By Madeleine Rees

One should never continue to support an ideal, an embodiment of creative imagination, if that “something” loses its way and does harm. It is painful to say, but absolutely necessary as we watch the shibboleths come tumbling down as a result of a pandemic that should never have been able to wreak the havoc that we are experiencing. And we are no way near its ending. In this context, the question must be asked: what on earth is the Security Council doing????

The idea of the multilateral system for peace

From 1915, WILPF has advocated for, supported, and put its faith in a multilateral system as a way of ending war and enabling sensible discourse, mediation, and discussion to replace the brutal and savage use of violence to end disputes. This has been glaringly and obviously right.

The creation of the United Nations in 1948 was the necessary response to war at that time.

The preamble is poetry:

We the peoples of the united nations determine

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

There is more that reflects the sentiments of the time, and could have led us, as human society, to a new world of peace, freedom, and equality. But it went wrong. We repeated the same structures as if trapped in a fractal, structures that were differently correlated to reflect who “won” but in which the idea of power and how it should be exerted remained intact.

The reality of a multipolar system of power

Adherence to the idea that authority resides in those who control wealth and military reach led to the appointment of five permanent members (P5) to the newly created United Nations Security Council (UNSC) with the power of veto. When the UN Charter speaks of “we the people,” the structure meant that in reality the P5 states, whether democratic or despotic, ruled on all the issues regarding peace and security as if they could be trusted to be objective and neutral. From its inception, the Council was fraught with division and political interest. It is very difficult to believe in the commitment of these states to international peace and security when the P5 are the largest producers of military hardware and profit enormously from its use. When they are spending billions on their nuclear arsenals while their doctors and nurses do not have enough protective equipment and have to make choices about which patients get placed on a ventilator. When they are engaged in armed conflict and occupations and efforts to undermine democracy, peace, and human rights around the world or to prop up the fossil fuel industry and other corporate capitalist interests at the expense of the majority of people.

Recalling the UN Charter’s preamble above, what sort of response should the UNSC have made to the global pandemic? The UN General Assembly has passed a sensible resolution. The UNSC has not. Non-permanent members have tried: Estonia, now Tunisia. France has submitted something, the text of which is not subject to external scrutiny, and the meeting of the UNSC to discuss it is closed. The NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security issued an intelligent blog aimed at the members of the UNSC to remind them that any resolution absolutely must contain certain provisions. A resolution, however, is unlikely. The reason? The United States is still insisting that the nomenclature of the virus denote that it is from China! As if that is vital to international peace and security. China resists; Russia wants to link everything to counterterrorism, and there is politicking going on around sanctions. Whilst the world literally falls sick, the UNSC distracts itself with ongoing self-interested fights among the veto wielders.

This is not what was intended in 1948. It is not what is needed now. By its total failure to fulfill its obligations, on this but also on so many other issues, the UNSC has shown itself to be no longer fit for purpose.

What can be done?

A situation arose in 1950 when the politics of the UNSC led to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) passing its Uniting for Peace resolution. This essentially took authority into the hands of the UNGA because of the failure of the UNSC to show unanimity in addressing threats to peace and security, resolving that the “GA shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making recommendations to member states for collective measures.”

The provisions of articles of the UN Charter can be interpreted to invoke such powers in the present context. Absent anything from the UNSC, the UNGA resolution of 2 April 2020 should predominate. Among other things, its emphasis on the need to respect human rights and oppose “any form of discrimination, racism and xenophobia in the response to the pandemic,” and to put the UN system at the heart of multilateral cooperation to contain the pandemic and alleviate its impact, are significant. This is broad enough to iterate what needs to be done without being prescriptive, and to enable cooperative responses amongst states, bodies of the UN, and civil society. It gives us room to do this right!

What else is there?

The UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire and his important statement linking this to the horrific increase in violence against women and girls shows much needed leadership that can be built on by member states and by civil society. If the UNSC cannot agree to the ceasefires, then we need to bypass the UNSC. The call has already been endorsed by an ever-growing number of member states, some 70 so far, along with regional partners, non-state actors, civil society networks and organisations, and all UN Messengers of Peace and Advocates for the Sustainable Development Goals. And the Pope.

We now need to make these ceasefires real, meaningful, and sustainable. We need to ensure they embody feminist principles, that they go deeper in how to sustain an end to violence, that they include and ensure implementation of the provisions of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, and that they build towards transformation. An opportunity has arisen in Yemen, in Colombia, maybe in Cameroon … they must be seized.

What are the lessons we need to learn?

In her brilliant article, Arundhati Roy challenges us to use this time to examine what we have created and consider whether we should spend time fixing it or building a better model. If we undertake this challenge, the role of the UNSC must be part of the examination. In her closing, Roy says:

Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.


Do we drag the UNSC through the portal? I think not.