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Security Council Pressed Ahead in 2020 with Mandate to Protect Civilians, Build Peace, as COVID-19 Infected 84 Million People Worldwide

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Global Pandemic Devastated Economies, Laid Bare Humanity’s Starkest Inequalities

In a year rocked by the novel coronavirus that infected 84 million people, devastated economies and laid bare humanity’s starkest inequalities, the Security Council — working through peacekeepers, aid workers and logistics experts on the ground — pressed forward with its mandate to protect civilians and build peace in the world’s most complex conflict zones.

Working virtually from their homes in New York City and its environs, one of the early hotspots for the novel coronavirus — and, at times, seated between plastic barriers in the official chamber — the Council’s 15 members convened a total of 238 public meetings, adopted 56 resolutions and issued 13 presidential statements. In several instances, delegations diverged sharply over competing drafts or language that did not represent the views of all members, resulting in the rejection of seven proposed texts. Two of the Council’s five permanent members, China and the United States, repeatedly found themselves at odds over references to the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations specialized public health agency, in resolutions relating to COVID-19.

As morning dawned on 2020 — the seventy-fifth year of the United Nations — early discussions centred around the importance of upholding the Organization’s founding Charter amid mounting threats to the multilateral world order. Some delegations sounded the alarm over the rise of “unilateralist regimes” that paid mere lip service to global cooperation as they pursued narrow self-interests. However, expressions of multilateral commitment were soon tested in unprecedented ways, as humanity entered the unchartered territory of a modern-day pandemic that left no part of the world untouched.

Council members agreed, in late March, to adopt a set of “temporary, extraordinary and provisional” working arrangements amid the pandemic, aimed at allowing members to push forward with their most essential tasks, such as the timely renewal of peacekeeping mandates. Still deployed on the front lines of conflict — and now also confronting a pandemic virus about which little was known — the Council’s 13 peace operations and more than two dozen other missions faced extraordinary challenges in protecting civilians, supporting peace talks, delivering food and medical supplies across shuttered roads and borders, and even keeping their own personnel alive.

In June, with COVID-19 in full swing around the globe, the force commanders of several peacekeeping missions briefed the Council to report on swift operational changes taken in response to COVID-19, including strict quarantines, close coordination with host Governments and the temporary suspension of troop rotations. Despite some challenges and delays, each mission reported that continuity of operations had been maintained. Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, appeared before the Council in July to sound the alarm about the likely negative impact of COVID-19 on economies, development gains and social cohesion — as well as human rights — while emphasizing that United Nations efforts to tackle the drivers of instability had become even more urgent.

Experts agreed throughout 2020 that, while largely escaping the brunt of infection and death, fragile countries were experiencing the pandemic’s most severe indirect consequences — such as spiking food insecurity, massive economic shocks and the disruption of routine vaccination campaigns that put nearly 80 million infants at risk of death from preventable diseases. COVID-19 imposed similar strains on progress in implementing the Council’s women, peace and security agenda — first adopted in resolution 1325 (2000), which marked its twentieth anniversary in 2020 — with multiple countries reporting skyrocketing rates of gender-based violence as women around the globe found themselves “locked down” with their abusers.

In April, the heads of the Rome-based United Nations food agencies told the Council that food insecurity would probably double, affecting some 265 million people by year’s end, and spotlighted the looming threat of famine in regions from East Africa — which was also plagued by floods and locust infestations — to the Gaza Strip. The Organization’s senior official in Iraq said the country remained “in the eye of multiple storms” as oil revenues fell 50 per cent, currency values plummeted, and unemployment spiked amid COVID-19’s economic fallout. Addressing the pandemic’s impacts across multiple countries, Rosemary DiCarlo, Under‑Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, warned repeatedly about the heightened risk of political instability resulting from the erosion of public trust. Jean-Pierre LaCroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, said terrorist groups were increasingly exploiting the pandemic and stepping up attacks in such places as West Africa, with the potential to gain strength and expand into other regions.

“The pandemic is amplifying and exploiting the fragilities in our world,” Secretary-General António Guterres said in May, stressing that economies and communities already weakened by years of war were especially vulnerable to enormous harm from COVID-19. On 1 July, the Council adopted a landmark resolution embracing the Secretary-General’s appeal — first issued on 23 March — for all conflict parties around the globe to embrace a ceasefire and allow Governments to focus on combating the coronavirus.

