Safeguarding Civilians During a Pandemic: The Repercussions of COVID-19 on the Protection Agenda

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How COVID-19 and measures to curb its spread have amplified the vulnerabilities of civilians caught in conflict and raised new challenges for protection actors like humanitarian workers, peacekeepers, and human rights defenders was the subject of a May 28th IPI virtual policy forum. Co-hosting the event with IPI were the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Permanent Missions of the United Kingdom, Estonia, Niger, and Canada to the UN.

“The health crisis is quickly becoming a protection crisis,” declared Natacha Emerson of OCHA. “Collective and urgent action is needed to strengthen the protection of civilians so that we can tackle the pandemic and safeguard humanity. For people already struggling to cope with conflict, displacement, and hunger, COVID-19 adds another layer of insecurity, and in conflict settings the virus can easily grab hold and overwhelm crippled health care systems with deadly consequences.”

IPI Senior Fellow Dr. Namie Di Razza, who heads IPI’s Protection of Civilians (POC) program, introduced the discussion with the observation that COVID-19 “has had major disruptive effects, but it has not stopped atrocities, violence and abuse. On the contrary, the pandemic has raised new protection concerns for humanitarian workers, peacekeepers, and human rights defenders.”

Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that human rights violations were rapidly rising in conflict situations in the world, with parties to the conflicts exploiting the circumstances of the pandemic to their advantage, further endangering the most vulnerable people. “So it is in this time of global crisis that universal values and norms, as guaranteed in international law, need more urgent attention than ever, and it also directly engages the responsibilities of states and other duty bearers to uphold their obligations under the law.”

She said that people infected with COVID-19 or suspected of being infected were being stigmatized, attacked and denied medical assistance, and even media representatives who report on the virus were being targeted. “Efforts to fight impunity are significantly impacted [and] governments are focused on the health response, so investigations and trials are de facto put on hold,’’ she said. As a consequence, there could be a premature release of grave human rights violators under the pretext of decongesting prisons for public health reasons. “The UN system must do better in better protecting people in pulling together different mandates and operational activities into one coherent whole under one and the same understanding of protection, putting human rights at the center.”

Laetitia Courtois, Head of Delegation to the UN, International Committee of the Red Cross, said that her organization was used to dealing with epidemics, but never with a pandemic of this “scope and impact.“ She broke down ICRC’s major protection concerns, and outlined four “asks” that would serve to mitigate and alleviate the repercussions of COVID-19:

  • Insist that member states and parties to the conflict respect International Humanitarian Law (IHL);
  • Prevent COVID-19 restrictions from hampering the movement of humanitarian staff and essential services;
  • Protect medical equipment and medical personnel at all times; and
  • Ensure that ICRC and other impartial organizations are allowed to continue working with non-state armed groups, and keep counterterrorism measures from impeding them from engaging with the groups, even those designated as “terrorist.”

Heather Barr, Acting Co-Director, Women’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch, said the COVID-19 crisis had become “a global crisis for women.” She said there had been “huge spikes” in gender-based violence; waves of restrictions, staff shortages and shutdowns at clinics that provide sexual reproductive services; loss of income and jobs for health care workers, 70 percent of whom are women; and widespread closures of schools for girls, which adversely affects rates of child marriage, pregnancy, and sexual violence.

She pointed to water and sanitation as an example of how COVID-19, gender, and preexisting crises “come together in a really harmful way. We all know that washing your hands is important, but often they can’t safely access toilets, latrines, and water points because of concerns about sexual violence, poorly designed camps, lack of freedom of movement for women and girls, and that’s really a crisis in this situation.” She added that long term recovery planning must be gender responsive and “has to think about what impact there’s been on women and how we repair that.”

