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A global COVID-19 ceasefire? Does it make sense?

May 13, 2020

Oxfam has published a briefing paper calling for more to be done, to put the UN Secretary-General’s call for a COVID-19 global ceasefire into practice. The paper sets out very clearly the importance of locally led peace solutions, but it reminded me of my surprise, when the Secretary-General first made his call back in March – an exhortation which has since been championed by arms-selling P5 member France. (No irony there, then.) I’m not sure I agree.

Military conflicts are awful things: they cause untold suffering. But as Clausewitz famously declared, they are a form of political action, pursued by political actors who think violence is the best available mechanism through which to achieve their aims. In some circumstances, it is easy to imagine a ceasefire fitting in with their strategy, in which case, they will no doubt be amenable to exploring that possibility. But this is an entirely contextual matter, not something that is likely to happen because of a well-meaning global call.

Secondly, ceasefires can be harmful. If a ceasefire seems likely, there is every chance that military action will increase in the short term, so that any ceasefire kicks in at a time of maximum military advantage. So it is quite possible that local forces in some theatres have pre-empted the possibility of international ceasefire mediation by changing their tactics on the ground. Certainly the conflict in Libya has evolved rapidly and unexpectedly since the Secretary-General’s call.

Third, in the same vein, military forces will in all likelihood cynically exploit any ceasefire arrived at because of external calls – rather than due to local circumstances – to prepare for subsequent military action.

So, unless the moment really is locally ripe for a ceasefire – or even better, a peace agreement due to mutually hurting stalemate – I’m not sure that global ceasefire calls are helpful, or perhaps even ethical? Whatever we may think about the goals or methods of a particular protagonist in an armed conflict, surely the first thing well-meaning outsiders need to do is base their posture and proposals on an understanding of why that particular conflict is happening, and the local, national, regional and global political economies of which it is a part. Take context as the starting point.

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