Even as many regional and subregional organizations rose to the occasion, collaborating to impose preventative measures, cancel national debts and protect their most vulnerable populations, the Secretary-General expressed regret that global cooperation to stem the spread of COVID-19 continued to fall short throughout 2020. “The pandemic is a clear test of international cooperation — a test we have essentially failed,” he declared on 24 September.

Nowhere on earth was the fear of uncontrolled virus transmission more acute than in Yemen, where a brutal five-year-old conflict had produced the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Following a lull in fighting early in 2020, both the coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia and the opposition group Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis, scrambled to combat COVID-19. While they were able to avert a large-scale outbreak, officials warned the Security Council in July that continued fighting, spiking food prices and a steep drop in foreign assistance were pushing Yemen to the brink of collapse. Amid those converging crises, Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, announced that the “spectre of famine” had returned to Yemen, and by December 2020, officials across the Organization were warning that the number of Yemenis experiencing catastrophic levels of food insecurity could triple by June 2021.

Similarly, the scale of virus transmission among Syria’s exceptionally vulnerable displaced people — most of whom lived in crowded camps without running water or sufficient medical supplies — remained relatively low throughout 2020, though limited access to testing made it difficult to gauge the real toll. Several Council members raised concerns throughout 2020 that the delivery of humanitarian assistance had been complicated by the incremental closure of approved crossing points along Syria’s borders — a major source of contention among delegations, and the subject of four failed draft resolutions. Others spotlighted the economic damage being wrought upon Syria, and many other poor countries struggling to navigate the pandemic’s tumultuous waters, by economic sanctions maintained by wealthy Western nations.

Meanwhile, the Council’s efforts to end the 10-year-old Syrian conflict continued, with few tangible results even as the parties made modest political strides by launching the Constitutional Committee. January and February saw a marked escalation in the 2019 military offensive launched by President Bashar al‑Assad in the opposition-held north-west region, with more than 115,000 people forced to flee their homes in a single week. By the time the fighting subsided, in early March, the United Nations and its partners had already been forced to turn their attention to the rapidly unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, working furiously to scale up medical capacity in a country where only half of the hospitals were functional after a decade of war.

In the Occupied Palestinian Territory, a peace plan proposed by the United States early in 2020 was promptly rejected by the Palestinian Authority, European Union leaders and others as “failing to meet the minimum rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people”. One of its elements — a plan for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank long seen as likely parts of a future Palestinian State — was a particular source of concern for some Council members. However, the annexation plan was all but abandoned as Israel normalized diplomatic relations with several Arab States, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. World leaders largely welcomed those strides — also facilitated by the United States — and Nikolay Mladenov, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, praised “exemplary cooperation” between Israelis and Palestinians in combating COVID-19, urging them to seize that new window of opportunity to resume direct political talks.

Elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa region, Libya entered 2020 on the heels of a decade of fragile State-building, marked by violence and ongoing foreign meddling that threatened to draw the country even deeper into proxy battles. Stakeholders agreed, during a January conference in Berlin, to end all interference in Libya’s affairs. However, Special Representative Ghassan Salamé — in one of his last briefings before resigning — told the Council that little was being done to implement those commitments. In the early weeks of COVID-19, both the Government and opposition forces responded positively to international calls for a “humanitarian pause”. With support from the newly appointed Special Representative, Stephanie Turco Williams, they finally agreed to a ceasefire in October and launched the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum on 9 November, setting up a potential bright spot on the Council’s 2021 agenda.

While regional organizations, such as the African Union and its subregional counterparts, continued to gain strength and capacity in 2020, parts of the African continent remained consumed by surging terrorist attacks fuelled by social tensions and funded by transnational organized criminal networks. The security situation in much of Central Africa, West Africa and Sahel regions continued to deteriorate, with Special Representative Mohamed ibn Chambas noting in January that Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger had seen deaths from terrorist attacks jump five-fold since 2016. Such attacks, some featuring the use of improvised explosive devices, also targeted United Nations peace operations across Mali, Nigeria and the Central African Republic, killing and injuring mission staff.

