Last week, Colonel Turki al-Malki, spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition, announced a two-week truce in Yemen, which began on April 9 and may be extended. The ceasefire is aimed at creating “a conducive environment for the UN envoy’s [peace] efforts,” referring to the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths.
However, the anti-government forces of the Houthi are saying they don’t trust the Saudis’ promises and are calling for an end to the siege of the country. The beginning of the unilateral ceasefire coincided with the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in Yemen, in the southern province of Hadramaut, which is disputed between the army of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and groups linked to al-Qaeda.
The ceasefire in Yemen comes in response to the appeal by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who called on March 23 for an “immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world” to fight the dangers of the pandemic. The impact of the pandemic on international conflicts will be different from country to country and from region to region, as the researchers at the International Crisis Group stressed a few days ago.
But we are already in a new phase: after hitting China, Europe and the United States, the virus is beginning to reach the most vulnerable areas of the planet. As a result, we are moving from the containment of the epidemic in countries with stable systems and solid institutions to a phase in which it’s spreading in countries with fragile institutions and fragile health systems, some in a state of complete collapse after years of conflict, embargoes, bombings or corruption.
The pandemic could lead to a radicalization of conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, a reduction in humanitarian assistance or the funding available for it, an instrumental use of goods and services for political advantage by governments and regional actors, and a reduction in the already-inadequate focus on international diplomatic crisis management. Furthermore, it could particularly hurt refugees (25 million worldwide) and internally displaced persons (40 million people).
However, it also offers an opportunity for dialogue between the warring parties, in the name of a crucial common interest: survival.
From Colombia to the Philippines, the UN says there are at least 12 conflict situations in which at least one of the actors has agreed to a ceasefire. However, Guterres warned that “there is a huge distance between declarations and deeds — between translating words into peace on the ground and in the lives of people.” The motivations and pressures involved are changing from case to case. They can include real humanitarian concerns, media strategies, political and financial calculations, the desire to get out of an increasingly expensive war (for instance, in the case of the Saudis). And these motivations are not always enough.
In Libya, for instance, there was a short-lived humanitarian pause, a limited interruption in hostilities between the forces of the Tripoli government, recognized by the UN, and those linked to Haftar—but the clashes have started again and threaten to intensify, at least until the virus produces even more dramatic consequences.
If we go further south, in Sudan, there is a ceasefire between the government and a number of armed groups, such as the Sudan Liberation Army led by Abdel Wahid al-Nur, which has accepted the UN request for a ceasefire in Darfur, but still insists on refusing to join the Juba peace process.
In Cameroon, where the French-speaking majority government has no intention to negotiate with the “rebels” from the Anglophone minority (and where some suspect that President Paul Biya himself has become infected), only the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (SOCADEF), one of the 12 main rebel groups, has announced a ceasefire. This is an advantageous course of action for them, most importantly in order to gain international recognition.
But international opinion is of no concern to the government of Myanmar, where the Tatmadaw, the country’s army, has rejected any possibility of a ceasefire in the Rakhine and Chin states as “unrealistic,” while on the other side of the border, the Bangladeshi government is already trying to isolate the entire Cox Bazar district, which is home to one million Rohingya packed like sardines in refugee camps and without enough protection and assistance, as the Joint Response Plan is only 13% funded.
While India and Pakistan have actually intensified their low-to-medium-intensity military clashes in Kashmir throughout March, in Colombia, the National Liberation Army announced a one-month ceasefire on April 1, and so did many of the armed groups in southern Thailand, while in the Philippines, President Duterte (on March 16) and then Jose Maria Sison, leader of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (on March 25), both announced a ceasefire.
In Afghanistan, the UN Security Council recommended the cessation of hostilities on March 31. The government led by Ashraf Ghani is emphasizing that it is ready for a ceasefire, but the Taliban are only offering assurances that they will lay down their weapons when and if the coronavirus will affect the areas they control. That may be too little, too late.
Afghanistan is particularly vulnerable: more than 50% of the population lives below the poverty line, and at least 9 million inhabitants (out of about 35 million) need humanitarian assistance. According to the World Bank, there are only 3 doctors for every 10,000 inhabitants. The Global Health Security Index, a measure of epidemic preparedness, places Afghanistan among the least-prepared countries in the world. The country is indeed ill-prepared, just like all the others in which wars and conflicts are ongoing.
As the UN is stressing, ceasefires are absolutely necessary to avoid humanitarian catastrophes. However, the UN Security Council is politically inert and divided—and the major players, struggling with extraordinary financial efforts to contain the epidemic in the domestic realm, are increasingly reluctant to open their wallets.