Rare Moments of Unity on Aid to Afghanistan, Syria Punctuate Security Council Agenda in 2021, as Demands for Vaccine Equity Dominate Year’s Discussions

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In Single Use of Veto, First-Ever Resolution Linking Climate, Security Fails, while Fresh Calls for Peace in Middle East, Africa Echo through Chamber

A year into the altered reality that was life during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Security Council found itself in a largely transitional period, focused on shifting geopolitical dynamics and struggling to keep pace with increasingly dire humanitarian needs, as conflicts flared amid the pandemic’s fallout, a vastly unequal recovery began to take shape and extreme poverty rose globally for the first time in decades.

As the 15-member Council slowly returned to in-person meetings amid surging and receding waves of COVID-19, it opened its doors — physically and virtually — to a broad range of civil society leaders and activists, many of whom were women.  Hailing from Afghanistan to Haiti to Africa’s Sahel region, these briefers kept delegates squarely focused on the needs of populations on the ground, recounting their countries’ struggles with terrorist or armed criminal groups, pandemic job losses, spiking violence, rising debt burdens and the increasingly devastating impact of climate change. 

Convening a total of 246 public meetings, the Council adopted 57 resolutions and 24 presidential statements in 2021.  Members achieved moments of rare unity on several fraught issues, including the reauthorization of Syria’s contentious cross-border aid delivery mechanism in July, and a December humanitarian exemption to Afghanistan’s sanctions regime, aimed at pulling that country back from the brink of economic collapse.  They stood united in their praise for the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), which successfully completed its planned withdrawal in June, and for its successor, the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS).  In addition, delegates widely cautioned against what was becoming a “lopsided” recovery from the pandemic, with safe and effective vaccines available in only some exclusive parts of the globe.

Early in the year, Secretary-General António Guterres appeared before the Council to address the rollout of vaccines, which he termed the “biggest moral test before the global community”.  As of mid-February, he said, just 10 countries had administered 75 per cent of the world’s COVID-19 vaccines.  “If the virus is allowed to spread like wildfire in the global South, it will mutate again and again,” he said, warning that an inequitable rollout was not only morally reprehensible but could prolong the pandemic significantly.

In addition, he said, more than 88 million people were already suffering from acute, conflict-driven hunger at the end of 2020 — up 20 per cent from a year earlier — as pandemic cuts, volatile food prices and disrupted aid delivery continued to impact the world’s conflict zones.  On 26 February, members unanimously adopted resolution 2565 (2021), recognizing the role of extensive immunization against COVID-19 as a global public good, while urging more international support for equitable and affordable vaccine access in armed conflicts and complex humanitarian emergencies.  However, Mr. Guterres was forced to reiterate his dire warnings against “vaccine nationalism” throughout 2021, as the COVAX facility spearheaded by the World Health Organization (WHO) and several health partners fell far short of its distribution goals.

Another area of broad consensus among Council members was the need to improve the security of its more than 70,000 peacekeepers, many of whom were deployed to the world’s most complex and challenging conflict environments.  Delegates heard from senior officials in May that, after declining for several years, 2021 had already seen an alarming uptick in deadly attacks against “blue helmets”, 15 of whom had been killed by malicious acts since 1 January.  They adopted a presidential statement expressing support for peacekeepers and calling for their adequate resourcing, which was followed in August by a resolution calling on States hosting troops to take steps to protect them.  Another presidential statement, also adopted in August, urged the United Nations to better harness technology to bolster the safety of peacekeepers and the civilians they protect.

In a similar vein, 2021 saw greater attention to the entire lifecycle of the United Nations engagement in conflicts, with the Council adopting its first-ever stand-alone resolution on peacekeeping “transitions” — the critical period following a mission’s drawdown.  Unanimously adopting resolution 2594 (2021) in September, the Council emphasized the need to incorporate strategic planning for the eventual reconfiguration of peace operations into the earliest possible stages of their life cycle.  Secretary-General Guterres and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia and member of The Elders, a non-governmental group made up of distinguished public figures, echoed the need for great care at the delicate juncture following a mission’s exit.  No matter how successful a peacekeeping operation, they stressed, the host country and its people must guide post-conflict recovery efforts.

Not every topic on the Council’s agenda was one on which members agreed.  Throughout the year, delegates diverged sharply on the links between climate change and security, as well as their implications for the Council’s work.  During a high-level debate in February that featured briefings by renowned naturalist David Attenborough and Nisreen Elsaim, Chair of the United Nations Youth Advisory Group, members heard climate change described as a “crisis multiplier”, while many delegates called for efforts to blunt its effects on food security, water availability and forced migration that drive tensions and fuel conflict.

While none disputed the existence of a climate crisis, members continued to differ on the appropriate tools and venues to respond, with the Russian Federation’s delegate warning against efforts to enshrine climate on the Council’s agenda.  In mid-December, the Council failed to adopt a draft resolution that would have integrated climate-related security risks into United Nations conflict-prevention strategies, as Moscow’s representative cast the single veto of 2021.

