United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres last month urged conflict parties across the world to establish “an immediate global ceasefire” and “focus together on the true fight of our lives” against the spread of the coronavirus. This unprecedented call has received support from many States, including some of the permanent members of the Security Council. To date, temporary or partial ceasefires, as well as humanitarian agreements and declarations, have been adopted in at least 14 conflict situations (see here and here) in response to the pandemic.

A common feature of these is that the majority are unilateral ceasefires or humanitarian declarations, rather than negotiated arrangements between warring parties. Although reduction of violence and humanitarian cooperation in any form and nature are welcome developments, ensuring that ceasefire and humanitarian agreements are effective in the context of COVID-19 requires cooperation between parties, particularly on measures to curb the spread of the virus and secure the delivery of health services.

The historical record shows that transforming unilateral declarations into effective and durable ceasefire and humanitarian agreements is possible, and today’s “corona ceasefires” may offer an opening for negotiated agreements between warring parties in certain instances.

From Unilateral Declarations to Negotiated Agreements

During a global health emergency, a unilateral ceasefire may be the best possible outcome and certainly the required immediate response, and calling for negotiated agreements may seem over-optimistic. However, such unilateral responses, along with other actions, such as letters of commitment and humanitarian access agreements, may act as confidence-building measures toward negotiated ceasefires and even lasting peace agreements in certain situations. A commonly highlighted example in this respect is how a humanitarian ceasefire between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement, adopted in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, paved the way for a final peace agreement the following year.

Local peacebuilders, humanitarian actors, and conflict-resolution organizations are taking steps to engage with governments and non-state armed groups to, among other things, facilitate negotiated agreements at local and national levels. In Cameroon, in addition to declaring a unilateral ceasefire, the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (SOCADEF) expressed their willingness “to meet with representatives designated by the Republic of Cameroon to work out the appropriate implementation of the ceasefire.” The private Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre), which has acted as a facilitator between the Republic of Cameroon and the pro-independence groups of southern Cameroon to end the conflict in the north-western and south-western regions of Cameroon since before the pandemic, has also been engaged in efforts to expand the reach of the unilateral ceasefire.

The HD Centre also has facilitated an inter-community agreement in Nigeria that aims to halt clashes between farmers and herders in 10 Benue State communities to allow for collective action against the pandemic and a resolution of the conflict. A recent consultation with 450 local peacebuilders in more than 60 countries by the organizations Peace Direct, Conducive Space for Peace, and Humanity United indicates local peacebuilders have shown agility and responsiveness through ceasefire campaigns, local mutual aid, and community-building initiatives, despite shrinking opportunities and funds for peacebuilding activities.

Many other conflict resolution and peacebuilding organizations, such as the United States Institute of Peace and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, are supporting a “humanitarian pause” in conflicts that can open opportunities for further negotiations. In Yemen, the Crisis Management Initiative, founded by Nobel Peace laureate and former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari, who negotiated the Indonesia-Free Aceh agreement, has engaged with political parties and movements and tribal leaders to advocate for a general ceasefire and the political conflict resolution process to be restarted. Although fighting has continued in Yemen despite the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire by the Saudi-led coalition, the extension of an initial two-week ceasefire for another month on April 24 offers a glimmer of hope for diplomatic efforts toward a nationwide negotiated ceasefire.

Although efforts to develop negotiated agreements may not be fruitful in some contexts and working on the basis of unilateral humanitarian commitments may be the only way forward, other situations, such as that in Cameroon, may be more conducive, given the willingness of some conflict parties to engage in further negotiations. In Colombia and the Philippines, for example, unilateral ceasefires declared by the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) respectively, can be viewed strategically as creating possible avenues toward negotiated agreements. These two ceasefires were declared against backdrops of stalled peace negotiations, and the one-sided declarations nevertheless build on experiences in both countries of recent successful transitions out of other internal conflicts.

Adopting negotiated ceasefire or humanitarian agreements is particularly important in the context of conflicts where non-state armed groups exercise control over territory and deliver public services. Such groups may not have the capacity to deliver adequate health services, and the health infrastructure in conflict-ridden regions usually has been weakened to varying degrees. Furthermore, fragmented authority in such contexts, as well as in contested territories under the control of de facto regimes, complicates the delivery of health services and makes it subject to manipulation by the warring parties as part of conflict dynamics.

Negotiated ceasefire and humanitarian agreements in such contexts may therefore lead to greater cooperation and coordination than unilateral ceasefires in delivering health services and in promoting and applying precautionary measures. Even if such efforts do not yield negotiated outcomes in the short-term, the diplomatic back channels established may nonetheless help to avoid further escalation of conflicts and lead to a greater understanding of local needs and dynamics.

Crafting Effective Negotiated Ceasefires

“Corona ceasefires” that have been declared during the pandemic to date lack detailed provisions on humanitarian access, cooperation with the government, or health provisions. A relatively more advanced (partial) ceasefire is the “Statement of Solidarity of the Mouvement des Forces Démocratiques de la Casamance (MFDC) amidst the COVID-19 pandemic” in Senegal, whereby the MFDC commits to a reduction of hostilities, respect for international humanitarian law, cooperation with health authorities, and taking and promoting preventive measures. However, the statement lacks clarity on how health cooperation will be implemented, which preventive measures will be taken, or what “reduction of hostilities” entails, particularly as to which types of combat action are suspended and the kinds of exceptions envisaged. Such detailed and reciprocal arrangements are essential for effective responses to the pandemic and to build durable ceasefires. If the momentum generated by these unilateral declarations can be seized, such arrangements can be embedded in negotiated ceasefire agreements.

