The Ebola Outbreak as “A Threat to International Peace and Security” – The Precedential Significance of Security Council Resolution 2177

The UN Security Council’s Resolution 2177 (2014) sets several precedents. A Resolution co-sponsored by the largest number of states – 130! – interpreted the outbreak of the Ebola virus as “a threat to international peace and security.” Adopted unanimously during an emergency meeting, the Resolution endorses the view that the Security Council has the authority to act in response to a serious pandemic and to call on Member States to respond urgently to such crisis and to refrain from isolating the affected countries.

While the Resolution is not based on Chapter VII, it sets a precedent that expands the concept of a “threat to the peace” to include not only armed conflicts or humanitarian disasters brought by rogue regimes but also human suffering that is caused by nature. In the past the Council addressed health crises twice, in resolutions adopted on HIV/AIDS (Resolution 1308 (2000) and Resolution 1983 (2011)) but did invoke the loaded term directly.

The Resolution does retain a causal link between the threat of the Ebola virus and the more traditional sources of threats to the peace by asserting that “the outbreak is undermining the stability of the most affected countries concerned and, unless contained, may lead to further instances of civil unrest, social tensions and a deterioration of the political and security climate.” But this link is but a conjecture, one that would be possible to make with respect to many other natural disasters, such as famine and other severe consequences of climate change.

The operative part of the Resolution also contains precedential and significant provisions. In addition to calling on states to provide assistance, the Security Council criticizes nations and private companies for restricting trade and travel to and from the affected countries. The Resolution “[e]xpresses concern about the detrimental effect of the isolation of the affected countries as a result of trade and travel restrictions imposed on and to the affected countries” and

Calls on Member States, including of the region, to lift general travel and border restrictions, imposed as a result of the Ebola outbreak, and that contribute to the further isolation of the affected countries and undermine their efforts to respond to the Ebola outbreak and also calls on airlines and shipping companies to maintain trade and transport links with the affected countries and the wider region.

This call responds to the request of the presidents of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone for UN intervention. In a joint letter from 29 August 2014 they sent to the UN Secretary General they urged UN action not to help in confronting the epidemic. In fact the three presidents stated that they were “confident” that they were “close to reversing the spread of the outbreak.”

What they sought instead was “the intervention of the United Nations with our neighbours far and near” to end what they referred to as “virtual economic sanctions and trade embargoes” imposed on them, which, they feared, “will end up aggravating the effect of the outbreak on our economies and stifling our attempts to control the epidemic sanctions.”  The Presidents offered detailed of these “sanctions:”

Most of the airlines have suspended or cancelled flights to our countries. One of the remaining airlines, Brussels Airlines, is now under pressure to suspend flights to the region. They have been denied and refused technical stopover rights all along the West African coast, making it increasingly difficult for them to continue services to our capitals. Petroleum product suppliers received a notice forbidding ships berthing in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone from docking at Pointe Noire. As the sanctions widen, it will become impossible to bring in the international expertise and supplies required to end the outbreak. Prices have already begun to rise and these sanctions will cause them to escalate even further at a time when domestic production has slowed dramatically.

Obviously, the neighboring countries have imposed travel and border restrictions out of genuine concern for the health of their citizens. Airlines and shipping companies were clearly worried about the safety of their employees. The Resolution sides with the affected countries. It expects countries and private actors to take others’ lives into account and even bear (what they regard as) non-trivial risks while doing so. Time will tell if this call was heeded and what were the consequences.