The Wrath of a Pandemic: A Call to Expand R2P in Response to Covid-19

Nadia Jeiroudi
Vol. 42 Associate Editor

As the Covid-19 virus has made its presence known with over two million deaths worldwide[1]and the surfacing of multiple new variants,[2] it has become evident that the pandemic will continue to reign over society in the coming months. Accordingly, insular and haphazard action by states has only reaped further havoc and cultivated the potency of the virus. Just as the effects of environmental damage and military intervention have reverberated throughout every corner of the world, so too coronavirus responses taken in one country have inevitably produced irreversible consequences to other segments of the globe. Asylum-seekers, which constitute roughly 71 million of the population, are one paradigm that have felt these strains. As such, concerted, international resolution is perhaps the most viable and humane to counter a catastrophe that has wiped out more lives and livelihoods than some of the deadliest events of our time.[3] Colloquially known as “R2P,” the Responsibility to Protect commitment is one mechanism that should be invoked in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. R2P is a global principle that was adopted by all Member States of the United Nations into a General Assembly resolution in 2005[4] in response to the failure of the international community to take action and combat the mass atrocities that transpired in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia.[5]   Specifically, R2P sets out three pillars of responsibility to ensure such grave rights violations never go unheeded by Member States: Pillar One states that every State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity;[6] Pillar Two indicates that the international community should assist and encourage individual states in meeting this responsibility;[7] finally, should a state “manifestly” fail to protect its population from the four mass atrocities, Pillar Three stipulates that the international community must respond to violations through collective action[8] either through Chapter VI (via non-military means)[9] or Chapter VII (via military means)[10] of the UN Charter.   To date, R2P has been invoked in over 80 UN Security Council resolutions, as well as in 13 General Assembly resolutions[11] during crises ranging from migrant displacement to crimes against humanity in times of war to implementing restrictions on the trade of small arms.[12] Throughout each appeal to R2P, the overarching concern among the international community has been the grave loss of human life. Thus, given that Covid-19 has resulted in an unprecedented phenomenon with a death toll that continues to climb each day, it only appears fitting that R2P should too apply.   In March 2020, just as the virus was beginning to take hold in every continent at 300,000 cases worldwide,[13] UN Secretary-General Antònio Guterres called for an immediate “global ceasefire” in order to focus all efforts on “the common enemy” that has the potential to threaten all of humankind.[14] His statement markedly underlined not only the humanitarian threats the spread of Covid-19 can have on the global population, but also the urgency for Member States to mobilize, engage in diplomacy, and come together with a concerted response.[15]   While the statement instilled a rhetoric appealing to perhaps the ultimate raison d’etre of the United Nations, it has failed to fundamentally effect change in the trajectory of the virus. In particular, that the Security Council failed to pronounce Covid-19 as a threat to international peace and security[16] implies the resistance toward multilateral action in response to a calamity that inherently necessitates the need for prompt coordination. Conversely, that R2P has been endorsed unanimously by the United Nations highlights the inherent solidarity and willingness to combat atrocities by its Member States. While Covid-19 does not explicitly fall under one of the four above atrocities mentioned, the lasting socioeconomic repercussions of the pandemic signals a need to enlarge the scope and application of R2P. This is highlighted by the fact that there have been similar calls in 2014 to invoke R2P in the case of the Ebola virus outbreak, citing in particular its existential threat and the necessity to coordinate a global public health response.[17]   Akin to the majority of conflicts and natural disasters, Covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable populations in society, which is an area R2P sets out to address.[18] This has especially been the case for internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, and asylum seekers. A multitude of governments have capitalized on the pandemic by imposing blanket border restrictions for asylum seekers under the guise of containing the spread of the virus.[19] According to the UN refugee Agency, at least 57 of the 167 countries that have closed their borders make no exception for asylum seekers.[20] In the early stages of the pandemic, Greece blocked entry for thousands of asylum seekers and migrants through the use of illegal tactics amounting to human rights abuses.[21] Additionally, Reception and Identification Centers (RIC) on the Aegean Islands, facilities that can hold up to 6,000 individuals at a time, were holding more than 37,000 migrants during the pandemic.[22] When authorities intensified lockdowns in overcrowded camps despite there being no cases in those facilities, fires broke out that left thousands homeless, of which hundreds have subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.[23]   The plight of refugees vis-à-vis border restrictions and the displacement of minorities are one such example that sheds a light on how Covid-19 simultaneously crosscuts and brings to the fore further conflict and socioeconomic grievances globally. With over two million lives lost and an escalating number of new cases daily, the pandemic undoubtedly poses a threat to global human security.[24] Expanding the R2P framework into this area will thus activate Member States to craft an operative resolution geared toward harmonized protections that aim to address the virus itself, as well as vulnerable communities that continue to experience both the direct impacts of Covid-19 and collateral aftereffects. The latter has catalyzed concerns that include health, security, conflict, financial pressures, food insecurity, and shelter—among others.   Further, R2P has the potential to set aside the politicization of the pandemic, which has continued to halt any formative action by the UN Security Council.[25] While there has been criticism of the efficacy and double standard of R2P[26] and the ultimate discord between paper and practice, R2P does have a normative effect. That R2P comes about from consensus indicates that its invocation alone emphasizes the gravity of a situation and creates organized attention[27] on how to best protect a population in dire need. Therefore, R2P can truly signal the notion that a pandemic that has struck virtually every surface of the world requires a global and coordinated solution. Critically, R2P will shift concentrated attention onto the fragments of society that have unduly shouldered the burden of the virus.   Covid-19 ultimately carries with it an amalgam of concerns that R2P directly seeks to address within its pillars; therefore, the pandemic must be formally tackled through the lens of the Security Council, as opposed to thrusting the burden onto the WHO and regional agencies. Conversely, that the WHO warns of the doubling of cases if states do not take synchronized efforts[28] underscores the dire necessity for Security Council intervention to protect vulnerable communities from falling into atrocities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

