WASHINGTON, D.C. — Covid-19 poses major challenges for people and governments around the world and for the United Nations. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a global cease-fire on March 23 in recognition of the pandemic’s potentially devastating effects on people in conflict-affected nations. Less noticed in the press coverage was the important point that cease-fires would allow for a more effective response to the virus by UN peacekeeping operations.
On April 7, the UN announced that it was suspending rotations of uniformed personnel at all 13 missions until June 30, 2020. This puts a temporary stop to rotations (replacing one unit with another of the same type), repatriations (withdrawal without replacement) and new deployments. The suspension has major implications for host countries and their populations — and for the missions and deployed personnel — from understaffing to prolonged deployments. However, new opportunities also emerge, including finally being able to make progress on more gender-equitable deployments of women.
UN peacekeepers are supporting government efforts to prevent and prepare for Covid-19 outbreaks by improving logistics, facilitating communication and leading outreach, but they cannot support local efforts to prevent the spread of the virus when security is unstable. The head of the UN peacekeeping department, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, reiterated the secretary-general’s call to stop all armed conflicts so that peacekeeping missions can focus on supporting pandemic response work.
The 2019 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo illustrates why cease-fires are so important in such crises. Armed militias in the Congo attacked relief workers and medical facilities and impeded efforts by the UN peacekeeping mission, Monusco, to contain the outbreak, which prolonged the crisis. Stopping conflicts and enabling peacekeepers to support governments and humanitarian relief organizations are critical steps in mitigating the impacts of the pandemic.
Freezing rotations is necessary for many reasons. The countries where peacekeeping missions operate are already fragile, and slowing the spread of the virus by limiting travel is critical as these countries prepare for the worst. The human and economic toll from peacekeepers spreading Covid-19 to local populations would be severe; the political consequences as well. Having acknowledged its role in the 2010 cholera outbreak that devastated Haiti on the heels of an earthquake, the UN must take all necessary precautions to prevent spreading Covid-19 among vulnerable populations. As in Haiti, it would cause lasting damage to the affected country and to UN peace operations and undermine the UN’s effectiveness in future peace processes.
Suspending rotations, while necessary, will have negative consequences. In a letter on April 7, European Union ambassadors assured the UN that they will keep their contingents in place. However, a prolonged freeze, especially from major troop contributors — namely China, South Korea, India, Nepal and Cambodia — could still result in an understaffing of peacekeepers.
On March 28, before the UN suspended all repatriations, South Korea withdrew 200 peacekeepers from the UN mission in South Sudan (Unmiss) after they had completed their nine-month deployment and did not replace them. If other key troop-contributing countries recall contingents to support domestic Covid-19 mitigation efforts, for example, it will leave peacekeepers shorthanded and unable to fulfill their respective mandates, putting local populations and mission members at risk.
At the same time, prolonged deployments could also have negative effects on a UN mission. Deployment durations vary from country to country, but most last 12 months. Longer deployments will likely lead to fatigue, decreased morale and increased stress. This could hurt daily peacekeeping operations, compromising the security of both local populations and peacekeeping troops and jeopardizing the operations’ usefulness.
Fatigue could also be a major potential liability, given the important contributions the UN missions make to the protection of civilians, the resolution of conflicts and the general fragile context in which peacekeepers operate. The unexpected extension of deployment could take a particular toll, as deployments that last longer than expected affect the troops’ mental health and well-being, studies show.
But again, the changes to troop rotations could offer one unexpected opportunity. Today, there are far fewer female than male peacekeepers — and even when deployed they have not enjoyed equal opportunities. Women are often underused and relegated to administrative duties. Rotation freezes and prolonged deployments provide an incentive for contingents to finally address the gendered division of labor and shift roles to a more equitable sharing of responsibilities.
This unprecedented crisis more sharply exposes the costs of gendered barriers in peacekeeping operations. Simply put, they cannot afford to leave female peacekeepers’ potential untapped. An equal opportunity approach — consistent with the Declaration of Shared Commitments on UN Peacekeeping Operations — would help mitigate the impacts of prolonged deployments and keep operations functioning better in this crucial time and beyond.
The exact impacts of the pandemic are difficult to predict, but they are certain to disrupt peacekeeping dramatically and require informed, inclusive decisions to keep both local populations and peacekeepers safe.