Caitlin Brady, Director of Programme Development and Quality for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Save the Children, gave a stark account of the effects of epidemics on children, based on past experience. “Border closures and impacts on trade will increase economic hardship everywhere, of course, creating a range of risks, one of them hunger, malnutrition, and associated diseases, and vulnerability to sexual exploitation and abuse, as we saw in the West African Ebola response. We’ll see very weak health facilities, which are already directly targeted by armed groups or are collateral damage when explosive weapons are used in populated areas. Having to respond not just to existing illness and childbirth, but also to COVID-19 will increase excessive maternal and infant mortality.” She forecast that children would be subject to recruitment by armed groups and harsh labor like working in mines.

It was imperative, she said, that school feeding programs be maintained even if the schools themselves were closed. “Yes, the pandemic is a public health emergency, but it’s exacerbating existing protection crises and patterns of marginalization. It’s important that while countries try to respond to the epidemic, they continue with commitments to address child protection and other humanitarian needs.”

Koffi Wogomebu, Senior Protection Adviser, UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), said that steps to curb the virus like limitations on the ability to travel into the field were inadvertently impeding the peacekeeping mission’s POC work. “I just want to say that COVID-19 itself did not constitute a physical violence against civilians falling under our POC mandate, but it is seriously having direct and indirect consequences on the protection of civilians. Measures taken to protect public health such as scaling back activity to prevent the spread of the disease are certainly posing a serious risk to the protection of civilians.”

He said too that the 14 armed groups in the Central African Republic, despite the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, were exploiting the lockdown situation to advance their own aims. “We believe that they take advantage of the fact that we are no longer moving a lot to within their territory, and in doing so, they are committing some serious human rights violations.” In addition, he said, there was an “anti-MINUSCA sentiment” arising out of the misperception that it was the responsibility of the UN mission to slow the spread of the virus and produce a remedy. “This has a put another pressure on the mission,” he said.

James Roscoe, Acting Deputy Representative of the United Kingdom to the UN, said that the UK, working with other countries, had made four pledges in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. He listed them as supporting an effective health response led by the World Health Organization (WHO); reinforcing resilience in the most vulnerable countries; pursuing treatments and vaccines; and helping to “shore up” the global economy. As for POC and the COVID-19 crisis, he said, the United Kingdom would work to expedite access and needed equipment and to guarantee “unfettered humanitarian access.”

In concluding remarks, Gert Auväärt, Deputy Permanent Representative of Estonia to the UN, lamented that some conflict parties have “sought to take advantage of the situation, and regrettably it has provided a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic.” The main message, he said, was that “we need more protection, not less.”

Mohammad Koba, Deputy Permanent Representative of Indonesia to the UN, observed that “what is more important now with the spread of coronavirus already and international cooperation is to support those who are most vulnerable to the virus, particularly in armed conflict.” Furthermore, he reiterated that Indonesia “fully support[s] the call for the immediate global ceasefire. It is an extremely important call for all parties to the conflict, to focus on the handling the impact of COVID-19, provide respite for civilians, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and offer space for continued diplomacy.”

Abdou Abarry, Permanent Representative of Niger, remarked that “one of the unfortunate unintended consequences of COVID-19 is the worldwide alarming increase of gender-based violence and violence against our children,” which exacerbated existing inequalities “particularly in African countries where women constitute the majority of the work force.” He said that direct and indiscriminate attacks on schools had deprived over one half million African children of education. “An attack on education is an attack on the future,” he declared. Looking ahead, he said that when a safe and effective vaccine would be developed, “let it be the people’s vaccine, available to all. This would be a cornerstone of the POC agenda.”

Richard Arbeiter, Deputy Permanent Representative of Canada to the UN, commended participants for ensuring that the just concluded POC week “was not a casualty of COVID-19 as well.” He praised the POC community’s work, saying that “the POC community is very sophisticated and it has evolved over twenty years. I am amazed by how quickly all parts of this community has been able to identify and analyze the situations locally and what that means globally for all of us. [Panelists] had ground-truth reality recommendations, both to acknowledge what is working, where the gaps and inequalities have been exacerbated as well. It’s really quite something to stand back from it and see how quickly and ably we are able to figure out what needs to change in order for those that are most vulnerable to receive the support that they need.”

Dr. Di Razza moderated the discussion.