On March 23, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appealed for a global cease-fire to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet over eight weeks later, the Security Council has not been able to muster consensus on a resolution to support even a humanitarian, time-limited cease-fire, despite early and repeated warnings about the potential devastation that the virus will bring to conflict zones.

A United Nations Security Council meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)
A United Nations Security Council meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

While France and Tunisia have attempted to bring permanent and non-permanent members to consensus, negotiations over counterterrorism exceptions, and more recently over the inclusion of language regarding the World Health Organization—including the most recent attempt to agree on consensus language that was ultimately blocked by the U.S.—have stymied consensus, putting the credibility of the Council at risk and underlining the dire state of international cooperation in the middle of a generational global crisis. Why would multilateral action on the cease-fire still matter, especially after so many weeks of inaction? 

Looking beyond the breakdown of negotiations over the latest resolution, the international community should be concerned about the long-term implications of inaction for the Security Council’s legitimacy—as well as the more immediate opportunities to advance peace and mitigate the dire human impact of the pandemic that are being lost due to multilateral stasis.

Many of the warring parties in 12 different conflicts that initially signaled support for a cease-fire—such as the separatist Southern Transitional Council in Yemen and the National Liberation Council (ELN) in Colombia—have renounced their initial support for the secretary-general’s call. Given the complexity of these conflicts and local political dynamics, the call for a global cease-fire was unlikely on its own to lead to any durable cessations of hostilities without sustained interventions from local and international mediators, and a confluence of local political factors.

Nonetheless, the lack of enthusiasm and urgency from the world’s major powers and the primary multilateral peace and security body certainly didn’t help create conditions for seizing these fleeting moments of opportunity.

The window to advance humanitarian pauses, cease-fires, and in some cases, renewed dialogues toward political settlements remains open, albeit for evolving, context-specific reasons. While some warring parties may have initially supported the secretary-general’s call to burnish their reputations or to strengthen their negotiating positions, the health and economic devastation wrought by the pandemic is altering conflict dynamics in ways that provide opportunities to forge peaceful settlements, or at a minimum, build trust among parties on the way to dialogue. At the same time, conflict actors and spoilers are increasingly seizing on opportunities afforded by the pandemic, making the need for stronger Security Council action even more urgent.

In Syria, the consequences of the pandemic in Russia and Iran—key backers of dictator Bashar Assad—may erode their resolve for continued support, heightening the appeal of international mediators' plans for a political dialogue. In Yemen, worsening humanitarian conditions could increase incentives for a cease-fire, opening space for restarting formal dialogue. Many other conflict zones are hurtling toward humanitarian calamities—including South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia.

While getting to a cease-fire in these and other asymmetric conflicts will be difficult, many of these countries are just beginning to see rises in COVID-19 cases at the same time that economic and supply chain disruptions are prompting concerning alarms from the U.N. World Food Program and others over an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Conflict actors across the world are likely to face a stark choice in the coming months: Either accede to a pause or cease-fire to facilitate humanitarian access, or look on as the virus and famine ravages the populations they ostensibly represent.

How a Cease-fire Resolution Could Advance Peace

In this dire context, a U.N. Security Council resolution could provide critical momentum for humanitarian preparations and a framework for translating humanitarian pauses or cease-fires into structured political processes. Specifically, a resolution endorsing a global cease-fire could:

