Major global powers gave their support to the ceasefire but so far their actions have failed to match their words


“Concern that a universal ceasefire – as proposed by the UN – could constrain overseas operations and lead to reduced geopolitical influence, overrides calls for peace.”

On 23rd March, the day the country began its coronavirus lockdown, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antόnio Guterres, called on governments and military forces around the world to put down their weapons, stop fighting one another and focus on defeating humanity’s common enemy – Covid-19. Seventy countries around the world responded positively to this call for a global ceasefire, including the UK.

By April hopes were high as military groups in places such as Cameroon, Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Myanmar, Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen began talking of peace.

But talking the talk is not the same as walking the walk. We are now in May and it is clear that the initial momentum has not followed through to peace.  Early enthusiasm has been lost, aided by delay and lack of resolve at the UN and inaction by the world’s major powers.

The draft resolution, put together at impressive speed by the French, demanded a 90-day pause in hostilities in conflict-ridden countries. But there was a major sticking point: America and China were unable to agree about whether to reference the WHO in the resolution.

US hostility to the WHO is both ideological – the WHO supports publicly funded healthcare – and part of a blame game about where responsibility lies for the pandemic. The Trump administration holds that the WHO colluded with China in covering up the initial outbreak – China not surprisingly – disagrees.

Mounting tensions between the US and China over the last few weeks have found many outlets – and this UN resolution was but one. Referred to by The Economist as the ‘Sino-American blame game’, this war of words may cost many lives.

But lack of commitment from the US goes beyond the wording of the UN resolution. In a comment to Foreign Policy the State Department made it clear that although the US supports the ceasefire it will continue to fulfil its “legitimate counter-terrorism mission.”

Donald Trump and his hawkish advisors want to be able to carry out attacks when and where they choose – opportunistic drone strikes, such as the one that killed the Iranian General Suleimani in January, must not be ruled out of bounds.

Concern that a universal ceasefire – as proposed by the UN – could constrain overseas operations and lead to reduced geopolitical influence, overrides calls for peace.

The US is not alone in its inaction. Here in the UK there have been no changes to foreign policy, rather the UK government has chosen to support the ceasefire in words rather than deeds.

There are currently thousands of British forces in at least 35 countries around the world, including 1,000 in Afghanistan and more than 1,000 in Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But the government fails to bring them home.

Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, was quick to announce his backing for the ceasefire, yet only three weeks later, on 10 April, the UK was taking part in a bombing raid in Iraq. With the PM in hospital, parliament not sitting and Raab in charge there was no oversight, no scrutiny and no mandate.

The UK, while supposedly supporting a global ceasefire, and failing to provide coronavirus tests or PPE for healthcare workers, decided to bomb a country it has occupied for 17 years, in order, according to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace “to keep the nation safe”. You could not make it up.

Throughout the pandemic the UK has continued to provide support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen: in mid-April it was clear that BAE Systems was still flying supplies and equipment to assist the Saudi operations, and in early May the coalition launched over 100 air strikes on Yemen.

The British military and UK arms manufacturers are so deeply embedded in the Saudi war effort that if Britain withdrew its support the war would grind to a halt in less than two weeks. If the UK had met its words with action in response to the global ceasefire, the war in Yemen could now be over.

Recent NATO activities in the Barents Sea show that NATO military exercises have not ceased during the pandemic either – such exercises so far north in the Arctic Circle have been seen as particularly antagonistic. At a time when both the US and France have lost aircraft-carriers as a result of the virus, it appears that NATO is keen to show that it remains a force to be reckoned with – even if it means risking the lives of its troops.

Scepticism about whether a UN call for a ceasefire would hold much sway is understandable, and history provides plenty of evidence to support such scepticism. However, in late March the positive response on the ground gave rise to a sense of optimism.

There was a feeling that in conflict zones where parties were already looking for an opportunity to talk, a timely push from the UN could have made a difference. A feeling that in this age of coronavirus, where wealthy countries are struggling to cope with the disease, energy and resources could be redirected to save lives rather than destroy them.

Major global powers gave their support to the ceasefire – adding to the hope that something might be about to change – but so far their actions have failed to match their words.

Last week over 35 cross-party MPs signed a letter to the Defence Secretary, urging the government to take real action on implementing the global ceasefire. Before this unique opportunity passes we must maximise this campaign.

Keep up the pressure for a global ceasefire, for the withdrawal of troops, for an end to arms exports and let’s save lives.

Sign our petition, lobby your MP and join Stop The War Coalition.

14 May 2020 by Terina Hine

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