UN chief warns of ‘COVID-19 storm’ for warring nations but some conflicts still flaring

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United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres said Friday that warring parties in 11 countries have responded positively to his appeal for a global ceasefire to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, but turning words into peace is enormously difficult and fighting has escalated in major conflicts, including in Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan.

He called on all governments, groups and people with influence “to urge and pressure combatants around the world to put down their arms,” saying the need is urgent because “the COVID-19 storm” is now coming to all conflict areas.

Guterres told a briefing at UN headquarters in New York that his appeal 10 days ago was rooted in the recognition that “there should be only one fight in our world today: our shared battle against COVID-19.”

The UN chief said the appeal is “resonating” across the world, citing a growing number of endorsements for the ceasefire from 70 countries, civil society, religious leaders including Pope Francis, and more than one million people in an online petition organized by non-profit organization Avaaz.

He said parties to conflicts in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen have also expressed their acceptance.

But Guterres said: “There are enormous difficulties to implementation as conflicts have festered for years, distrust is deep, with many spoilers and many suspicions.”

He also warned that “terrorist or extremist groups may take profit from the uncertainty created by the spread of the pandemic.”

The UN General Assembly unanimously approved a resolution on Thursday recognizing “the unprecedented effects” of the coronavirus pandemic and calling for “intensified international co-operation to contain, mitigate and defeat” the COVID-19 disease. It was the first resolution adopted by the 193-member world body on the pandemic.

The 15-member Security Council is expected to discuss the pandemic sometime next week. It is likely to have two resolutions to consider: one backed by the council’s 10 elected members and the other by permanent member France.

Yemeni women work to manufacture protective face masks at a textile factory in Sanaa, Yemen. In conflict zones across the Middle East, the spectre of the coronavirus looms large, with Yemen, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan among the countries where civilians are doubly vulnerable to the pandemic. (Hani Mohammed/The Associated Press)

With respect to the conflagrations taking place across the globe, Guterres said Friday that “in many of the most critical situations, we have seen no let-up in fighting – and some conflicts have even intensified.”

In Yemen, he said that despite support for a ceasefire by the government, Houthi Shia rebels and many other parties, “the conflict has spiked.”

Some positive signs with Idlib ceasefire

Guterres said UN envoy Martin Griffiths is preparing “to convene the parties to discuss COVID-19 crisis management and a nationwide ceasefire mechanism.”

In Libya, the secretary general said, the warring parties welcomed calls to stop the fighting, “yet clashes have escalated drastically on all front lines, obstructing efforts to effectively respond to COVID-19.”

He urged the UN-recognized government that holds the capital of Tripoli and parts of the country’s west, and the rival government in the east that supports self-styled Gen. Khalifa Haftar to immediately halt hostilities to allow the coronavirus threat to be addressed.

In Afghanistan, where fighting increased, Guterres said the time has come for the government and the Taliban, who are working on a prisoner exchange, to cease hostilities “as COVID-19 looms over the country.”

In Syria, where the first coronavirus deaths have been reported, he said a ceasefire in the last rebel stronghold in northwest Idlib — which was negotiated by Russia and Turkey — is holding.

But the secretary general said a permanent nationwide ceasefire is essential to tackle COVID-19 and help the millions suffering from the conflict which is now in its 10th year.

“We need robust diplomatic efforts to meet these challenges,” Guterres said. “To silence the guns, we must raise the voices for peace.”

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