Millions of Muslims are celebrating Ramadan all over the world these days. Ramadan, undoubtedly, not only represents a very important spiritual moment, but is also an opportunity for reflection on the meaning of life, of each individual and of communities. A few days ago, Christians and Jews celebrated Easter and Passover. And Covid-19 dominates the world. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, has issued an appeal for ceasefire, immediately embraced by Pope Francis and subsequently supported by the High Representative of the European Commission Josep Borrell, and by many countries in the world, including Italy.
A few hours ago, news broke that General Khalifa Haftar announced a unilateral ceasefire during the holy month of Ramadan, ordering the halt of military operations. And to think that just a few hours earlier Haftar’s forces had attacked a hospital in Tripoli with rockets. It remains to be seen whether this announcement will be followed through and if words will be followed by concrete actions capable of reviving the negotiation process established at the Berlin Conference. Turning our gaze to Afghanistan, the Taliban have clearly stated that they don’t intend to respect the ceasefire during Ramadan as the truce is not rational, and that they will rather intensify attacks on government forces. So, is a global ceasefire possible?
Let’s start from the usefulness of a similar measure. It’s a temporary suspension of violence that, despite not resolving the conflict, can certainly represent a first step. Several advantages ensue: at
the political level the scenario changes de facto, because ceasefire provides the opportunity to reflect, to ease tension, and opens the door to negotiations that would be impossible at the peak of hostilities.
It gives the population the opportunity to recover a semblance of normality in everyday life, allowing to reactivate a positive dynamism in society, as well as making it possible for players who have limited possibility of action in situations of conflict, to work for peace. However, the most important effect of ceasefire is the disruption of the cycle of violence, which generates all kinds of reactions and consequences: if violence is interrupted, it is possible to regain a certain degree of rationality which – contrary to the claims of the Taliban – could pave the way for a change of course.
But a ceasefire is not enough per se. Clear policy statements are necessary, along with an openly declared commitment and defined objectives. Otherwise there’s a risk that good intentions will fade away quickly. There’s also a need for a strong leadership because the ceasefire must likewise be the result of a consensus of all players deployed on either side of the conflict. Persistent fear, mistrust, and concerns must be addressed.
The suspicion that ceasefire may be used (as, unfortunately, has sometimes been the case) to buy time, to regroup for the conflict by stockpiling new armaments rather than preparing for peace negotiations, can have the opposite effect, reinforcing the hostile attitude of the parties instead of commencing de-escalation. As in all political processes, trust is paramount, to put it in the words of the great sociologist Piotr Sztompka. Regaining trust or building it from scratch is a long process, which can also be quite crowded with people, words, and actions. Bringing order is essential.
Guterres’ appeal is clear: there’s only one battle to be won today, and that’s everyone’s battle, united against Covid-19. Unless the ceasefire is fully and immediately implemented, aid cannot be delivered to the populations who are most vulnerable to Covid-19 in the world. The consequences of the virus’ spread in fragile contexts are economic, but also social and security-related.
The inability to exercise civil rights, for example, given that several elections have been postponed worldwide due to the pandemic, can lead to unrest, upsurge of violence and terrorism, not to mention the exploitation of the situation of uncertainty and vulnerability by criminal groups including human traffickers. The ceasefire would allow humanitarian aid to reach the populations who are most vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19.
To date, the United Nations’ call for ceasefire has been endorsed by a large number of countries, religious leaders, civil society organizations and others around the world, but there is uncertainty regarding the results that can be achieved on the ground. But here’s the good news: a significant response seems to come from a number of armed groups involved in conflicts in Yemen and Syria, Cameroon, Philippines, Myanmar, and Colombia. The Colombian Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN) has announced a ceasefire for April.
In Syria, it is necessary that guns fall silent throughout the country, also because the first cases of Covid-19 have been reported, and this is a worrying sign considering that there are six and a half million displaced persons in the country, already harassed by years of conflict. Unfortunately, however, in Yemen – where the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world is taking place – the fighting between the Houthi and forces loyal to the exiled government escalated in mid-April, despite the ceasefire unilaterally declared by Saudi Arabia as a signal of awareness of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Italy immediately supported Guterres’ appeal for global ceasefire. This is part of the constitutive principles which inspire our foreign policy. We are a very active country both on the political and humanitarian level – which is equally political – in the world, in conflicts. We play a fundamental role in many peace processes with coordinated and continuous civil and military actions on the ground. For example, Italy is a member of the Group of Friends of “Women, Peace and Security”, and also of the Group of Friends of “Children and Armed Conflict”, and of the Group of Friends on the “Protection of Civilians”. Clearly, a ceasefire is a measure subject to instability.
It’s clear that calling for ceasefire in the context of the pandemic means drawing the attention of states to their own interest in promoting a process of de-escalation. And it is on interests that we must work if we wish to ensure the success of the most ambitious project in the world, namely that of peace. But it’s not enough to endorse an appeal ideally. Italy can play a really significant role in transforming the objective of global ceasefire into concrete and lasting actions.
It can make an important contribution, due to its reputation as a country that has no hidden agenda, by working on the benefits that the ceasefire would produce for all parties, particularly from the persuasive prospect of the risks posed for all by the spread of the pandemic, which would lead to the resurgence of infections and would, in any case, keep the virus circulating ad libitum. The EU member countries are discussing how to ensure concrete help to Africa, to fragile countries, precisely in the context of the evident interconnections and interdependencies between our continent and the other ones.
Identifying, together with our allies, concrete benefits to be placed on the table in contexts of conflict, especially on the humanitarian level, offers enormous support to Guterres’ appeal, thus also reassuring the parties in conflict. If on the one hand the cease-fire is an easily exploitable measure, which in some cases may have negative effects, on the other, the idea of making it a global and, above all, a humanitarian-based measure appears to be a winning move, even if it can be difficult to convey at the local level, between the parties involved in individual conflicts.
And this is where the operators on the ground, those who have access to the most remote communities, with direct contacts, come into play. Italy can, and must, contribute in this, as it has a global dimension, being very active at the multilateral level, with strong friendships in the world at the bilateral level and, above all, as a contributor to many international organizations that would necessarily need to be coordinated in this collective effort.
The UN Security Council is discussing the text of a resolution on global ceasefire, which is highly desired. With its extraordinary soft power made of culture, natural empathy and reliability, Italy has always pursued the goal of ceasefire in its action, as the precondition of inclusive political processes for crisis management, thanks to the participation of all the national system’s actors, ranging from the world of politics and diplomacy to civil society, and to the private sector.
Thanks to Guterres’ initiative, Covid-19 is teaching us that now is the time for courage. If the present health emergency were to make us lay the foundations for a more equitable and sustainable future global order, then Italy should take over the ceasefire agenda even more concretely, by deploying its great qualities as a bearer of peace and democracy.