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A member of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service wearing a protective mask is seen at the contact line between Ukrainian troops and pro-Moscow rebels in Mayorsk, Ukraine on 17 March, 2020 REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch

Deadly and disruptive as it already is, and terribly as it could yet worsen and spread, the 2020 coronavirus outbreak could also have political effects that last long after the contagion is contained. Crisis Group identifies seven points of particular concern.

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Overview

The COVID-19 pandemic unquestionably presents an era-defining challenge to public health and the global economy. Its political consequences, both short- and long-term, are less well understood.

The global outbreak has the potential to wreak havoc in fragile states, trigger widespread unrest and severely test international crisis management systems. Its implications are especially serious for those caught in the midst of conflict if, as seems likely, the disease disrupts humanitarian aid flows, limits peace operations and postpones or distracts conflict parties from nascent as well as ongoing efforts at diplomacy. Unscrupulous leaders may exploit the pandemic to advance their objectives in ways that exacerbate domestic or international crises – cracking down on dissent at home or escalating conflicts with rival states – on the assumption that they will get away with it while the world is otherwise occupied. COVID-19 has fuelled geopolitical friction, with the U.S. blaming China for the disease while Beijing tries to win friends by offering aid to affected countries, exacerbating existing great-power tensions that complicate cooperation on crisis management.

It is not yet clear when and where the virus will hit hardest, and how economic, social and political factors may converge to spark or aggravate crises. Nor is it guaranteed that the pandemic’s consequences will be entirely or uniformly negative for peace and security. Natural disasters have sometimes resulted in the diminution of conflicts, as rival parties have had to work together, or at least maintain calm, to focus on preserving and rebuilding their societies. There have been a few signs of governments trying to ease political tensions in the shadow of COVID-19 with, for example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait offering Iran – centre of one of the worst initial outbreaks outside China – humanitarian assistance. If the pandemic is likely to worsen some crises internationally, it may also create windows to improve others.

Crisis Group is especially concerned with places where the global health challenge intersects with wars or political conditions that could give rise to new crises or exacerbate existing ones.

The coming months will be acutely risky, with the U.S. and European countries focusing on the domestic impact of COVID-19 just as the disease is likely to spread to poor and war-affected countries. With the exception of Iran, in its first phase COVID-19 mainly affected states – including China, South Korea and Italy – that had resources to manage the problem, albeit unevenly and at the cost of severe strains on their health systems and economies. To date, there have been fewer reported cases in countries with weaker health systems, lower state capability or significant internal conflict, where consequences of an outbreak could be overwhelming.

That is of little solace, however. The low numbers are almost certainly a function of insufficient testing or of a delay between the virus’s onset and its manifestation. Confirmed case numbers are ticking up in fragile parts of the Arab world and Africa. If countries struggle to put in place social distancing or other measures to stop the virus’s spread, or delay doing so, they could see spikes of cases like those now overwhelming parts of Europe, but with far fewer emergency care facilities available to save lives. The suffering that would cause is hard to overstate. If the disease spreads in densely packed urban centres in fragile states, it may be virtually impossible to control. The dramatic economic slowdown already under way will disrupt trade flows and create unemployment that will do damage at levels that are hard to forecast and grim to contemplate. A recession could take a particularly heavy toll on fragile states where there is greatest potential for unrest and conflict.

All governments face hard choices about how to manage the virus. Countries from the Schengen area to Sudan have already imposed border restrictions. Many are placing partial or blanket bans on public gatherings or insisting that citizens shelter at home. These are necessary but also costly measures, especially given projections that the pandemic could continue for well over a year until a vaccine becomes available. The economic impact of restricting movement for months on end is likely to be devastating. Lifting restrictions prematurely could risk new spikes in infections and require a return to isolation measures, further compounding the disease’s economic and political impact and requiring further injections of liquidity and fiscal stimulus by governments around the world.

These are universal problems, but as an organisation focusing on early warning and conflict prevention, Crisis Group is especially concerned with places where the global health challenge intersects with wars or political conditions – such as weak institutions, communal tensions, lack of trust in leaders and inter-state rivalries – that could give rise to new crises or exacerbate existing ones. We also hope to identify cases where the disease could, with effective diplomacy, stimulate reductions in tensions. This briefing, the first in a series of Crisis Group publications on COVID-19 and its effects on the conflict landscape, draws primarily from the input of our analysts across the globe, and identifies seven trends to watch during the pandemic.

I. The Vulnerability of Conflict-affected Populations

The populations of conflict-affected countries – whether those in war or suffering its after-effects – are likely to be especially vulnerable to outbreaks of disease.[fn]Except where otherwise noted, this briefing is based on observations from Crisis Group analysts between 1 and 21 March 2020. For previous studies of conflict, public health and pandemics, see Maire A. Connolly and David L. Heymann, “Deadly Comrade: War and Infectious Diseases”, The Lancet, vol. 360 (December 2002); Paul H. Wise and Michele Barry, “Civil War and the Global Threat of Pandemics”, Daedalus, vol. 146, no. 4 (Fall 2017); Nita Madhav, Ben Oppenheim, Mark Gallivan, Prime Mulembakani, Edward Rubin and Nathan Wolfe, “Pandemics: Risks, Impacts and Mitigation”, in D.Y. Jamieson et al. (eds.), Disease Control Priorities, vol. 9 (3rd edition) (Washington, 2017). In many cases, war or prolonged unrest, especially when compounded by mismanagement, corruption or foreign sanctions, have left national health systems profoundly ill-prepared for COVID-19.

In Libya, for example, the UN-backed government in Tripoli has pledged roughly $350 million to respond to the disease, but to what end is unclear: the health system has collapsed due to an outflow of foreign medics during the war.[fn]Libya’s Tripoli government declares emergency, shuts down ports, airports”, Reuters, 14 March 2020.Hide Footnote In Venezuela, as Crisis Group warned would happen in 2016, the standoff between the chavista government and opposition has hollowed out health services. COVID-19 is liable to overwhelm the country’s remaining hospitals very quickly.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Briefing N°35, Venezuela: Edge of a Precipice, 24 June 2016.Hide Footnote In Iran, the government’s lethargic response compounded by the impact of U.S. sanctions has brought calamity: the virus reportedly is infecting nearly 50 people and taking five to six lives every hour.[fn]“U.S. to Iran: Coronavirus won’t save you from sanctions”, Reuters, 20 March 2020.Hide Footnote In Gaza, where a healthcare system weakened by years of blockade was ill equipped to serve the high-density population long before COVID-19, the Health Ministry is scrambling to gather the experts and obtain the supplies necessary for when the disease sweeps in. It appears to be an uphill climb: medical suppliers serving the region told Crisis Group that they had run out of key items even before the ministry announced two COVID cases on 21 March.