Although there is no precedent for a ceasefire adopted in response to a pandemic of the scale and impact of this coronavirus, past ceasefire agreements provide examples of cooperation between warring parties amid epidemics and contagious diseases. For instance, Article VIII(2) of the 1996 Agreement Between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas provides that:

The two sides shall provide each other, at the earliest possible, with information pertaining to natural disasters and epidemic diseases in contiguous border areas which might affect the other side. The exchange of information shall take place either through diplomatic channels or at border personnel meetings.

Another example is Article 17(6) of Annex III Concerning Civil Affairs of the 1995 Israeli­-Palestinian Interim Agreement on The West Bank and the Gaza Strip:

Israel and the Palestinian side shall exchange information regarding epidemics and contagious diseases, shall cooperate in combating them and shall develop methods for exchange of medical files and documents.

Finally, Article 11(1.4) of the 1996 Agreement between Russian Federation, Republic of Kazakstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Republic of Tajikistan and People’s Republic of China on Confidence Building in the Military Field in the Border Area requires:

Timely notification and provision of mutual assistance in cases of natural disasters, epidemics, epizootic diseases and so forth which may cause damage to the other Party[.]

From a legal perspective, establishing negotiated ceasefires and taking cooperative measures would allow warring parties to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law regarding medical care (e.g. Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, Articles 7-8 of Additional Protocol II, and Article 56 of the Fourth 1949 Geneva Convention) (see also Heffes and Kotlik, 2020; Longobardo, 2020). Furthermore, such steps would facilitate the fulfillment of states’ due diligence obligations under international human rights law. The residual positive obligations of states under the European Convention of Human Rights in territories under the control of de facto regimes, such as Transdniestria or Eastern Ukraine, also need to be taken into consideration (see the Ilaşcu and others v. Moldova and Russia Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights). The joint humanitarian measures agreed between the Moldovan government and the self-proclaimed government of Transdniestria in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are notable in this respect (reported here).

In addition to improved health cooperation and pandemic coping measures, well-designed and better-implemented ceasefires may build trust between warring parties and open up durable channels of dialogue. Experts suggest that well-crafted ceasefires with clear and comprehensive confidence-building, implementation, and verification arrangements are more effective (Chounet-Cambarm, 2016; Clayton et al., 2019; Sagård, 2019).

Ceasefire agreements commonly include provisions relating to various key issues such as: setting out prohibited acts, establishing any exceptions to the cessation of hostilities, de-escalation and confidence-building measures such as separation of forces or detainee exchanges, DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration) arrangements, implementation, monitoring and enforcement processes and mechanisms, and humanitarian aid and access in conflict zones. In this respect, it is crucial to ensure that any negotiated agreement incorporates a clear implementation and verification structure beyond pandemic-related arrangements in order to create pathways toward more durable de-escalation processes.

It goes without saying that ceasefires are often seen by warring parties as tactical or strategic tools to consolidate power and further their conflict agendas. Although interest-based negotiations are not categorically ruled out by the humanitarian or peacebuilding communities and may serve as opportunities to initiate dialogue, the failures and shortcomings of past ceasefires (see e.g. Syria (here and here), and Afghanistan (here)) should be taken into account by warring parties and local, national and international facilitators as part of any attempt to craft negotiated agreements in response to the pandemic.

The Role of the Security Council in the Way Ahead

The initial optimism generated by the unilateral ceasefire declarations from around the globe is gradually fading as the pandemic turns into a “human rights crisis.” The continuation of hostilities in Libya and Yemen despite ceasefire initiatives is worrying.

Furthermore, some peacemaking efforts are being sidelined due to the pandemic. In Ukraine, debates on the creation of an advisory board, which would comprise representatives of Ukraine and the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, in an effort to break the impasse in the Minsk process, have been on hold in part due to the pandemic (in addition to pre-existing concerns in Ukraine about legitimizing separatist authorities through direct engagement with their representatives). Many other important peacemaking dialogues have been cancelled or postponed.

Waning local and global momentum can nevertheless be revived and reinforced by the Security Council. Although reports on the reservations of Russia and the United States suggest that a Security Council resolution calling for a universal and general ceasefire is unlikely to be adopted, even a more limited call for the cessation of hostilities could be helpful. Beyond the immediate concerns relating to public health in conflict zones, the looming consequences of the pandemic on various aspects of life in conflict-affected societies, ranging from food insecurity to the decay of democratic and civic rights, point to the urgency of action by the Security Council to apply conflict-sensitive and sustainable approaches to the pandemic, for humanitarian needs and for peacemaking.

Image: A fighter with Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council (STC) mans a checkpoint in the southern Yemeni city of Aden on April 30, 2020, during the novel coronavirus pandemic crisis. Yemen had recorded its first two coronavirus deaths, the health minister said the previous night, after the war-torn country confirmed five new cases, stoking fears of a major outbreak. The deaths come after aid organisations warned any coronavirus outbreak could have dire consequences after six years of civil war. (Photo by SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP via Getty Images)