Covid-19 and armed non-state actors

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By Alain Délétroz

In many countries enduring conflict, important parts of their population live outside the control of the state, under the authority of armed non-State actors (ANSAs) or non-recognized entities. In a time of pandemic, when a rigorous, systematic approach to healthcare is required, the gaps that these regions represent in the responses to Covid-19 are ticking timebombs. These may prove to be the regions where all the conditions might come together to create fresh outbreaks of the epidemic.

Geneva Call has been engaging with ANSAs around the world for 20 years. As part of its mission to encourage those groups to respect humanitarian norms and the rules of war, it has managed to gain access to the most inhospitable territories. It has become a privileged intermediary with many ANSAs, but unfortunately, it is too often the only one. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Geneva Call has been urging ANSAs to appreciate its full importance and danger, both to themselves and the populations under their control.

It is essential to reinforce the following components of the multipronged efforts against Covid-19: firstly, to offer legal and technical advice to the leaders of ANSAs on their responsibilities in a time of pandemic, while raising the awareness of frontline combatants about their obligations to ensure, maintain and provide access to essential healthcare services; secondly, to then launch targeted health and hygiene programmes in the zones controlled by those ANSAs; thirdly, to support healthcare and humanitarian agencies by offering Geneva Call’s services as an intermediary with ANSAs to enable or facilitate the distribution of essential medical material; and finally, to track and record the anti-Covid-19 measures taken by ANSAs around the world in order to keep the humanitarian community well informed -Geneva Call’s COVID-19 Armed Non-State Actors’ Response Monitor is a selected project at this year’s Paris Peace Forum.

Geneva Call has already succeeded in convincing many ANSAs to establish hygiene and medical precaution measures. In other contexts, however, the organisation has sought to curb ANSAs’ instinctive impulses to impose stringent rules of confinement, backed by force, which might prove disastrous to many particularly fragile civilian populations. This is especially true when people must regularly leave their homes for reasons of basic survival, like for instance bringing home enough drinking water or tending to their crops.

States must understand that the world’s fight against Covid-19 may be lost in the remote areas where there are gaping holes in healthcare cover. It is thus vital that humanitarian actors be allowed access to armed non-state actors, without the fear of falling foul of rigid counter-terrorism laws. The equipment necessary for containing the virus should be allowed to reach every person in every corner of national territories, even if their control is heavily disputed.

Counter-terrorism legislation can have chilling effects on humanitarian workers. In addition to the immense challenges to the security of our staff in the field, we could now potentially face legal retaliation upon return for having been in touch with groups that could be on the terrorist list of one state or another. While Geneva Call fully understands the need to effectively fight terrorism, it could not stress enough the necessity to preserve an open humanitarian space and access to all armed actors. For the safety of the world in the time of pandemic, it is essential that small, agile actors can still operate efficiently and build contacts with all sides in armed conflicts. To lose this ability would mean increased breaches of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) rules, new levels of violence and atrocities, inevitably creating an endless spiral of retaliations and revenge, which must be avoided.

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

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