On top of such institutional problems, it can be hard to persuade populations with little trust in government or political leaders to follow public health directives. Reviewing the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Crisis Group noted that “the virus initially spread unchecked not only because of the weakness of epidemiological monitoring and inadequate health system capacity and response, but also because people were sceptical of what their governments were saying or asking them to do”.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°232, The Politics Behind the Ebola Crisis, 28 October 2015.Hide Footnote The doubts stemmed in part from misinformation and poor advice about the contagion from the governments involved but also from recurrent political tensions in a region scarred by war in the previous decade.

In cases of active conflict, national and international medics and humanitarian actors may struggle to get relief to people in need. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) and international NGOs struggled to contain an Ebola outbreak in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), despite support from UN peacekeepers, due to violent local militias that blocked access to some affected areas. At times, combatants targeted doctors and medical facilities themselves. Although the Congolese authorities and WHO apparently succeeded in ending the outbreak in recent months, the disease lasted far longer and claimed far many more lives (with a confirmed 2,264 fatalities) than would have been the case in a stable area.[fn]“DRC Ebola Updates: Crisis Update – March 2020, MSF, 9 March 2020.Hide Footnote Security obstacles are similarly liable to hamper the COVID-19 response in places where hostilities continue.

The areas of active conflict at highest immediate risk of COVID-19 outbreaks may be north-western Syria, around the besieged enclave of Idlib, and Yemen

The areas of active conflict at highest immediate risk of COVID-19 outbreaks may be north-western Syria, around the besieged enclave of Idlib, and Yemen. Both countries have already experienced health crises during their civil wars, with violence impeding the international response to an outbreak of polio in Syria in 2013-2014 and cholera in Yemen from 2016 onward. UN officials have now raised the alarm about COVID-19 infecting the population of Idlib, where a Russian-backed offensive by government forces has systematically targeted hospitals and other medical facilities and led to the displacement of over one million people in the last six months alone.[fn]See also Evan Hill and Yousur Al-Hlou, “‘Wash our hands? Some people can’t wash their kids for a week’”, The New York Times, 20 March 2020.Hide Footnote Many people fleeing clashes sleep in fields or under trees, and basic hygiene and social distancing practices are made impossible by the lack of running water or soap as well as cramped living spaces. Delivery of vital test kits has been delayed by weeks. Humanitarian workers fear that an outbreak of the disease in Idlib would both overwhelm the province’s medical facilities and make it impossible to care for victims of war.

In Yemen, war since 2015 has decimated what even before was a very weak heath system. Over 24 million people already require humanitarian assistance.[fn]“Humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains the worst in the world, warns UN”, UN News, 14 February 2019.Hide Footnote After de facto authorities in the capital city of Sanaa and the internationally recognised government in Aden banned international flights to prevent the virus from spreading, international relief teams reduced their numbers to essential staff. A COVID-19 outbreak could rapidly overwhelm aid efforts and make one of the world’s most serious humanitarian catastrophes even more dire.

In Idlib, Yemen and beyond, internally displaced persons (IDPs), asylum seekers and refugees are particularly exposed to outbreaks of COVID-19, given their frequently squalid living conditions and limited access to health care. Data released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2019 suggest that over 70 million people fall into these categories of displacement globally, and the number has most likely risen since then, especially given events in Syria.[fn]“Worldwide displacement tops 70 million, UN refugee chief urges greater solidarity in response”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, press release, 19 June 2019.Hide Footnote Whatever narrow avenues might have existed for displaced persons to move or be resettled to safer and more secure locations are, for all intents and purposes, now shut off due to COVID-19.

There is a long history of contagion spiking in IDP and refugee camps, a risk that now looms again, although in some areas medical services available in camps may be better than those for surrounding populations. UN officials are particularly concerned about the al-Hol camp in north-eastern Syria, home to over 70,000 people, including women and children who fled the Islamic State’s last territorial foothold as it collapsed, among them Syrians, Iraqis and approximately 10,000 nationals of other countries. As we wrote about the camp in the fall of 2019, it was already “a scene of humanitarian disaster, rampant with disease – its residents lacking adequate food, clean water, often cut off entirely from medical services”, leaving its population highly vulnerable to COVID-19.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°208, Women and Children First: Repatriating the Westerners Affiliated with ISIS, 18 November 2019, p. 4.

Also of concern are the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, where over one million people live in overcrowded conditions, with sanitation facilities and health care services limited to a bare minimum.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°303, A Sustainable Policy for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, 27 December 2019.Hide Footnote A government ban on internet and mobile phone services in the camps limits access to vital preventive information, while high levels of malnutrition likely imply that both the refugees and local residents are more susceptible to the disease. Should COVID-19 reach the camps, humanitarian agencies expect it to spread like wildfire, potentially triggering a backlash from Bangladeshis who live in the surrounding areas and are already unnerved by the refugees’ prolonged stay.

In these cases – as for displaced communities in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – there is a risk that IDPs and refugees facing large-scale outbreaks of COVID-19 in the camps where they reside may aim to flee again to safety, leading local populations or authorities to react forcefully to contain them, which creates the potential for escalating violence. States attempting to stop the spread of the disease are likely to view new refugee flows fearfully. Colombia and Brazil, for example, closed their borders with Venezuela after previously taking a relatively generous approach to those fleeing the crisis there, but the pressure to escape worsening poverty and health risks in Venezuela could force rising numbers of migrants to use illegal crossings.

The COVID-19 emergency could also exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Central America tied in part to the Trump administration’s immigration policies, as well as the region’s already high levels of violent crime. Having announced the closure of its southern border to all non-essential traffic from 21 March, the U.S. may seek to strengthen efforts to halt the arrival of migrants and refugees from Central America and return them to host countries. El Salvador and Guatemala nevertheless suspended in mid-March all incoming flights of Central American deportees from the U.S. The service to Guatemala has since resumed, but it remains to be seen whether Washington can continue to export deportees when both these countries have grounded all other international passenger flights. 

At a time of grave threat to Central America’s fragile economies, moves to continue U.S. and Mexican deportation flights could expose growing numbers of displaced people to a frosty reception once they land, as locals may fear that the arrivals are spreading disease. Many deportees are likely to face the choice of heading back to the U.S. border, with the support of trafficking networks, or becoming victims or accomplices of the region’s pervasive criminal groups and street gangs.

In many cases, COVID-19’s impact on refugees and IDPs will be felt disproportionately by women, who often form the majority of displaced populations in conflict-afflicted regions. These women’s access to services and ability to feed their families are already deeply constrained by stigma relating to their ties (real or alleged) to armed groups. Exposed to sexual exploitation or abuse, with their rehabilitation or integration back into communities a low priority for feeble or indifferent governments, displaced women and children stand poised to be affected fast and first by the economic crises that will accompany the spread of the disease.

