The impact of COVID-19 on peace and security in the field

The pandemic has already changed the way the UN works to ensure international peace and security. This will force the UN system, and more so its Member States, to rethink how to prioritize the organization’s work.

In the field, the pandemic has put a lot of pressure, deteriorating the conditions of the population in armed conflict, complicating humanitarian access as well as the situation of women, girls, youth, the elder, persons with disabilities, and Indigenous Peoples.

With the resolution 2532, the Council recognized that conditions of violence and instability in conflict situations can exacerbate the pandemic, and that, inversely, the pandemic can exacerbate the adverse humanitarian impact of conflict situation. The Council went further and considered that the pandemic is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security33.

During a landmark debate of the Security Council on the impact of the pandemic on international security, in July 2020, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres confirmed that the COVID-19 had profound effects on peace and security across the globe with consequences even in traditionally “stable” countries3'1 in addition to those already in conflict or emerging from it. The Secretary-General clearly alerted that collective security and shared well-being were under assault on many fronts “led by a relentless disease and abetted by global fragilities.”35

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates vulnerabilities and violence. During the Security Council debate on pandemic and security, Peter Maurer President of the ICRC stated that pandemics undoubtedly change humanitarian work. The ICRC is well aware of the growing complexities, in particular in the context of near 100 armed conflicts involving 60 States in the World and more than 100 non-state armed groups as parties to those conflicts, which represents a rise in the total number of classified conflicts over recent decades.36

Unfortunately, women and girls suffer the most: starting with the increase of domestic violence due to the lock down and quarantine, and the disruption of justice services. In the zone of conflict, women and girls are particularly affected, especially with disruptions to access to humanitarian assistance. This was also acknowledged in the operative section of the Security Council Resolution 2532 (2020), as well as the critical role that women are playing in the response efforts.

This is even more relevant as the year 2020 commemorated the 20th anniversary of resolution 1325 on “Women and Peace and Security” adopted on 31 October 2000. Unfortunately, while 2020 should have boost the global efforts for the development of Action Plans, where needed, and implementation of the resolution itself COVID-19 could have also affected the way Governments prioritize their own efforts on this regard, including in Europe, in the midst of their -often desperate efforts- to counter the pandemic.

When we ask ourselves where implementation is today and what can be done, no one can illustrate it better than the first woman Legal Adviser appointed to a peacekeeping mission, Nina J. Lahoud3' on the genesis of Resolution 1325, when she recalled the appeal made by Jamaica’s Permanent Representative in her statement at the Security Council open debate on 24 October 2000:

77ie time has come for us to move from rhetoric to action. The women of the world expect no less from the Security Council.

The pandemic also exacerbates the root causes of violence and conflict, by potentially disrupting ongoing peace processes due to insufficient follow up or implementation of the post conflict road maps, but also because of the weakening of social fabric as a result of growing inequalities, unemployment, poverty, hunger.

With the Spanish Flu there were protests and violence, and a similar or even stronger trend has been seen in the context of COVID-19 as people’s living conditions have deteriorated, together with their trust in institutions. Political stability and democratic processes have also been affected all around the world. While elections were held in Burundi, Malawi, Mongolia, Dominican Republic, Suriname, Mali, South Korea, Malaysia, Syria, among other countries, despite the challenges of the pandemic, other elections were postponed, for example in Botswana, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia,38 and other countries.

As of September 2020, the report on the United Nations Comprehensive Response to COVID-19 stated that the pandemic’s impact on conflict dynamics remained in flux, with forecasts largely dependent on the spread of the virus and broader political or military developments.39 As such, the full extent of disruption fuelled by the pandemic remains to be seen.

In general, during the pandemic, the protection of human rights has been affected. Raids, and protests have faced stronger responses from police forces around the globe, sometimes with excessive use of force. Civil and political rights are not the only ones affected; As we saw with the Spanish Flu, the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating food insecurity around the globe. According to the World Food Programme Chief David Beasley, globally 821 million people go to bed hungry and by the end of 2020, due to coronavirus 130 million people may join other 135 million that already risk starvation.40 Africa, in addition to conflict and pandemic, is suffering of desert locust infestations41, which further deteriorates the food supply chain and food security with it.

At the beginning of this chapter it was noted that the deployment of troops around the world was responsible for the spread of Spanish Flu. Today efforts are made so that the United Nations peacekeeping operations and special political missions deployed around the world do not become a source or a vector of contagion. The peacekeepers are facing the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is surprising that the resolution on safety and security of peacekeepers, adopted in March 2020, while being a very important tool, failed to mention COVID-19 pandemic. In any case, the peacekeeping operations continue to take place under strict measures established to help protect the civilian populations but also to avoid scenarios such as the one involving the peacekeeping camp as a source of cholera spread in Haiti, in 2010.

While terrorism and violent extremism are affected by the lockdowns and emergency measures by States, their organizations could also be benefiting from a tactical perspective as Member States focus on the fight against the pandemic. With the disruption of schools, youth are more targeted by the propaganda of terrorist and extremist groups.42

In addition to the terrorist threats, one out of four young people live in a conflict zone or is affected by violence. In July 2020 (also a couple of months late), the Security Council adopted a resolution on Youth, Peace and Security, where it recognizes that young people play a unique role in strengthening the national, local and community-based capacities in conflict and post-conflict

Future of international peace and security 127 situations to respond to public health challenges including the COVID-19 pandemic, while at the same time being affected by those very circumstances.

