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The President's Take

The Emerging Post-pandemic World

In his introduction to this month’s edition of CrisisWatch, our President Robert Malley warns of the potential damage that the COVID-19 pandemic could inflict upon the international humanitarian and conflict management systems.

There is a pre-COVID-19 and a post-COVID-19 world, and this past month clearly ushered us into the latter. As we reported elsewhere, the implications for vulnerable populations will only clarify over time, but they likely will be devastating. They will be measured in inadequate or unavailable health care, overwhelmed public services, and massive economic disruption. There is also ample reason to fear lasting damage to international humanitarian and conflict management systems – from peacekeeping and diplomatic missions, to assistance to refugees and displaced persons. Some leaders may exploit the crisis to target minorities, crack down on dissent, entrench their positions or even escalate conflicts abroad for political gain. Some non-state actors may likewise seek to profit from the situation, convinced the world will be distracted by the pandemic. Over recent days, Crisis Group has shined a spotlight on some of these cases, whether in Venezuela, Gaza, or Iran. In the days and weeks to come, we will bring many more to your attention.

Amid the dark news was also a brighter side – of countries and organisations looking beyond their borders to help others. The United Arab Emirates, despite strained relations with Iran, sent Tehran over 30 tonnes of humanitarian aid to deal with the disease. Colombian and Venezuelan officials were in touch to discuss a joint health care response in border areas. In the Caucasus, the U.S. sent its first aid to the secessionist Georgian region of Abkhazia in over a decade to help counter COVID-19 even though Abkhaz authorities are coordinating with Moscow rather than Tbilisi over the disease. 

Several international leaders made a case for waiving sanctions that might seriously hamper efforts to deal with COVID-19. UN Secretary-General António Guterres was among them, advocating sanctions relief to permit access to food and essential health supplies. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet immediately echoed the appeal, arguing for the easing or suspension of sectoral sanctions and for humanitarian exemptions.

Perhaps most significantly, Guterres issued a call for a worldwide ceasefire to encourage nations to focus their collective energy on tackling the pandemic. Whether proactively or in response to his urging, several parties have moved in the right direction. 

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte announced a one-month unilateral ceasefire with communist rebels, to allow government forces time to prioritise the fight against the pandemic; the communist party, in turn, recommended that its militants declare a unilateral truce in response to the UN call. In Colombia, guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (ELN) announced a temporary ceasefire as a humanitarian gesture as the number of COVID-19 cases increased. In Cameroon, one of the Anglophone separatist groups declared a two-week ceasefire. In Sudan, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army accepted the Secretary-General’s call. And, in Yemen, warring parties at least rhetorically welcomed a ceasefire. 

These are only preliminary steps in a handful of countries, and not very sure-footed ones at that, as combatants tended to honour their commitments in the breach. Moreover, in the great majority of cases, conflict parties have simply ignored the UN plea. Still, Secretary-General Guterres was right to issue his call. The collective blind spot as to the human cost of conflicts, always costly, has the potential under present circumstances to become truly catastrophic.