As the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the “Group of Five” for the Sahel (G5 Sahel) countries worked to scale up their response — amid continuing discussions among Council members on how best to provide financial support — communities across the region frayed even further under the cumulative strain of COVID-19-related lockdowns and the worsening impacts of climate change. Meanwhile, senior officials from a range of agencies and departments warned the Council that terrorist groups, including those affiliated with or pledging loyalty to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) and Al-Qaida, would probably seek to exploit the pandemic’s new travel patterns and movement restrictions in an effort to regain their foothold.

During a high-level debate on cooperation between the United Nations and the African Union on 4 December, the Council adopted a presidential statement recognizing the continent’s exemplary leadership during the pandemic and encouraging stronger coordination “across a range of possible responses to conflict”. Members also convened their first-ever meeting on cooperation with the International Organisation of la Francophonie — representing 274 million people, mostly under the age of 30 — in the 54-nation French-speaking world.

Africa’s diplomatic prowess took centre stage in August, when a dramatic coup d’état unfolded in Mali. A military mutiny in the town of Kati led to the arrest and resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. Condemning the coup, ECOWAS quickly imposed sanctions and demanded a civilian-led transition aimed at restoring order. In the weeks that followed, the Council heard from Special Representative Mahamet Saleh Annadif that the region’s robust leadership had resulted in the prompt appointment of a new President, former Defence Minister Bah N’Daw, and the formation of a nascent transitional Government. Much to the relief of people across West Africa, ECOWAS lifted its sanctions, and the Special Representative urged the new leadership to continue to implement Mali’s 2015 Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. “The ball remains in the court of the Malian people,” he said.

Following the removal from office of long-standing President Omer Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir in 2019, Sudan’s democratic trajectory continued in 2020. Efforts by the country’s transitional leaders to reach peace deals with rebel groups began early in the year, yielding a patchwork of agreements widely viewed by the global community as positive. Improved relations between Sudan and neighbouring South Sudan were characterized by a newly launched political process, as Council members began to consider the planned drawdown of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) at the end of 2020. Despite delays caused by COVID‑19, UNAMID’s mandate was successfully terminated on 31 December, and a new operation — the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan, or UNITAMS — was created as its successor.

Despite a profoundly tragic surge in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, many of which targeted university students, that country also made significant political strides in 2020. Glimmers of hope emerged in the international community’s long‑standing efforts to turn the page on decades of conflict, as a new peace deal between the United States and the Taliban enabled the start of intra-Afghan negotiations in September. However, their success remained uncertain amid political strife and the imminent impacts of COVID-19, which experts warned could be “extreme” in a country decimated by endless war. The Council closed out 2020 by renewing the mandates of both the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the team monitoring sanctions on those associated with the Taliban, as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative warned that the unabating surge in violence could jeopardize the country’s fragile political gains.

Tackling a range of other thematic issues throughout 2020, Council members reiterated concerns about the rise of an increasingly unipolar world and the re‑emergence of nationalist ideologies. In debates on non-proliferation and the situation in the Persian Gulf, delegates differed over the utility of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons — the most recently concluded United Nations nuclear agreement — while expressing hope for the fate of the upcoming conference to review the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Countries stood largely united in condemnation of the decision by the United States to unilaterally withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Despite Washington, D.C.’s, withdrawal and Tehran’s subsequent breech of its commitments — including by bringing its enriched uranium stockpile to a level that surpassed the limits stipulated by the deal — officials emphasized that the deal remained the best way to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme. They urged all parties to adhere to its terms, citing encouraging remarks on that front by Joseph R. Biden, President-elect of the United States. In a similar vein, many Council members looked to 2021 — a year likely to be fraught with major global health, economic and logistical challenges as nations roll out a vaccination campaign of unprecedented scale — with a fresh wave of hope for the future of international cooperation.

Middle East


Meetings: 10 January, 28 January, 29 January, 6 February, 19 February, 27 February, 28 February, 30 March, 29 April, 29 April, 18 May, 19 May, 16 June, 29 June, 29 June, 7 July, 8 July, 10 July, 11 July, 23 July, 29 July, 19 August, 27 August, 10 September, 16 September, 18 September, 5 October, 27 October, 5 November, 25 November, 11 December, 16 December, 18 December.

