Security Council Response to Ebola Paves Way for Future Action

Health workers clad in protective gear in Monrovia, Liberia during the visit of the UN under-secretary-general for Peacekeeping Operations. September 11, 2014. (UN Photo/Marlon Lopez)

When the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2177 in September, declaring the Ebola virus to be a “threat to international peace and security,” it marked several milestones for the international body. Not only did a record-setting 134 countries co-sponsor the resolution, it was one of three resolutions in the history of the Council to address a global health concern, and the first to declare a health issue to be a threat to international peace and security.

In taking up the issue, the Security Council acknowledged that Ebola was not just a health crisis, but a security crisis. Ebola has shown that health crises can be deadlier than some intra-state conflicts and can bring governments and economies to their knees. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported on December 3 that more than 17,000 cases and 6,000 deaths have occurred in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone since officials began reporting on the outbreak in March. The fact that this virus, a highly lethal and virulent strain, pays no attention to borders makes it a transnational threat almost by definition.

While it’s too early to tell the immediate impact of Resolution 2177 on the crisis at hand, it is possible that it will have implications for how the Security Council operates in the future.

Most notably, Resolution 2177 is evidence that health issues have become increasingly securitized within the UN system. It may also suggest that the Security Council is continuing to push the boundaries of what constitutes a threat to international peace and security under international law to align more closely with a “human security” framework.

While it’s true that health concerns don’t fall under the traditional security paradigm of war, sanctions, and weapons of mass destruction, they do fall under human security. Just as the Security Council has broadened the definition of what constitutes a threat to international peace and security, to include (at various times) issues such as humanitarian disasters, human rights abuses, and even the toppling of democratically-elected governments, epidemics have also joined the list of non-traditional security threats.

The Ebola outbreak is not the first time the Security Council has acknowledged the link between health and security. In 2000, the Council recognized the threat of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Resolution 1308 and added to its agenda the topic of “HIV/AIDS and international peacekeeping operations.” As Nana K. Poku explains, Resolution 1308 ushered in a number of global initiatives to combat HIV/AIDS, including the Global Fund to Fight Aids and the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). It also “helped to avert a crisis of unimaginable proportions” by reframing HIV/AIDS from “merely another major disease of the impoverished world” into a security risk deserving of international attention.

Then in 2011, the Security Council again acknowledged the risks of HIV/AIDS to peace and security in Resolution 1983. This resolution recognized that HIV/AIDS posed a “challenge to … progress and stability of societies” and called for HIV prevention and treatment in the implementation of peacekeeping mandates.

In the case of Ebola, the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) has come to represent the synthesis of health and wider security, political, and humanitarian dimensions in the UN system. Created by the Secretary-General and formalized in General Assembly Resolution 69/1, UNMEER has a mandate to direct and coordinate the UN system’s response to Ebola in West Africa. Conceived as neither a peacekeeping mission nor a political mission, UNMEER operates jointly under the leadership of the UN Secretariat and WHO, harnessing both the political expertise of the Secretariat and the technical expertise of the WHO and other UN agencies.

Two legal advisers for the WHO, Gian Luca Burci and Jakob Quirin, write that Resolutions 2177 and 69/1 together may arguably represent “the culmination of a trend towards ‘securitization’ of global health in the United Nations system.” While there is not yet total convergence between health and security, the idea that they are two sides of the same coin is gaining widespread acceptance among members of the Security Council and the General Assembly.

One measure that the UN, the WHO, and the Security Council could jointly take is to develop a system of early warning mechanisms for health and security situations, just as there are warning systems in place for cases of genocide and mass atrocities. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has already stated that the crisis “has highlighted the need to strengthen early identification systems and early action.”

While the WHO has a sophisticated disease tracking and alert system, the WHO director-general cannot formally recommend (neither directly nor via the Secretary-General) that the Security Council take up a particular issue. In the case of Ebola, it was US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power who suggested that the Council host an emergency meeting on Ebola, using the planned drawdown of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) as an impetus to spur discussion of Ebola.

The Security Council could also streamline health considerations into some of its other agendas, in particular UN peacekeeping. Already, Resolution 1983 recognized that “peacekeeping operations can be important contributors to an integrated response to HIV and AIDS” through such means as incorporating HIV/AIDS awareness in its civic and community outreach projects. Whether there is a greater role for peacekeepers to play in the UN’s integrated response to other deadly diseases like malaria and dengue fever is a question for which more Security Council guidance would be helpful. Moreover, the cholera epidemic in Haiti, in which Nepali peacekeepers are believed to have introduced the disease into the country, has underscored the need for a better understanding of the linkages—both good and bad—between health and peacekeeping.

In taking up Ebola, the Security Council has signaled its willingness to view epidemics on this scale as a threat to international peace and security, further expanding the interpretation of its mandate and increasing the securitization of health issues within the UN system. It remains to be seen whether the Security Council is willing to take preemptive measures to forestall the next major health and security crisis to emerge in 5, 10, or 20 years’ time.