COVID19: challenge of peacekeeping in conflict-affected environments

Editor’s Introduction: In this Corona Connection, Sintiche Pagnou Tchinda’s analysis of the fragility of peacekeeping operations in the midst of COVID-19 illuminates the challenges of maintaining a fragile peace in areas where armed conflict has already intensified structural and conditional vulnerability.


By Sintiche Pagnou Tchinda* (Cameroon)

Two peacekeepers of the United Nations Integrated Multidimensional Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) lost their lives while carrying out their security and health mission in mid-March. The attacks come a few weeks after the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global “ceasefire” to ensure humanitarian access and the safety of UN mission personnel in the context of a health threat imposed by COVID19. This crisis, which has already caused more than 239,000 deaths worldwide and which is putting the resilience of powerful countries (USA, France, China, Russia, and the United Kingdom) to the test, could have a considerable impact in countries affected by armed violence and characterized by weak health systems and a low number of health professionals and where civilian populations are more vulnerable. This health threat (COVID19) is in addition to the operational challenges faced by peacekeeping missions working to put an end to the violence that leads to the proliferation of weapons, trafficking in species, the increased movement of refugees, the proliferation of ethnic-based and violence against civilian populations. The reduction of peacekeeping personnel in the face of the restrictive measures (confinement, the imposition of teleworking, travel restrictions, repatriation of personnel, etc.) imposed by this crisis opens a breach for warlords who could take advantage of this period to re-establish their law by diverting international attention and efforts to restore peace and security. It is important to consider direct sanctions on the perpetrators of violence in this period of crisis, in accordance with the principles of human rights and international humanitarian law. Perpetrators must be apprehended when humanitarian access is denied. Above all, national and government authorities must put aside their leadership squabbles and work together with all members (opposition, civil society, community groups) to assist the peacekeeping forces in their operations.

COVID-19 a challenge for the fulfillment of the mandates of peacekeeping missions

COVID-19 is a major health crisis facing all of humanity as well as other global challenges such as climate change, armed violence within territories, and migration. This health crisis has put the principles of global governance to the test while awakening reflexes contrary to the multilateralism promoted on the international scene; to the dynamic of openness encouraged, the crisis has awakened reflexes of withdrawal materialized by the closure of borders.

Around 110,000 peacekeepers deployed in some 15 peace operations around the world (Central African Republic, Mali, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Haïti, etc.) are also faced with the trials of fulfilling their mandates, whose objectives may not be achieved. Indeed, from the very beginning of the crisis, several measures have been adopted by the United Nations organization in order to avoid the spread of the crisis, in particular the suspension of troop rotation until 30 June, the quarantine of personnel returning to their missions for 14 days, the imposition of teleworking for some personnel… several missions have been forced to place in quarantine.  In Mali, the Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Integrated Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), Mahamat Saleh Annadif, has also been placed under quarantine and continues to work at a distance.

These measures, although preventive, will have a proven impact on the implementation of already complex mandates, because despite fighting the health crisis, peacekeepers must keep the peace. In these circumstances of forced confinement and reduced patrols on the ground, the COVID-19 crisis could give way to the creation of new militias and armed groups, accelerating the fragmentation already present in these territories affected by the violence. Furthermore, it offers an unfair opportunity to the armed groups already operational, which will take advantage of it, to gain ground, re-establish their laws and perpetrate violence against the population, and continue their activities of pillaging natural resources (diamonds, gold, coltan, etc.), smuggling, kidnapping and kidnapping for ransom. These attacks will lead to an increase in violence, the perpetuation of impunity, and the continuation of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 11 FARDC soldiers were killed in fighting with CODECO militiamen on Saturday, 11 April, in a village in Nyapala, Djugu territory about 60 kilometers north of Bunia. In Mali, some 30 Malian soldiers were killed in an attack against jihadists, and another attack in Bamba on 7 April caused the death of 25 Malian soldiers and 6 others injured. In Niger, the Islamic State has regained ground, Nigerien soldiers carried out an operation against heavily armed men in the region of Tillabéri (south-west), near Mali, on the night of 2 April. In the Central African Republic and shortly before the call for a ceasefire, virulent fighting resumed between the armed groups signatories to the Khartoum Agreement who are campaigning for the control of the diamond-rich territories whose business is flourishing. The difficulty of intervening in this context embellishes the criminal activity of the armed groups, which take advantage of it to undermine peace efforts. In a communiqué published on 8 April, the United Nations Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in the Central African Republic (CAR), Yao Agbetse, called on the parties to the conflict to respect the Khartoum Peace Agreement in the face of the increase in violence and, above all, the pandemic.

