Any expectations that the United Nations Security Council would respond decisively to the spread of the coronavirus that has killed more than 1,00,000 people across the world, were belied as soon as the members met for their first consultation during the crisis last week. While the meeting was the first ever to be held via video, its outcome, or the lack of it, was quite predictable given the deepening divide between the US and China on a range of issues starting from the question of naming the virus.
Through the month of March, when China held the rotating chair of the presidency of the Security Council, Beijing stalled any discussion of the crisis. It was only when the Dominican Republic took over the chair in April that a “discussion” of the international situation triggered by the virus became possible. But collective action was certainly not on the anvil. The US called for greater transparency and insisted that the “most effective way to contain this pandemic is through accurate, science-based data collection and analysis of the origins, characteristics, and spread of the virus”. China, in contrast, rejected the focus on the origin and spread of the virus as “scape-goating”. It called, instead, for expanded international cooperation and touted its own success in controlling the virus and support to other nations in fighting the pandemic. The Council heard out the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who presented a grim picture of the crisis and its consequences for international peace and security. But there was no agreement on what the UN could do.
The UN Security Council was to work as a concert of its five permanent members. Agreement among the five veto-wielding powers is critical for any collective action. If the issue is about the actions of a P-5 state, there is, unsurprisingly, little room for progress. Barring a few years after the end of the Cold War, consensus among the great powers has been elusive. And over the last decade, the tensions between US and China have steadily deepened. Moscow, facing problems of its own with Washington, has aligned itself with Beijing. As President Donald Trump moves closer to the re-election battle and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, strives to fend off blame for the handling of the crisis, conflict between the two powers is likely to acquire a sharper edge. It’s by no means certain that the UN and its various agencies, including the World Health Organisation, will come out of this unscathed.