[1]Ivana Kottasová, The world marks 2 million coronavirus deaths, CNN (Jan. 19, 2021), [2] Sara Reardon, The Most Worrying Mutations in Five Emerging Coronavirus Variants, Scientific American (Jan. 29, 2021), [3] See generally Allison McCann, Jin Wu, and Josh Katz, How the Coronavirus Compares with 100 Years of Deadly Events, (June 10, 2020), [4] See What is R2P?, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, [5] Id. [6] See Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, United Nations, [7] Id. [8] Id. [9] See generally Chapter VI: Pacific Settlement of Disputes, Charter of the United Nations, [10] See generally Chapter VII: Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression, Charter of the United Nations, [11] See What is R2P?, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, [12] Id. [13] See Daniel Dickinson, COVID-19: UN Chief calls for global ceasefire to focus on ‘the true fight of our lives’, UN News (March 23, 2020), [14] Id. [15] Id. [16] Muema Wambua, Covid-19, Human Security Crisis, and the Responsibility to Protect, Social Science Research Council (Sept. 3, 2020), [17] See Jennifer Moore, The Threat of Ebola and the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, (Oct. 1, 2014), [18] See generally Madeleine Rees, COVID-19: The United Nations Security Council is Doing What Exactly?,(April 16, 2020), [19] See generally Daphne Panayotatos, Blocked at Every Pass: How Greece’s Policy of Exclusion Harms Asylum Seekers and Refugees, Refugees International (Nov. 24, 2020), [20] Shabia Mantoo, Beware long-term damage to human rights and refugee rights from the coronavirus pandemic: UNHCR, UNHCR (April 22, 2020), [21] Daphne Panayotatos, Blocked at Every Pass: How Greece’s Policy of Exclusion Harms Asylum Seekers and Refugees, Refugees International (Nov. 24, 2020), [22] Id. [23] See Lesbos: Hundreds test positive for Covid-19 after migrant campfire, BBC News (Sept. 21, 2020), [24] See Muema Wambua, Covid-19, Human Security Crisis, and the Responsibility to Protect, Social Science Research Council (Sept. 3, 2020), [25] Id. [26] See generally Gareth Evans, R2P: The Dream and the Reality, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (Nov. 26, 2020), [27] Id. [28] See generally Kate Whiting, As the COVID-19 death toll passes 1 million, how does it compare to other major killers?, World Economic Forum (Sept. 29, 2020), The views expressed in this post represent the views of the post’s author only.