Months into an unprecedented, if not always coordinated, global mobilization to counter its effects, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to upend the worlds of business, politics and diplomacy. Its impact on the most fragile societies, and among the most vulnerable in those societies, becomes clearer by the day. As the Secretary-General said on 27 May during a Security Council debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, “The pandemic is amplifying and exploiting the fragilities of our world. Conflict is one of the greatest causes of that fragility”. How is the UN department charged with helping countries prevent and resolve violent conflict adapting to the conditions imposed by COVID-19? To help us answer that question, we spoke this week to the head of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Under-Secretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo.
Is the pandemic aggravating the situations you and your office follow?
There isn’t a simple or short answer to that, except perhaps to say the obvious: it varies. It is true, nonetheless, that the political impacts of the pandemic could lead to an increase in violence that would greatly undermine our ability to help prevent, manage and resolve conflicts and deliver needed humanitarian assistance. From Afghanistan to Somalia, and from Yemen to Myanmar, we are seeing the spread of COVID-19 to the vulnerable, including conflict affected refugee and displaced populations. We need to guard against the risk of the further marginalization of discriminated communities, particularly minorities, and the targeting of vulnerable groups. Heavy-handed security responses used to restrict public discourse under the guise of public health measures are another potential danger.
We’ve also seen an impact in the electoral area. So far, 27 nation-wide elections have been postponed around the world. In some contexts, postponement of elections or referenda, or the holding of the vote without mitigating measures that do not allow for a credible process, could create political tensions and undermine legitimacy. Wide consultations leading to consensus on whether elections should be delayed - and on interim governance arrangements in such cases - are crucial to avoid exacerbating tensions.
How are you and your colleagues adapting to the circumstances the pandemic has created?
Even before the pandemic, we’d been working hard to adapt our tools so that they are better suited to the complexity of today’s conflicts. A big part of this is the need to engage earlier and proactively, and not wait to react to a crisis after it has developed.
One area we’ve been investing in is the use of technology and innovative methods in mediation, for example. This could prove very valuable as we enter our “new normal” and are forced to deal with restrictions.
Mediators often need to travel to meet parties involved in conflict or to seek support for their efforts. Has the pandemic fundamentally altered the way you do mediation?
Our envoys have continued to do their work, mostly remotely. We are finding we can do more things at a distance than we thought before the pandemic. Still, despite the potential of digital technologies, mediation remains a human-centric activity and face-to-face meetings remain one of the most important aspects of a mediator’s work. The difficult task of building trust between conflict parties may be even more challenging online. It is hard to replicate quiet ‘corridor diplomacy’. Diplomacy is often built on relationships, which are difficult to establish over an internet connection.
On a positive note, the changing dynamic of digital platforms facilitates inclusion of more actors, including women. The key will be to maintain that in in-person forums when we are able to do so.
On 23 March the Secretary-General issued an appeal for a global cease fire so that the world could focus on the pandemic. Despite the many formal endorsements of that call, there hasn’t been much follow through. What needs to happen?
The initial response to the Secretary-General’s appeal actually exceeded my most optimistic expectations. Those who endorsed it includes some 110 countries, 24 armed groups, many regional organizations, civil society groups, Pope Francis and other religious leaders … the list is quite impressive. But, as you say, this support has not been translated into concrete action. As the Secretary-General has said, in some cases, the pandemic may even create incentives for warring parties to press their advantage, or to strike hard while international attention is focused elsewhere. Beyond the very important backing for the appeal from so many quarters around the world, we really need to see those who are supporting warring parties, politically or with weapons, use their influence and help silence the guns.
Title pictures: Conflict-damaged homes on the edge of Aden, Yemen. WFP/Mohammed Awadh