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Mediation Perspectives: Why COVID-19 Ceasefires Remain an Exception

Image courtesy of Jeffery Harris/DVIDS

Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors.

Humanitarian ceasefires are intended to open up windows of relief for affected civilians during armed conflict. With COVID-19 spreading across the world and the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire, hopes were high that ceasefires could help contain the pandemic and ease civilian suffering. The small number of COVID-19 ceasefires, however, is sobering. This might be explained by how a ceasefire declared in response to the coronavirus pandemic can appear to entail far-reaching commitments with uncertain benefits and high costs. In contrast to usual humanitarian ceasefires, pandemic ceasefires hence seem as too big of a risk to take. Tying ceasefire calls to concrete objectives with clear temporal and geographic limitations could help to counter this obstacle.

Humanitarian Ceasefires as Crisis Response

The purpose of humanitarian ceasefires is to stop or reduce battle violence in order to improve the situation of civilians. As such, they are concluded in response to heightened humanitarian need, for example, when crises like natural disasters hit conflict areas. They usually have very specific aims like providing certain goods or services to parts of the population and are often not explicitly related to a peace process. Given their concrete purpose, these ceasefires are typically limited in their territorial and temporal extension. Indeed, some only apply for a few days, like the 2001 three-day ceasefire to enable polio vaccinations in Afghanistan.

Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes a crisis that critically threatens the wellbeing of civilians, especially in conflict-ridden areas. Accordingly, calls for humanitarian ceasefires have been raised, most prominently by UN Secretary General António Guterres in his call for a global ceasefire. Yet, ceasefires have only been declared in 13 countries, and most of these have been unilaterally declared by one of many active armed groups and have ended within a few days or weeks. Indeed, fighting continues in the large majority of conflicts, e.g. in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Afghanistan. Why do COVID-19 ceasefires remain an exception?

The Logic Underlying the Conclusion of Humanitarian Ceasefires

Conflict parties will only enter into humanitarian ceasefires if the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. The actual costs and benefits vary in each case but commonly arise because the agreement alters a group’s chances in a conflict or affects its relationship with its constituency and third parties. Possible benefits of humanitarian ceasefires for a conflict party include the creation of legitimacy as a responsible authority, the reduction of pressure from the international community or civil society, and the possibility to redirect resources from the conflict to the crisis response. Also, the trustworthiness of an opponent can be tested in a limited and “apolitical” agreement and the suffering of civilians reduced.

At the same time, humanitarian ceasefires can lead to critical costs. For example, this can happen if agreements are exploited by an opponent and used for resupplying troops, or because of lost military opportunities. Hence, humanitarian ceasefires can be perceived as something that hinders groups from achieving their goals with military means.

COVID-19 Ceasefires: Same Same but Different

The same logic applies to COVID-19 ceasefires. However, effective responses to the coronavirus pandemic seemingly need to differ from other humanitarian ceasefires in at least three ways. First, the objective of such a ceasefire will be relatively vague and often rather preventive than reactive. As a consequence, its potential impact is difficult to gauge. Second, there is no clear time limit for how long a ceasefire may be required. Indeed, the need for a ceasefire might continue for several months or even longer. Third, the ceasefire will have to apply to at least large areas of a state, if not its entire territory, to contain the virus, making it harder to agree to and monitor. In short, COVID-19 ceasefires are potentially much more comprehensive than other humanitarian ceasefires – and hence a more substantial and difficult to calculate commitment for the conflict parties. This issue is highlighted by the recent calls for ceasefires which do not include temporal or spatial limitations, while remaining relatively vague on specific purposes.

The Odds Are against COVID-19 Ceasefires

As a consequence, ceasefires that aim to contain COVID-19 often appear to be a considerable risk for the conflict parties. The benefits of a ceasefire are difficult to estimate. Indeed, the ability of ceasefires to contain the virus remains unknown. The preventive focus of COVID-19 ceasefires makes them appear less pressing than reactive ones, which for example allow for the distribution of drinking water after an earthquake. Thus, potential legitimacy gains are limited and benefits for civilians less clear. Furthermore, international pressure on conflict parties is currently low as many countries are distracted by their own struggle with the virus or hampered by quarrels between China and the US. The outbreak of the pandemic has only increased tensions between Washington and Beijing, which have in turn blocked the UN Security Council from supporting the call for a global ceasefire with a resolution.

