Ebola, Zika and R2P: 5 Definite Lessons for Africa and the International Community

By Dr Foluke Ifejola Ipinyomi, Teaching Associate (University of Bristol Law School).

© Fleur Launspach/Al Jazeera
© Fleur Launspach/Al Jazeera

At the height of the Ebola epidemic I wrote a blog post enumerating lessons that can be learnt by the international community. I continue to be concerned with the responsibility to protect [R2P] and its operation in West Africa especially focusing on the preventive arm of R2P. I also continue to examine any responsibility which the international community may have in preventing human suffering in fragile states.

To recap, in April 2014, the first cases of Ebola were brought to international attention. The outbreak started in Guinea, but quickly spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone with isolated cases in neighbouring Senegal and a transported outbreak in Nigeria. Without a hashtag to cling to or an ice bucket challenge to surmount, the world largely ignored the outbreak. It was not till selfless American and British aid workers, who contacted the deadly virus, were flown to their respective homelands for treatment, that the mass hysteria of an imminent biological apocalypse caused several governments around the world (outside West Africa) to begin to consider what they may do to avoid the virus killing their own citizens. Nevertheless, by October 2014 infections had occurred in the US and Spain.

As of November 2015, 19 months since the first confirmed case on 23 March 2014, there have been 11,314 recorded deaths in six countries; Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, the US and Mali. The total number of reported cases is more than 28,607 and counting. A report published in The Lancet in 2015, blames the epidemic spread of the disease on the slow international response [see S Moon et al. ‘Will Ebola change the game? Ten essential reforms before the next pandemic. The report of the Harvard-LSHTM Independent Panel on the Global Response to Ebola’ (2015) The Lancet]. In March 2016 isolated cases and transmissions still occur.

The Zika virus is very different from the Ebola virus. Its mode of transmission, effect and treatment are obscured by the fact that both are untreatable, thus far. Zika is linked with microcephaly, a disease that can cause brain damage in babies. It is a mosquito-borne virus that started in Brazil but has spread to 24 other countries in the Americas. Furthermore, the possibility of drugs and vaccines for Zika could be years away, though the United Nation’s has said that this is ‘a major advance’ compared to the response to Ebola. The World Health Organisation has declared a global emergency in relation to the Zika spread.

This brings us back to R2P and the international community. The purpose of R2P was to enable the international community to act to prevent human suffering in fragile states [Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ (2001) 155-75]. The spread of Zika and Ebola can be linked to inadequate medical facilities and inadequate numbers of medical personnel. R2P as a people-centred ideal has however been lost in the haze of world events and the euphoria of UN at the adoption of the 2005 UN Outcome Document which significantly dilutes and misunderstands R2P [World Summit Outcome Document 2005. A/RES/60/1]. As a result R2P has been reduced to giving states an excuse for military intervention in other states. I believe that the spirit of R2P can still be salvaged. Nevertheless, there are various lessons which I would like to point out from the foregoing, moving forward.

  1. The international community as a unitary actor is pure fiction. While the phrase ‘international community’ is used to imply a common point of view, that commonality is almost always overshadowed by personal and political self-interest. The UN and WHO, both seen as evidence of the existence of an international community, barely managed to get a handle on the Ebola crisis. The crisis could have been contained with adequate readiness by a cohesive international community in April 2014, but the lack of such a community has resulted in unnecessary loss of life and increasing expenditure. The spread of the Zika virus has, as yet, not been curtailed. Lesson one: Relying on the international community is like sitting on a chair made of tissue paper, it will let you down.
  2. R2P is severely handicapped by a non-existent international community. The core of the responsibility to protect (R2P) is ‘[w]here a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect’ [Report of the ICISS xi, emphasis mine]. R2P embraces 3 responsibilities; a responsibility to prevent, a responsibility to react, and a responsibility to rebuild. The vision of the architects of R2P clearly covers a situation such as the Ebola outbreak, where populations in West Africa were suffering serious harm, and the states concerned are unable to prevent it; or the situation in America, where unborn children are at risk of an irreversible condition. The international responsibility to protect cannot be fulfilled if there is no international community to bear such a responsibility. This is more so as regards the first part of the continuum, i.e. the responsibility to prevent. Lesson two – R2P without a functional international community is like a toothbrush with no bristles, completely redundant.
  3. If the international community is to be built, it should start from a sense of human oneness. Our understanding of community is based on the fictional presumption of shared values. These shared values rarely result in shared action, unless shared interests are at stake. The enforcement and implementation of international human rights law will be merely academic until both interests and values coincide. The basic fact of shared humanity should suffice to ignite human compassion, only when this is taken as read, will we have an international community. The existence of an international community does not require more resources, the world has enough, though unevenly distributed. The international community requires more humanity, not money or security, compassion and human kindness, not rhetoric or bombast… the world needs consistent acts of benevolence. Lesson three – calling the international community a community without any sense of communion is like calling a dying cactus a rose bush, placing it in your parlour and hoping its non-existent fragrance will adorn the premises.
  4. Africa must look to herself. Now more than ever, Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, must realise that self-sufficiency is required. Aid has solved no problems, interventions have probably done more harm than good, and the recommendation of constant elections, have become a smoke-screen for undemocratic democracies. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone were unable to handle Ebola due to the lack of manpower and infrastructure that have resulted from sustained yet preventable conflict [I suggest you read my thesis, ‘The responsibility to protect and the responsibility to prevent : a legitimate and structural framework for an international non-military responsibility to prevent mass atrocity and internal conflict in West Africa’ (2011) Lancaster University]. In contrast ever-tense Nigeria, and sporadic conflict-hit Senegal contained Ebola without any external help. Therein lies a truth – if Ebola can be contained in these states, viable economies can be built and the move made from fragile to solid. The international community should eschew aid and promote fair international business practices. Africa should look to herself, adopt its own home-grown solutions, and do good to all people. Lesson four – a person who lives at the bottom of a hill, should be the first to build a floodwall during the flood… Nevertheless, the person at the top of the hill should note, that there is no way of escape.
  5. My final truth – we are one world, one human race. ‘The world has become like a drum – if hit on one end, the whole thing will vibrate.’ At no point in history is this truth more glaring. We see this through the prisms of economic downturns, the fears of climate change, the pressures of petrol prices, the push and pull of migration, the visual horrors of terrorism, and the insecurity of the internet – international law losing its validity at a time when its role should be predominant. Lesson five – Different colours, nationalities, genders, dreams, political leanings, social standings, and beliefs – but we breathe in the same air, walk on the same planet, lie under the same stars … Ebola and Zika can kill us all.

If you want to read more of my ideas on R2P and the international community (I really hope you do!) I recommend the following articles:

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