II. Damage to International Crisis Management and Conflict Resolution Mechanisms

One reason why refugee and IDP populations are likely to be especially vulnerable to COVID-19 is that the disease could severely weaken the capacity of international institutions to serve conflict-affected areas. WHO and other international officials fear that restrictions associated with the disease will impede humanitarian supply chains. But humanitarian agencies are not the only parts of the multilateral system under pressure due to the pandemic, which is also likely to curb peacemaking.

Travel restrictions have begun to weigh on international mediation efforts. UN envoys working in the Middle East have been blocked from travelling to and within the region due to airport closures. Regional organisations have suspended diplomatic initiatives in areas ranging from the South Caucasus to West Africa, while the envoy of the International Contact Group on Venezuela – a group of European and Latin American states looking for a diplomatic solution to the crisis there – had to cancel an already long-delayed trip to Caracas in early March for COVID-related reasons.[fn]A delegation of diplomats planning to visit Nagorno-Karabakh on behalf of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe cancelled the trip, while West African leaders planning to visit Guinea to discuss a contentious referendum also called off their visit.
 Hide Footnote

A delegation of diplomats planning to visit Nagorno-Karabakh on behalf of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe cancelled the trip, while West African leaders planning to visit Guinea to discuss a contentious referendum also called off their visit.
 

Hide Footnote The disease could affect crucial intra-Afghan peace talks planned as a follow-up to the February preliminary agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, at least reducing the number of those who can participate (although limiting the group to real decision-makers and essential support staff could be conducive to serious talks).[fn]In a possible sign of progress, U.S. Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted on 22 March that the U.S. and Qatar had facilitated technical talks on prisoner releases between the Afghan government and Taliban “via Skype video conferencing”.Hide Footnote

Covid-19 means that international leaders, focused as they are on dramatic domestic issues, have little or no time to devote to conflicts or peace processes

More broadly, the disease means that international leaders, focused as they are on dramatic domestic issues, have little or no time to devote to conflicts or peace processes. European officials say that efforts to secure a ceasefire in Libya (a priority for Berlin and Brussels in February) are no longer receiving high-level attention. Diplomats working to prevent a deadly showdown in northern Yemen desperately need the time and energy of senior Saudi and U.S. officials but report that meetings with both are being cancelled or curtailed. Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta called off a 16 March summit with counterparts from Ethiopia and Somalia that aimed to defuse dangerously escalating tensions between Nairobi and Mogadishu, with Kenyan officials citing their need to focus on efforts to halt the virus’s potential spread.[fn]“Kenya’s president cancels two foreign meetings over Covid-19”, The East African, 15 March 2020.Hide Footnote A summit between leaders of the EU and the “G5 Sahel countries” (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) will also be cancelled, dealing a blow to efforts to boost counter-terrorism operations in the region.

The disease could also affect multinational peacekeeping and security assistance efforts. In early March, the UN secretariat asked a group of nine peacekeeping troop contributors – including China and Italy – to suspend some or all unit rotations to blue helmet operations due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.[fn]These initial restrictions reflected requests from host and transit countries (including Uganda, an important UN logistical hub) to the UN not to risk spreading the disease. UN Department of Operational Support correspondence with permanent representatives to the UN, 5 March 2020 (seen by Crisis Group, 9 March 2020).Hide Footnote UN operations have announced further limits to rotations since then, meaning that peacekeepers’ tours of duty will be extended for at least three months in tough mission settings such as the Central African Republic and South Sudan, potentially affecting their morale and effectiveness. A Security Council decision on setting up a new political mission to support Sudan’s transition to civilian rule appears likely to be postponed due to constraints on the Council’s meeting schedule to which its members agreed as part of virus containment measures.[fn]The Security Council postponed meetings from 16 March onward and has tested virtual meeting options, although diplomats will still meet occasionally to vote.Hide Footnote While these diplomatic and operational decisions will have no immediate impact on UN operations, a prolonged pandemic could make it difficult to find and deploy fresh forces and civilian personnel, wearing down missions.

If international organisations may struggle to handle the crisis, media outlets and NGOs may also find it hard to report on conflict and crises due to travel restrictions, even as many readers and viewers are likely at least temporarily to lose interest in non-COVID-19-related stories. Some authoritarian governments seem ready to use the crisis to limit media access. Egypt has, for example, censured Western reporters for their coverage of the disease inside the country – removing the credentials of a Guardian reporter – while China has sent home a number of leading U.S. correspondents. Crisis Group itself has had to place significant limits on our analysts’ ability to travel during the pandemic for their own safety. As this briefing illustrates, we are determined to keep a spotlight on conflicts – whether related to COVID-19 or not – and provide the best coverage possible, but our work will face inevitable constraints.

III. Risks to Social Order

COVID-19 could place great stress on societies and political systems, creating the potential for new outbreaks of violence. In the short term, the threat of disease is likely acting as a deterrent to popular unrest, as protesters avoid large gatherings. COVID-19’s emergence in China precipitated a decline in anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong (although public discomfort with radical elements of the protest movement may also have been a factor).[fn]Helen Davidson, “Hong Kong: With coronavirus curbed, protests may return”, The Guardian, 15 March 2020.Hide Footnote There has been a decline, too, in the numbers of protesters taking to the streets in Algeria to challenge government corruption.[fn]“Algerians forego weekly protest amid coronavirus”, Reuters, 20 March 2020.Hide Footnote The Russian opposition largely acquiesced in the authorities’ move, ostensibly justified on health grounds, to block protests against President Vladimir Putin’s decision to rewrite the constitution to extend his tenure in office.[fn]“Coronavirus forces Putin critics to scale back protests before big vote”, Reuters, 20 March 2020.Hide Footnote At least one exception to this general caution occurred in Niger, where demonstrators took to the streets against rules barring protest, which the government extended by invoking COVID-19. Three civilians were killed by security forces on 15 March.

Yet the quiet in the streets may be a temporary and misleading phenomenon. The pandemic’s public health and economic consequences are liable to strain relations between governments and citizens, especially where health services buckle; preserving public order could prove challenging when security forces are overstretched and populations become increasingly frustrated with the government’s response to the disease.

Early signs of social disorder already can be seen. In Ukraine, protesters attacked buses carrying Ukrainian evacuees from Wuhan, China, in response to allegations that some were carrying the disease.[fn]“Coronavirus: Ukraine protesters attack buses carrying China evacuees”, BBC, 21 February 2020.Hide Footnote Prison breaks have been reported in Venezuela, Brazil and Italy, with inmates reacting violently to new restrictions associated with COVID-19, while in Colombia prison riots and a reported jailbreak over the perceived lack of protection from the disease resulted in the death of 23 inmates at La Modelo jail on 21 March. In Colombia as well, looters attacked food trucks headed for Venezuela, at least in part to protest the economic effects of the decision taken by both Bogotá and Caracas to close the Colombian-Venezuelan border for health reasons. Even reasonable precautions may inspire angry responses. In Peru, the authorities have arrested hundreds of citizens for breaking quarantine rules, in some cases leading to violence.

