As Europe grapples with containing the spread of Covid-19 and coming to terms with its economic, social and political consequences, in many fragile states the pandemic is only just kicking in. Much ink has been spilled predicting the possible impact of this unprecedented global crisis, yet its scale, duration and severity are still largely unknown. What is clear is that the potential for the virus to wreak havoc in fragile and conflict-affected states is extremely high. While the first order of business of European governments is to save their own citizens’ lives and protect livelihoods, greater economic and political attention needs to be paid to people in countries that are already suffering from violence and where fragile peace and security are at stake.
Failure to support the response to the virus in fragile and conflict affected states could have catastrophic and far-reaching consequences. The virus is likely to exacerbate tensions that contribute to conflict, including joblessness, food insecurity, competition for resources, marginalization, displacement and opportunistic actions by extremists, warlords and even states. The risks of popular protest, delayed elections and constitutional processes, political instability and increased insecurity are high. Political instability and deepening insecurity will have serious spill over effects on entire regions. Failure to contain the pandemic and its possible or likely consequenecs, including population movement, a resurgence in illicit economic activity and an uptick in violence, with women and girls likely to be most affected, will among other things affect European states’ ability to relax restrictions and resume trade and economic activity with large parts of the world.
Prevention and early action are paramount. Efforts need to be stepped up to focus European leadership on the risks and on practical measures that can be taken to manage and mitigate the impact of the virus. A first step is political solidarity with civil society and authorities in affected states while investing in a systemic conflict-sensitive response tailored to particular country contexts.
The European Institute of Peace (EIP) is taking stock of the impact that Covid-19 is having on the fragile and conflict-affected countries in which it operates. The Institute is paying particular attention to the effects on conflict resolution, peace processes and agreements, as well as key variables to watch going forward. While the situation is evolving quickly, a number of recommendations are emerging for European and international actors who in these incredible times are striving to take issues of peace and conflict seriously.
The countries being covered in this series include Colombia, Venezuela, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine, Syria, Ukraine.
Worrisome scenarios emerge from this work. If Covid-19 evolves at the same pace as seen in many European and other countries, high morbidity and mortality rates can be expected accompanied, by a ‘perfect storm’ of destabilising outcomes. Economic contraction, coupled with a sharp rise in new infections, will almost certainly challenge the legitimacy of governing factions, upset elite bargains and rentier agreements, fuel tension between national and local governments and create opportunities for non-state actors to perpetuate violence.
As more developed countries, whether in Europe or elsewhere, focus on their own domestic public health and economic emergencies, regional and international attention to nascent and existing political and peace processes could wane, along with the practical capacity of all but the most intrepid international actors to be present and engage on the ground. One must hope and act to ensure that the worst-case scenarios do not materialise. It is just possible that muscular and well-coordinated conflict-sensitive responses to the pandemic, plus success in translating the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire into meaningful confidence building measures and a reduction of violence on the ground, could become a positive force for change.
On the basis of the analysis in this report, several general recommendations for European policymakers emerge:
1) Prepare for a major humanitarian response to COVID-19 in fragile States including where they exist by reinforcing the capacity of national health systems. Urgent steps are needed to assess the potential scale and properly address the looming humanitarian crisis in fragile and conflict-affected states. Timely financial and material support will need to be coupled with qualified expertise and knowledge sharing. Care should be taken to ensure that emergency interventions integrate social, political and conflict analysis up front to maximise impact and limit loss of life. Where public health systems are deficient or non-existent, European actors and donors should be prepared to deploy enough resources in substitution thereof.
2) Encourage partners to put the ‘triple nexus’ into action with robust coordination between and among regional, multilateral and non-governmental organisations. Ensure an integrated and conflict-sensitive response to fragile countries across humanitarian, development, security and political divides. Interventions must not be context-neutral or siloed. A ‘conflict lens’ is needed to assess the effectiveness of any proposed response.
3) Redouble efforts to keep existing peace processes on track while capitalising on opportunities for dialogue, confidence building and peace process initiatives between parties to conflict. Stakeholders need to continue providing incentives to and exerting pressure on parties to conflict where agreements may otherwise falter. The European Union and its member states should be prepared to deploy their good offices and diplomatic toolkits to support the United Nations and respected mediation and conflict resolution actors, national, regional or international, to prevent and resolve conflict.
4) Prepare to address the immediate and long-term economic consequences of COVID-19 in fragile and conflict-affected states. Covid-19 has not only generated a medical crisis, but a social and economic one too. European policymakers should prepare to support moratoriums on debt-service obligations while preparing a Marshall Plan-like response in support of fragile states already reeling from the global economic downturn.
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