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The U.N. has appealed for a global coronavirus cease-fire

But is it possible to quarantine conflict?

Volunteers from the Violet Organization, a local nongovernmental organization, wear personal protective equipment during a disinfection operation in Idlib, Syria, on Thursday. (Yahya Nemah/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres made an unprecedented appeal on March 23 for “an immediate global cease-fire” to facilitate humanitarian access to the populations most vulnerable to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. This was the first global cease-fire request in the 75-year history of the United Nations.

The response has been swift and wide-reaching — conflict parties across 12 countries have already declared some form of cease-fire. Some 70 countries have backed the appeal, along with prominent figures like the Pope, and nearly 200 organizations.

Across the globe, this simultaneous series of commitments to suspend hostilities for a common purpose is altogether new. From Colombia to Sudan, the Philippines and Yemen, coronavirus cease-fires promise a break in hostilities to allow all parties to focus their efforts on the battle against the virus, as well as providing humanitarian assistance to those suffering from the coronavirus in areas of conflict.

Yet the motivations underlying these arrangements vary. In some cases, the commitments to suspend fighting serve practical purposes beyond tackling the global spread of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Here are the big questions: Can these types of cease-fires be effective? And could they help resolve previously intractable conflicts?

Cease-fires related to diseases have happened before

The coronavirus cease-fires aren’t the first arrangements aimed at tackling the spread of infectious diseases.

The new ETH/PRIO Ceasefire data set includes more than 20 cease-fires relating to infectious disease since 1989, mostly dealing with polio vaccination programs. This list includes cease-fires in conflict-affected areas in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Sudan and Syria. In most cases the cease-fires appear to have been relatively effective at achieving the medical objective, often resulting in the vaccination of millions of children.

Of course, there are clearly important differences between the coronavirus threat and the danger of contracting polio. Covid-19 appears far more contagious than other viruses, though our understanding of it is incomplete — and restrictions on travel make it hard for international organizations to respond.

But here’s what we know from these prior cease-fires. A USIP study details the efforts that worked owe their success to the neutrality of the international organizations involved, clearly drawn distinctions between the vaccination program and the wider conflict, and conflict parties not manipulating the arrangements for other purposes.

When vaccination programs were manipulated for other strategic goals, they lost legitimacy. Here’s an example, from 2011. When people in Pakistan learned the CIA had funded a fake hepatitis B vaccination campaign to trace al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, this hampered future attempts to tackle polio.

Fighting infectious disease can be particularly difficult in conflict zones. The 2019 Ebola outbreak, for instance, shows the effect on public-health efforts when conflict parties fail to reach cease-fire arrangements. The conflict parties in the Democratic Republic of Congo deliberately targeted humanitarian groups and the U.N., undermining the attempts to contain Ebola — and the result was increased spread of the disease and further suffering for the civilian population.

Not all cease-fires are created equal

In formal terms, cease-fires are arrangements in which one or more belligerents commit to stopping violent hostilities. But beyond this broad similarity, cease-fires vary greatly. They can range from very loose, informal and unilateral arrangements to formal, multilateral agreements.

Cease-fires serve a wide range of functions that may or may not be connected to a broader peace process. While some arrangements emerge from negotiations and are a vital step toward peace, others instead serve isolated functions altogether, such as the celebration of a religious holiday, or allowing humanitarian access.

Thus far, there are striking similarities among the covid-19 cease-fires. Almost all are unilateral, include no provisions detailing how local or international groups might monitor the agreement, and seem to lack any clear detail on prohibited actions, managing violations or a link to the broader peace process.

This is not surprising, as more detailed cease-fires require negotiation between the parties and a broader road map for the subsequent peace process. Instead, these temporary arrangements allow conflict parties to quarantine their conflict without dealing with the messy political issues.

Given the immediacy of the current pandemic, it’s understandable — and probably necessary — that the initial coronavirus cease-fires are relatively basic. But such limited unilateral arrangements are always at the mercy of the conflicting parties. Each side can interpret the arrangement as it sees fit, and withdraw at any point without sanction.

Will the coronavirus cease-fires last?

If these new cease-fires are to hold throughout this challenging period, political science research suggests that the arrangements will need to be developed.

Detailed, comprehensive cease-fires tend to last longer. But upgrading a unilateral agreement to a more detailed reciprocal bilateral or multilateral agreement requires building confidence. The parties involved in violent conflict often have little or no trust in each other. This means they are often unwilling to even talk, let alone engage in serious negotiations.

If the parties can build communication and trust through their interactions over how to address the coronavirus threat, this might serve the dual purpose of helping to manage the immediate crisis, while also building confidence in the process — perhaps increasing the likelihood of meaningful negotiations and more comprehensive cease-fires in the future.

However, there’s always a risk. If these cease-fires break down, or worse, are manipulated by one party, the prospects for peace might worsen. Similarly, attempts to strengthen agreements, or build confidence too quickly, risk politicizing the humanitarian arrangements — which could then undermine the immediate humanitarian effort.

International peacemakers have a network of representatives in conflict-affected states, and the U.N.’s standby team of mediators has expertise in building on and developing cease-fires. In principle, the international community is well equipped to support the delicate process of strengthening the coronavirus cease-fires, even if for now their task is complicated by the need to work remotely.

The secretary general’s call, many analysts feel, has created some useful momentum. Over the coming weeks and months, it will become clearer whether any of these new cease-fires can achieve their specific humanitarian goal, and perhaps even provide a tentative step toward peace.

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Govinda Clayton (@GovClayton) is a senior researcher in peace processes in the Centre for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, and executive director of the Conflict Research Society.

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