In March, when it became clear COVID-19 was an urgent global threat, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, called for a ceasefire in the world’s conflict zones. It seemed like common sense that armies and militia claiming to be defending their people would lower their weapons temporarily, allowing health workers access to mitigate the pandemic.
Yet, only on July 1st did the UN Security Council finally agree on the wording of a resolution to give teeth to Guterres’ call. Meanwhile, there are now an estimated 11 million COVID-19 infections worldwide.
Since Guterres’s appeal for a ceasefire, most governments with a duty to protect their citizens have ignored the challenge. Many violent liberation movements claiming to be the legitimate representatives of their people have been too welded to their ideology to budge and risk influence or being seen as weak. Cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has been a notable exception.
Now, the COVID-19 ceasefire challenge has been given new force with calls by religious leaders, including the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The need for a COVID-19 ceasefire is as urgent as ever. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is how interconnected we are, from Haifa to Mumbai to Montreal; a problem in one corner of the world quickly threatens everyone.
Where is the ceasefire needed? An obvious candidate is the Central African nation of Cameroon, a country most famous for its football prowess. A group of Nobel laureates, former heads of state and former diplomats, recently singled out Cameroon as being of urgent concern. They appealed to the collective conscience of the Security Council and the warring parties for a break in hostilities there.
Cameroon has one of the highest rates of coronavirus infection on the continent. Nearly four years of fighting between Anglophone separatists and the armed forces of the Francophone-majority government have resulted in massive disruption, destruction, and death. The Norwegian Refugee Council calls Cameroon home the world’s most neglected crises.
According to the International Crisis Group, 600,000 people have fled their homes, many living in appalling conditions in the bush, while 800,000 children have been out of school since as early as 2016. Clinics are damaged or unreachable. Since the start of COVID-19, aid groups have reported the deliberate blocking of urgent aid, and even atrocities against aid workers. Political prisoners are incarcerated in Cameroon’s prisons, which are reputedly riddled with the virus.
While fighting continues, health workers cannot access a vast number of unarmed civilians caught in the middle. One militia group, the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (SOCADEF), declared a ceasefire in response to Guterres’ call, but the other militias have not. The Cameroon government’s responsibility to protect its citizens under international law is essential during COVID-19; yet, it too has ignored the ceasefire call.
The international community has the carrots and sticks necessary, if it chooses to apply its leverage in Cameroon. As revealed by Israel’s Channel 12, the Cameroon army’s elite force, the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), has been trained and equipped by an Israeli entity. Impartial human rights watchdogs have implicated the BIR in the abuse and torture of civilians, arbitrary killings, rape and mass executions. The US reduced its military aid to Cameroon last year as a consequence of the BIR’s activities. In light of this, Israel must re-evaluate whatever enabling role it has in the training of and weapons sales to Cameroon’s armed forces. On a more positive note, COVID-19 cooperation in the Holy Land serves as an example to the warring parties in Cameroon.
Other countries should apply pressure on the Cameroon government: France has great military and economic influence with the Yaoundé regime. The English-speaking militias seeking secession look to Britain, the former colonial power, and Canada and the USA for support. Money fuelling the violent secessionist campaign comes from the Cameroonian Diaspora in North America and Europe. Moreover, Cameroon depends on International Monetary Fund disbursements to manage its debts, whose decisions are partially made by country representatives.
Is a coronavirus ceasefire workable in practice? This, surely, is the purpose of the UN system – to coordinate ceasefires, conflict zone by conflict zone, country by country, and to monitor their implementation on a daily basis. What can be a greater priority right now?
We have failed to learn the importance of concerted collective action despite decades of increasing climate disruption, partly because the deterioration was incremental. By contrast, COVID-19 is a fast-moving clear and present danger to humans and the planet.
Yet, just when it is most needed, there is an absence of political leadership to address the challenge of a generation. Whether through a lack of imagination and empathy, a reluctance to take decisions for fear of losing power, or geopolitical jockeying, for the most part, the international community has failed. Now is the moment for it to redeem itself, bringing pressure to bear on the governments enabling ideological proxy wars or waging war on their own people, and the armed militias making the lives of millions of civilians unbearable. If they truly care about their people, what is stopping them from lowering their weapons?
- Rebecca Tinsley is the author of When the Stars Fall to Earth: A Novel of Africa