The Slatest

The U.N. Called for a Global Cease-Fire to Stop the Coronavirus. How’s That Going?

A soldier in a mask manning a large machine gun.
A Houthi rebel mans a machine gun turret in the back of a pickup truck during a patrol in the Yemen capital Sanaa on March 23. Mohammed Huwais/Getty Images

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Could a side effect of the coronavirus be a more peaceful world, even just temporarily? It seems like a long shot, but there’s a glimmer of hope for an unprecedented proposal for a global cease-fire. A cease-fire would allow for humanitarian aid and cooperation to fight the virus, which is now affecting at least nearly every country on Earth.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres issued a call (later backed by Pope Francis) on March 23 for an “immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world.” The members of the Security Council are currently debating the language of a resolution endorsing the call. French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been lobbying for the resolution, says four of the five permanent members of the council have expressed support for the resolution and is hopeful that Russian President Vladimir Putin, the last holdout, can be brought around. (Efforts to reach consensus on nearly anything related to the virus within the council have so far been stymied by the U.S.-China blame game.) The resolution might seem like a pipe dream, and even if it’s passed, it’s not a sure thing that we’ll suddenly achieve world peace. A brief look at global headlines in just the past two days—Russia buzzing U.S. aircraft in the Mediterranean, North Korea firing short-range missiles, rising tensions in the Persian Gulf—make that clear. But there’s still reason to take the cease-fire idea seriously.

Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that studies armed conflict, told Slate that he and his colleagues were initially “quite cynical” about Guterres’ cease-fire proposal, but that “it did seem to resonate with a wider range of armed groups than we expected.” Rebel groups in the Philippines, Thailand, Cameroon, and Colombia have all announced unilateral cease-fires as a result of the coronavirus. In some cases, notably Sudan, the cease-fire call was endorsed by parties already involved in peace talks. In Ukraine, both the government and the Russian-backed rebels fighting in the country’s east have endorsed the call, but violence has continued.

Gowan stresses that “None of the armed groups we’re talking about have somehow discovered morality and become angelic.” They’re using cease-fires opportunistically to buy time, regroup after battlefield setbacks, or buy some good publicity. But it can still be a “useful tool for U.N. envoys to nudge some conflict parties toward peace or at least humanitarian pauses,” he said.

The most significant entity to announce a cease-fire so far was the Saudi-led (and U.S-backed) coalition in Yemen, which has been fighting a brutal war against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels for more than five years. With its devastated health system, poor sanitation, and lack of central authority, Yemen—which confirmed its first coronavirus case last Friday—is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to the disease. Saudi Arabia, which may be looking for a way to extricate itself from the costly conflict and has taken an economic hit from falling global oil prices, announced a two-week cease-fire on April 8, but the Houthis, who have made some recent battlefield gains, have not agreed to it, and fighting has continued on both sides. But Gowan hopes that the cease-fire call could give new momentum and urgency to ongoing U.N.-led peace talks. It’s not unusual for armed groups in Yemen and other similar conflicts to ramp up attacks ahead of cease-fires to increase their leverage.

Another reason for skepticism about the cease-fire is that it seems almost impossible that the world’s major military powers will abide by it. There are some signs that the U.S. is using the pandemic as a pretext to draw down a bit from its “forever wars,” but it is still conducting airstrikes against Iranian backed militias in Iraq and launching raids against ISIS in Syria in cooperation with Kurdish forces. “The Coalition continues to support … anti-ISIS operations by sharing intelligence and providing eyes-in-the-sky, while we all face the challenge of preventing the spread of COVID-19,” a U.S. spokesman told Stars and Stripes about one recent raid.

The U.S. will almost certainly insist on a carve-out for counterterrorist activities in any cease-fire call. This kind of carve-out has bedeviled past efforts to reach a cease-fire in Syria, given that Russia defines all opponents of the Assad regime as terrorists and justifies its airstrikes accordingly. Even France, the country most actively pushing for the cease-fire declaration, is probably not going to halt its ongoing operations targeting Islamist militants in West Africa.

“Everyone is going to have their special case of someone you can kill,” notes Gowan, who adds that there’s a risk it could be seen as “Western countries telling poorer countries to pause their conflicts while Western countries continue to run the military operations they want to run.”

There’s also likely to be disagreement over the question of sanctions, which many argue are a form of aggression and which countries like Iran and Venezuela are calling to be lifted in order to help combat COVID-19. Russia, under its own sanctions pressure, is likely to be amenable to that idea. The United States and its allies definitely won’t be.

It’s too early to tell what effect the virus will ultimately have on armed conflict. There is some precedent for natural disasters bringing an end to armed conflict. One frequently cited example is the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which led to a peace deal between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels in the battered province of Aceh, ending a conflict that had killed more than 12,000 people.

But this was one isolated case—and the tsunami had the opposite effect elsewhere. The global nature of this disaster and the response to it seems more akin to Ronald Reagan’s famous musing in a speech to the United Nations that the only thing that could unify humanity would be “an alien threat from outside this world.”

This threat came from this world, but it would be nice to think it could still serve as a good reason for humans to at least take a timeout from killing each other.