We must commend the important efforts leading to the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2532 on a global ceasefire, as it demonstrated that unified action was required to confront COVID-19. The social, political, economic and sociocultural impacts of COVID-19 will resonate globally for many years to come. The disruptions caused by the pandemic on so many aspects of our lives will continue to be felt by many, especially those most vulnerable in our societies – women and children, in particular – for a long time. The year 2020 was earmarked for reflection, celebration and setting new goals to advance and strengthen the agenda for women, peace and security (WPS), in the context of UNSCR 1325. While I acknowledge that many important events and programmes have been held (mostly through virtual platforms), were we now confronted by such a “common enemy”, we would have had more concentrated conversations about what still needs to be done to drive this agenda forward.
As the UNSG stated, it is “time for a stepped-up push for peace to achieve a global ceasefire”, because we are all confronted by “one common enemy: COVID-19” @bbigombeTweet
The devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is also felt in the same year meant for Silencing the Guns in Africa, in accordance with the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)/African Union (AU) 50th Anniversary Solemn Declaration. The raging war in Libya, intensifying violent extremism in Cabo Delgado and the Sahel region, and continued instability in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Burundi and Somalia, are reminders of the path we still need to travel to consolidate peace in Africa. The emergence and spread of COVID-19 complicates the efforts to end these wars and pushes back the successes that have already been made, as different national and international actors have to refocus their attention on fighting the pandemic, among other things. As someone who has spent most of her life engaged in a struggle for justice, freedom and dignity, I know very well what that means, as well as the devastating effects of the inaccessibility of life-saving and humanitarian support, especially during times of crisis. The efforts across the globe, and in Africa, to curb the spread of COVID-19 require our undivided attention, and we cannot concretely achieve this while civil strife rages in many countries.
Peace is a collective effort
My experience in working to bring about peace and the achievement of a cessation of hostilities in my own country, Uganda, and several other countries on the continent, has taught me many lessons – among them is that peace is a collective endeavour. Peacebuilding processes and reconciling fractured communities are collective efforts, involving local actors – for they must feel and see the need for peace – and national, regional and international actors. Indeed, those who bear the brunt of the war usually cry for peace louder than any other person. During my work in northern Uganda, for instance, I realised that the local actors could not do it alone. It had to be a concerted effort with regional and international actors if we were to succeed in creating the conditions for stability. However, we know today that due to COVID-19, in many areas where concerted efforts of various stakeholders are required to build peace – as was the case in my own country – such support is now constrained. This means that the continuation of wars during this pandemic period further exacerbates the conditions of those who were already the most vulnerable.
As peace activists, we should seize the opportunity and use the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 to be serious about our commitments to support and strengthen local and national peacebuilding actors @bbigombeTweet
My experience again – from my own country, as well as other complex situations I have been part of, such as in Sri Lanka, Colombia and Liberia – has taught me that peace cannot be achieved virtually. The success of any efforts to make peace depend almost exclusively on face-to-face contacts, building and sustaining human relations, and ongoing direct interactions. As the world battles with COVID-19, such direct interactions have, in most instances, been put on hold – which means that collaborative peacemaking has been disrupted, whereas war efforts in several places continue unabated. This is an untenable situation.
Let’s strengthen local capacities
As us peace activists continue to put our heads together on how best to continue with our various efforts during the time of COVID-19, and how we will approach peacebuilding in the future, we should use the restrictions imposed by the pandemic to be serious about our commitments to support and strengthen local and national actors. Even if a vaccine is eventually discovered, we cannot expect to return to the old ways of doing things, which included peace efforts being heavily dependent on international and external actors. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to rethink, improvise and enhance strategies to place local actors at the centre of finding solutions to many conflicts. It is local and national actors who are the first responders, and the absence of or limited role by some international actors should not be misconstrued as a sign that there are no efforts to build peace in areas where it is needed.
In conclusion, with the adoption of UNSCR 2532, I would like to repeat what I said in another article about UNSCR 1325, which is that world leaders will have to move beyond the rhetoric and cease playing politics with our lives. This they can do by ensuring the full implementation of the call to cease hostilities, while continuously searching for new and better ways to respond to emergencies. Conversely, to accomplish these tasks, we need to look beyond governments and mobilise other social partners, including civil society and the private sector.
Betty Oyella Bigombe served as the Senior Director for Fragility, Conflict, and Violence at the World Bank from 2014 to 2017. From May 2011 until June 2014, she was the State Minister for Water Resources in the Uganda Cabinet. During the same timeframe, she concurrently served as the elected Member of Parliament (MP), representing Amuru District Women’s Constituency. From March 2004 to 2005, Bigombe was the chief mediator in a peace initiative with the Lord’s Resistance Army. She is currently providing technical support to the peace process in South Sudan and has served as Uganda’s special envoy to South Sudan.