In a public statement by Secretary-General of the UN, António Guterres, on March 23rd, states and non-state actors around the world were called upon to lay down their arms in the face of the growing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Before a sombre international press conference, he declared, “The virus does not care about nationality, ethnicity… or faith.” He urged warring factions to cease hostilities, and asked world leaders to support diplomatic efforts wherever possible to allow for the creation of aid corridors to the world’s most vulnerable populations.
On April 2nd, the UN published an update on the appeal, and detailed its predictably mixed reception around the world. Among his most vocal supporters is Pope Francis, who on March 30th echoed his sentiment that the SARS-CoV-2 virus “knows no borders,” and agreed with Guterres’ statement that, “the fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war.” Most religious conflicts in the modern world are between different factions of Abrahamic faiths, so it was particularly apt for the Pope to comment, “what God wills is fraternity among us… with our brothers, who are sons of Abraham, like us, the Muslims. We ought not be afraid of the difference… we ought to be frightened if we do not work in fraternity.” Unfortunately, while Jewish and Muslim leadership have called for renewed faith and obedience to authorities attempting to ‘slow the spread,’ many show no signs of responding directly or otherwise to Guterres’ call to end interfaith violence.
“The challenges we face in moving from my appeal to its implementation are considerable,” Guterres conceded in the update. Also detailed in the report were state responses to the appeal. Sudan and South Sudan are taking steps to solidify the shaky land agreements deliberated over the last few years. Many other African nations have joined the call for peace with official support for the ceasefire, including The Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Togo, Cameroon, The Central African Republic, and Niger. Civilians have also joined the call for cessation of hostilities: as of today, there are over 1.8 million signatures on a petition to support the ceasefire appeal on avazz.org.
Not all responses have been so positive, though. Many conflicts around the world are continuing to intensify. In Myanmar, officials call the appeal “not realistic” and show no signs of deescalating conflict in minority ethnic provinces in the West. Libya and Afghanistan are two other places where there seems to be little official support for a ceasefire. In Libya, different factions have been fighting for years to restore the nation to the level of prosperity it enjoyed under Gaddafi’s leadership. The situation on the ground there is currently too unstable to permit effective distribution of aid, even if the fighting were to stop today. It’s not clear that the different factions could form a coalition to coordinate that aid, and even less clear that a national leader may emerge among them to implement the containment measures seen in other parts of the world.
In Afghanistan, very little has changed since the U.S. invasion in 2001. As America prepares for large-scale conflict with Iran, maintaining presence in the West of Afghanistan is more critical than ever. The Taliban, for their part, show no signs of adjusting the combat strategy and peace terms they have held since the early days of the occupation: they want U.S. troops out of their country, and will continue to periodically attack U.S. and Afghan government forces until the occupation ends. That will only happen when the U.S. enacts or completely abandons its plan to wage war in Iran. The unlikely alternative to that conclusion is an abandoning of Israeli interests by the American military, which would be a cause for rejoice for the entire world, but remains a fantasy, given current U.S.-Israeli relations.
In the case of Israel, who has for years acted unilaterally and in contempt of the international community, it seems unlikely that a resolution short of granting them the entirety of what they consider “Greater Israel” would be enough to satisfy them. That would set a dangerous precedent and violates international norms against aggression and irredentism, so the world has no choice but to continue waiting for Israeli policies to change.
Ultimately, some religious leaders are failing to acknowledge the need for the kind of fraternity the Pope articulated. The typical “bad actors” in global affairs also seem unfazed by the pandemic. Israel is continuing with its settler-colonial policies in the Arab world; Saudi Arabia is continuing its clandestine Wahhabi activities in North Africa, as well as overt hostilities in East Africa. The United States, while clearly distracted with pandemic, retains the potential to dramatically escalate tensions with China in the coming weeks and months, as well as seemingly preparing for all-out war with Iran in the near future.
For many non-state actors like the Taliban, as well as perennial problem states like Israel, the words of the UN and foreign leaders like the Pope risk falling on deaf ears. This is not the first or the tenth time the UN has put peace proposals before these actors, and it will not be the last time they are ignored.