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AU to deploy a humanitarian mission to fight Ebola in West Africa
1 September 2014

In an unprecedented step, the first of its kind in the history of the African Union (AU), the Peace and Security Council (PSC) has decided to deploy a humanitarian mission to help end the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.

At its 450th meeting on 19 August 2014, which coincided with World Humanitarian Day, the PSC authorised the first AU humanitarian intervention by mandating ‘the immediate deployment of an AU-led military and civilian humanitarian mission, comprising medical doctors, nurses and other medical and paramedical personnel, as well as military personnel, as required for the effectiveness and protection of the mission.’

Underscoring the urgency of the matter, the PSC tasked the AU Commission to promptly prepare the necessary concept of operations for the speedy deployment of the mission.

The Ebola virus has left over 1 400 people dead with over 3 000 known cases, according to figures released on 27 August by the World Health Organization (WHO) in its ‘road map’ to end the crisis. However, there are fears that the epidemic has affected far more people than reported. The Ebola outbreak was formally designated a public health emergency of international concern on 8 August 2014.

Since the first case was reported earlier in the year in Guinea, the outbreak has spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone, with a concerning number of cases also reported in Lagos, Nigeria. A separate strain of the virus has been detected in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The decision of the PSC was informed as much by the security concerns as by the medical emergency created by the Ebola outbreak

Among these countries, Liberia and Sierra Leone are the worst affected. In these countries and in Guinea, the Ebola outbreak is not just a public health emergency. It also affects economic activities and social stability, and thus poses a serious security threat. There is genuine concern that the outbreak, if unchecked for too long, could have a negative impact on the stability of these countries. This may apply to the DRC as well if the outbreak in that country runs out of control.

The historic decision the PSC adopted at its 450th meeting was informed as much by these security concerns as by the medical emergency created by the Ebola outbreak. Accordingly, the PSC drew attention to the fact that ‘three of [the] affected countries are in a post-conflict situation, and that the epidemic has the potential of undermining the tremendous progress made by these countries over the past few years’. It urged for renewed effort both within Africa and from partners in combating the epidemic.

In terms of the fight against the Ebola outbreak, apart from the problems caused by the general lack of preparedness of the health facilities in these countries, more treatment centres, logistical assets and health workers are desperately needed, according to the humanitarian aid organisation Medecins sans Frontieres. The WHO says that up to US$430 million is needed in the fight against the outbreak. Earlier, on 14 August, the AU pledged to contribute $1 million from its Humanitarian Fund to help those countries affected by the virus.

Given the huge demand for health workers and treatment centres, the AU mission could contribute to the fight against Ebola, if and when it is deployed

This is perhaps the most substantive decision the PSC has taken in acting on its mandate under Articles 6 and 7 of the PSC Protocol since it became operational in 2004. As such, it is a very welcome action. Given the huge demand for health workers and treatment centres, it could contribute to the fight against Ebola, particularly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, if and when the mission is deployed.

Article 6 of the PSC Protocol, which defines the functions of the PSC, stipulates that one of its functions relates to ‘humanitarian action and disaster management’. Similarly, Article 7 states that the PSC shall ‘support and facilitate humanitarian action in situations of armed conflicts or major natural disasters’. Despite such a clear mandate, the actual operationalisation of this mandate by the PSC has been limited in action and ad hoc in approach.

While the PSC has taken the important first step in authorising the deployment of a humanitarian mission, the actual value of this decision lies in its swift implementation and the effectiveness of the mission. Being the first such mission by the AU, its actual operationalisation will not be an easy exercise. Issues ranging from identifying and mobilising personnel, logistics and funding to the actual deployment and operationalisation of the mission in the three affected countries need to be settled. The necessary consultations with the Economic Community of West African States and the authorities in the affected countries should also be finalised. The ball is now in the AU Commission’s court.

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