Resolutions: 2504, 2530, 2533, 2555. Not adopted: 7 July, S/2020/654; 8 July, S/2020/658; 10 July — two competing drafts: S/2020/667, S/2020/683.

The Council’s difficult deliberations on Syria — where the bitter civil conflict was entering its tenth year — continued in the early weeks of 2020, as a major humanitarian deadline loomed. In late 2019, members found themselves deadlocked over the question of cross-border aid deliveries, deemed crucial by many humanitarian experts for the survival of millions of Syrians. The cross‑border delivery mechanism first authorized in resolution 2165 (2014) — allowing delivery of food and supplies through four authorized crossing points along Syria’s borders with Iraq, Turkey and Jordan — was due to expire on 10 January, leading to weeks of heated and high-stakes negotiations.

Meeting on 10 January, the Council adopted resolution 2504 (2020) by a vote of 11 in favour to none against, with four abstentions. By that text, members decided to renew for six months their authorization of the mechanism’s Bab al‑Salam and Bab al-Hawa crossing points on the border with Turkey while closing two others. With the loss of the Al Yarubiyah crossing, in particular, raising concerns among some Council members, the text also called upon the Secretary‑General to report by the end of February on the feasibility of alternative routes. Belgium’s representative, who voted in favour, deplored the lack of agreement on reauthorizing Al Yarubiyah, which allowed medical assistance to reach 1.4 million people. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation’s representative, who abstained, questioned the need for any cross-border deliveries, noting that convoys from abroad lacked appropriate monitoring and rejecting “politicization” by some Western members.

Experts briefing the Council largely agreed that progress made in 2019, especially in the initial meetings of Syria’s new Constitutional Committee, remained viable. However, early 2020 also saw a major escalation of military hostilities in and around the opposition-held city of Idlib in the north-west. That led Deputy Special Envoy Khawla Matar to warn on 28 January that spiking violence could stymie political strides before they even began in earnest. The Emergency Relief Coordinator echoed that alarm on 28 January, emphasizing the terrible suffering of civilians amid bombings and shelling. Some 115,000 people had fled Idlib in the previous week alone, he said, noting WHO’s prediction of a drop in available medical supplies following the closure of Al Yarubiyah. Geir O. Pedersen, Special Envoy for Syria, joined him in a briefing on 6 February, declaring: “We are witnessing the humanitarian catastrophe that the Secretary‑General has warned of.”

Providing an update on 19 February, the Special Envoy reported that more than 900,000 people had been displaced in the Idlib area since December 2019. Syria’s representative and several Council members stressed the need to combat terrorism — including in its Idlib stronghold — and pledged to liberate the city. The Council met on 27 February to consider the Secretary-General’s report on feasible alternatives to the Al Yarubiyah crossing, with Ursula Mueller, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, calling upon Damascus to adopt a simplified approval process aimed at expediting aid deliveries. On 28 February, in the bloody final days of fighting in Idlib, Secretary-General Guterres and Under-Secretary-General DiCarlo detailed a “very meaningful escalation”, including fresh air strikes by Government forces and their Russian partners, a Syrian attack on Turkish troops — which killed and wounded dozens of soldiers — and a significant counterattack in Idlib by non-State armed groups.

The near-year-long Idlib offensive launched by Damascus and its supporters in April 2019 finally ended in March, but the ensuing calm was quickly shattered as the eyes of the global community — including those monitoring the situation in Syria — moved to the COVID-19 pandemic, which many experts feared could have devastating consequences for the world’s most vulnerable nations. The Council held its first virtual meeting on Syria on 31 March, with the Emergency Relief Coordinator noting that 10 cases of COVID-19 had so far been reported in the country. Stressing that only half of Syrian hospitals were functional after a decade of war, he added that WHO-led support efforts — focused on reinforcing early warning systems and pre-positioning equipment — were already under way.

