The UN global ceasefire is necessary — but will it be effective?

By Delarai Sadeghitari and Matt Slade

On March 19th, 2020, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire in order for the international community to better address the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. In his call, Guterres highlighted current conflict zones like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Cameroon, where fighting has led to instability and mass migration, problems that will only be further exacerbated by the virus. In places like Syria, where a civil war has been raging for nine years, and Yemen, where rebel conflict has taken thousands of lives and displaced millions, this ceasefire could refocus efforts on what the UN chief declared “the true fight of our lives.” With COVID-19 spreading, straining healthcare systems and putting millions at risk of food insecurity, the ceasefire is an urgently needed measure to prevent widespread suffering. However, despite the admirable goals of Guterres’ call, the ceasefire may fail to prevent ongoing violence. 

The rationale behind this call is clear: a global ceasefire would allow more resources to go toward fighting the spread of the coronavirus instead of a violent war. From previous health crises, we know that conflict makes tracking and treating contagious diseases more difficult. For example, violence prevented efforts to contain the 2019 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Beyond this, the necessity to flee conflict zones directly contradicts with social distancing guidelines, which are some of the most important current methods to slow the spread of the virus. Continuing violence presents civilians with an impossible choice: should they stay at home and risk the damage caused by the attacks, or should they flee and make themselves vulnerable to the virus?

In preventing conflict, the ceasefire would also reduce forced migration and displacement, two factors that could further complicate the spread of the virus. While many things are unknown about this virus, what is known is that it is a highly contagious airborne pathogen that spreads primarily through human contact. These characteristics make the virus especially dangerous for vulnerable groups like migrants and refugees, who lack access to the healthcare or proper hygiene needed to fight infection. Beyond this, many migrants do not have proper documentation, which makes tracking this disease much harder. In camps in Syria and Bangladesh, cases of COVID-like respiratory infections are already emerging, but without proper testing and treatment, the spread of the disease is unknown. Even before this crisis, a majority of deaths in conflict zones were from infectious diseases; the prospect of the pandemic affecting these same groups poses a very serious risk. By reducing the number of refugees, or at minimum preventing the creation of more, a ceasefire would also decrease the strain on resources in refugee camps and allow those who are already in the camps to receive better care. 

The ceasefire could also be used as a way to garner more civilian support. After these trying times, civilians will be examining how governments and rebel groups responded to this crisis, and whichever group is able to save the most lives will most likely garner the most civilian support. Once the pandemic is over, this could lead to one group having more support and thus, having a better chance at winning the war and ending the conflict. This could be especially important in Ukraine, which has seen Russian-backed rebel forces fighting in the Donbass region since 2014. If the Ukrainian government is able to step in before Russia, and provide resources that will mitigate the spread of COVID19, then they will earn more support in the region, especially since the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic stated that the region currently does not have enough resources to shut down businesses. 

In addition to the immediate effect of slowing the spread of the virus, the ceasefire could potentially act as a catalyst for negotiation between warring parties. With a ceasefire in place, groups will have to take a step back from the fighting and reevaluate their resources and motives. In Yemen, for example, Saudi Arabia has unilaterally agreed to comply with the ceasefire, a move that could present the parties with a unique opportunity for negotiation. Even if fighting continues, the lack of support from international backers due to the economic effects of the virus will decrease warfighting capacity on both sides, which could also bring about a negotiated resolution to the conflict. In this way, the ceasefire has the potential to bring an end to conflicts that have raged on for years, both in Yemen and other regions. 

However, as we examine what is happening on the ground, it becomes evident that a ceasefire might be more idealistic than practical. The Saudi Arabian ceasefire seemed like a glimpse of hope at first, but fighting has only intensified in Yemen since the ceasefire was declared. In addition to the relentless fighting, both sides in Yemen claim to have no cases of COVID-19 in their respective territories. But given the current circumstances and the country’s history of Cholera, along with its open border, the spread of Coronavirus in Yemen seems imminent. Warring parties withhold information about potential COVID-19 cases because it makes it seem as though they are effectively combating the virus, which increases their legitimacy and support. However, hiding information about an infectious disease only perpetuates the spread of the disease and unhygienic practices.

There are also concerns that certain groups may use the pandemic to further their political and territorial ambitions. By manipulating the fear surrounding COVID-19, groups can leverage their position and make gains that might otherwise face blowback. In Israel, the spread of the virus is prompting some cooperation with Palestinians, but also talks of further control of the West Bank. Joint medical ventures between the two groups and assistance from Israel seems like a promising development, yet at the same time an Israeli health minister suggested that Israel would need to “medically annex” the West Bank to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. And in Libya, rebels are hoping to inflict even more damage on the capital of Tripoli by bombing hospitals and driving people into the crowded city center. Weakened by years of fighting, and now by the threat of the virus, the exploitation of this crisis by rebel groups spells disaster for the thousands of people in the city. What limited potential for cooperation this crisis presents is just as easily taken advantage of to pursue more aggressive aims

Even as this crisis presents an opportunity to end some conflicts, it could prolong others by suspending already fragile negotiations. Due to travel restrictions, and the recent withdrawal of U.S. forces, negotiations might be held up in Afghanistan between the government and the Taliban. The two parties were supposed to meet outside of Oslo along with other international actors to work on an agreement that would end the decades-long fighting in the country, but obviously this is no longer feasible. As these negotiations stall, fighting continues; the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan found a “disturbing increase in violence during March at a time when it was hoped that the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban would commence peace negotiations… to protect all Afghans from the impact of COVID-19.”  Even though peace agreements can be drafted over video conference, an in person arrangement will need to be made for any deal to be finalized. Despite early signs that the crisis might force an agreement sooner than expected, conflict in the region continues and until the pandemic subsides it seems likely to stay that way. 

What the global ceasefire call lacks is enforcement. As is the case with nearly all UN declarations, countries need only comply if they want to, and non-state actors, like insurgents, are not obligated to the declaration. In protecting the sovereignty of member states, the UN is unable to implement mandatory measures in conflict zones to carry out the ceasefire. This along with the general distrust that follows the UN in many conflict zones, and the attacks against clinics in countries like the Ivory Coast, where groups see the virus as a “western disease” further undermine UN authority.  

While we have seen cases of groups at least temporarily agreeing to the terms of the ceasefire, without a method for enforcement, we cannot expect the ceasefire to fulfill its promise. 

To read more about conflict, COVID-19, and the specific cases mentioned above, check out this piece from the Carnegie Endowment.

To read more about the conflict in Yemen, click here.

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