Why the pandemic push for a global cease-fire is gaining ground
By DEIRDRE SHESGREEN | USA Today | Published: April 28, 2020
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WASHINGTON – When the head of the United Nations first called for a “global cease-fire” on March 23, it seemed like a quixotic quest that would fall on the deaf ears of warring guerrillas, militant terrorists and belligerent governments across the globe.
But over the past month, fighters from Colombia to Ukraine have signaled a willingness to put down their weapons as the world confronts a deadly pandemic that could devastate civilian populations and armies alike.
The 15-member U.N. Security Council may vote as early as this week on a resolution that demands an “immediate cessation of hostilities in all countries on its agenda” and calls for armed groups to engage in a 30-day cease-fire, according to a draft of the measure obtained by USA Today.
Its fate is uncertain, and experts say it comes with many caveats and exceptions – including a loophole that could allow Russia to continue bombing civilians in Syria.
Right now, world powers are still quibbling over several provisions. The Trump administration has objected to any language expressing support for the World Health Organization, among other provisions – disputes that could sink or stall the effort. President Donald Trump has blasted the WHO being biased toward China and accepting Beijing's statements about the coronavirus outbreak at face value.
A State Department official declined to comment on the draft, citing ongoing negotiations. The official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the Trump administration supports the call for a global cease-fire but wants to ensure it will not hinder U.S. counterterrorism missions.
If it passes, experts say its impact could be significant – albeit not sweeping – during an otherwise bleak moment of global crisis.
“This is not a piece of paper that’s going to save the planet, and it’s not even going to stop some of the nasty wars that are burning out there,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations and peacekeeping with the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to prevent conflict.
“But it’s at least something which could help ease middle-sized and smaller conflicts in countries ranging from Colombia to Sudan, where we know that armed groups are actually interested in pausing violence and talking about peace during the COVID crisis.”
It could also help staunch the flow of refugees in some war-ravaged countries – and thus slow the spread of COVID-19, said Barry Posen, an international professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"War and disease travel together and are usually causative," Posen said.
While a global cease-fire may sound lofty and idealistic, he said, it's also quite practical, particularly in places like Syria and Yemen, where health care is scarce and civilians are extremely vulnerable to disease.
"The intrusion of COVID into that situation would make what's already a horror show into an even bigger horror show," he said. "If you can do a little something to suppress these wars at the moment, you would also be doing a little something to suppress the disease." And because these conflicts are also producing refugees, it could help limit the further spread of the illness if civilians are not forced to flee conflict zones.
The United Nation's secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, has used both lofty rhetoric and harsh reality in his pitch for the cease-fire.
"There should be only one fight in our world today: our shared battle against COVID-19," he said in an April 3 news briefing on his effort. French President Emmanuel Macron has also championed the cease-fire proposal.
So far, about 16 armed groups and more than 100 countries have endorsed the measure, according to an informal tally kept by U.N. officials. A few examples:
In Colombia, a left-wing rebel group known as the ELN agreed to a cease-fire starting April and said it would consider reviving peace talks with the government.
In Yemen, one side of that brutal war – the Saudi Arabia-led coalition – agreed to a unilateral cease-fire for at least a month, to help control the spread of coronavirus in a country already ravaged by starvation and other diseases. The Houthis, backed by Iran, have not yet signed on.
In Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces agreed to a cease-fire, saying its fighters would defend themselves against attacks but not engage in offensive military action. “We hope that this humanitarian truce will help to open the door for dialogue and political solution and to put an end to the war in the world and Syria,” the SDF said in a statement.
Guterres hailed these moves but noted there is "a huge distance between declarations and deeds."
P. Terrance Hopmann, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, said there's a stark power imbalance among those who have signed onto the cease-fire proposal and those who have not – with rebel groups far more willing to end fighting than they governments they are trying to topple.
"Rebels don't have access to hospitals, they don't have access to medical care generally," he noted. "They're often in the jungle or the desert or something."
Governments, even those under attack, may see an advantage in the pandemic "because they already have a power asymmetry in their favor" and therefore may try to push forward to try to win a conflict rather than negotiate a truce, he said.
One surprising exception is in the Philippines, Hopmann said, where a communist rebel group said it had ordered its fighters to observe a cease-fire amid the pandemic after Philippine's hard-line president, Rodrigo Duterte, had declared his own unilateral cease-fire. The conflict has caused an estimated 40,000 deaths in that country.
"We'll be lucky if this appeal works in one or two cases," Hopmann said. "But if it does, it would be a significant accomplishment because thousands of people were being killed every day in many conflicts around the world."
Gowan noted that the push for a cease-fire comes as U.N. mediators and envoys cannot travel to conflict zones, making peace talks even more difficult. He also said some groups that have endorsed the cease-fire have already started fighting again, while others have less-than-altruistic motives.
"In Yemen, the Saudis have for some time been trying to see if they can find a way to get out of this quagmire," Gowan said, and the pandemic may offer "a face-saving way" to exit a war that has damaged the kingdom's reputation and drained its military.
But even as the Saudis embraced the U.N. proposal, another faction on Monday broke a peace deal it had signed in November, highlighting the intractability of the multicountry conflict.
Gowan said the peace push may gain more traction as the pandemic spreads.
"In places like Libya and eastern Ukraine, where fighting goes on, the disease hasn’t had its full effect yet in terms of infections or economic damage," he said. "As the disease plays out, you’re going to see more military groups really feel the pain to resources and fighters ... and that could inspire a sense of exhaustion that might inspire more countries to take this seriously."
For major world powers, Posen said the coronavirus outbreaks on the USS Theodore Roosevelt and a French aircraft carrier should serve as a stark warning about how the disease could weaken military prowess. In both cases, hundreds of sailors became infected as the virus swept through the ships.
"The disease caused by the coronavirus is weakening all of the great and middle powers more or less equally," he said. He said with no country likely to gain a meaningful military advantage from the pandemic, "the odds of a war between major powers will go down, not up."
That doesn't mean the U.S. and its foes aren't flirting with conflict. After a dozen Iranian speed boats brazenly swarmed U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, Trump last week threatened to "shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea."
Gowan and others said the Trump administration has objected to at least two elements of the resolution. U.S. officials are pushing for language calling for "transparency" about the origins of the virus, which first emerged in China, and they are fighting supportive language for the World Health Organization, which Trump has accused of mishandling the pandemic and favoring China in its public statements.
The draft resolution currently has a placeholder provision on the WHO: "compromise related to the language on WHO to be decided at the end of the negotiation," it reads.
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