In both regions and countries on the Council’s agenda, populations thrown off-balance by the extensive socioeconomic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis saw humanitarian conditions worsen and power dynamics shift ‑ sometimes drastically ‑ as armed groups exploited pandemic-era restrictions and powerful States reconsidered their foreign entanglements.  Meanwhile, protracted conflicts erupted into fresh clashes, with few political gains registered throughout the year.

Perhaps no single nation’s trajectory was as dramatic in 2021 as that of Afghanistan.  Following the withdrawal of long-deployed troops from the United States and its allies in May and June, senior officials told the Council that the Taliban had launched a military offensive to seize control of the country’s territory that was rapidly gaining strength.  Kabul finally fell to Taliban fighters on 15 August, leading to the ouster of the United Nations-supported Government and marking the first time Afghanistan had fallen back under Taliban control since December 2001.  During an emergency meeting, Secretary-General Guterres told the Council that the United Nations would not abandon the people of Afghanistan, and its personnel would “stay and deliver” critically needed services during their time of need.

In the months that followed, United Nations officials and civil society leaders sounded alarms about the fate of Afghan women, girls, activists, ethnic minorities and former Government officials, their pleas for the international community’s continued engagement resounding in the Council chamber.  While delegates stood largely united in their humanitarian support, they were significantly less so on political matters, with some repeatedly describing the turn of events as a result of 20 years of failed foreign meddling in Afghanistan.  In late December, however, members united to adopt resolution 2615 (2021), allowing a humanitarian exemption to Afghanistan’s sanctions regime, aimed at enabling the delivery of aid to a country nearing economic collapse.

Long-simmering tensions also flared in the Gaza Strip, leading to the first full-scale clashes in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since 2014.  In April, Israeli authorities restricted Palestinian gatherings in several sensitive locations, and violence spiked between protesters and Israeli defense forces at the Aqsa Mosque compound.  In May, the militant group Hamas began firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, which returned fire on Hamas targets in Gaza.  The Council convened an emergency meeting on 16 May, during which Secretary-General Guterres called for an immediate end to the violence.  The clashes lasted 11 days, with a ceasefire announced on 21 May.  Tor Wennesland, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, reported a week later that the fragile calm was holding.  However, he urged the Council to take concrete action to move the parties closer to the resumption of direct negotiations and break the vicious cycle of violence, declaring:  “This is not the first time we are witnessing the end of a war in Gaza.”

The situation in West Africa, Central Africa and the Sahel also remained highly complex, as those regions remained the global epicentre of surging terrorist attacks — including by groups affiliated with or pledging loyalty to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh).  The Council issued numerous press statements condemning heinous attacks by armed groups against both civilians and peacekeepers, including one that killed more than 100 people in Niger in the first days of the year.  While peacekeepers responded to election-related violence in the Central African Republic and to Mali’s second military coup in just nine months, Council members expressed support for the work of the regional “Group of Five” (G5) Sahel Joint Force, comprising troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.  However, they diverged on its best source of funding, with several delegates advocating the use of United Nations assessed contributions to better equip those fighting on the front lines against terrorist groups.

In both Syria and Yemen, 2021 dawned amid relative lulls in violence.  The situation in the latter country — still the world’s largest humanitarian emergency — escalated sharply in February, as the latest offensive by the Ansar Allah militia, known as the Houthis, placed millions of civilians at risk of famine.  By April, senior humanitarian officials were warning that COVID-19 infections were once again surging at a time when tens of thousands of Yemenis were starving to death, and another 5 million were “one step behind them”.  Meanwhile, Council members expressed frustration over the conflict’s seeming intractability and the long absence of a political horizon.

Syria saw a largely calm year on the military front, despite large spikes in hunger, chronic malnutrition, and other grave humanitarian challenges.  Humanitarian officials reported in March, the month that marked the conflict’s tenth anniversary, that 13.4 million people across the country required humanitarian assistance, 20 per cent more than in 2020.  Special Envoy Geir O. Pedersen expressed profound regret that the Council had not yet been able to broker an end to the fighting and urged more creative diplomacy, stressing that Syrians had endured unspeakable horrors.  The representative of Syria described the conflict as a “war of aggression” launched by Western States and Turkey against a legitimate Government.

Among other situations on its agenda, the Council continued to monitor developments in Libya, where third party States had committed to swiftly withdraw all their mercenaries and foreign fighters; Colombia, which marked the fifth anniversary of the Final Peace Agreement ending half a century of civil war; and Haiti, where President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July amid a spiralling political and security crisis.  Members also held a single meeting on the situation in Myanmar — where a state of emergency had been imposed in February following a military takeover — adopting a presidential statement that called for the immediate release of civilian leaders arbitrarily detained.

In addition, the Council devoted several meetings in 2021 to the escalating conflict in Ethiopia, where a Federal Government offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPFL) group and its political allies began in late 2020.  Violence ensued, as did bottlenecks in humanitarian aid delivery that experts warned were placing hundreds of thousands at risk of famine.  However, within the Council, delegates diverged over whether the issue merited consideration, with several members repeatedly emphasizing its domestic nature.