  • Help improve conditions for frontline humanitarian operations. Humanitarian access in the conflicts noted above—especially in Yemen and Syria—remains severely restricted. A cease-fire on humanitarian grounds could be quickly leveraged by humanitarian actors to mount a more robust response and strengthen the basic humanitarian architecture needed to address rapidly deteriorating health, food security, and other conditions before populations reach the brink of famine.
  • Authorize the creation of a formal monitoring mechanism that puts state and nonstate spoilers on notice. Spoilers could play unhelpful roles by violating and undermining negotiations for, and implementation of, local humanitarian pauses or cease-fires. A Security Council resolution and establishment of a formal monitoring mechanism would increase the costs and risks for potential spoilers that could be leveraged into positive improvements on the ground.
  • Provide a framework for local and international mediators trying to take advantage of novel windows of opportunity. Security Council endorsement of the cease-fire could put wind in the sails of local mediators and peacebuilders trying to find opportunities to bring parties back into dialogue. A resolution would also strengthen and focus the mandate of U.N. envoys and special representatives whose work has been hampered by COVID-related travel restrictions.
  • Signal international unity on peace and humanitarian issues. Despite its failings, the Security Council remains the primary body for international cooperation on matters of urgent peace and security. Confidence in the multilateral system was already at a low point before the pandemic. No doubt, the Security Council’s inaction has not gone unnoticed by state and nonstate belligerents worldwide. Inaction on something as straightforward as a humanitarian cease-fire in the middle of a once-in-a-century global humanitarian crisis does not bode well for the Council’s legitimacy or efficacy in the future, and could bleed into other critical areas where the Council needs to play a key role. 

The world’s major powers should be leading the way out of this crisis, while taking advantage of every opportunity to advance peace. The secretary-general’s call for a global cease-fire was not just an appeal to our better angels; cease-fires are a pragmatic step to mitigate the impact of the ongoing catastrophe, and open new possibilities for peaceful recovery.


Related Publications

The Beirut Blast Has Yet to Spark Political Reform

The Beirut Blast Has Yet to Spark Political Reform

Thursday, October 15, 2020

By: Dr. Elie Abouaoun; Osama Gharizi

Over two months later, there are still more questions than answers regarding the Beirut explosion that killed over 200 people and damaged large swaths of Lebanon’s capital city. Meanwhile, the fallout from the explosion has forced the resignation of Lebanon’s government, which had already been under fire after months of protests over corruption and a deteriorating economy. USIP’s Elie Abouaoun and Osama Gharizi look at where the blast investigation stands, what’s holding up the formation of a new government, and what a new outbreak of COVID-19 means for Lebanon.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & Governance; Global Health

COVID Menaces Venezuela, Medical Students Respond

COVID Menaces Venezuela, Medical Students Respond

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

By: Paula Porras; Maria Antonia Montes

For years, Venezuela’s political and economic collapse has been the Americas’ greatest single humanitarian crisis. Five million people have fled as refugees or migrants, and 59 percent of those who remain cannot afford the food their families need. Even before the COVID pandemic, the health care system mirrored this collapse. An estimated 80 percent of hospitals lack adequate medical staff and 60 percent are without running water or consistent electricity. Into this breach has stepped a courageous corps of young medical students who already had become first responders to those injured in the country’s widespread and often violent protests.

Type: Blog

Global Health; Youth

Conflict Prevention in the COVID Era: Why the U.S. Cannot Afford to Go it Alone

Conflict Prevention in the COVID Era: Why the U.S. Cannot Afford to Go it Alone

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

By: Corinne Graff; Laura E. Bailey

As the United States and other international actors assess the wreckage reaped by the coronavirus pandemic around the world, estimates are that an unprecedented level of aid will be needed to mitigate its worst impacts in fragile states. Given the ballooning costs of COVID-response efforts, the U.S. will need to deepen its partnerships with other international donors and local actors to bolster accountable and inclusive institutions and prevent conflicts and violence from escalating. Equally important, but less discussed, these international efforts will need to focus on managing a more complex global risk landscape that is emerging from the pandemic.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Fragility & Resilience; Global Health

Is Insecurity Undermining the Coronavirus Response? Evidence from Nigeria

Is Insecurity Undermining the Coronavirus Response? Evidence from Nigeria

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

By: Aly Verjee

In the United States, there is no shortage of public opinion data on nearly every question imaginable. But in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, such data is more scarce and policymakers often lack detailed insights into citizen perceptions and concerns. Now, new evidence from USIP-commissioned surveys conducted in May and July 2020 of more than 10,000 Nigerians has found new relationships between violent conflict and the coronavirus response. The data shows that victims of violence are more likely to distrust the Nigerian government’s response to coronavirus.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Health

View All Publications