The disease’s catastrophic economic impact could well sow the seeds of future disorder.

More broadly, the disease’s catastrophic economic impact could well sow the seeds of future disorder. It could do so whether or not the countries in question have experienced major outbreaks of the disease, although the danger in those that have will be magnified. A global recession of as yet unknown scope lies ahead; pandemic-related transport restrictions will disrupt trade and food supplies; countless businesses will be forced to shut down; and unemployment levels are likely to soar.[fn]Some financial analysts are predicting a “severe global recession” resulting from the outbreak. The U.S. economy, to cite one example, is predicted to contract by 14 per cent in the second quarter of 2020. “Assessing the Fallout from the Coronavirus Pandemic”, JP Morgan, 20 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Governments that have close trading ties with China, especially some in Africa, are feeling the pain of the slowdown emanating from the original Wuhan outbreak.[fn]See, for example, Hannah Ryder and Angela Benefo, “China’s coronavirus slowdown: Which African economies will be hit hardest?”, The Diplomat, 19 March 2020.Hide Footnote Oil producers are already struggling with the collapse of energy prices. Countries like Nigeria, which has strong import/export links to China and relies on oil prices to prop up its public finances, are suffering. Abuja has reportedly considered cutting expenditures by 10 per cent in 2020, meaning that authorities may have to default on promises to raise the minimum wage.[fn]“Silk roadblock: coronavirus exposes Nigeria’s reliance on China”, Reuters, 6 March 2020.Hide Footnote Such austerity measures, combined with other economic effects of COVID-19 – such as the disappearance of tourists in areas that depend heavily on foreign visitors – could lead to economic shocks that last well beyond the immediate crisis, creating the potential for prolonged labour disturbances and social instability.

As Crisis Group noted at the start of 2020, the raucous protests of 2019 stemmed from a “pervasive sense of economic injustice” that could “set more cities ablaze this year”.[fn]Robert Malley, “10 Conflicts to Watch in 2020”, Crisis Group Commentary, 27 December 2019.Hide Footnote Anger over the effects of COVID-19 – and perceptions that governments are mismanaging them – could eventually trigger new demonstrations. The economic decline will have even more immediate effects on societies in low-income countries. Across large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa in particular, millions depend on their daily income to feed their families. An extended lockdown could rapidly create widespread desperation and disorder.

One further reason for worry is COVID-19’s clear potential to unleash xenophobic sentiment, especially in countries with large immigrant communities. Early in the crisis, Chinese labourers in Kenya faced harassment linked to suspicions that China Southern Airline flights were bringing the coronavirus into the country. Some Western politicians, notably U.S. President Donald Trump, have attempted to whip up resentment of Beijing with jibes about the “Chinese virus”. There is anecdotal evidence of an increase in prejudice toward people of Chinese ethnicity in the U.S. and other Western countries, and a serious risk that the diseases will fuel more racist and anti-foreigner violence.[fn]See for example Holly Yan, Natasha Chen and Dushyant Naresh, “What’s spreading faster than coronavirus in the U.S.? Racist assaults and ignorant attacks against Asians”, CNN, 21 February 2020.Hide Footnote

IV. Political Exploitation of the Crisis

Against this background of social pressures, there is ample room for political leaders to try to exploit COVID-19, either to solidify power at home or pursue their interests abroad. In the short term, many governments seem confused by the speed, reach and danger of the outbreak and, in some cases, the disease has infected political elites. An outbreak in Brazil’s isolated capital, Brasilia, has sickened a large number of officials and politicians. In Iran, there have been dozens of cases among senior officials and parliamentarians. In Burkina Faso, where the government is already struggling with the collapse of state authority in large parts of the country, a rash of cases has hit cabinet members. The secondvice president of the parliament was the first recorded fatality in sub-Saharan Africa. In such instances, the disease is more likely to weaken authorities’ ability to make decisions about both health issues and other pressing crises.

Nonetheless, as the crisis goes on, some leaders could order restrictive measures that make public health sense at the peak of the crisis and then extend them in the hope of quashing dissent once the disease declines. Such measures could include indefinite bans on large public gatherings – which many governments have already instituted to stop community spread of COVID-19 – to prevent public protests. Here again there are precedents from West Africa’s Ebola crisis: local civil society groups and opposition parties claim that the authorities prohibited meetings for longer than necessary as a way of suppressing legitimate protests.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics Behind the Ebola Crisis, op. cit., p. 25.Hide Footnote A harbinger of what is to come may have appeared in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban asked parliament on 21 March to indefinitely extend a state of emergency that prescribes five-year prison sentences for those disseminating false information or obstructing the state’s crisis response.[fn]“Hungary govt seeks to extend special powers amid coronavirus crisis”, Reuters, 21 March 2020.Hide Footnote

There is ample room for political leaders to try to exploit COVID-19.

Elections scheduled for the first half of 2020, and perhaps later, are also liable to be postponed; here too, the immediate public health justification may be valid but the temptation to use the virus as a pretext for further delays and narrowing of political space could well exist. Indeed, there are likely to be good practical reasons for delaying voting in such cases. In addition to complicating domestic planning, the pandemic will obstruct the deployment of international electoral support and, where planned, observation missions. Still, opposition parties are likely to suspect foul play, especially in countries where political trust is low, there has been recent instability, or the government enjoys dubious legitimacy or has a history of manipulating electoral calendars.

Again, there are already examples. The interim president in Bolivia, Jeanine Añez, announced on 21 March that the presidential election planned for 3 May to find a full-time replacement for Evo Morales – whom the military ousted after controversial polls in 2019 – would be delayed to an unspecified future date. In Sri Lanka, an Election Commission decision to postpone parliamentary elections for public health reasons could grant President Gotabaya Rajapaksa – a hardline nationalist associated with human rights abuses directed at minorities and political critics – enhanced powers. Although Rajapaksa initially wanted the polls to go ahead (reflecting expectations of a landslide victory), should he refuse to recall parliament while elections remain on hold, the length and legality of his interim powers may well stir controversy.

