The Security Council’s interpretation of threats to international peace and security has expanded considerably since the UN Charter was drafted. In 1945, the UN’s founders would have assumed that the Council would typically respond to conventional security threats to national political independence and territorial integrity. But in recent decades the Council has increasingly characterised non-conventional phenomena, including civil wars, international terrorism, serious violations of human rights, and even climate change, as threats to international peace and security. In fact, the Council has identified previous global health crises as a threat to international peace and security, doing so in relation to HIV/AIDS, SARS and Ebola.
However, despite these precedents for identifying global health crises as a threat to international peace and security, the Security Council is not well-equipped to respond to these unconventional types of threats. The main instruments in the Council’s toolkit for responding to threats to the peace are coercive Chapter VII measures such as sanctions and the use of force. With the benefit of hindsight, and suspending the political reality constraints posed by prospective P5 vetoes, an assertive Council might have sought early to ascertain the facts on the ground by deploying a fact-finding mission. At the same time, it might also have applied a travel ban to slow the spread of COVID-19 across international borders. These responses might have slowed the escalating pandemic, providing crucial additional time for UN member states to strengthen their capacity to cope with COVID-19’s eventual arrival. But effective action to halt COVID-19 would have required the Council to develop new, unorthodox responses. To borrow a cliche, not every global problem is a nail requiring a hammer.