The costs of more comprehensive humanitarian ceasefires are potentially high as hostilities would need to stop across the conflict zone for a relatively long time. This also means that there is more room for maneuver for an opponent to abuse the agreement, e.g. to recruit. In addition, governments can instrumentalize ceasefires by using the pandemic to constrain democratic rights. For example, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) raised concerns that a ceasefire offered by President Duterte is actually being used to enable a crack-down on the opposition. In other cases, non-state groups have perceived governments as having been weakened as they struggle to contain COVID-19 outbreaks. Entering into a long-term ceasefire would equal giving up a military advantage.

Why Do We See COVID-19 Ceasefires at All?

So why were there any COVID-19 ceasefires? In some of these cases, conflict parties may have wanted a ceasefire even before the outbreak, something which simply offered a face-saving opportunity to declare one. For instance, the Burmese government committed itself to cease hostilities only against those rebels with whom fighting had de-escalated before the pandemic. The National Revolutionary Front (BRN) in Thailand declared the first ceasefire in 17 years of conflict. Considering that neither party in this conflict was making significant progress, one can speculate that COVID-19 offered a chance for a break from the stalemate.

Some conflict parties are more dependent on popular support than others. Non-state armed groups in particular seized the opportunity and declared unilateral ceasefires to position themselves as legitimate and politically relevant actors. Civil society in Colombia exerted pressure on the National Liberation Army (ELN) to declare a ceasefire, and the group eventually gave in. However, civil society activism in the Democratic Republic of Congo has failed to have a comparable effect so far – likely because of the plethora of active armed groups, which makes it more difficult to reach an agreement and to hold the parties accountable.

Responding to the virus also binds a lot of government resources in some cases. This may incentivize the declaration of a ceasefire as this will free up resources. For instance, President Duterte allegedly initiated the ceasefire mentioned above due to the need to deploy government soldiers for COVID-19-related tasks.

Finally, the pandemic is different in the sense that the virus is equally likely to affect both sides – or as Guterres put it: “The virus […] attacks all, relentlessly.“ So, in contrast to crises that affect conflict parties unevenly, all sides have a strong interest in containing COVID-19. This might explain why a ceasefire was at least temporarily observed in Yemen, after the virus spread to neighboring countries and became an immediate threat to the parties involved, including Saudi Arabia.

Increase Pressure, Reduce Uncertainty, Seize the Opportunity to Engage

The need for ceasefires in relation to COVID-19 will not go away any time soon and efforts in this regard need to continue. The recent endorsement of the global ceasefire call by over 170 countries is a good sign. Some countries including France, Tunisia, Germany, and Estonia had already shown their willingness to place pressure on conflict parties. Similarly, various national and international civil society organizations have urged conflict parties around the globe to stop fighting.

To overcome the obstacles described above, future calls for ceasefires should be as specific as possible. This could mean:

  • Making the ceasefire explicitly time bound to a short period of several days or weeks, which can potentially be renewed based on clear conditions
  • Delimiting it geographically, for instance to cover an area with particularly poor infrastructure
  • Linking it to specific objectives, such as the delivery of medical supplies
  • Signaling the commitment to call out non-compliance, and establishing some form of monitoring and/or verification

While ceasefires with narrow spatiotemporal restrictions might seem inefficient considering the potential impact of the coronavirus pandemic, they can be a starting point for more extensive agreements in the future. Finally, ceasefire calls should not automatically be considered to have failed if no agreement is reached in the short-term. They may still provide an opportunity for mediating third parties to engage with conflict parties and open up avenues for other forms of cooperation.

Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. To keep up to date with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.

This blog also 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. 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 the coronavirus pandemic.


Claudia Wiehler is a PhD candidate at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich.

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

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