As partners worked furiously to scale up Syria’s medical capacity, a tenuous peace prevailed on the ground. Parties largely adhered to the Idlib ceasefire, as well as another agreement reached by the Russian Federation, Turkey and the United States in north-east Syria. The Special Envoy reiterated his appeal for calm on 29 April. During a subsequent meeting the same day, the Emergency Relief Coordinator warned that “tragedy beckons” if the virus — a major challenge for even the world’s wealthiest nations — should begin to spread uncontrolled in Syria’s crowded refugee camps. The Special Envoy took the opportunity afforded by the continued lull in hostilities to call, on 18 May, for a return to dialogue by both Syrian actors and international stakeholders.

The issue of cross-border aid appeared on the horizon again as 2020 neared its midpoint, with the expiry of the mechanism’s six-month renewal looming. On 19 May, the Emergency Relief Coordinator cited an alarming spike in food insecurity — as well as a dramatic devaluation of the Syrian pound and other pandemic-related economic shocks — while urging the Council to promptly renew its cross-border delivery authorizations. Members heard similar pleas on 16 June, when Noura Ghazi, a Syrian human rights lawyer, spotlighted the plight of thousands of unjustly detained non-violent activists. The Emergency Relief Coordinator appeared again on 29 June, reporting that Syria now had 256 cases of COVID-19 — a four‑fold increase since his last briefing — and issuing another clarion call for the extension of cross-border relief.

Meeting on 7 July and again on 8 July and 10 July, the Council ultimately failed to adopt four separate draft resolutions on reauthorizing the cross-border mechanism. The competing drafts, tabled by delegations with diverging views on Syria’s humanitarian situation, differed over which crossings to reauthorize and for how long. Several texts also sought to introduce language about the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures — commonly known as sanctions — imposed on Syria. Following days of voting, vetoes and heated explanations of position, members finally adopted resolution 2533 (2020) on 11 July, by 12 votes in favour to none against, with three abstentions (China, Dominican Republic, Russian Federation). By that text, the Council renewed its authorization of the Bab al‑Hawa crossing — but not that of Bab al-Salam — for another year, further reducing the number of approved cross-border delivery points from two to one.

Members considered conditions in Syria more broadly on 23 July, as the Special Envoy detailed the increasing hunger, high unemployment amid the COVID-19 pandemic and “vastly insufficient” progress on the release of missing and detained persons. On 29 July, Amany Qaddour of the non-governmental organization Syria Relief and Development, spotlighted the difficulties her group faced in delivering humanitarian assistance — including medical supplies such as ventilators and personal protective equipment — following the closure of Bab al-Hawa. On the political track, Council members heard from the Special Envoy on 19 August that plans for the next meeting of the Constitutional Committee’s “Small Body” — a steering group comprising 15 members from each of the main stakeholder groups — were well under way.

As 2020 progressed, a range of experts briefed members on the impact of COVID-19 and other matters. On 27 August, Ramesh Rajasingham, Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, reported 2,440 officially confirmed cases of the virus, while stressing that actual cases probably far exceeded that number. On 10 September, Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, provided an update on progress made by her office towards confirming the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme, as mandated in resolution 2118 (2013), marking the first time in the year that the chemical weapons file was addressed in an open meeting. The Emergency Relief Coordinator confirmed on 16 September that Syria was seeing community transmission of COVID-19, with more than 3,600 confirmed cases and little testing capacity to gauge the real toll.

With relative calm still prevailing and the need to alleviate humanitarian suffering all the more urgent, the Special Envoy called on 18 September for accelerated political progress, outlining the limited strides made at the recent Small Body meeting. The High Representative briefed again on 5 October, noting that the work of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Syria continued to progress despite pandemic-related restrictions. The Special Envoy relayed fresh efforts to reconvene the Constitutional Committee on 27 October, to be followed by yet another open Council meeting on the chemical weapons file, on 5 November.

On 25 November, Deputy Special Envoy Matar announced that the Constitutional Committee would hold its fourth session from 30 November to 4 December, and a fifth session in January 2021. Meanwhile, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias told the Council on 11 December that Syria’s initial chemical weapons declaration could still not be considered “accurate and complete” — due to unresolved gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies — and pledged to push forward with those efforts. Rounding out 2020 in a final briefing on 16 December, the Special Envoy called for broader peace efforts by the international community in 2021, underlining the need to focus on a Syria-wide ceasefire, substantive constitution‑drafting and “step‑for‑step” confidence-building measures among the parties.

