On 23 March 2020 UN Secretary-General António Guterres appealed for ‘an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world’ to focus on diplomatic solutions that would allow life-saving aid to reach the most vulnerable people in conflict zones and help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
By 3 April around 70 UN Member States had endorsed the appeal and a number of parties to conflicts ‘expressed their acceptance for the call’. Guterres cautioned, however, that there was a big gap between accepting the call and implementing a ceasefire agreement.
In updating the UN Security Council on 9 April Guterres emphasised the work of his Special Representatives and envoys, and ‘other mediation actors’, in helping to negotiate ceasefires. In Yemen a unilateral ceasefire was announced by Saudi Arabia on 8 April on behalf of the ‘Coalition to support legitimacy in Yemen’.
By 30 April around 114 governments had endorsed the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire. In addition, more than 200 civil society groups, regional organisations, religious leaders and 16 armed groups across all regions supported the call. At this time ceasefires were holding in Idlib (Syria), but not the rest of the country. Conflict in Libya had escalated despite efforts to broker a ceasefire, although a declaration on 29 April indicated that a ceasefire might still be possible. Work on a humanitarian ceasefire in Afghanistan was continuing but the situation in Yemen provided the most positive outcome to date, as Guterres explained:
All parties have expressed support for my appeal, Saudi Arabia has declared a temporary unilateral cease-fire, and we are actively engaging with all the parties and key regional and global actors, aiming at a permanent cease-fire, a set of confidence building measures and the possibility of opening a political process.
A majority of UN Member States including Australia—170 signatories—had endorsed the UN global ceasefire appeal by late June 2020.
Significantly, on 1 July the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2532 (2020) that supported a global ceasefire and called for an immediate ‘humanitarian pause for at least 90 consecutive days’ to allow humanitarian assistance to be delivered. The resolution excluded military operations against Daesh, al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front, and other groups designated as terrorists by the Security Council.
While Resolution 2532 is a significant step towards garnering support for a global ceasefire, the drafting and negotiating process became protracted due to differences between key members of the Permanent Five (P5)—namely the US and China—on referencing the World Health Organization. Consequently, the delay was widely criticised by, for example, the United States Institute of Peace, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the International Crisis Group and Médecins Sans Frontières.
By 2 July 180 Member States had endorsed the call, which also attracted the support of over ‘20 armed movements and other entities and more than 800 civil society organisations’, but some gains achieved since March had expired or broken down.
Many of the current global conflicts often involve multiple armed groups with deep-seated distrust of each other; some have been running for years, if not decades. As the International Crisis Group pointed out in April 2020, ‘shifting from rhetoric to reality’ is the greatest challenge:
The governments and armed groups that endorse the UN ceasefire appeal may be reflecting universal fear of COVID-19, but they continue to be driven by the particular grievances and tensions that prompted them to fight in the first place. … the motivations and interests that lie at the source of these conflicts are singular and often highly local. No universal appeal, however powerful, can erase them. If the UN and sympathetic actors want to translate the Secretary-General’s initiative into durable ceasefires, they will need to tackle these specific challenges on a case-by-case basis—and to do so just as COVID-19 is making it harder for international mediators and peacekeepers to travel, deal directly with decision-makers or devote the attention necessary for conflict resolution.
Some agreements had been negotiated prior to the UN Secretary-General’s appeal. For example, in February 2020 the US negotiated a reduction of violence with the Afghan Taliban. However, while preliminary discussions on intra-Afghan negotiations have commenced in Qatar, a ceasefire has not yet been achieved and violence continues to escalate. The most recent civilian casualty statistics from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) show Taliban attacks resulting in civilian casualties increased during the first half of 2020. The impact of these attacks on civilians is severe, and together with COVID-19, drastically reduces the ability of survivors to recover.
Similarly, the situation in other conflict areas has worsened. By the end of July 2020 the situation in Yemen was described as having ‘never been worse’, with ‘the unrelenting violence, uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 and efforts to both right the peace process and pull the economy from the brink of collapse’. The UN’s July update on the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19 states that ‘many ceasefires are now elapsing or being reversed, and in a number of countries the violence has intensified as [the] COVID-19 toll has continued to mount’. Furthermore, health care workers and medical facilities that were already vulnerable and under immense strain continue to be targeted amidst the pandemic.
On 12 August Guterres updated the Security Council, acknowledging that while the global ceasefire appeal ‘prompted positive responses from governments and non-State actors across the globe’, resulting in a number of conflict parties taking ‘steps to de-escalate and stop fighting … regrettably, in many instances, the pandemic did not move the parties to suspend hostilities or agree to a permanent ceasefire’.
On 9 September the Security Council held its first meeting on the implementation of Resolution 2532. UN peacekeeping and humanitarian affairs officials warned the ‘[w]oefully inadequate economic and political action will lead to greater instability and conflicts in the coming years; more crises will be on this Council’s agenda’. On 22 September Guterres appealed for the advancement of Security Council-led international efforts and challenged the international community to establish a global ceasefire by the end of 2020, declaring ‘We have 100 days. The clock is ticking’.
While the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths is comparatively low in many conflict-affected countries, the devastating violence restricts the distribution of testing kits and access to vulnerable populations, with large numbers of displaced people affected by the violence unable to receive medical treatment. Consequently, the true scale of COVID-19 in these countries is likely to be much higher than reported.