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What Happens to Armed Conflicts During a Global Pandemic?

Three questions to Armida van Rij

What Happens to Armed Conflicts During a Global Pandemic?
 Armida van Rij
Research Fellow at the International Security Programme at Chatham House

The Covid-19 crisis disrupted the course of most operations, including armed conflict. In March 2020, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire, in an effort to concert a global response to the pandemic. What is the significance of such a call? What has been the impact of a global health crisis in the way actors and societies approach conflict? Armida van Rij, Research Associate at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, answers our questions.

What is the significance of the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire, and what has been the response to it? 

UN Secretary General Guterres in March 2020 called for a global ceasefire in response to Covid-19, and for all parties to instead focus efforts on the "true fight of our lives", namely Covid-19. Many countries in the West have struggled to get the number of infections under control – despite having strong healthcare systems in place. It is clear that in the case of fragile states with poor health infrastructures, the impact of the virus will be disastrous. A global ceasefire would allow humanitarian aid and medical care to be safely delivered where it is most urgently needed.

Yet the call had a mixed reception. It has gained broad support from governments, regional organisations and NGOs in some contexts. The National Liberation Army (ELN) in Colombia, and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) seem to be concerned by the health and economic risks Covid-19 poses, and are concerned that national or even localised lockdowns will affect the supply of food and medicine to those communities who support them, and have declared a ceasefire. Others have instead resisted – the ELN’s unilateral ceasefire declaration has not been reciprocated by the government, or Colombia’s other armed groups – and continued to perpetuate violence. Some militant groups have placed conditions on their adherence to the ceasefire, or imperfect ceasefire arrangements. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces has declared a ceasefire, but it’s not clear whether this includes attacks against Turkish forces in Syria for which it does not take responsibility. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia declared a unilateral ceasefire after years of struggling to gain military or political ground, and may be seizing on the Covid-19 crisis as a face-saving way of exiting the conflict – but violence has continued to be carried out by Saudi Arabia and other parties to the conflict

Negotiations over a UN Security Council Resolution backing the call for a global ceasefire have now lasted for over two months, and have been unsuccessful so far in garnering support from the US, China and Russia.

The response from within the UN Security Council has been equally mixed. Negotiations over a UN Security Council Resolution backing the call for a global ceasefire have now lasted for over two months, and have been unsuccessful so far in garnering support from the US, China and Russia – three of the five UN Security Council Permanent Members. Supposedly, the US has resisted any positive reference to the WHO and its work on the pandemic, whereas China is pushing for one. In reality however, both the US and Russia are more likely to be concerned about what impact such a ceasefire might have on their counter-terrorism operations. 

To be clear, a global ceasefire is not merely symbolic, it is urgently needed and necessary – Covid-19 has simply made this even more pressing. Refugees who have had to flee their homes because of conflict, a vast number of which are now living in unsanitary and crowded camps, are at higher risk of catching the virus and dying from it. Countries’ health systems have been shattered due to conflict and would struggle to respond adequately to a serious outbreak. People living in conflict-affected states who have suffered from malnutrition for years do not have the immune systems to fight off the virus. All of this makes allowing access to medical teams and humanitarian assistance all the more important, yet at the moment this is at risk due to ongoing fighting and attacks. 

Which areas/conflict zones look most at risk at the moment? How are they impacted by the current Covid-19 crisis? 

It is difficult to say which areas risk being more affected than others: all fragile states already found themselves in a precarious situation prior to Covid-19, this is only further exacerbated by the threat of the virus. Yemen, for example, is such a country. Even before the virus emerged, 80% of its population required some form of humanitarian assistance or protection, of which half of all families were in acute need. It had approximately 3.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) (of a population of 30 million). Over two thirds of its governorates are food insecure, and the country has had a cholera outbreak which affected 2.3 million Yemenis. Air strikes have been a key feature of the war, and both Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, as well as the Houthi insurgents whom they are fighting, have targeted medical facilities, leaving much of the country’s health and other critical infrastructure in tatters. Only half of Yemen’s medical facilities are now operational. This has been compounded by other disasters such as a dengue outbreak in 2019, and flash floods in March 2020.

Covid-19 has hit the country at a time when its population has weak levels of immunity due to over half a decade of war, high levels of vulnerability, and a fragile healthcare system. Its healthcare and humanitarian aid workers are lacking essential supplies, such as oxygen and personal protective equipment (PPE). IDPs live in crowded camps with poor facilities. In short, the war and its impacts make containing a highly infectious disease like Covid-19 nearly impossible. Official death rates from the virus remain relatively low, with 260 cases and 54 deaths according to WHO data, but these numbers are likely to severely underestimate the real number of Covid-19 deaths in the country. 

A real issue going forward will be funding. With donor countries focussing efforts to combat Covid-19 outbreaks in their own countries, UN agencies operating in Yemen are struggling to find enough funds to continue their work and support the Yemeni population as much as possible through essential aid, medical, food and water supplies. Meanwhile, despite a unilateral ceasefire called by Saudi Arabia, air strikes and other hostilities continue. 

In short, the war and its impacts make containing a highly infectious disease like Covid-19 nearly impossible.

How could this crisis shift the way actors approach conflict? Will the experience of 'a common enemy' open up space for peace and durable ceasefires? Or would the case be quite the contrary, where actors would find opportunity in instability and hence higher incentives to wage war and conflict?

Perhaps the shared threat of Covid-19 will lead to parties laying down their arms – but this will clearly be different across different conflicts and societies. Some non-state actors will seek to capitalise on the vacuum left by a reduced military footprint. US Africa Command, for example, cancelled two military exercises in March in efforts to ‘protect our troops and African partners’ from the virus. Covid-19 is forcing governments to divert their attention and concentrate on public health and emergency response, which may create opportunities for non-state actors and insurgent groups – some of whom, in the past, have benefitted from instability to gain influence and recruit new followers. With forces confined to their barracks, and in some cases dealing with Covid-19 cases among their own ranks, e.g. the peacekeeping force in Mali, insurgent groups may seek to control access to things like medical help. Equally, national militaries may well need to take on additional responsibilities to help central governments tackle Covid-19, particularly in terms of assistance with logistics, thereby spreading resources more thinly. This may make it easier for some groups to carry out attacks on ‘soft’ targets, such as hospitals. 

Relatedly, a longer-term consequence may be that, while governments are focussing on tackling Covid-19, insurgent groups may try to use this as an opportunity to assert control over territory and populations alike – thereby establishing the ground for further contestation later on. The Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, has been conducting a public health awareness campaign in the regions over which it exerts control, attempting to support its image that it is running a shadow government in parts of Afghanistan and thereby using the virus to legitimise the organisation – although it has continued to carry out attacks. A further consideration is the way in which access to healthcare is becoming politicised in conflicts, with actors seeking to control access in exchange for support. 

A final important consideration is one of ripple effects. In countries in Europe and the US at least, there is a real possibility that Covid-19 will lead to an economic recession due to the halt in productivity and growth. If a recession were to happen, countries may well revisit their budgets and decide to re-allocate public spending elsewhere, putting international development and aid funding at risk, as well as peacekeeping missions. This would have a detrimental effect on both humanitarian efforts, but also stabilisation missions in fragile states. It would mean leaving many fragile and conflict-affected societies to their own devices when they will need sustained support and funding to firstly overcome Covid-19 and then continue to work towards sustainable peace and development.


Copyright : MAHMUD HAMS / AFP

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