On a separate matter, the Council adopted resolution 2530 (2020) on 29 June, extending the mandate of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) — tasked with maintaining the ceasefire between Israeli and Syrian troops and supervising the “areas of separation of limitation” — for six months. On 18 December, members adopted resolution 2555 (2020), further extending the mandate of that long-standing Force until 30 June 2021.


Meetings: 13 January, 16 January, 18 February, 25 February, 12 March, 16 April, 22 April, 14 May, 14 July, 15 July, 28 July, 15 September, 15 October, 11 November.

Resolutions: 2505, 2511, 2534.

Press Statements: SC/14094 (30 January), SC/14159 (10 April), SC/14176 (29 April), SC/14233 (29 June), SC/14329 (16 October), SC/14384 (13 December).

The Security Council met 14 times in 2020 to consider the situation in Yemen, where limited but steady progress was registered in the previous year towards ending the protracted civil conflict in the country. Adopting resolution 2505 (2020) on 13 January, members renewed the mandate of the United Nations Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement (UNMHA) — established early in 2019 to oversee a peace agreement between the Government and the Houthis in that critical port city — for a period of six months. Martin Griffiths, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, briefed the Council on 16 January amid a lull in military clashes, describing the week as the “quietest” since 2015. Citing a dramatic drop in the number of air strikes, he said Yemeni and regional leaders were still adhering to de-escalation commitments reached in 2019 and exercising notable restraint.

The situation had shifted by 18 February, however, as renewed fighting in Al-Jawf, Sana’a and Ma’rib displaced some 35,000 people and put recent political gains in peril. The Special Envoy reported that the condition of the moored oil tanker Safer —which had undergone no maintenance since it fell under Houthi control in 2015, and now sat poised to spill more than a million barrels of crude into the Red Sea — was rapidly degrading and required urgent international inspection to avert an environmental disaster.

On 25 February, the Council adopted resolution 2511 (2020), renewing the asset freeze and travel ban previously imposed on those threatening Yemen’s peace, security and stability, as well as an arms embargo imposed on the Houthis. Joining the Special Envoy as he briefed on 12 March, a senior official of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that more than 180 people were killed or wounded in February, a 20 per cent rise over the previous month. That situation was further complicated by the onset of COVID-19, as both Houthi militias and the coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia scrambled to avert an outbreak of the virus.

The coalition announced a unilateral two-week ceasefire on 8 April, leading the Special Envoy to stress that there could be “no better moment” for the parties to return to a peaceful trajectory, during the Council’s first virtual meeting on Yemen, on 16 April. He outlined a three-pronged plan — proposed to the coalition and the Houthis — known as the United Nations-facilitated Joint Declaration, which encompassed a nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian and economic measures to combat COVID-19, and the urgent resumption of political negotiations.

The parties were still weighing that proposal on 14 May, when the Special Envoy told the Council that a ceasefire was “within reach”. The Council adopted resolution 2534 (2020) on 14 July, once again renewing the UNMHA mandate, this time for a full year. On 15 July, members were briefed by Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), who painted a dark picture of the looming environmental catastrophe should experts fail to gain swift access to the ageing — and now leaking — oil tanker Safer.

No agreement had yet been reached on that matter, or on the proposed Joint Declaration, by 28 July, when the Special Envoy warned that continued violence, spiking food prices and now the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 were pushing Yemen to the brink of collapse. Joining him on 15 September was the Emergency Relief Coordinator, who warned that the “spectre of famine” had once again returned to Yemen amid converging crises. Despite several hopeful events late in 2020 — including a large-scale prisoner swap among the parties reported by the Special Envoy on 15 October — senior officials underlined, on 11 November, the need for the Council and the wider global community to scale up relief financing for Yemen.

The Council issued six press statements on Yemen in 2020. On 30 January, members expressed serious concern about — and underlined their disappointment with — the return to violence and its impact on civilians, saying it threatened to undermine the progress made during the recent period of de-escalation. On 10 April, they endorsed the Secretary-General’s call for an immediate end to hostilities amid COVID-19, welcoming the Government’s positive response and calling upon the Houthis to make similar commitments. Condemning the declaration of a Southern Transitional Council on 29 April, the Council reaffirmed its commitment to Yemen’s unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, warning that the declaration could distract from efforts to secure a ceasefire.

