By Simon Tisdal, The Guardian, April 19, 2020
The Trump administration and Russia are blocking efforts to win binding UN security council backing for a global ceasefire to help fight the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 150,000 lives worldwide.
The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, called for an immediate end to fighting involving governments and armed groups in all conflict areas almost one month ago. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he said.
Yet despite strong support for a universal truce from dozens of countries, including leading US allies such as Britain, France and Germany, as well as human rights groups, charities and the pope, the Trump administration is refusing to be bound by the measure.
In an attempt to break the impasse, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has proposed a draft security council resolution which attempts to overcome US and Russian objections by, in effect, making it impossible to enforce.
The resolution, as drafted, is understood to welcome the UN secretary-general’s appeal and express support for his efforts. But it does not insist on a binding, universal ceasefire, allowing exceptions to be made at the discretion of individual member states.
The US objections arise from White House, Pentagon and State Department concerns that an all-encompassing measure could hinder their ability to prosecute military operations against terrorist groups, for example Isis in Iraq, and other targets that are deemed hostile to US interests.
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is believed to have similar reservations regarding the impact on Russian military operations in Syria and on Moscow’s unacknowledged support for proxy groups and non-state militias in wartorn countries such as Libya.
According to a special report published by the US-based Foreign Policy website, “both governments fear that a universal ceasefire could potentially constrain their own efforts to mount what they consider legitimate counter-terrorism operations overseas.
“The US is also concerned that a blanket ceasefire could inhibit Israel’s ability to engage in military operations throughout the Middle East,” the report’s author, Colum Lynch, said – a reference to Israeli airstrikes in recent months on targets in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
In addition, analysts say, president Donald Trump and his advisers want to retain the freedom to launch attacks on pro-Iranian militia in Iraq, as happened recently, or carry out opportunistic strikes against Iran’s military leaders, similar to the US drone strike in January that killed the Revolutionary Guards Corps general, Qassem Suleimani.
Speaking on 23 March, Guterres appealed to warring parties across the globe to end hostilities and join together to fight Covid-19 instead.
“End the sickness of war and fight the disease that is ravaging our world. It starts by stopping the fighting everywhere. Now. That is what our human family needs, now more than ever,” he said.
Guterres’s call was endorsed earlier this month by charities, religious organisations and human rights groups. Pope Francis threw his weight behind it in an Easter Sunday address.
On Friday, Henrietta Fore, head of the UN children’s fund, Unicef, warned that 250 million children living in the “waking nightmare” of conflict desperately needed warring parties to stop fighting as the pandemic spread.
More than 50 governments have also backed Guterres’s initiative, including several Nato allies. In a joint letter, which the US and Russia declined to sign, they expressed concern that the UN security council had yet to take action.
“As the global Covid-19 pandemic spreads, we are concerned about the plight of women, children, and all civilians caught in armed conflicts … these populations are already impacted disproportionately by armed conflict.
“An immediate global ceasefire would markedly reduce these impacts, allow for much-needed humanitarian assistance and protection, and hopefully diminish the spread of Covid-19,” the letter said.
Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary and acting prime minister, has pledged Britain’s backing. Coronavirus was “the fight of our lives and we must unite against it”, he said.
But the US continues to prevaricate, while negotiations continue. Kelly Craft, US ambassador to the UN, expressed support for a global truce earlier this week and said she hoped the French resolution could be agreed soon, possibly this week.
But a State Department spokesman was more circumspect. “The United States supports the secretary-general’s call for a global ceasefire, but have noted that we will continue to fulfil our legitimate counter-terrorism mission,” the spokesman told Foreign Policy.
Agreement on a ceasefire has been further delayed by US demands, now reportedly dropped, that the resolution refer to Covid-19 as the “Wuhan virus”, a description that would have drawn a Chinese veto. The US also objected to language supportive of the World Health Organization, which Trump has attacked and defunded.
Macron nevertheless expressed optimism on Wednesday that the draft resolution would be agreed. He said he had spoken personally to Trump, China’s president, Xi Jinping, and the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, and all had offered their backing.
Macron said he was hopeful Putin would also come onboard, and that a video summit of the five permanent members of the security council would be held to announce their agreement.
While such an outcome may enhance the prestige of the council, which has been sharply criticised for inaction during the Covid-19 crisis, it may disappoint those demanding an unconditional truce and an effective, joined-up international response.
If the big powers can choose to ignore a UN-mandated global ceasefire when it suits them, analysts warn, then non-state actors and terrorist groups may decide to do likewise.
Since Guterres made his call last month, sporadic progress has been reported in several conflict zones. The Saudi-led coalition announced a ceasefire in Yemen, and there have been positive responses in Colombia and the Philippines. In all, the UN has cited 12 countries in which at least one party to a conflict has acknowledged the ceasefire appeal in order to battle the pandemic.
But in Afghanistan, one of the world’s longest-running conflicts, there are signs that the growing impact of Covid-19 may be undermining tentative peace efforts, while Isis has called on its followers to attack the “crusader nations” while they are distracted by the disease.