Blogpost on COVID-19 and armed conflicts by Dr. Kamal Makili-Aliyev, Affiliated Researcher
While COVID-19 pandemic rages globally, a lot of attention has been concentrated to the risk groups based on age or on the existing medical/health conditions. However, other objective factors can put large groups of a population at risk. This, for example, if a population is affected by an armed conflict. While the attention of states is focused on their internal situations, with their respective COVID-19 outbreaks, both their financial and aid resources are directed primarily to their own medical healthcare systems. This leaves states affected by armed conflicts in a particularly vulnerable position.
Effective governance and political will are needed to quickly mitigate any infectious outbreaks. Experts in epidemiology agree that prevention, detection and response are crucial to mitigation strategies and are heavily dependent on the state and its institutions.
Sadly, effective governance and institutions are what is usually lacking during times of armed conflict and in the territories affected by hostilities.
The traditional means of communication and governance are disrupted by wars. The civilian population is very vulnerable and is often already suffering a humanitarian crisis. Given the challenges that some developed countries now face, a state that hosts a civil war finds itself in incomparable risk.
Protection of Civilians
International humanitarian law covers the protection of civilian populations during the times of armed conflict.
Customary norms of international humanitarian law bestow obligations on any belligerent party to protect any civilian population on the territories under their effective control. That includes the provision of medical aid and services.
However, in present situation, such protection (f. ex. in form of medical services) may not be maintained by the belligerents due to insufficiency of resources and simple impossibility to reroute such resources from other sectors of their economy (already beset by war and pandemic). The battle zones on the ground can even challenge the possibility of receiving aid from third states.
More Humanitarian Aid
Nonetheless, it is in this case medical aid from third states that can help belligerents fulfill their obligations under international humanitarian law. It is precisely such times that test the capacity and willingness of the international community to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on vulnerable groups not only ‘at home’. This is done by directing aid and resources to those groups that have already been suffering due to an armed conflict. There is a strong need to support the efforts and address assessments done by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), relevant United Nations bodies and agencies and other such actors – to extend more humanitarian aid to the countries affected by wars.
Sadly, most signs point in the opposite direction. The U.S. and other states are limiting aid, in medical equipment to the countries in need and conflict and is actively redirecting such acquisitions to its own citizens.
In Yemen, the hostilities have not stopped despite active calls from the international community and attempts to establish a cease-fire and UN reports that aid money for the situation in Yemen are running out. In Libya, reports are pointing to the horrible situation for civilians that are quarantined in a literal war zone, where running from the areas under shelling is not an option.
Moreover, recent reports by ICRC, International Crisis Group and RAND Corporation suggest the exacerbation of the situation in conflict zones globally, due to the combination of health and economic factors brought by the pandemic and its expected aftermath.
All of this points to the conclusion that, while the populations of states that enjoy peace at least have a chance to gain access to existing healthcare systems, such opportunities are lacking in the states severely affected by armed conflicts.
Civilians cannot rely on the parties to the conflict. Their hope remains with members of the international community. They are waiting for that community to recognize them, their needs and their extreme vulnerability and to extend a helping hand.
Dr. Kamal Makili-Aliyev, Affiliated Researcher, Raoul Wallenberg Institute (RWI)