Woman at food distribution centre in Libya. (Photo: ICRC archive).

Agent Provocateur is Global Geneva’s Oped section. The editors welcome well-written and accessible articles on relevant topics.

President Emmanuel Macron’s ‘We’re at war’ address to the French nation on Monday 16 March speaks volumes about the unprecedented circumstances in Europe in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This came the day after the European Commission announced the most restrictive travel ban ever imposed in the history of the union. An indefinite suspension of all travel into the Schengen area for non-EU nationals began on March 17th. These are extraordinary measures for extraordinary times that affect all of us, not just in Europe, but globally. 

It is important to address COVID-19 with the seriousness it deserves, both in terms of minimising the spread and protecting people, but also in terms of anticipating how it might affect our work – and whether anything can be done to influence positive outcomes.

Wheelchair basketball match in Damascas, Syria. (Photo: ICRC archives)

Work goes on in conflict and other zones of crisis

In terms of practical response, our organization – as with numerous others – is adhering to official guidance covering the areas of the world in which we work. This means implementing measures to protect staff and consultants as well as our partners and the communities where we operate. It requires remote working and virtual discussions where possible as well as postponing dialogues, events and meetings, even if this runs counter to our best instincts.

As an organisation committed to conflict resolution and peace-building, bringing people together across geographical, ideological and other boundaries to talk and build trust is central to the way in which we operate. Social distancing is simply not in our DNA – though ‘do no harm’ is.  

Waiting for the storm to pass may not be the wisest plan. Things are unlikely to return to the status quo ante. The toll on communities, business and service providers, particularly first responders, will be profound. The impact on vulnerable groups such as refugees and the displaced, prisoners, the disabled and homeless could be devastating.  The risk is that powerful actors, instead of coming together to protect the most vulnerable and strengthen long term resilience to shocks, will seek commercial gain or enter into a blame game for political advantage.

 “Never let a good crisis go to waste” said Churchill. One would like to think that this one could result in greater investment in health, safety and social security, in existing institutions and in new mechanisms, including through the United Nations, that protect public goods, address humanitarian needs and strengthen international cooperation and leadership to address common threats. 

Coronavirus in war zones: a possible incentive for bringing parties together

This pandemic is propelling us to re-examine the way we work, to find additional and novel ways to promote peaceful resolution of conflicts in the regions we operate, and to find additional means to engage and meet our commitments, whether to partners on the ground or our funders.

We will monitor how the pandemic is affecting parties to conflict and the impact it has on their ability and willingness to engage in processes. The pandemic might afford a basis for bringing parties to conflict together to discuss measures to contain it.

Response to the virus may have beneficial effects for the way we approach a slower onset but equally deadly crisis – climate change. In addition to reducing travel related emissions, the spread of the virus is dramatically accelerating the use of communication technology. We have yet to fathom the implications for conflict resolution actors of an even more ‘on line’ world. Can trust and empathy be built virtually? If so, how?  What about poor people and those without access to IT?

Our work depends upon political support by states for efforts to resolve conflicts and reduce suffering. Wall-to-wall media coverage is distracting attention from events around the world, from Afghanistan to Venezuela, the tragedies unfolding in Idlib, Yemen and the Sahel. It may create space for authoritarians and extremists – though they too have their hands full right now.

Livestock herder in the Galgadud region of Somalia, a country where conflict remains a threat. (Photo: ICRC archives)

The pandemic should not be a distraction, but an opportunity for Europe

Optimising Europe’s role in conflict resolution, part of our founding purpose, may have just have become harder. Governments are focusing on domestic priorities, and societies are turning inwards. One must hope that this does not erode a sense of solidarity with people in trouble far away. Could it even do the opposite?

The post-war peace consensus that has prevailed on much of the continent for the past seven decades has lulled people into a sense of security – and, faced with such a crisis, they are  uncertain about how to behave or respond to their own situation, let alone others’. 

Knowing what information to believe is part of the problem. On the one hand, alarmist press and social media posts can leave people confused and prone to panic; on the other, an inevitable ‘optimism bias’ has led to people shrugging off the pandemic as a knee-jerk reaction by some overzealous governments.  Understandably, Europe’s citizens will take some time to get accustomed to this new foggy status quo.
As an institute focused on conflict resolution, we will continue to promote mutual understanding and attempt to dispel distrust and stigmatization wherever it takes root. We want to work with our partners and fellow travellers in this new environment on practical and innovative ways to reduce violence, promote dialogue and advance peace agreements, as well as to maintain support for our common objectives.

President Macron has sounded the siren of war. This will be Europe’s chance to demonstrate that it can live up to its reputation as a beacon of peace, but it will take us all working together to make this happen.

Michael Keating is Executive Director of the European Institute of Peace, an independent body partnering with the European Union and European states as a resource to promote and provide practical support for more effective approaches to conflict prevention, resolution and mediation. Keating has worked with the United Nations in Afghanistan, the Middle East, southern Africa and most recently in Somalia. Keating is an external advisor to the Global Geneva Group.