Some leaders may also see COVID-19 as cover to embark on destabilising foreign adventures, whether to deflect domestic discontent or because they sense they will face little pushback amid the global health crisis. No such case has yet surfaced, and there is a risk that analysts will now attribute crises to COVID-19 that are better explained by other factors. Still, at a time when the pandemic is distracting major powers and multilateral organisations, some leaders may surmise that they can assert themselves in ways that they would otherwise deem too risky. A spate of attacks against U.S. targets by Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq may well be part of a pre-existing effort by Tehran to push the U.S. out of the Middle East. But with Iran’s leadership already under enormous domestic pressure, the toll taken by the coronavirus might also affect its calculus. As we wrote, “feeling besieged and with no obvious diplomatic exit ramp, Iran might conclude that only a confrontation with the United States might change a trajectory that’s heading in a very dangerous direction”.[fn]Robert Malley and Ali Vaez, “The coronavirus is a diplomatic opportunity for the United States and Iran”, Foreign Policy, 17 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Similarly, the crisis may create openings for jihadist groups to launch new offensives against weakened governments in Africa and the Middle East. To date, neither ISIS nor any of al-Qaeda’s various branches has displayed a clear strategic vision relating to the pandemic (although ISIS has circulated health guidance to its militants on how to deal with the disease based on sayings by the Prophet Muhammad).[fn]“ISIS tells terrorists to steer clear of coronavirus-stricken Europe”, Politico, 15 March 2020.Hide Footnote Nonetheless, as Crisis Group has previously argued, jihadist forces tend to “exploit disorder”, gaining territory and adherents where conflicts already exist or weak states face social turmoil.[fn]Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote ISIS, for example, used the post-2011 chaos in Syria to gain a level of power that would otherwise have been impossible. It is possible that social and political disorder may create similar openings for jihadist actors as the crisis goes on. Conversely, those groups – such as al-Shabaab in Somalia – that control significant swathes of territory could, like governments, face a surge of public discontent if they cannot keep COVID-19 in check.[fn]Al-Shabaab’s performance in handling famines in 2011 and 2017 – both exacerbated by conflict and the group’s restrictions on aid – offers scant reassurance as to how it might handle the present pandemic. See Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°125, Instruments of Pain (III): Conflict and Famine in Somalia, 9 May 2017.Hide Footnote

V. A Turning Point in Major Power Relations?

The potential effects of COVID-19 on specific trouble spots is magnified by the fact that the global system was already in the midst of realignment.[fn]Malley, “10 Conflicts to Watch in 2020,” op. cit.Hide Footnote The current moment thus stands apart from other, still relatively recent, international crises. When the financial crash prompted a global economic downturn in 2008, the U.S. still held enough clout to shape the international response through the G20, although Washington was careful to involve Beijing in the process. In 2014, the U.S. took charge of a belated multilateral response to the West Africa Ebola crisis helped by countries ranging from the UK and France to China and Cuba.[fn]See Ted Piccone, “Ebola could bring U.S. and Cuba together”, The Brookings Institution, 31 October 2014.Hide Footnote Today, the U.S. – whose international influence already had considerably weakened – has simultaneously mishandled its domestic response to COVID-19, failed to bring other nations together and stirred up international resentment. President Donald Trump has not only harped on the disease’s Chinese origins but also criticised the EU for bungling its containment.

China, by contrast, after having to cope with the consequences of the initial outbreak, its early and costly decision to hold back information, and its own uneven response, and having sought at times to blame the U.S. by waging an irresponsible misinformation campaign, now sees in the health crisis an opportunity to gain influence over other states through humanitarian gestures.[fn]See Conor Finnegan, “False claims about origins of the coronavirus cause spat between the U.S., China”, ABC, 13 March 2020. Some Chinese diplomats appear uncomfortable with Beijing’s insinuations that COVID-19 came from the U.S. See “Spat between Chinese diplomats shows internal split over Trump”, Bloomberg, 23 March 2020.Hide Footnote China has kicked its diplomatic machine into high gear to position itself as leading the international response to potential widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 on the African continent.[fn]For example, see Laura Zhou, “Will China’s support for nations fighting Covid-19 improve its global image?”, South China Morning Post, 22 March 2020.Hide Footnote On 16 March, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma announced that his foundation would give 20,000 testing kits, 100,000 masks and a thousand units of protective gear to each of the continent’s 54 countries. He said it would channel the donations through Ethiopia, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, coordinating distribution.[fn]“As virus spreads, Africa gets supplies from China’s Jack Ma”, Associated Press, 22 March 2020.Hide Footnote On 19 March, Beijing further bolstered its diplomacy on the subject, announcing plans to build an African Centre for Disease Prevention and Control research facility in Nairobi.[fn]“Kenya to host Sh8 billion Africa disease control centre”, The Standard, 19 March 2020.Hide Footnote Beijing has also rolled out offers of assistance to EU members, blunting European criticisms of its initial handling of the contagion in Wuhan.[fn]“China steps up support for European countries hardest hit by coronavirus”, South China Morning Post, 18 March 2020. On the effects of Chinese aid on European perceptions, see Steven Erlanger, “In this crisis, U.S. sheds its role as global leader”, The New York Times, 22 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Despite the WHO’s pleas for unity, the pandemic is taking on a divisive geopolitical hue

Overall, despite the WHO’s pleas for unity, the pandemic is taking on a divisive geopolitical hue. Some leaders have framed it very clearly in these terms. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, for example, declared that – lacking any real support from the EU – “all my personal hopes are focused on China and its president”.[fn]Julija Simic, “Serbia turns to China due to ‘lack of EU solidarity’ on coronavirus”, Euractiv, 18 March 2020.Hide Footnote While Riyadh, which currently presides over the G20, has called for a “virtual summit” of leaders (similar to one already held by the G7), the crisis could increase tensions among Washington, Beijing and other powers. EU experts have warned that Russia is spreading disinformation about COVID-19 in Western countries.[fn]“Russia deploying coronavirus disinformation to sow panic in West, EU document says”, Reuters, 18 March 2020.Hide Footnote Jockeying among the big powers to take advantage of the general disarray could not only complicate technical cooperation against COVID-19, but also make it harder for the powers to agree on how to handle the political disputes it creates or exacerbates.

More broadly, the coronavirus and how it will be dealt with is likely to have a profound influence on the shape of the multilateral order that will emerge in its aftermath. It is too early to assess those implications. For now, one can discern two competing narratives gaining currency – one in which the lesson is that countries ought to come together to better defeat COVID-19, and one in which the lesson is that countries need to stand apart in order to better protect themselves from it.[fn]Yuval Noah Harari calls this the choice between “nationalist isolation and global solidarity”. “The world after coronavirus”, Financial Times, 20 March 2020.Hide Footnote The crisis also represents a stark test of the competing claims of liberal and illiberal states to better manage extreme social distress. As the pandemic unfolds, it will test not only the operational capacities of organisations like the UN and WHO, but also basic assumptions about the values and political bargains that underpin them.

