COVID-19: Worst is yet to come in conflict zones, UN chief warns

Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), Antonio Guterres attends a press conference on the International Libya Conference in Berlin, Germany, 19 January 2020. [EPA-EFE/OMER MESSINGER]

In countries stricken by conflict, where health systems have already collapsed, “the worst is yet to come” as the coronavirus continues to spread, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Friday (3 April), reiterating his call for a global ceasefire to help contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, Guterres called for a global truce in the world’s conflict zones, asking warring parties worldwide to lay down arms in order to protect vulnerable civilians from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

“In some conflicts, fighting has not stopped, it has gotten worse,” Guterres told reporters as he repeated his call.

The United Nations has been trying to mediate an end to conflicts in countries including Syria, Yemen and Libya, while also providing humanitarian assistance to millions of civilians.

Guterres specifically warned that in war-torn countries health systems have collapsed and the small number of remaining health professionals were often targeted in the fighting.

Syria has reported its first case of the COVID-19 virus, while more cases have emerged in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan.

As the UN chief presented an update report, he said his call has so far been endorsed by a growing number of member states, some 70 so far, regional partners, non-state actors, civil society organisations and religious leaders.

According to him, “a substantial number of parties to conflicts” have expressed their agreement to a cessation of hostilities, notably in “Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Burma, the Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen”.

But while the “global ceasefire appeal is resonating across the world” and a substantial number of parties to conflict have expressed their acceptance for the call, Guterres warned that “there is a huge distance between declarations and deeds”.

In his ceasefire update, the UN chief specifically flagged four conflicts – Syria, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan – where there is a struggle to make the intense diplomatic push successful.

In Yemen, despite expressed support for a ceasefire by the government, Ansar Allah and many other parties, the conflict has spiked, while in Syria, the Idlib ceasefire negotiated by Turkey and the Russian Federation is holding.

In Libya, the parties initially responded positively to calls for a humanitarian pause to tackle COVID-19, but the truce has not been holding and fighting has flared up in recent days.

“Clashes have escalated drastically on all frontlines obstructing efforts to effectively respond to COVID-19. I urge both parties — and all others directly and indirectly involved in the conflict — to join forces to address the COVID-19 threat, ensure unhindered access to humanitarian aid and realise the ceasefire they have been discussing under the auspices of the United Nations,” Guterres urged.

The EU announced this week it will launch its new maritime surveillance mission in the eastern Mediterranean, dubbed ‘Operation Irini’, to enforce a potential ceasefire in Libya and a UN arms embargo against the country’s warring parties.

However, it still needs to be determined which member states will contribute to the operation. Despite negotiations meant to be concluded this week, this process has not brought concrete commitments and has raised questions about when the mission will be ready to deploy, EU officials told EURACTIV.

Meanwhile, the government in Ukraine also called for a ceasefire the day after Guterres launched his call.

But tensions in Eastern Ukraine have not subsided and violations of the ceasefire continue, while OSCE monitors have in recent weeks been repeatedly restricted in their ability to move freely in the region after the coronavirus emerged in the country.

Russia joined the UN appeal last month but has done little to use its influence to calm the conflicts in both Syria and Libya.

“We need to do everything possible to find the peace and unity our world so desperately needs to battle COVID-19,” Guterres concluded, adding that “the worst is yet to come”.

EU reiterates support for ceasefire

The EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told reporters on Friday (3 April) that “in some countries which are under big trouble and heavy fighting, like Syria, Libya or Yemen, devastating effects of the coronavirus can be multiplied by two threats at the same time.”

Asked about the EU’s possibly scant focus on other foreign policy issues across the globe, Borrell said that while the fight against the pandemic has shifted the attention of the bloc, it does not mean the EU has been forgetting the unresolved conflicts in its immediate neighbourhood, some of which “are actually worsening”.

“That’s why we fully support the UN Secretary-General’s efforts to coordinate a worldwide response to the pandemic. We also support his appeal for an immediate global ceasefire.”

Borrell said the EU is closely following the developments in Syria and he has personally been in touch with Iranian authorities. He said the pandemic “has created a certain de facto truce in many places, with the exception of Libya”.

“We have also discussed that sanctions should not impede the delivery of essential equipment and supplies necessary to fight the coronavirus,” Borrell told reporters.

“We also have been working on a communication that would bring support both to the UN Secretary-General and the UN Special Envoy for Human Rights to soften global sanctions for humanitarian reasons,” he said, adding that coordination on the communique, which needs unanimity, is under way and will be discussed further with EU development ministers on 8 April.

Earlier this week, the EU-Iran trading mechanism INSTEX, designed to allow Europeans to bypass US sanctions and continue trade with Tehran, has successfully concluded its first transaction to facilitate the export of medical goods from Europe to the pandemic-hit country.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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