Securitising West Africa’s Ebola Pandemic: Implications for the Future of UN Peace Operations

By Obinna Ifediora



At the climax of the 2014 Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak in West Africa, the international community, including the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the African Union Peace and Security Council (AU PSC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) (the Committee of Chiefs of Defence Staff [CCDS)]), the United States of America, and the World Health Organisation (WHO), had to adopt extraordinary measure in order to effectively address the global and regional threat posed by the EVD. These responses were considered unnecessary, not conducive for long-term health system capacity-building in West Africa, dangerous, and strategically counterproductive.  This blog article reviews these claims in a context of non-traditional security (NTS) challenges to global security vis-à-vis the underlying motivations to employ a securitised response by the international community. It finds that in the absence of a securitised approach to the threat posed by the EVD, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projection that without additional measures to control the spread of the virus up to 1.4 million people are likely to contract Ebola in West Africa by January 2015 could have happened. It suggests that this security approach is consistent with the growing practice of securitising public health challenges to human security: from HIV/AIDS to malaria, cholera, and Ebola and Zika viruses.

It concludes by noting that the global response to the EVD epidemic in West Africa was a turning point, as well as a precedent, in combating future public health challenges; for the first time in the UN history of maintaining international peace and security, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, in an uncharacteristic move, authorised and deployed a ‘health mission’ to West Africa. In many ways, this is the first demonstrable evidence of the reframing of the future of UN peace operations  focusing, primarily, on the people.

Securitizing a Public Health Pandemic – theory and debate

The securitisation theory refers to the processes of presenting an issue as posing an ‘existential threat’ to a ‘referent object’, such populations, which requires extraordinary measures beyond the routine and norms of everyday politics to address. On the international level, the securitisation idea provides a framework that enables the presentation of an issue as urgent and existential, so important that it should not be treated in the context of normal politics.

Critics of the securitisation theory argue that excessive securitisation could render security politically ineffective, intellectually incoherent and confrontational to civil and developmental issues; the EVD challenge being one of such issues. Reviewing global response to the EVD outbreak, this article presents an alternative understanding of the potential implications of securitisation of health pandemics. Here, securitisation framework is understood as representing potential opportunities for addressing public health risks without necessarily triggering a traditional ‘military-type’ response, and also the prospect it embodies for the idea of the new security consensus.  Securitisation approach, when viewed from this perspective, provides the necessary impetus for mobilising the international community towards the desired action.

Responses to the Ebola pandemic are instructive: Following the first confirmed case of Ebola in Guinea on 21 March 2014, the WHO published official Ebola notification on 24 March 2014, and eventually a team of medical experts under its Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GORAN) arrived in Guinea. The EVD outbreak was discussed at a summit of the Heads of States and Government (HSG) of ECOWAS in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire between 28 and 29 March 2014 where an initial appeal for international aid was made. These early responses, however, failed to grasp the enormity and potential ramifications of the challenges posed by Ebola. The WHO initially treated the outbreak as a localised infection requiring routine measures to contain; while for ECOWAS, it was a developmental issue, at best.

From Inertia to Action – securitising Ebola and its policy implications

Four months into the unprecedented devastation wrecked by Ebola, a policy shift eventually occurred, by which time there were 1,711 cases of infections of which 1,070 were confirmed, 436 probable, 205 suspect, and 932 deaths.

In July 2014, the WHO re-graded EVD from Grade 2 to Grade 3, the highest emergency level, which signified ‘the existence of a single or multiple country events with substantial public health consequences that require a substantial WCO [WHO Country Office] response’. Consequently, on 8 August 2014, following the first meeting of the International Health Regulation (IHR) Committee, a unanimous decision pursuant to Article 12(4) (e) of the WHO International Health Regulations (IHR) (2005) stated that, ‘the conditions for a public health emergency of international concern have been met’ and that ‘the Ebola outbreak in West Africa constitutes an extraordinary event and a public health risk to other states’.

The ECOWAS CCDS, in an Emergency Session in Accra, Ghana, on 8 December 2014, called for urgent military contributions by member states to halt the devastation caused by the EVD outbreak in the region. By placing the Ebola pandemic prior to other security issues it had to confront in the region, the CCDS asked for medical military personnel, supported by civilian components, in line with Article 89 of the ECOWAS Conflict Prevention Framework, 2008.

On 19 August 2014, the AU PSC, referring to the ‘emergency situation caused by Ebola’, implemented Articles 6(f) and 13(3) (f) of its Protocol and authorised humanitarian action and disaster management response. Consequently, the AU Support Mission for the fight against the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa (ASEOWA) was established on 29 October 2014, comprising of military and civilian components, including 1,000 health workers. To finance ASEOWA, the AU requisitioned funds from its Special Emergency Assistance Fund for Drought and Famine and Special Fund Contributions – internally displaced persons (IDPs) and Refugees.

There is nothing in the foregoing to suggest a traditional military-style operation; but rather, an innovative African hybrid military-civilian response to a catastrophic humanitarian event caused by a health pandemic. The AU understood the urgency of the situation and decided to reallocate funds that were not specifically earmarked for such situations.

The measures adopted by the UNSC on 18 September 2014, and the UN General Assembly declaration on 19 September 2014, resulted in the establishment of the UN Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER). UNMEERS’s primary objectives were to stop the outbreak, treat the infected, provide essential services, preserve stability and prevent further outbreaks.

Conclusion: securitising Ebola into a ‘health mission’

In activating the UN’s system-wide crises response mechanism, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, stated that ‘I have decided to establish a United Nations emergency health mission combining the World Health Organization’s strategic perspective with a very strong logistics and operational capability’. In essence, UNMEER was not a peacekeeping mission in the context of a classical approach to ‘maintaining international peace and security’, but a ‘health mission’ with full logistical support from existing assets from the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). More so, US troops were deployed in West Africa to address America’s national security  concerns occasioned by the EVD pandemic in the context of providing expertise in logistics, training and engineering.

There is no evidence thus far to suggest that securitising the global response to Ebola amounted to a military operation or even to suggest a future role for UN blue-helmets. However, there may be a role for UN white-helmets in combating public health crises in the future, such as with the case of the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil. Available evidence demonstrates genuine multilateral humanitarianism in protecting the people of West Africa, and the world, from an existential threat posed by Ebola virus by utilising ‘securitising speech-act’ methodology to galvanise hitherto dormant, but overwhelming global capacities to save human lives, restore stability, and revive economic growth and development.

Granted that a securitised response to health crises may not be appropriate for structural human protection – that is, health systems capacity-building and development in West Africa – a securitised measure, nevertheless, helped to achieve the core purpose of operational human protection – that is, halting the spread of the EVD, treating infected people, preserving stability, and preventing future outbreaks.

The overbearing global capacities that were brought to bear on the threat of EVD to the international community ensured that the US CDC projection that over one million people could be infected by January 2015 did not materialise. Additionally, the urgency and priority that securitisation gave to the Ebola crisis exposed capacity gaps in global-regional preparedness for health emergencies, thus providing the platform for the ongoing debate on reforming global health governance systems.

Understanding the changing nature of threats to international, regional and national peace and security gives credence to the securitisation framework as a relevant and viable political tool for mobilising global political will and appropriate capacities in responding to such threats. Today, the international community recognises that challenges of governance underline the numerous threats it confronts, especially relating to human security: from terrorism to irregular migration, human trafficking, poverty, growing youth unemployment, internal displacement, refugees, and diseases. These are the threats the UN peace operations is being repositioned to address. Regarding public health crises, authorising UN health missions is now expected to become the norm.  The future is here.



Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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