VI. Opportunities to Be Seized

While the warning signs associated with COVID-19 are significant, there are also glimmers of hope. The scale of the outbreak creates room for humanitarian gestures between rivals. The UAE has, for example, airlifted over 30 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Iran to deal with the disease (Bahrain, by contrast, took the opportunity to accuse the Islamic Republic of “biological aggression”).[fn]Nafisa Eltahir and Lisa Barrington, “Bahrain accuses Iran of ‘biological aggression’, Gulf states try to curb coronavirus”, Reuters, 12 March 2020.Hide Footnote States with closer relations with Iran, including Kuwait and Qatar, have also proffered assistance. President Trump wrote to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, expressing willingness to help Pyongyang confront the disease, prompting a message of gratitude in response.[fn]Choe Sang-Hun, “Trump writes to Kim Jong-un offering help in virus fight, North Korea says”, The New York Times, 21 March 2020.Hide Footnote Despite closing its border with Venezuela, the Colombian government has also had its first official contact with Caracas in over a year under the aegis of the teleconference mediated by the Pan American Health Organization to discuss a joint health care response in border areas. Anti-chavista politicians have also taken tentative steps to work with their rivals to address the crisis, as occurred in the border state of Táchira.

Two other examples: 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. In the Philippines, the normally hawkish President Rodrigo Duterte announced a one-month unilateral ceasefire with communist rebels, to allow government forces time to focus on the pandemic.[fn]“Duterte asks NPA for ceasefire during coronavirus lockdown”, Rappler.com, 17 March 2020.Hide Footnote

As the devastation spreads and economies shrink, pressures may grow on governments and opposition in polarised situations to find common ground.

These are only relatively small positive steps. But as the devastation spreads and economies shrink, pressures may grow on governments and opposition in polarised situations to find common ground if that is a condition for stability and receiving international assistance. Academic surveys show that warring parties frequently respond to natural disasters with agreements to reduce violence. A similar dynamic may apply in some conflicts in the face of COVID-19, although the scale of the crisis – and its emerging impact on international diplomacy – could make it hard for outside mediators and multilateral organisations to support peacemaking efforts as they could in more normal times.[fn]See Joakim Kreutz, “From Tremors to Talks: Do Natural Disasters Produce Ripe Moments for Resolving Separatist Conflicts?”, International Interactions, vol. 8, no. 4 (2012).Hide Footnote

Earlier this month, Crisis Group pressed the U.S. and Iran to seize this moment and reach a mutually beneficial understanding: Tehran would release all its dual national or foreign detainees (who face real risks from the disease in Iranian prisons) while Washington would loosen its sanctions (which are exacerbating the harrowing humanitarian situation Iran faces as a result of its own mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis).[fn]Malley and Vaez, “The coronavirus is a diplomatic opportunity for the United States and Iran”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Since then, Tehran has made concessions on prisoners – swapping a French detainee for an Iranian held in France and allowing a British-Iranian prisoner to leave jail temporarily. While the U.S. has said it would send humanitarian assistance to Iran, the Islamic Republic’s leadership promptly rejected the offer as disingenuous, pointing to the fact that U.S. sanctions remain fully in place. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has cited conspiracy theories blaming the U.S. for the illness.[fn]Jon Gambrell, “Iran leader refuses U.S. help to fight COVID-19, citing conspiracy theory”, Associated Press, 22 March 2020.Hide Footnote

VII. Potential Crisis Mitigation Measures

Looking ahead, governments will have to decide whether to support more cooperative approaches to handling the crisis, not only in global public health terms but also as a political and security challenge. All leaders face pressure to focus on and spend money and political capital on domestic priorities, and in particular to ignore conflict risks in weak states that may seem hard to resolve or simply not important enough to worry about. But there will be a day after, and if the coming period is not dealt with wisely, it could be marked by major disruptions in already conflict-ridden areas, the eruption of new violence and a far more fragile multilateral system. In addition to following the negative and positive trends noted above, Crisis Group will also be watching to see if states and multilateral institutions take preventive and mitigating measures to limit the pandemic’s impact on peace and security.

In that spirit, and to mitigate the possibility that COVID-19 brings about a new generation of security crises, governments aiming to limit the pandemic’s impact could consider the following steps:

  • Follow needs assessments from the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other relevant agencies, and inject essential COVID-19-related funding into humanitarian support, especially for refugees and IDPs, factoring in the disproportionate risks for displaced women;
     
  • Work with the UN, International Monetary Fund and World Bank – which have already started to mobilise funds to address health system failures and economic jolts resulting from COVID-19 – to assess the social and political shocks potentially arising from the pandemic to governments in weak states, and offer financial aid and debt relief;
     
  • Offer sanctions relief to states affected by COVID-19 and that are under sanctions, through multilateral frameworks such as the EU or UN, or through the suspension of unilateral sanctions, as appropriate if only temporarily, on humanitarian grounds, and remove any obstacles to the delivery of humanitarian goods;
     
  • Try to keep peace processes and conflict prevention efforts alive by working with UN envoys and other mediators to, for example, maintain secure electronic communications with conflict parties;
     
  • Where authorities delay elections or other polls for legitimate COVID-19 related reasons, offer outside support – such as declarations of extra-electoral assistance once the disease subsides, or quiet diplomacy between the parties – to reassure citizens that they will eventually get to vote;
     
  • Where possible, establish or strengthen diplomatic back channels among states and non-state actors most affected by the crisis to communicate over potential escalatory risks in tense regions;
     
  • Invest in efforts led by the WHO, independent media, non-governmental organisations and civil society to share impartial news about COVID-19 in weak states to counter rumour and political manipulation of the crisis as well as to keep a spotlight on conflicts that require international help.
     

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to be long and draining. It will make diplomacy, and especially crisis diplomacy, harder. But it is crucial to keep channels of communication – and a spirit of cooperation – intact in a period when the international system seems as ready as ever to fragment.

New York/Brussels, 24 March 2020

A man reads a newspaper with a headline on Sri Lanka's dissolution of parliament in Colombo on 3 March 2020. LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP
Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Other COVID-19 Crisis: Is Parliamentary Democracy at Risk?

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government appears headed for a constitutional crisis that could lastingly damage Sri Lanka’s political institutions and aggravate conflict risks. Firm and concerted action by the country’s international partners could help break the impasse, which comes amid rising authoritarianism and anti-Muslim propaganda.

The Sri Lankan government has declared its intention to rule without parliamentary oversight for the first time in the country’s modern history, potentially sparking a serious constitutional crisis. Elected in November and without a majority in parliament, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa seized his earliest opportunity to dissolve the legislature on 2 March and schedule a general election for 25 April. As the COVID-19 emergency grew serious in late March, the National Elections Commission (NEC) delayed the vote indefinitely. With the constitution stating that parliament can remain dissolved for only three months pending fresh elections, Sri Lanka will head into dangerously uncharted territory unless the president or courts take decisive action before the deadline expires on 2 June.

Serious legal anomalies quickly emerged as the government took steps to respond to the pandemic in parliament’s absence. For instance, curfews used to enforce “social distancing” are of questionable legal validity without parliamentary approval. In addition, several ad hoc emergency task forces appointed by the president (two of which are headed by his unelected brother Basil Rajapaksa and a third by the army commander) have largely ignored existing legislation for handling disasters.