On 29 June, members condemned recent attacks on Saudi Arabia — via unmanned aerial vehicles and missiles — as well as escalating violence on the ground. In a final statement on 16 October, the Council urged the parties to urgently endorse the United Nations-facilitated Joint Declaration proposed by the Special Envoy, while underlining the need for a transitional agreement by which power is shared among a diversity of political and social groups. On 13 December, members condemned yet another military escalation in Ma’rib, Hudaydah and Taïz late in 2020, while at the same time strongly rejecting a November attack by Houthi militants on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.


Meetings: 3 March, 12 May, 29 May, 15 June, 26 August, 18 September, 24 November, 10 December.

Resolutions: 2522, 2544.

Press Statements: SC/14184 (13 May), SC/14365 (24 November).

On the heels of a year marked by political strides and peaceful popular uprisings, 2020 dawned in Iraq with the news that Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi had decided to resign his post. In her first briefing of the year, on 3 March, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), outlined a range of challenges that could be exacerbated by the political vacuum resulting from the Prime Minister’s resignation, including rampant corruption, the threat posed by affiliates of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), lack of criminal accountability and other lingering impacts of decades of war.

After weeks of infighting among Iraqi leaders, the Council met on 12 May to welcome a newly formed Government led by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Members agreed that combating the spread of COVID-19 must now top the list of priorities for both the Government and UNAMI. On 29 May, they adopted resolution 2522 (2020), extending the Mission’s mandate for one year. Meanwhile, progress continued in the investigations led by the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (UNITAD). Briefing the Council on 15 June, one official reported that more than 2 million call‑data records obtained from Iraqi cell phone service providers had yielded new information about crimes committed against the Yazidi community in 2014.

As in many other parts of the world, however, Iraq’s focus in 2020 remained on COVID-19 and its broad social and economic repercussions. On 26 August, Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert outlined positive steps by Prime Minister al-Kadhami, while warning that Iraq continued to operate in “the eye of multiple storms”. Joblessness had spiked 10 per cent amid the economic fallout from the pandemic, oil revenues had fallen by 50 per cent, gender-based violence had doubled and one third of the population now lived below the poverty line, she said, urging the Government to prioritize the needs of the people.

Following its adoption of resolution 2544 (2020) on 18 September — by whose terms the Council renewed UNITAD’s mandate for another year — the Council heard another update on Iraq’s economic woes from Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert on 24 November. She said addressing the country’s fiscal challenges and building domestic resilience remained the best defence against external actors who sought, once again, to turn Iraq into an arena for foreign Power struggles. As 2020 drew to a close, Council members heard another UNITAD briefing on 10 December, with officials describing the innovative online tools — including translation and facial‑recognition software — which had allowed the team to continue recording victim testimonials throughout the pandemic.

The Council issued two press statements on Iraq in 2020. The first, on 13 May, welcomed the formation of the new Government, as well as its pledge to address COVID-19 and deliver meaningful reforms on economic opportunity, good governance, political participation and electoral legislation. On 24 November, the Council welcomed recent progress in the long-standing search for Kuwaiti and third-country nationals missing since Iraq’s 1990 invasion of the neighbouring State — including the repatriation of human remains believed to be of Kuwaiti citizens from the Government of Iraq to the Government of Kuwait on 16 September 2020 and on 8 August 2019 — and praised UNAMI’s logistical support.


Meetings: 28 August.

Resolutions: 2539.

The Council’s single meeting on the situation in Lebanon took place on 28 August, three weeks after a series of devastating explosions in the capital, Beirut, claimed more than 200 lives, flattened vital infrastructure and levelled countless surrounding neighbourhoods. Adopting resolution 2539 (2020), members decided to renew the mandate of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) for one year, while reducing the maximum number of its troops from 15,000 to 13,000. They also authorized the mission to take temporary special measures to support Lebanon and its people in the aftermath of the explosions. The Council requested that the Secretary-General assess the impact of the blasts on mission personnel, capacities and operations, and recommend measures to maintain UNIFIL’s continuity and effectiveness.