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What’s Happened to the UN Secretary-General’s COVID-19 Ceasefire Call?

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Richard Gowan

This is an expanded and updated version of remarks originally given to a conference organised by Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on 17 May 2020. A conference summary is available here.

The UN call for a global ceasefire in response to COVID-19 has lost momentum, but I would begin by saying that Secretary-General António Guterres deserves credit for coming up with a genuinely compelling appeal, and I think the resonance of his original proposal took a lot of us by surprise.

When we first heard he was calling for a ceasefire, cynical diplomacy watchers, such as myself, thought it might be a bit of a gimmick, and not have any concrete impact. What was interesting was that in the first week to ten days after he made the appeal, in late March, we saw quite a lot of armed groups and governments acknowledging the call and promising to consider it. The UN estimated that conflict parties in eleven countries recognised this call by early April. That figure is a little dodgy, as in some places like Ukraine, conflict actors recognised the call but kept on fighting regardless. Conversely there were cases, such as in Thailand, where armed groups promised to suspend military activities in response to COVID-19 but didn’t make reference to the UN in doing so. Therefore, the actual number of conflict actors that have picked up on the ceasefire idea is a little slippery, but it was still a significant number, in late March and early April.

The ceasefire call appears to have had little effect on the overall level of violence worldwide.

Since mid-April, however, we have not seen a lot of momentum. Indeed, at the moment, if you look at conflict data globally, the ceasefire call appears to have had little effect on the overall level of violence worldwide. There are a number of reasons for that.

A first problem is that in some cases one party in a conflict offered a ceasefire in response to the UN call, but the other party was either not interested or only fleetingly interested in taking up the offer, sometimes because they didn’t see the terms as acceptable. An example was Cameroon, where SOCADEF, one of a number of Anglophone rebel groups, was quick to endorse the global ceasefire in late March, but the government simply ignored it. The fighting never stopped and both sides appear to have increased their targeting of aid workers since the UN appeal.

We also saw a different variation on this theme in Colombia, where the ELN rebel group instituted a month-long pause in violence but demanded quite extensive political talks with the government in Bogotá in order to extend it, which the government was not willing to offer. The ELN ended its ceasefire at the end of April.

Yemen is another case, though the facts are complicated. It is true that the Saudi coalition supporting the UN-recognised government offered a freeze of hostilities in early April (and subsequently renewed this offer), and the Huthi rebel group refused to accept it. But this needs to be seen in the context that the UN had been working toward a more complex ceasefire plan involving confidence-building measures by both sides, which the Saudi offer did not include. From the Huthi perspective, the freeze looked like a bit of a sham, and both sides kept on fighting.

A second problem is that even where you had seeming good-will among conflict parties to pause violence in response to COVID-19, there was often a lack of ceasefire architecture for taking advantage of these offers. It is one thing for an armed group to say it wants to reduce violence, but another to translate that wish into a technical ceasefire agreement with clear terms and some sort of security guarantee that all sides can accept. Obviously, this has been a bad period for international mediators and international peacekeepers to try to set up architecture of that type, that can sustain a ceasefire: we’re in a period when international mediators are unable to travel to conflict zones. We’re in a period where many are in lockdown or have limited freedom of movement. It is very hard to go through the hard, technical work of turning offers of ceasefires into actual pauses in violence.

We’re in a period where many international mediators are in lockdown or have limited freedom of movement.

But this may have resulted in some missed opportunities. In the Philippines, for example, the government called a unilateral pause in operations against the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) rebels before the UN appeal. The CPP did not initially reciprocate, but it did offer a ceasefire after the UN call. Yet it didn’t work, partly because the two sides had no real way to operationalise their commitments. They pursued overlapping but uncoordinated ceasefires through April, with messy results. Soldiers and communist rebels would inadvertently cross paths and end up in skirmishes. Violence increased to pre-COVID-19 levels and the CPP ended its ceasefire in April.

The third consideration, which in most respects is a good news story, has been to do with the disease. The situation in late March was one in which many expected COVID-19 to be a catastrophe – including rapid spread of the disease and high levels of fatalities in fragile states and war zones. We haven’t really seen that happen. To be sure, we have seen outbreaks of COVID-19 in some conflict-affected regions – for example, the city of Aden in Yemen – but they have not shaken up the calculations of warring parties. In countries like Libya, the level of the disease doesn’t seem to have affected either side one way or the other.

It is possible that may change, particularly as the disease begins to surge in parts of the world that were previously spared. There seems to be a high rate of infection in Yemen, although the data is bad. We are worryingly seeing an outbreak in refugee camps in South Sudan. We may see the disease spike in coming months – indeed, infections seem to be accelerating in Africa now – and it is possible that spikes may inspire armed groups to lay down their arms temporarily. But that has not happened yet.

The fourth factor is the dysfunction of the UN Security Council. If the Secretary-General had a good idea, the Council has disgraced itself with its response to his appeal. Had the Council, at France’s suggestion, moved quickly in late March or early April to adopt a resolution endorsing the idea, that would have given it extra political credibility and nudged conflict parties to take it more seriously. It would not have resulted in world peace, but it would have firmed up and given momentum to the Secretary-General’s call.

If the Secretary-General had a good idea, the Council has disgraced itself with its response to his appeal.

Instead, what we have seen is that for about six or seven weeks, the Council was unable to agree to a resolution endorsing the ceasefire idea, not because anyone objected to the ceasefire idea, but instead because all members supported it with caveats. At first, the U.S. and Russia insisted that they be allowed to continue counter-terrorism operations, for instance. Then the U.S. and China came to a complete deadlock over whether there should be a paragraph somewhere in the resolution saying something nice about the World Health Organization (WHO). The U.S. refused to accept any language that contained even the smallest positive reference to the WHO, and the Chinese refused to accept text that did not refer to it. It got to the point that the U.S. torpedoed a resolution that all fourteen Council members had accepted, at the last moment, because it contained a small, indirect reference to the WHO.

The consequence of this great power arm wrestling is that the UN Security Council has been paralysed and has marginalised itself in this debate. I would say also, that for those who watch the Council, it is depressing to think they can’t agree on this comparatively symbolic move, when we know that much thornier issues await, including the West Bank annexation question and the Iranian nuclear deal. If they cannot agree on a ceasefire, it is unlikely that they can agree on these issues.

Sadly, the ceasefire call is less powerful than it seemed when the Secretary-General made it. UN officials concede that the call has “fizzled”. Secretary-General Guterres has continued to push the idea but other topics, from how to manage the economic fallout of the pandemic to the fate of the nuclear deal, are likely to dominate the UN agenda in the coming months. The virus, however, may have greater staying power. It could still have severe effects on states in conflict. Politicians, diplomats and peacemakers will have to deal with its consequences for some time to come. In doing so, they will need to see if they can build more effective frameworks to prevent, pause and end violence than the ceasefire call proved to be.