The COVID-19 crisis has also seen the military granted a larger policy role than ever before.

More importantly, the process of setting a new election date is in constitutional and practical disarray. Although the constitution is clear about the three-month limit, the NEC decided to postpone the vote until the virus is safely controlled, meaning that the 2 June deadline would have passed. Foreseeing the constitutional dilemma ahead, the NEC had first asked the president to consult the Supreme Court for its opinion on how to proceed, but Rajapaksa refused.

Under pressure from the government to hold the election as soon as possible, the NEC chose 20 June as the new date, ignoring arguments that conditions were still not safe enough for a free and fair election with full campaigning. On 20 May, lawyers for the NEC told the Supreme Court that the election could not be held on the proposed date and that preparations for the vote would require nine to eleven weeks after health officials declare that conditions are safe. The earliest possible election date would thus fall in late July or early August.

A separate legal problem emerged at the end of April, when the government exceeded the debt ceiling established by the temporary budget that parliament approved in October last year. With the expiration of the temporary budget’s validity on 30 April, and no parliament in place to vote on a new budget, the government now has no constitutional power to borrow additional funds and, according to some legal analysts, no authority to spend any, either. Based on publicly available information, the government appears to have little if any money remaining in its treasury, making new borrowing essential.  

Given the impossibility of installing a new parliament by 2 June, the easiest way to avoid a constitutional crisis would be for the president to use his powers to recall the previous parliament before the three-month time limit is reached. In such a scenario, Rajapaksa would be able to dissolve the parliament again, ideally once it had approved a short-term budget and the health situation allowed elections to be conducted safely. Since the currently dissolved parliament’s full term would not expire until 1 September, taking into account the three-month rule, an election could take place as late as the end of November.

Despite the constitution clearly saying otherwise, Rajapaksa has repeatedly claimed that he has no power to reconvene parliament and characterised the violation of the constitution’s three-month time limit as unavoidable. As for the debt situation, the president’s office has offered no clear or sound defence of its legal authority to borrow, relying on the unprecedented legal anomaly of a short-term budget prepared by the Finance Ministry after the parliament’s dissolution in March.

Sri Lanka’s Democratic Institutions Already under Pressure

The risks inherent to extra-constitutional rule are made sharper not only by Sri Lanka’s ongoing health crisis – which has precipitated two months of damaging lockdowns across the island – and the economic downturn that will likely accompany it, but also by the aggressively Sinhala nationalist, family-centred and authoritarian style of rule established during Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first six months in office.

Since his election in November 2019, President Rajapaksa – whose brother, Mahinda, is prime minister and whose other brothers are in key positions – has given retired and active military officials an unprecedented role in governance. Some are credibly alleged to have overseen serious human rights violations during the final years of the country’s civil war (1983-2009), when Gotabaya was defence secretary and Mahinda was president. The Ministry of Defence has taken over a number of key civilian agencies and, at latest count, eighteen generals – most but not all retired – head or hold senior positions in civilian departments. A significant number of them are members of the same Gajaba army regiment in which Gotabaya served during the 1980s. The COVID-19 crisis has also seen the military granted a larger policy role than ever before, with the army commander heading the national coronavirus task force and military personnel in charge of many aspects of disease control.

The new government has also taken direct political control of the police department and actively reversed previous tentative steps toward accountability for grave crimes committed by government forces during the civil war. Within days of taking office, the president ordered a shake-up of the police Criminal Investigation Department, demoting or transferring officers in charge of high-profile investigations of political crimes committed when his brother Mahinda was in power between 2005 and 2015, and reappointing or promoting police and military intelligence personnel detained on suspicion of involvement in murders and abductions. Even as previous criminal investigations are now officially reclassified as “political victimisation” – despite significant evidence of wrongdoing presented to courts – police have arrested or questioned opposition politicians on grounds that appear politically motivated. The authorities have also targeted Muslim activists: notably, they have detained a prominent Muslim lawyer, Hejaaz Hizbullah, on terrorism charges without presenting him in court or allowing him private access to his lawyer, thus flouting even the minimal safeguards of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The government policy of mandating cremations for coronavirus victims (…) has angered and frightened Muslims.

The government’s authoritarian tendencies and increasingly bold disregard for the rule of law come at a time when its COVID-19 policies have taken already simmering religious tensions to dangerous heights. The government policy of mandating cremations for coronavirus victims – without medical justification and in the face of appeals by the UN and Muslim leaders inside and outside Sri Lanka to respect Muslim religious practices – has angered and frightened Muslims. Fearful of being hospitalised and forcibly cremated should they die, many are reportedly determined not to report their symptoms in case of illness. With pro-government media giving disproportionate attention to infections in Muslim neighbourhoods, and social media and online news sources full of disinformation blaming Muslims for deliberately spreading the disease, Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority is increasingly feeling under siege.

In parallel, President Rajapaksa has been actively – and successfully – cultivating the Buddhist clergy, resulting in the most senior of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monks in late April publicly endorsing his refusal to reconvene parliament. Moves to establish a military-led task force to “protect” allegedly threatened Buddhist heritage sites in the eastern province – where state support for Sinhala settlers in the 1950s-1970s helped spark the civil war and tensions over land remain high – further indicate the deepening interpenetration of civil, military and Buddhist authorities.

The Partisan Divide over the Constitutional Impasse

On 27 April, the parliamentary opposition called on the president to reconvene the dissolved assembly. Citing the need to “work together for the common good … amid an unprecedented crisis”, it publicly committed to support government policies to fight COVID-19, to pass the needed legislation to regularise curfews and other executive health regulations since March, and to approve new government funding and an increase in the debt ceiling. The president and his top officials rejected the offer, dismissing it as part of a “narrow political agenda” designed to avoid an early election the opposition is almost certain to lose. The main opposition United National Party, already unpopular following its 2015-2019 term in government, split in two following President Rajapaksa’s decisive victory over its candidate in November 2019. 

The president and ruling family are both eager to hold an election while their popularity is high, and before voters feel the worst impact of the looming economic crisis, but they are also determined to rule without parliament in the meantime. Ministers and government supporters buttress their refusal to allow the assembly to reconvene with the populist claim that the president, elected last year by a wide margin, has a stronger democratic mandate than the legislators, who were elected in January 2015.

But what is most striking about the impending crisis is how unnecessary it is. Not only are there clear constitutional provisions for handling the situation, but even from the vantage point of a government’s normal political interests the president’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party is almost guaranteed a large victory whenever the election takes place. With the opposition in disarray, the media overwhelmingly supportive of the government, and the president as popular as ever thanks to the government’s success so far in containing COVID-19 (only ten recorded deaths from just over 1,000 confirmed cases), the Rajapaksa government appears invincible.

