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Conflicts rage on, as UN’s call for ceasefire lacks backing

With an unresponsive UN Security Council and an increasing securitisation of global health, whom do we hold accountable when conflicts continue to brew in a pandemic?

by Amrita Bhatia

On 23rd March 2020, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for an immediate global ceasefire with the objective of facilitating humanitarian organisations to assist vulnerable populations struggling with the COVID-19, and mentioned that the UN was ready to expand humanitarian operations in countries where they were not already present. Gutteres urged the world to “silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes” and emphasised that it is the most challenging crisis since World War II, where “humankind is at stake”, appealing for international peace and solidarity. 

This #GlobalCeasefire gained the support of over 70 countries, about 200 NGOs, a few non-state armed groups, and 2 million individuals, but received little traction at the UN Security Council (UNSC). Following Guterres’ speech, the UNSC held a few closed-door consultations and informal sessions, but refrained from a robust response. Because of this, the UNSC has received criticism for being ‘missing in action’. For Richard Gowan, a former UN consultant and present director of the International Crisis Group, “[t]he council has sent a signal of shambolic disunity, which I think is resonating quite widely… [t]he damage has been done”, as quoted in The New York Times. The 15-member UNSC is the only body that has the power to influence and control war and military, and without their backing, Guterres’ speech only echoes an empty promise.

A major challenge to the UNSC taking an effective response has been the lack of historical precedent for the current situation. During the frequently referenced Ebola outbreak of 2014, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2177 (2014), which urged UN agencies to accelerate their response, and recommended that governments of affected countries establish national response mechanisms and lift border restrictions to facilitate the same. This was seen as a sign of increasing securitisation of global health, but was effective insofar as it allowed medical professionals and supplies to reach affected areas, and attempted to maintain “international peace”. Despite its drawbacks, the response appeared much more vigorous and engaged to tackle the crisis. Another key aspect that has created a barrier for the UNSC, despite weeks of negotiations, is the tussle between two of its permanent members and COVID-outbreak centres: the United States and China. The rift was evident at a UNSC meet in April 2020, with the blockages posed by US and Russia’s objections to adhere to the ceasefire. 

Earlier this month, Oxfam International published a report titled ‘Conflict in the Time of Coronavirus’, which highlights the problem faced by conflict zones during the pandemic. It begins with a global call to action for working collectively, using the ceasefire as an opportunity to address the root causes of conflicts and “address the highly toxic and dangerous interplay between coronavirus and conflict.” The report goes into the details of impact of the pandemic in contexts of heavy conflict, highlighting the common and pre-pandemic problems of food insecurity, displacement, and gender-based violence getting exacerbated due to coronavirus. One case that highlights the  precariousness of the aid provisions during COVID-19, is that of the Central African Republic (CAR), where the UN withdrew humanitarian response due to armed groups’ non-compliance to the global ceasefire. 

Deeming the UNSC’s inaction a “failure of multilateralism”, the report calls out the nations that have supported the global call of ceasefire but continue to be active participants in military operations and/or involved in arms sales and exports. The same logic echoes in Ray Acheson’s (Director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom) piece on disarmament, as she questions the structure of financing armed groups: “The connections between military spending, human rights, and the health of people and [the] planet have never been clearer,” Acheson says. “We are what we spend our money on.” 

From 15th March to 23rd May, about 660,000 people were forced to flee from their homes due to armed conflict across 19 countries according to the Norweigan Refugee Council (NRC). Many such vulnerable people have had to put themselves in danger, possibly exposing themselves to catching the virus, and undermining efforts at containing the COVID-19, and are facing a “double crisis”, as per NRC’s report. UNICEF’s Director has warned that ongoing conflicts have also put 250 million children at risk, as they live through a “waking nightmare”. 

On the other hand, the International Crisis Group’s report on the impact of the call for global ceasefire provides a small, perhaps temporary, glimpse of hope. While most groups’ responses are limited to either disregard or ‘gesture politics’, many armed groups in Thailand, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Sudan, Cameroon and others have endorsed the ceasefire. As per the report, “UN efforts to persuade armed groups to cease hostilities seem to have more traction in cases where parties had already engaged in peace talks”. Much of the disregard has come from governments, but they may agree to the ceasefire if adequate humanitarian aid is provided. According to the Crisis Group, the motivations and fuel behind conflicts are “highly local” and a global call for ceasefire, without a case-by-case resolution, is vain. Despite acknowledging the power behind the UN Secretary General’s speech, Crisis Group emphasised that real action to stop military and political violence would have to come from the UNSC, a common recommendation from most organisations analysing the response.

With ongoing war, conflict, violence and fragility in many countries – South Sudan, CAR, Burkina Faso, Libya, Nigeria, Colombia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Syria, Yemen, to name a few – the question of whether conflicts will intensify or resort to peace looms large in the peacekeeping domain. Cases have also been reported in refugee camps in Yemen, Kenya, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, where the new “global norm” of social distancing is impossible.  Many of these countries are listed among the 15 most fragile states of 2020, as per the State Fragility Index, which effectively means that long-standing war and conflict has left them with little resources to handle the COVID-19 crisis. These states lack the testing capacity and ICU facilities to treat patients, as their health centres are ravaged and face a scarcity of doctors. This “double emergency” also means that medical staff are forced to make difficult decisions regarding whom to save, and cannot reach those neglected by the response due to conflicts. 

The UNSC is currently debating a “limited ceasefire” in certain conflict zones, which will continue to allow states to inflict violence on those they deem “terrorists”. Not only does this selective implementation disregard the call for a global ceasefire, but it also fails to consider Guterres’ earlier call to address the global rise in domestic violence and femicide, as well as violence against children. Peace mediators, humanitarian staff and health workers struggle to serve people in need as they are unable to travel or face violence, because armed conflict and coronavirus have made movement increasingly dangerous; as a result, many of them have gone back to their home countries. Humanitarian organisations are urging governments to invest in peace and adhere to International Humanitarian Law, but these measures are not enough to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, or the violence itself.

The responsibility of peacekeeping and relief response amidst violence seems to have fallen largely on NGOs and civil society actors, as the UNSC itself appears to be ‘paralysed’ by its most powerful members. In this chaos, it is imperative to assess the structural changes that the UN and international politics must undergo, in order to realise Oxfam’s optimistic call to use the pandemic as an opportunity to establish long-lasting peace. For now, it seems to be a faraway dream. 


Photo by Chieee on Flickr

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