Coronavirus hit the headlines in December 2019, at that time many countries were experiencing extensive organised violence. The virus may have seemed a distant threat but millions of COVID-19 cases later, it is a stark reality. The pandemic has subjected even the most stable societies to unprecedented disruption. For countries already in conflict, the epidemic adds another layer of complexity.
We have briefly highlighted a few countries here and how COVID-19 has added to already complex environments:
Libya, Iraq, Syria, Columbia, Mali, Niger, Yemen
Armed groups take advantage of global distraction created by the pandemic; zooming in:
- Columbia – The pandemic threatens to undermine the implementation of the Final Agreement to end the conflict and build stable, lasting peace between FARC-EP and the government, instead, it’s providing opportunities for the various armed groups to continue violence.
- Libya – The conflict and a decimated public health system mean that COVID-19 is a significant threat to Libyans. With 700,000+ migrants and refugees confined in camps with poor sanitary conditions, they are vulnerable to the spread of the virus.
- Yemen – COVID-19 threatens to increase the humanitarian crisis, providing armed groups and local authorities an opportunity to further their political aims. The Houthis, reject unilateral ceasefire announcements and demand an ambitious deal including the lifting of the Saudi blockade for a political settlement.
Changes in peacekeeping and crisis management operations, zooming in:
- Sudan – Sudan’s government with serious economic problems and a weak health system, is at risk of reversing peaceful development, as the virus continues to spread, causing disruption. The civil-military transitional regime has demonstrated resilience. The infamous Sudanese Rapid Support Forces have a prominent role in enforcing counter-pandemic measures.
- Ukraine – The problematic political process to settle the conflict had been moving forward. COVID-19 has hampered movement across the contact line, impeding international monitoring efforts, as ceasefire violations continue.
Nigeria, The Philippines, Mexico
Excessive use of force against civilians, zooming in:
- The Philippines – Armed groups heeded the ceasefire call and temporarily refrained from violence.
- Kenya, Honduras, India – Civil unrest sparked by deteriorating socioeconomic conditions;
Temporary and mostly unilateral ceasefires, zooming in:
- Colombia and Cameroon – Armed groups, heeded the ceasefire call and temporarily refrained from violence. However, at best, the ground truth is of unreciprocated, limited, unilateral ceasefires.
The global ceasefire call in March, by the UN, was broadly supported, many hoped it to be a catalyst for a cessation of hostilities. However, it is being observed that conflicts and increased insecurity intensify.
Terrorist groups in Western Africa, Iraq, and Syria have taken advantage of the global disruption to surge violent activities.
Fear of the pandemic in Afghanistan has not stopped the so-called Islamic State leaders encouraging launching of attacks as lockdowns, quarantine and travel restrictions weaken ceasefire observers.
Cross conflict line work is required to coordinate and collaborate, two crucial elements in fighting a pandemic. These elements are hard to achieve in conflict zones where responses need the support of all armed groups. Involving these groups, especially if they control ground or exert a strong influence over local civilians, is necessary.
Reaching the displaced, vulnerable families, refugee populations is especially tricky. They suffer poor sanitation, dense accommodation, with limited access to information. The Bangladeshi government restricted mobile internet access for almost 900,000 Rohingya confined in refugee camps. This has caused harmful rumours about COVID-19 to grow. Suspected carriers are stigmatised, causing a lack of reporting and reluctance to be treated.
When the pandemic recedes, and a vaccine becomes available, economic hardships will likely continue.
Pandemics are politically blind; they impact on peace and conflict, creating and hindering opportunities. This virus generates hardship, inducing conflict and instability. The main reasons are:
- Global Coverage – it affects all countries, economies and industries. The challenge of seizing momentum and building common ground between belligerents is increased. Peace needs care and money.
- Crisis Speed – COVID-19 is slow and protracted; it does not affect those in conflict equally or simultaneously. Fighting the virus is a marathon, not a sprint, it is occurring in war-affected territories in the middle of intense fighting, between groups that do not share the same rules.
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Barry ET Harris MBE, is an independent consultant; he is a veteran of the British Army; he combines specialist operational experience with wisdom gained from extensive commercial consulting, executive and management expertise in his specialities gained in complex environments and high-risk jurisdictions worldwide.
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