COVID-19 AND THE PROTECTION OF CIVILIANS IN CONFLICT-AFFECTED STATES

Elderly wait, respecting social-distancing and wearing masks, for the vaccination (Kenya). Elderly wait, respecting social-distancing and wearing masks, for the vaccination (Kenya). © Denis Ngai on Pexels

In this report, CIVIC summarily highlighted the main challenges to civilians’ protection in conflict-affected states, during the pandemic.

The global coronavirus pandemic has been declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on January 30, 2020. Early on, the UN Secretary-General attempted to establish a global ceasefire to allow countries to focus on tackling the pandemic, but its effectiveness was marginal. As many international military and civilian missions were forced to reduce their footprint and engagement with local partners, civilian harm was perpetuated, and hospitals and medical facilities continued to come under attack by armed actors.

In this situation of stall, community-led solutions and community-based protection have proved to be an essential lifeline, together with strong civilian relationships with militaries, police, and armed groups that reduced risks of civilian harm.

 CIVIC examined, through 27 interviews of security forces’ serving members and representatives from civil society, both the direct and the indirect impacts of the pandemic on the protection of civilians. The report is focused on the analysis of many case studies (Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Ukraine, Tunisia…), lessons learned and examples of innovative programming and good practices that have helped confront the challenges of protecting civilians during a global pandemic.

Security forces were identified as being likely among the frontline responders during future health emergencies in fragile and conflict-affected states. It is crucial that the Ministries of Defense and Interior are able to re-organize them to prevent and mitigate civilian harm and enforce public health measures. 

Security forces had not previously received specific training for health emergencies. Units often lacked the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) that may have allowed them to better care for the population without additional tensions and fear of infection. Notably, the use of emergency legislation to mobilize local security forces during the pandemic response created new risks for civilians, like the use of excessive force when enforcing curfews, or dispersing protests. 

In some places, enforcement efforts proved to be deadlier for civilians than COVID-19 itself. In Nigeria, the National Human Rights Commission recorded 33 incidents of "torture, inhumane and degrading treatment"; 27 incidents violating people's right to freedom of movement; 13 incidents of extortion; 4 incidents of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV); and 1 incident of discrimination in the distribution of food. In Uganda, police beat and arrested 23 people during a raid on a shelter for homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. Sex workers in border towns in Uganda and Kenya faced increased stigma and violence from the community and the police.

On the other hand, in Afghanistan, systematic abuses by security forces were not reported; in Tunisia, youth and police cooperated to reduce tensions and crowding outside assistance centers; and in Iraq, there was a shared and direct engagement on issues of civilian harm, as they unfolded.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not had a universal impact. Its influence on civilian harm is context-driven and varies between different countries and populations, but, generally, the impact was particularly harder on women, children, IDPs, refugees, returnees, and minorities. 

The World Health Organization has estimated that, in Afghanistan, in 2020, up to three million people were deprived of essential health services due to the closure of hospitals by conflicting parties, which in turn fueled high levels of tension and mistrust between the Afghan government and the Taliban, hampering humanitarian assistance. 

Conditions and controls "largely depend on who is in charge" in each country, said Human Rights Watch.

Extremist groups, militias, and criminal gangs have reportedly capitalized on the pandemic and consequent restrictions and livelihoods on people’s movement to step up recruitment. In Nigeria, announcements of mosque closures were instrumentalized by radical groups as evidence of anti-Muslim sentiment; in Tunisia and Iraq, lockdown policies may have raised communities' suspicions that security forces were using them to control populations they mistrusted.

Countering extremism, reducing community violence, and reacting to emerging triggers for radicalization had been a challenge but communities were able to identify the potentially alienating impact of COVID-19 measures and have worked to rebuild trust.

In contrast to civil-military experiences during past medical crises, international troops withdrew most of their personnel and switched to remote work, facilitating the persistent targeting of healthcare facilities, and making it harder for civilians to access medical assistance; this in turn hampered an accurate calculation of virus-related deaths.

The future focus for civil society organizations and their international partners should be the development of community-based protection networks which, in cases of sudden withdrawal, could ensure access to various equipment so as to be ready to act alone locally. Missions should have contingency plans in place to allow protection advisers to stay in-country during emergencies, since creating a culture of protection requires and relies on an ongoing dialogue between communities and security forces. 

During the pandemic, the sense of impunity of local security forces may have contributed to an increase in abusive behavior and fraud by international and humanitarian organizations; in some, extreme cases, entire projects were falsified. 

Nonetheless, COVID-19 has come out low on the list of perceived risks to local populations and security forces in place to protect them. 

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the risk of civilian harm overall. In some states, violent crackdowns in the name of pandemic enforcement will have long-term effects on civil-military relations. In others, it may take a long time for crucial protection services for vulnerable populations to regain pre-pandemic trust. In its conclusion, as infections from the virus were surging in both Africa and South Asia, the report depicted the vaccine as the solution, coupled with the ability of governments, non-governmental and international organizations, private companies, and communities to cooperate to guarantee that its distribution is truly global.

 

To read more, check the full report:
https://civiliansinconflict.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/CIVIC_COVID_Report_Web.pdf

 

By Viola Rubeca

 

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