to re-discover themselves, realize their potential and bring succor to the most needy. In respect of these countries, some sort of trusteeship role for the UN is required for the vast swathes of population likely to be affected or endangered by the pandemic.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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