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UN Security Council Votes for 90-Day COVID-19 Ceasefire. But Only for Nice Wars.

The United Nations Security Council, so far loudly silent about the Coronavirus pandemic, on 1 July finally endorsed resolution 2532(2020) tabled by France and Tunisia calling for a 90-day ‘humanitarian pause’ in conflicts worldwide. This resolution supports the call for a global coronavirus ceasefire by the UN secretary general on 23 March. This Security council resolution however is not as global as it may seem. First, it is only called for in conflicts which are on the UNSC ‘agenda’. This means countries like Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Colombia, Mali, South Sudan, Syria and Yemenare included, but conflicts like those in India, Pakistan and Ukraine are not. On top of that, on the insistence of Russia and the US, the resolution makes an exception for counter-terrorist operations, and all armed groups designated as ‘terrorist’ by the United Nations. A ceasefire in only some countries, and only with some of the armed groups, does not seem like much of a ceasefire at all.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic is, by definition, everywhere, impacting everyone, the decisions on where to focus limited numbers of supplies, staff, hospital beds and oxygen concentrators is made by looking who is the most vulnerable. In China and Europe, these have been – or should have been – the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions. In Bangladesh, Greece, Northern Syria and Kenya have been – or should be – refugees and displaced living in overcrowded camps with little water to wash their hands. In Cape town, Lagos, Mumbai and Sao Paulo these must be the homeless and people living in the slums. For people living in warzones it’s everyone, as people already suffer higher levels of malnutrition and untreated infections with little or no health services to rely on.

For that reason, Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, called for a global ceasefire on 23 March: “Put aside mistrust and animosity. Silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes. This is crucial …To help create corridors for life-saving aid.

Initially, his appeal was gaining traction. Guterres reported back to the UN on 3 April that 70 national governments had endorsed the call for a ceasefire, including many conflict-affected countries. But these pledges mean little unless the opposition forces follow suit. In most signatory states such as Cameroon, the Central African Republic and South Sudan only a handful of armed opposition groups have signed up. Some of these groups, one month into the ceasefire, announced that they would resume fighting, such as the ELN in Colombia and FNA in the Philippines.

The idealistic force of this call was always likely to meet the unmoveable object of entrenched political animosities. For some nations, the COVID-19 outbreak presented a cynical opportunity to settle old scores. For example, the attempt by the Israeli army to allow COVID-19 medical supplies into Gaza only on condition of release of captured Israeli soldiers.  The government has toned down this rhetoric since, but negotiations are ongoing. The Ansar Allah (commonly known as Houthi) authorities in Yemen called on their population not to use face masks airdropped by the Saudi-led coalition; an official in Sana’a city claimed that these masks had been deliberately infected with COVID-19. Saudi Arabia announced a ceasefire on 9 April, and the Ansar Allah authorities indicated they were open to discussions. Hostilities have resumed since, with further fragmentation of the country as Southern separatists also took up arms against the Saudi-backed government.  On the surface, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (commonly known as the Taliban) have made some positive public statements allowing access to health responders. But the fighting was not stopped. The unilateral ceasefire they announced was only valid inside the areas they control, so effectively they only agreed to cease firing on themselves.

The two most well-known armed opposition franchises, Islamic State and Al Qaeda, have positioned themselves against a ceasefire. Islamic State took the most aggressive stance early on urging its followers to seize the opportunity of the ‘weakness of the enemy’ to launch attacks. Al Qaeda followed suit at the end of March stating that ‘now was the time to revolt against the oppression and oppressors’ but stopped short of a call to action. Instead, it calls on its followers to wait and be patient. So far, few of its affiliated armed groups have stated their position although Al Shebab in Somalia initially struck a similar tone, blaming the coronavirus on the invading ‘crusaders’. Fighting has certainly not reduced: the number of attacks in Iraq claimed by Islamic State has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic; Al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliated groups in the Sahel have started fighting each other as well as ramping up attacks against government forces; groups popularly known as Boko Haram operating in an area loosely centred on north-eastern Nigeria have increased the number of attacks and kidnapped several humanitarian staff. Whether this intensified violence is a result of taking the opportunity of opponents distracted by COVID-19, or of other dynamics unrelated to the pandemic, is hard to tell – probably a bit of both.

MSF and many other humanitarian organisations normally avoid calling for humanitarian ceasefires as this implies that aid can be legitimately blocked until the guns are silent. But this pandemic has redefined ‘normal’ for everyone.  Guterres’ call to maintain ‘corridors of life-saving aid’ during a worldwide health emergency may sound reasonable and something all humanitarian organisations should welcome and support. Many humanitarian organisations have done so: Action Against Hunger (ACF), Christian Aid, Concern, Danish Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee and Save The Children have all made public statements to that effect. ICRC is reluctant to explicitly endorse the ceasefire; their President Peter Maurer came quite close doing so at the World Economic Forum: “There is a good reason the UN Secretary-General has called for a global ceasefire; humanitarian actors need all possible space to respond to the present pandemic” but stopped short of formally endorsing his call.

The nature of this humanitarian pause called for by the UN security council, seems to fall firmly in this paradigm of conditional humanitarianism. A COVID-19-ceasefire, but only for those living in ‘nice’ conflicts. If you are unlucky and live in areas controlled by armed groups that are explicitly not invited to this humanitarian party, you will not receive assistance, not even in ‘unprecedented’ COVID-19 times.


Photo by Paulo Filgueiras © MSF, 2016.

An overhead view of the United Nations Security Council chamber, 28 September 2016, during a special meeting of the council on the ‘Protection of Civilians and Health Workers in Armed Conflict’.

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