“Will COVID-19 Exacerbate or Defuse Conflicts in the Middle East?” - Online Event by the Atlantic Council, Opening Remarks by Rosemary A. DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs
Thank you for the opportunity to take part in this timely discussion about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Middle East conflicts.
Let me preface my remarks by stressing that, even before the pandemic, the global environment for conflict resolution was already extremely challenging. The Middle East and North Africa region provides ample evidence of that reality. Turmoil and instability have long wracked many MENA states. Violent conflicts have drawn in regional and global powers and actors, displaced millions and collapsed state and local institutions. Mass protests rocked Lebanon, Iraq and Iran just last year as citizens rose up demanding reforms.
And COVID-19 has only made matters worse.
This is why, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire so that all efforts could be aimed at fighting the pandemic. He did so to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance and create space for diplomatic engagement. His call has resonated around the world: 115 Member States have endorsed his appeal, as have regional organizations, civil society, religious leaders and 24 armed groups. And our UN Middle East envoys have followed the Secretary-Genera’s appeal with a call of their own aimed specifically at the conflicts in the Middle East.
But regrettably, this impressive groundswell of support has not yet translated into positive change on the ground, in the Middle East or elsewhere.
In Yemen, despite the announcement of a unilateral ceasefire by Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Coalition the fighting is ongoing.
In Syria, cease-fire agreements remain fragmented and fragile. Humanitarian coordination and supply across frontlines remains insufficient, underlining the need for continued and expanded cross-border assistance. And progress on the UN-led political process remains elusive, despite our efforts.
In Libya, where the parties have called for humanitarian truces at various times in the past, the conflict has intensified.
Now, we knew that turning the global ceasefire call into tangible gains on the ground was not going to be easy. We knew it would require great political will and commitment from the conflict parties, first and foremost. And we knew that the appeal required broader international support, especially from those backing conflict parties, politically or with weapons. If we are to see a positive effect on violence, those with influence on combatants must exercise that pull.
Regrettably, at the apex of multilateral diplomacy on peace and security – the UN Security Council – there is still no unified position in response to COVID-19 and its impact on conflict.
The Secretary-General and our UN envoys and special representatives continue to exercise good offices and cajole and support conflict parties in pursuit of dialogue and cooperation. These efforts now rely mostly on the use of secure digital tools and platforms.
In Libya, for example, working groups established in Berlin have met remotely. In Yemen, our Special Envoy is making a concerted effort to expand the space for political talks, including a national ceasefire, through remote and in person meetings. In Syria, while the next meeting of the Constitutional Committee remains pending, the Special Envoy has engaged civil society and the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board virtually to harness initiatives for confidence building.
Although we recognize that the limitations of processes in which face-to-face meetings are restricted, the increased use of technology has the potential to create new opportunities, enhance the inclusivity of peace processes, for example, including the participation of women and young people.
Let me outline what I perceive as some of key risks and challenges for our conflict prevention and resolution efforts as we go forward.
One is the destabilizing effects of the economic fallout of the pandemic, which can lead to civil unrest and violence. As the countries slowly lurch back to life from weeks of lockdown, the demands for economic recovery may grow beyond the capacity of many states. The rate of unemployment is skyrocketing. And the decline in oil and gas prices is further straining national finances. We have already witnessed protests, some violent, in Lebanon – dubbed by protestors as a “hunger revolution” – and also Iraq, against a coronavirus curfew.
Also the risk of serious human rights violations and shrinking civic space increase under the guise of fighting the pandemic. We have seen discrimination in accessing health services, increased cases of domestic violence and an overall disproportionate impact on women and female-headed households. Refugees and internally displaced persons as well as detainees and abductees, many living in crowded and squalid conditions, have been particularly vulnerable. Migrant workers in the Persian Gulf have faced growing pressure to return home. They are most vulnerable to high prices and food shortages. Migrants have limited access to healthcare and face crowded living conditions.
Also, the threat of terrorism remains alive. Terrorist groups may see a window of opportunity to strike while the attention of most governments is turned towards the pandemic. There are reports that ISIL has tried to exploit the pandemic in Iraq and elsewhere, launching new initiatives and intensifying propaganda.
Moreover, actors in conflict settings could exploit the confusion created by the virus to press their advantage leading to greater escalation of violence and further complicating efforts of peaceful resolution.
But despite these risks, the pandemic has also been a catalyst for much needed cooperation and dialogue. There are encouraging examples of this in the Middle East:
Israel and the Palestinian Authority are coordinating their efforts, with UN support, on tackling the common threat posed by the pandemic. While we are encouraged that the COVID-19 crisis has created new opportunities for cooperation, the dangerous prospect of annexation by Israel of parts of the occupied West Bank, casts a darker cloud on the peace process. And the Palestinian leadership’s harsh reaction to such steps, by declaring an end to all cooperation with Israel yesterday, adds to these concerns. We continue to strongly urge Israeli and Palestinian leaders to build on recent cooperation, reject unilateral moves and take steps towards peace.
In the Persian Gulf region, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar have provided much-needed medical equipment and humanitarian assistance to Iran. And Qatar has facilitated the transportation of stranded Gulf Cooperation Council citizens back to their home countries.
However, the pandemic does not seem to be the olive branch it could have been for overcoming political differences and poisonous divisions among the Persian Gulf countries.
Prior to this pandemic, the Secretary-General had underscored the urgent need for effective crisis management systems and lines of communication in the Persian Gulf region. That need is much greater now than ever before. Any miscalculation in the current atmosphere can lead to consequences that could overwhelm the mechanisms that are currently in place.
Let me close by stating the obvious: There is no good time for a pandemic.
But COVID-19 hit at a particularly difficult moment. The international community and the rules-based order built after WWII are under attack as never before, and great-power rivalry is intensifying. The global cooperation and solidarity that are essential to facing threats like the pandemic comprehensively cannot be taken for granted. The novel coronavirus does present an opportunity to make progress in peace and security, even in the Middle East. But it could also push multilateral efforts closer to the edge.
I think we will overcome COVID-19, I believe so, but though obviously it will not be unscathed. It will take a lot of vigilance and hard work, at the UN, between individual states or groups of countries, in civil society, among many of you. But we have a chance to go beyond recovery. We can safeguard the progress achieved over the last 75 years that helped societies prevent, resolve and rebuild from violent conflict. But we can do more. We must build back better.