Despite the broad political support and hopes for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ global ceasefire initiative, the COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by the continuation of political violence across conflict-affected countries. While there are several conflict parties that initially followed up on the ceasefire call—such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Colombia or separatist militants in Cameroon—the last seven months have demonstrated the difficulty in getting (other) armed actors on the ground to follow these often unilateral ceasefire announcements.
Overall, even in contexts where armed parties have voiced support to the initiative, the rhetoric has not translated to reductions in violence. Moreover, in countries that have experienced declining armed violence, such as Afghanistan and Syria, conflict de-escalation often preceded the pandemic and derived from political processes unrelated to it. In other contexts, such as in Yemen, South Sudan, or the Sahel region, armed violence has continued and, in the case of some countries and armed actors, even intensified. What happened to the pandemic being a catalyst for peaceful processes?
As I discuss in a recent publication, in order to make sense of the implications of the pandemic for conflict dynamics, it is useful to separate the health crisis itself from the policy measures taken in the face of it, as well as the economic consequences that follow from the first two. While it is technically possible that the spread of the virus itself would more directly influence conflict dynamics—for example by weakening the leadership of a conflict party—the effects of the pandemic on conflict dynamics mainly derive from the policy measures taken in response, and the economic and social consequences that follow these measures. Unfortunately, the policy measures have given opportunities to state and non-state actors alike to tighten their control and to undermine their opponents, while also hindering possibilities for effective peacebuilding. At the same time, and increasingly so, the economic and sociopolitical consequences of pandemic measures risk feeding into existing global trends in conflict-inducing ways. Jointly, these aspects make the pandemic’s effects on initiating or continuing peaceful processes difficult for a few reasons.
First, the global scale and the slow evolution of the pandemic clearly separates the current crisis from some other natural disasters that have disturbed conflict contexts in the past. The nature of the pandemic also makes it very difficult to be seized as an opportunity for peace. As global attention remains caught up in fighting the pandemic and the policy measures restricting the movement of people continue, both local and international peace efforts suffer.
In particular, the footprint of international peacekeeping efforts on the ground has diminished. The economic crisis that follows the pandemic threatens to further aggravate this. As Cedric de Coning notes, UN peacekeeping funds faced budget cuts of approximately 20 percent during the 2008 financial crisis. The pandemic threatens to lead to an even darker economic downfall. Seizing opportunities for peace takes time, will, and money; all of which appear short right now.
Second, policy responses to the pandemic give opportunities to state and non-state actors alike to tighten or advance their power and undermine their opponents while leaving civilians more exposed and vulnerable to violence. Especially in the first months of the pandemic, several armed groups seem to have tried to weaponize the global shock to their own advantage. As states were pressured to reallocate resources, including military resources, to enforce policy measures, local armed groups and also actors such as the Islamic State (ISIS) increased their violent activities. ISIS explicitly called for its supporters to spread the virus and step up attacks, and violence affiliated with the organization increased in places like Iraq and Mozambique. Similarly, in conflict contexts such as Yemen and Libya, competing political powers and local armed groups appear to have used the pandemic measures to tighten their territorial control and power, hinder the movement of others (including humanitarian aid), and undermine the legitimacy of their opponents.
The pandemic also gives opportunities for various state actors to tighten their grip over power and undermine political opposition. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset, state oppression has increased globally approximately 30 percent during the pandemic and in some regions, such as the Sahel, armed violence against civilians by state actors is witnessing a worrying increase. In Nigeria, where the last couple of weeks have witnessed mass protests against police violence, the pandemic responses have been associated with increased violence against civilians by both militants and state forces.
In multiple relatively peaceful countries as well, state actors have taken concerning steps that undermine human rights and threaten democratic institutions, using COVID-19 responses as a pretext. These steps include applying emergency laws and other strict measures to curtail dissent and crackdown opposition, using excessive force and unjustified arrests in enforcing COVID-19 measures, and using fear and disinformation campaigns to harass and detain journalists, bloggers, and activists. Notably, these developments have to be seen in the light of a longer global trend, i.e., democratic decline. The pandemic is not causing autocratization anywhere, yet it risks accelerating the trend in places where it was already occurring.
Third, the pandemic risks strengthening key political grievances that induce conflict. After initially plummeting during the spring, civil resistance across the globe has reemerged, as people voice concerns and grievances related to the socio-economic effects of lockdown measures. What is particularly concerning is that these grievances feed into two existing megatrends in conflict-inducing ways. First, the negative consequences of the pandemic and the responses to it threaten to deepen inequalities by hitting hardest those groups and people that are already marginalized within their societies. This can threaten civil peace by widening the gap between the elites and the masses and between different societal groups. Second, these grievances are also taken advantage of by disinformation and conspiracy theory campaigns being spread across the world in real time in the digital realm. Digitalization, while a hugely positive force in our societies, can allow malicious actors to use the pandemic as a tool to polarize and increase distrust in societies.
While the pandemic (and particularly the responses to it) exacerbates opportunities and grievances that can contribute to conflict, the escalatory effects remain preventable by swift action. There is nothing inherently conflict-inducing in the pandemic itself. Rather, its effects on peace and conflict depend on how different political forces are willing and capable of responding to the opportunities and challenges that efforts to manage the health crisis invokes. There are several measures that the international community can take to prevent further escalatory dynamics and support peaceful processes.
Given the worrying trend and exposure in violence against civilians, it is important to prioritize the protection of civilians in fragile and conflict-affected regions as the pandemic evolves. Supporting local peacebuilding actors and insider mediators, and incentivizing policies that restrict violent behavior are at the core of this. Furthermore, it remains crucial to continue providing third-party support to design and agree upon ceasefire frameworks between conflict parties. Here, clearly defined frameworks with humanitarian agendas and third-party monitoring mechanisms are important.
Finally, it is urgent that, despite the immediate crises, multilateral efforts are defended to ensure investment in upstream conflict prevention that addresses underlying vulnerabilities, particularly inequality and youth unemployment, as well as corruption and dysfunctional governance. Adopting a long-term perspective, tackling the root causes of grievances, and investing in the existing local capacities to recover from crises is not important solely from the perspective of the pandemic, but also in the face of other global threats (e.g., climate change) to peace and security.
Katariina Mustasilta is a Senior Associate Analyst dealing with conflict research at the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS).