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Friday, January 15, 2021
Fionna Smyth is Oxfam’s Head of Humanitarian Campaigns and Advocacy, based in Nairobi
NAIROBI, Kenya, Jul 7 2020 (IPS) - More than three months after UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres made an urgent appeal for a global ceasefire in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Security Council has finally passed a resolution supporting his call.
As Oxfam stated in its report Conflict in the Time of Coronavirus, the virus is exposing and exacerbating existing issues in conflict-affected and fragile countries, further complicating efforts to help those in need. In Yemen, airstrikes have destroyed hospitals and other infrastructure, with now barely half of health centers fully functional and only a small number equipped to treat COVID-19 cases.
Displaced Rohingya people who have risked everything to flee conflict and persecution in their home country have been blocked from ports due to fear of the virus spreading.
In Colombia, one of the countries which initially endorsed the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, armed groups have ignored the risks of the pandemic and used the heightened insecurity to target human rights defenders, many of whom are indigenous and Afro-Colombian women.
While the resolution is welcomed, it is long overdue and highlights a remarkable situation where some non-state armed groups – like the Southern Cameroons Defense Forces, an armed wing of the African People’s Liberation Movement – responded to the UNSG’s call for peace before the UN Security Council did.
The resolution also falls far short of what civil society and the humanitarian community had called for. For one, the resolution only reinforces the global ceasefire call in “situations on the UN Security Council’s agenda,” leaving out many States.
In addition, it exempts “counter-terrorism efforts”. This is a notoriously vague term which can be used by some countries to quelle legitimate dissent and close civil society space. Too often civilians are caught in the crossfire and it is fueling humanitarian crises where COVID-19 cases are on the rise.
Finally, the process was so delayed that many fear the impact will be minimal. The difficulties in reaching consensus revealed the deficiencies of the Council, and calls into question how seriously the Council will take implementation.
It took 100 days and numerous initiatives from Member States, religious leaders, as well as international and national organizations for UN Security Council members to overcome their geopolitical tantrums.
Despite these shortcomings, the resolution offers a key to not only responding to the virus, but also addressing ongoing conflict: civil society’s meaningful participation. This recognition of the need for civil society in efforts to curb the pandemic’s impact reinforces Oxfam’s experience of responding to disease outbreaks and our work across the world where we have found that the public health response is only effective if communities are actively involved.
From our experience with the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo, we know that building and maintaining people’s trust – in themselves, their families, their communities and public health systems – is vital for reducing the spread of disease.
Women and young people’s meaningful participation are particularly important, as acknowledged in the resolution. We have found that when given prompt funding and a platform, women’s rights organizations and youth networks are key to maintaining the links with communities that are needed more than ever in these times of isolation.
They are also better placed to address gender-based violence and domestic violence which have been acknowledged as a “second pandemic” across the globe.
In Honduras, the Oxfam-supported Women’s Voice and Leadership project provides emotional and legal care to women survivors of violence, uses digital technologies for campaigns, and carries out social audits to monitor the inclusion of women in the government’s coronavirus response.
In West Africa – where 76% of West Africans are under 25, making it the youngest population in the world – young people are raising awareness of coronavirus, distributing hygiene supplies, and holding their governments accountable for spending public financial resources.
The impact of meaningful participation of civil society – and especially of women and young people – also extends to the design and implementation of national ceasefires and the 90-day “humanitarian pause” recommended in the Council’s resolution.
While their inclusion was not explicitly called for in the resolution, ceasefires or “pauses” will remain of little value for people trapped in conflict zones if they are just elite bargains negotiated between those who are otherwise spoilers of peace.
To truly impact people’s lives, ceasefires must be from the ground up, born of inclusive negotiations that involve local peacebuilders and the people most affected by the conflict – especially women and young women who are disproportionately impacted.
In numerous conflict-affected contexts, civil society has already been hard at work to secure local ceasefires despite the Council’s delay. In Yemen, 59 national civil society organizations called on all conflict parties to halt fighting, release detainees, and restart peace negotiations.
Women’s groups like Peace Track Initiative have taken these efforts a step further, holding consultations with Yemeni women in-country and in the diaspora to better understand what an effective ceasefire would look like.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 139 national civil society organizations signed onto a letter pressing for a national ceasefire. The group presented their call to Congolese armed groups as well as the UN Special Envoy to the Great Lakes.
As we work to build back better and address the root causes of conflict, civil society – and especially those most marginalized – must be recognized as the critical leaders they are.
While supporting peace is essential both to enable us to face the Coronavirus crisis now, and as a long-term investment to save lives and create a more stable future for all, the “how” is equally critical.
We cannot afford to wait another three months for the implementation of ceasefires and “humanitarian pauses” to happen, nor to address conflict and pandemics in the same ways as before.
Now is the time for governments to invest in women and young people’s meaningful participation in sustainable and inclusive peace processes, and in the design and implementation of COVID-19 responses.
We must do more than survive this pandemic – we can and must do better. This crisis has shown us that we are able to radically shift our systems to protect ourselves and each other – centering these voices must be a priority if we wish to come out of this global crisis with a more inclusive, healthy and peaceful world.
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