The UN Charter granted five states permanent membership of the Security Council, along with the power to veto prospective substantive Council decisions. The threat and/or use of the veto power create a perennial pragmatic constraint on the principled aspirations of Council decision-making. While industrious and innovative elected (E10) Council members have been able to exercise influence over the content and contours of some Council decisions, if one or more of the permanent members have substantial misgivings about prospective action, then efforts to take such action through the Council are destined to fail.
In relation to the COVID-19 crisis, negotiations in early-April towards a formal Security Council response unravelled due to squabbling between China and the United States on how to characterise the name of the virus and early responses thereto. The escalating differences between these permanent members, which the Chinese Foreign Minister recently described as a ‘new Cold War’, suggest that the Council will not agree on a meaningful response to COVID-19 anytime soon.
It is ironic that permanent members have prevented the Council from taking meaningful action against COVID-19, given the damage the pandemic has wrought not just on the Council’s New York home, but also on the domestic populations of all permanent members. At the time of writing, the only permanent member who sits outside the COVID-19 top ten infectious countries is China, where the virus originated.