In this context, its apparent refusal to accept the modest constraints of parliamentary oversight seems to confirm widespread fears of an executive determined to rule without meaningful checks on its power. Rajapaksa and his entourage have made clear since his election last year that one of their top priorities is to significantly strengthen presidential powers, which they argue were dangerously weakened by the 19th amendment to the constitution, adopted almost unanimously by parliament in April 2015. To amend the constitution, the government will need a two-thirds majority in parliament – hard to achieve due to the proportional nature of Sri Lanka’s voting system. But with the president’s popularity at an all-time high, his party calculates that the sooner the election is held the greater chance it has of reaching the target.

Is There a Judicial Solution to the Crisis?

With the clock ticking toward a constitutional crisis, opposition parties and civil society activists have turned to the Supreme Court. On 18 May, the court began hearing arguments in seven separate “fundamental rights” petitions calling for the parliament’s immediate reconvening and challenging the legality of the administration’s continued spending and borrowing. A number of petitioners argue that once it became clear the pandemic would make it impossible to have an election within the stipulated three months, the president’s original declaration dissolving parliament was automatically rendered null and void. According to this interpretation of the constitution, any election held after 2 June would be illegal unless parliament is first recalled and the constitutional clock reset. Lawyers for the president and his party, on the other hand, are trying to convince the court to dismiss the petitions on procedural grounds, accusing the petitioners of waiting too long to file the case and acting in bad faith, trying to avoid elections they would likely lose.

Assuming that the court decides to make a judgment on the case’s merits, the simplest scenario from a constitutional perspective would be for the judges to determine that, in light of the inability to hold the election within the allotted three months, parliament automatically comes back to life. Constitutional regularity would be restored, and the president would retain the authority to dissolve the assembly as soon as it had approved a short-term budget and done other legal housekeeping. Independence of the judiciary apart, such a verdict would, however, require significant courage from the court given the furious reaction it would likely provoke from the president. In a worst-case scenario, Rajapaksa, who is widely feared and can count on the military’s backing, could simply reject the ruling. That would mark a dangerous break from Sri Lankan political tradition: even through forty years of insurgencies, civil war, emergency rule, grave human rights abuses and numerous abuses of executive power, no government has directly defied the Supreme Court or ruled without parliament.

Also dangerous – but perhaps less likely to spark open political conflict – would be for the court to endorse some version of the “doctrine of necessity” promoted by the president’s supporters and sanction an indefinite period of exclusive executive rule in advance of a general election. Such a ruling would set a precedent in opening up legal space for executive power with no parliamentary oversight. A third, perhaps safer option for the court would be to try to split the difference, accepting on as-yet-unknown bases the legality of the president ruling without parliament, but limiting this arrangement to a specified period. With the elections commission now indicating that the earliest possible date for a vote would be late July, even this “compromise” would create a two-month gap in constitutional rule.

Finally, the slow pace of hearings suggests that the court may choose another route entirely. Despite the urgency, the judges have already spent more than a week on the preliminary step of deciding whether the petitions have strong enough grounds for the court to hear arguments leading to a judgment. It appears increasingly likely that the 2 June deadline will pass without a court ruling, leaving a constitutional breach as a fait accompli the court could have great difficulty repairing.

Any scenario that sees an election held without parliament first having been recalled and government spending and borrowing authority regularised would almost certainly provoke claims of illegitimacy, even if it had the court’s sanction. Critics would be especially vocal if the elections were held at a time when virus-related health restrictions limited the ability to campaign freely. Although immediate violent resistance is unlikely, the longer-term damage from forcing through an election on unconstitutional terms and in unsafe conditions could be considerable. Sri Lanka has suffered its worst periods of political violence precisely when the door to change through elections and non-violent protest has appeared closed – whether for Tamil youth in the 1970s or Sinhalese youth in the 1980s. It is essential to avoid the door closing again.

How External Actors Can Support Sri Lanka’s Parliamentary Traditions

The current political impasse has deep roots that are not easily amenable to outside influence, and the Rajapaksa government is particularly resistant to international advice or pressure. Among other indicators of this resistance, the government announced in February it was withdrawing co-sponsorship of the UN Human Rights Council resolution agreed to in 2015 and rejecting key elements of the UN-backed package of transitional justice measures designed to address the civil war’s legacy, saying they were a betrayal of the nation’s “war heroes”. The government has also rebuffed multiple requests from UN officials and from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and its member states to change its mandatory COVID-19 cremation policy and to better protect Muslims from hate speech and violence.

Firm and cohesive action by Sri Lanka’s international partners might help foster a constitutional way out of the impasse.

Despite these challenges, firm and cohesive action by Sri Lanka’s international development partners might help foster a constitutional way out of the impasse. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the new Rajapaksa government faced a formidable challenge in financing some $4 billion in loans coming due in 2020. The government’s need for international financial support – now even greater given the economic damage expected from the coronavirus shutdown – offers a rare point of leverage to nudge the president and ruling family onto a constitutional path. 

That leverage should be even stronger now that the government has lost its legal authority to borrow additional monies. Indeed, international financial institutions and their member governments may have a fiduciary responsibility not to loan money to a government that has no legal power to borrow. They also have a moral responsibility to use their leverage to help maintain, rather than undermine, political stability and the rule of law. Helping finance extra-constitutional rule in Colombo risks sending all the wrong signals and setting a precedent not only in Sri Lanka but elsewhere, too.

For these reasons, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank should all convey to the government that they are reviewing approval of additional loans until the gap in government authority to borrow and appropriate money is closed. Contributing governments to these institutions should make clear to the Rajapaksa administration that they will not be able to offer, or vote in favour of, further loans so long as parliament has not made this possible through a properly approved budget and an increase in the debt ceiling.  

To prevent any undue economic harm to average Sri Lankans, other forms of development assistance – including urgently needed help to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus – and trade would continue unchanged. The temporary pause in international lending would not be about punishing Sri Lanka, but rather about protecting its own rules, and the integrity of international lending institutions, from being abused.

Worries that taking such action would only make Sri Lanka more dependent on China, and more likely to copy its governance style, are overblown. Sri Lanka’s economy relies too heavily on trade with the European Union and the U.S., and it values its strong military ties with Western governments, Japan and India too much, to move fully into China’s orbit. While Beijing provided a $500 million loan in March and later promised “fullest cooperation to revive Sri Lanka’s economy in the post-COVID-19 period”, Chinese assistance alone will not be enough to rescue Sri Lanka from its current debt woes.

Independent of lending policies, influential foreign actors such as the U.S., the EU, India and Japan, as well as multilateral institutions – notably the UN and the Commonwealth, for whom parliamentary and constitutional rule are core values – should press the government to recall parliament, pass the required laws and ensure to the extent possible that the election is held in a safe environment. By doing so, Sri Lanka’s international partners would be helping the country avoid an unnecessary and damaging power grab and political crisis – one that could also threaten its ability to manage the unavoidable health and economic crises it will be facing for months to come.