In another landmark debate of the Security Council, held on 12 August 2020, the current and former Secretaries General Antonio Guterres and Ban Ki-Moon came together in a united front, together with Sarah Cliffe, Director of the Centre on International Cooperation, New York University. Ms. Cliffe outlined for delegations how the pandemic dynamics affect conflict risk, including through economic shock, the deepest since the Second World War and the broadest since 1870.43 With more global contraction, there is an increase in conflict risk. In her conclusions to the Council, Sarah Cliffe was clear:

There has of course been well-merited resistance to “securitizing development. ” But these issues are not really non-traditional-if you were to ask the world’s military agencies, most of them have planned for years for the impact of pandemics, extreme natural disasters, and so forth, as potential security risks. Analysing the risk does not, of course, mean that the Council should try to direct health or economic activities, hut this is an example of an extreme public health and economic shock, which deserves to qualify as a peace-building risk. Let the Security Council raise its voice not to “securitize” the issue, but precisely so that it does not become an international peace and security disaster.44

The high-level open debate, held in the format of an open videoconference was chaired by the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, member of the Security Council for the term 2019-2020 and permanent Chair of the Non-Aligned Movement Disarmament Group. The meeting aimed to explore how more effective support might be harnessed for countries affected by conflicts or emerging from them.45

Six days before, on 6 August 2020, at the Security Council High-Level Open Debate on “Addressing the issue of linkages between terrorism and organized crime,” Vladimir Voronkov, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, reported the increase cybercrime during the pandemic.46

The opportunities and threats of the virtual world were addressed in the previous chapter, however, is worth looking at Telecommunications and Information Technologies in the field of international peace and security, particularly in the midst of the rise of cyberattacks suffered by States and the United Nations since the start of COVID-19 pandemic.

Today there is no legally binding treaty on cyber in the field of international peace and security. While such a tool could be very helpful to boost international cooperation and implementation by member states, there is no consensus on the need for one due to the rapid development of technologies, among other reasons. It might be interesting to note that the difference between legal systems, common law versus civil law, also influence to some degree the positions of Member States on this issue. However, at this point even if consensus existed to start the drafting of a legally binding treaty, the content of that international instrument would be very difficult to agree on at this stage.

While there is agreement that international law and the United Nations Charter apply in cyberspace, one of the recent problems in this domain has been the lack of consensus within the Group of 25 Governmental Experts on key issues. This includes the question of “how” international law applies, what constitutes a “critical infrastructure,” and what an “armed attack” is in cyberspace, among other elements. In 2015, however, the Group agreed on key recommendations and eleven non-binding norms, rules or principles of responsible state behaviour, which was later endorsed by the General Assembly.

The Group acknowledged, however, that the application of these nonns may not be immediately possible, in particular for developing countries, because of insufficient capacities. This could actually be an additional reason for the hesitation by some States in advancing a legally binding treaty, before developing capacities and addressing digital divides. While some member states want to focus on the development of nonns, others prefer to focus on the implementation of existing nonns of responsible behaviour. The vast majority of states prefer to focus on both the implementation and the development of a robust framework in tandem, to advance in capacity building and confidence building.

More recently, a number of countries have supported the idea of adopting a Political Declaration and establishing a Programme of Action for advancing responsible State behaviour in cyberspace as a permanent UN forum. The forum would have the capacity to boost efforts by Member States on the implementation and development of norms in the field of IGT in the context of peace and security.47

The year 2020 should have delivered a clearer picture of the preferred direction of the international community, yet - somewhat ironically — the work of the Open-Ended Working Group on the developments on the field of information and telecommunications in the context of peace and security was also disrupted by the pandemic. On the one hand, the pandemic raised the profile of the discussions and defined the centrality' of cybersecurity in the field of international peace. With the digital response to GOVID-19, including with the United Nations and its member states working through digital tools, cyberthreats exponentially increased. Targeted acts of cybercrime against medical facilities around the globe have shocked the world and highlighted the governance gap in cyberspace. This has made all the more relevant the efforts and the mandate of the above-mentioned Open-Ended Working Group.

On the other hand, the pandemic prevented the Group from completing its mandate given by the General Assembly to adopt a consensual report with recommendations for member states in 2020.

It would also be fair to note that, despite the specific challenges posed by the digital age, one of today's advantages in comparison with the Spanish Flu is precisely the potential to reduce the disruption of peace and security processes, using virtual means. This is why the international community' needs to maintain an open, secure, stable, accessible and peaceful IGT environment.

The virtual dialogue on the opportunities and challenges for peace in Yemen illustrates this. So does the work of the United Nations verification mission in Colombia, or even the fact that the Security Council was able at least to meet and take decisions, as well as the administrative and financial Committee of the General Assembly (Fifth Committee) whose decisions are key for the peacekeeping missions to be able to implement their mandate.

Secretary-General Guterres explained the increasingly challenging task for diplomacy posed by COVID-19, stating that mediation can be a very personal endeavour “an almost-tactile reading of a person or a room.” He further explained that, with restrictions limiting such contacts, and with online discussions often the only alternative, it can be harder to establish the trust and nurture the willingness to compromise that are at the heart of preventive diplomacy.48

It is clear that COVID-19 has changed the methods of work in the field of peace and security and that there is no return to the past on these, but it is also evident that diplomacy for peace cannot be limited to a screen. It is more important than ever to continue developing hybrid mechanisms and close the digital divides, in order to be more “future-ready.”

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