April 9, 2020

By Stephen J. Hadley, Chair of the Board, U.S. Institute of Peace
Nancy Lindborg, President & CEO, U.S. Institute of Peace

The United States Institute of Peace commends U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ appeal for a global cease-fire to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. We have already witnessed the profound loss of life and livelihood that the pandemic has wrought in the world’s most stable and established democracies. The effect that COVID-19 will have on conflict-affected states around the world could be even more catastrophic.  

In places like Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya, years of war have decimated hospitals and health systems, while humanitarian workers struggle to reach vulnerable populations. Too often, health workers and medical facilities are explicitly targeted by warring parties, leaving little capacity for health care. Globally, more than 70 million people have been displaced primarily by violent conflict, many of them women and children living in crowded tents or settlements with little access to clean water or adequate medical care.

The secretary-general’s call is not rooted in naivete or wishful thinking, nor is the level of cooperation required without precedent. Indeed, this horrible pandemic presents an historic opportunity for those involved in violent conflicts to reconcile their differences in the face of a greater threat and a common enemy. As Secretary-General Guterres said, “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war.” The pandemic is a call to prioritize peace—both now and in the future.

In 2011, USIP published “Pandemics and Peace: Public Health Cooperation in Zones of Conflict,” which examines case studies of countries working together to prevent and respond to airborne diseases. When avian influenza broke out in the Middle East in 2006, Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian health officials worked side by side sharing information to halt its spread and continued that collaboration through eruptions of violence in 2006 and 2009 and into the H1N1 threat.   

The global response to Secretary-General Guterres’ call for a cease-fire is encouraging. Some of the warring in parties in Afghanistan, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen have expressed their acceptance of the call. More than 70 U.N. member states, regional partners, civil society organizations, and others have endorsed it. Religious leaders, including Pope Francis, have added their voices and their vision in support of a global cease-fire. Muslim clerics in Afghanistan issued a declaration last Friday calling on the Taliban and government to agree on a cease-fire and to cooperate to address the pandemic. It was just reported that Saudi Arabia declared a cease-fire in Yemen over fears of coronavirus.

USIP was founded 35 years ago by the U.S. Congress with the mission to work with partners around the world to prevent and resolve violent conflict. We are committed to deploying the tools, resources, and research necessary to support those who are working to resolve conflicts without recourse to violence, especially women, youth, and religious leaders.

Peace is built from the top down as well as the bottom up. We are committed to supporting high-level negotiations as well as community dialogues. We are working with activists engaging in digital nonviolent action campaigns for peace and health. Our partners on the ground in Tunisia have supplied security forces with hand sanitizers and masks, providing critical medical supplies as well as cultivating much-needed citizen-security trust. Our Generation Change network of young peacebuilders in Colombia and Venezuela have mounted an Instagram initiative to advocate for the equitable provision of health care for COVID-19 victims. We know that violence and catastrophe do not define these societies; when given the opportunity, people will choose peace and dignity over war and deprivation.

While COVID-19 represents a horrible scourge for humanity, it can also serve to jolt armed groups to permanently embrace their greater interests—the health and welfare of their people. That is the core of Secretary-General Guterres’s plea for a global cease-fire. As fighters heed the call to lay down their arms, USIP will continue to empower frontline leaders to pick up the tools to build peace.