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The UN Has Appealed for a Global Coronavirus Ceasefire: But Is It Possible to Quarantine Conflict?

Image courtesy of U.S. Department of State/Flickr.

This blog belongs to the CSS’ coronavirus blog series, which forms a part of the center’s analysis of the security policy implications of the coronavirus crisis. See the CSS special theme page on the coronavirus for more.

This article is a slightly adapted version of a piece originally published by The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog on 13 April 2020.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres made an unprecedented appeal on March 23 for “an immediate global ceasefire” to facilitate humanitarian access to the populations most vulnerable to the spread of covid-19. This was the first global ceasefire request in the 75-year history of the United Nations.

The response has been swift and wide-reaching – conflict parties across 12 countries have already declared some form of ceasefire. Some 70 countries have backed the appeal, along with prominent figures like the Pope, and nearly 200 organizations.

Across the globe, this simultaneous series of commitments to suspend hostilities for a common purpose is something altogether new. From Colombia to Sudan, the Philippines and Yemen, coronavirus ceasefires promise a break in hostilities to allow all actors to focus their efforts on the battle against the virus, as well as providing humanitarian assistance to those suffering from the coronavirus in conflict areas.

Yet the motivations underlying these arrangements vary. In some cases, the commitments to suspend fighting serve practical purposes beyond tackling the global spread of covid-19.

Here are the big questions: Can these types of ceasefires be effective? And could they help resolve previously intractable conflicts?

Ceasefires Related to Diseases Have Happened Before

The coronavirus ceasefires aren’t the first arrangements aimed at tackling the spread of infectious diseases.

The new ETH/PRIO Ceasefire dataset includes more than 20 ceasefires relating to infectious disease since 1989, mostly dealing with polio vaccination programs. This list includes ceasefires in conflict-affected areas in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Sudan and Syria. In most cases the ceasefires appear to have been relatively effective at achieving the medical objective, often resulting in the vaccination of millions of children.

Of course, there are clearly important differences between the coronavirus threat and the danger of contracting polio. Covid-19 appears far more contagious than other viruses, though our understanding of the coronavirus is incomplete – and restrictions on travel make it hard for international organizations to respond.

But here’s what we know from these prior ceasefires. A USIP study details that the efforts that worked owe their success to the neutrality of the international organisations  involved, clearly drawn distinctions between the vaccination program and the wider conflict, and conflict parties not manipulating the arrangements for other purposes.

When vaccination programmes were manipulated for other strategic goals, they lost legitimacy. Here’s an example, from 2011. When people in Pakistan learned the CIA had funded a fake hepatitis B vaccination campaign to trace Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, this hampered future attempts to tackle polio.

Fighting infectious disease can be particularly difficult in conflict zones. The 2019 Ebola outbreak, for instance, shows the effect on public health efforts when conflict parties fail to reach ceasefire arrangements. The conflict parties in the Democratic Republic of Congo deliberately targeted humanitarian groups and the U.N., undermining the attempts to contain Ebola – and the result was increased spread of the disease and further suffering for the civilian population.

Not All Ceasefires Are Created Equal

In formal terms, ceasefires are arrangements in which one or more belligerents commit to stopping violent hostilities. But beyond this broad similarity, ceasefires vary greatly. They can range from very loose, informal and unilateral arrangements to formal, multilateral agreements.

Ceasefires serve a wide range of functions that may or may not be connected to a broader peace process. While some arrangements emerge from negotiations and are a vital step towards peace, others instead serve isolated functions altogether, such as the celebration of a religious holiday, or allowing humanitarian access.

Thus far, there are striking similarities among the covid-19 ceasefires. Almost all are unilateral, include no provisions detailing how local or international groups might monitor the agreement, and seem to lack any clear detail on prohibited actions, managing violations, or a link to the broader peace process.

This is not surprising, as more detailed ceasefires require negotiation between the parties and a broader road map for the subsequent peace process. Instead, these temporary arrangements allow conflict parties to quarantine their conflict without dealing with the messy political issues.

Given the immediacy of current pandemic, it’s understandable – and probably necessary –that the initial coronavirus ceasefires are relatively basic. But such limited unilateral arrangements are always at the mercy of the conflict parties. Each side can interpret the arrangement as it sees fit, and withdraw at any point without sanction.

Will the Coronavirus Ceasefires Last?

If these new ceasefires are to hold throughout this challenging period, political science research suggests that the arrangements will need to be developed.

Detailed, comprehensive ceasefires tend to last longer. But upgrading a unilateral agreement to a more detailed reciprocal, bilateral or multilateral agreement requires building confidence. The parties involved in violent conflict often have little or no trust in each other. This means they are often unwilling to even talk, let alone engage in serious negotiations.

If the parties can build communication and trust through their interactions over how to address the coronavirus threat, this might serve the dual purpose of helping to manage the immediate crisis, while also building confidence in the process – perhaps increasing the likelihood of meaningful negotiations and more comprehensive ceasefires in the future.

However, there’s always a risk. If these ceasefires break down, or worse, are manipulated by one party, the prospects for peace might worsen. Similarly, attempts to strengthen agreements, or build confidence too quickly, risks politicizing the humanitarian arrangements – which could then undermine the immediate humanitarian effort.

International peacemakers have a network of representatives in conflict-affected states, and the U.N. standby team of mediators has expertise in building on and developing ceasefires. In principle, the international community is well equipped to support the delicate process of strengthening the coronavirus ceasefires, even if for now their task is complicated by the need to work remotely.

The Secretary General’s call, many analysts feel, has created some useful momentum. Over the coming weeks and months, it will become clearer whether any of these new ceasefires can achieve their specific humanitarian goal, and perhaps even provide a tentative step towards peace.

The Center for Security Studies (CSS) is investigating the medium and long-term consequences of the corona crisis through two research projects. One project focuses on national and international crisis management. The other addresses the effects of the crisis on international relations and national and international security policy. To find out more, see the CSS special theme page on corona.


About the Author

Govinda Clayton is a senior researcher in peace processes in the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich and executive director of the Conflict Research Society. @GovClayton

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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