This pandemic will have an impact on the election calendar of these countries that host peace missions (Burundi (20 May), Niger (legislative of 27 May), Mali (legislative of May), Guinea (in October) to Niger (27 December) CAR (December), whose elections are scheduled for the end of 2020, as stated in the Secretary-General’s report on the COVID-19 crisis. These elections are one of the priorities of the mandates and tasks of the peace missions, whose primary responsibility is to restore the administration of lawless territories and build the rule of law by installing stable and legitimate political powers. Even if the timetable seems to be maintained for the time being in some of these countries, it is difficult to say whether the United Nations will be able to provide assistance if the crisis persists, since several field political missions have already been suspended in these countries where it was supposed to carry out operations to assist the electoral process. “Delayed elections or limitations on voting capacity, continued restrictions on movement and access to food and other resources, as well as soaring unemployment and dissatisfaction with the capacity of State institutions to respond, can all increase political tensions”.

UN measures to deal with COVID in peace missions

Despite the risks to peace missions of having their mandates delayed, the United Nations has put in place secure measures that help respond to the health threat posed by the virus, which illustrates the “madness of war” that could cause the loss of more than $3.4 trillion in income in 2020 and put more than 25 million people out of work. These measures are accompanied by a resolution passed by the Security Council on 2 April on the safety and security of peacekeeping personnel. These measures, which include the call for a ceasefire, the teleworking of civilian personnel, systematic temperature control at the entrance to bases, the installation of hand-washing points in front of offices, awareness-raising and information via radio waves and close cooperation with host governments, World Health Organization staff, local authorities, and populations in order to strengthen mutual trust and understanding and to improve safety and security, and to systematically reduce the risk of contamination of civilian populations. These measures also require taking into account the participation of women in peacekeeping by giving them a prominent place in the accomplishment of their task as the main actors in the crisis and the driving force behind the family. They are already effective in most peace missions and countries in conflict. In response to the ceasefire, the Cameroonian Defence Forces (SOCADEF), the armed wing of the African People’s Liberation Movement (APLM), one of the separatist groups in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon, has observed a 14-day ceasefire since 25 March; in the Sudan, several armed movements and the Government observed the ceasefire upon the Secretary-General’s call.

The UN and the WHO and the IMF are working alongside war-affected and non-war-affected states to set up a platform for mutual understanding on research advances, on curative care, on negotiation and coordination on matters of common interest; but also for the timely sharing of information. Although several initiatives have also been taken by these conflict-affected countries to deal with the crisis, it is clear that these countries are at risk of being the most infected. Indeed, this crisis has brought back to the forefront the worrying issue of the share of state budgets invested in public health policies, the relationship with the informal economy, which represents a large part of our economy, and investment in public transport infrastructure, the fluidity of which is essential to limiting the risks. The leaders of countries in conflict should re-evaluate health systems and develop appropriate reflexes for services that are quick to respond to crises of this scale. More than ever, these countries must invest in “health and scientific laboratories and encourage research.

After some disagreements observed since the beginning of this crisis, between the Five permanent members (China, USA, Russia, United Kingdom, France) and the non-permanent members of the Security Council (Tunisia, Germany, Belgium, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Estonia, Vietnam, Niger, South Africa and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), the latter, meeting on 9 April, discussed and voted a resolution on the humanitarian impact of the virus, in particular the threat to vulnerable groups, the need to maintain humanitarian space and actions, and the protection of humanitarian workers. This resolution, which was born out of two competing draft resolutions (one by the Five Permanent Members proposed by France ‘humanitarian pause’ and the other by Tunisia and non-permanent members), focuses exclusively on the link of the pandemic to international peace and security. It should put an end to the “unilateral coercive measures” implemented by some countries, in order to ensure an effective response and a united coordinated international action against COVID-19.

Thus, the arduous task imposed by this health crisis should not stop the efforts of the United Nations to save “future generations from the scourge of war.”  Peace operations should continue their peace efforts and achieve the implementation of peace processes in most of the countries in conflict (CAR, Colombia, DRC, Mali, …). In doing so, the UN could consider the creation of virtual country commissions for monitoring, evaluation, promotion and verification of these peace agreements; as well as the virtual working group on disarmament, reintegration and rehabilitation, which will continue to work on disarming former combatants in the field.  The participation of communities, victims, local authorities and civil society, including women’s organizations, in peace-building efforts must continue to be given the highest priority. This means maintaining an inclusive, peaceful and constructive dialogue in the design, implementation and monitoring of the peace process, as well as security sector reform and development plans, which will make it possible to achieve the peace dividends expected before the COVID-19 crisis – strengthening the protection of human rights defenders, social actors, ex-combatants, rural communities and other vulnerable populations – considering measures to provide basic services to ex-combatants living outside the former territorial training and reintegration sectors.

The long road to international health solidarity should be the “sharing of progress” discovered on the curative and preventive treatment of the said disease by proposing a form of global observatory of events, gathering information, bringing together experts and scientists, defining research priorities, basic hygiene rules to be respected.

About the Author*

Sintiche Pagnou Tchinda is the former Assistant in charge of Peace Operations at the Permanent Representative of La Francophonie in New York.  She is currently an independent consultant in peacekeeping operations, conflict analysis, and mediation.

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