Ceasefires and Conventional Arms Control in the COVID-19 Pandemic

September 2020
By Simon Yazgi, Hardy Giezendanner, and Himayu Shiotani

The coronavirus disease COVID-19 has spread at an exponential rate since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in March 2020. The United Nations voiced its concerns early about the grave burden that the pandemic placed on people in conflict-affected environments, including its effects on already fragile and vulnerable health care, food security, and other essential services. Recognizing this, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on March 23 for a global ceasefire to support the response to the pandemic: “To warring parties, I say silence the guns, stop the artillery, end the airstrikes.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres speaks outside UN headquarters in New York in March, the month he called for a global ceasefire. (Photo: EuropaNewswire/Gado/Getty Images)Five months later, armed conflicts continue to rage in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and other countries while insecurity persists on all continents. As the spread of the pandemic escalates and fighting continues, conventional arms, ammunition, and explosives continue to flow, sometimes in greater quantities, into conflict and other environments affected by armed violence. Conventional arms, in particular their availability and misuse, remain a common denominator in situations affected by the pandemic and armed conflicts.

At this critical juncture, it is timely to explore if conventional arms control has a role in supporting the call for a global ceasefire. How does arms control fit in the UN Security Council’s toolbox? What more can be done by arms control actors to contribute to saving lives in the midst of the pandemic?

Ceasefires and Pandemics

Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire during the COVID-19 pandemic has garnered considerable support, and more than 180 UN members have backed it, as have more than 20 armed movements and other entities and more than 800 civil society organizations.1 Consensus was difficult to reach in the UN Security Council, and it was only on July 1 that it added its voice to the appeal, with the adoption of Resolution 2532. In addition to echoing the secretary-general’s demand for “a general and immediate cessation of hostilities in all situations on its agenda,” the council also called on “all parties to armed conflicts to engage immediately in a durable humanitarian pause for at least 90 consecutive days.”2

Whereas the ceasefire appeal had broad support, its limited impact was recognized by the secretary-general in his briefing to the Security Council on July 2. Referring to the more than 20 ceasefires announced since his appeal, he noted that “the call yielded some positive results, but these have since expired or in some cases broken down.”3

In the COVID-19 context, ceasefires are a traditional peacemaking tool that is being used to counter a phenomenon that, in UN parlance, is a “nontraditional threat.” In this case, ceasefires are being used in a manner similar to how they might be leveraged in peacemaking. Ceasefires do not address the underlying causes of a conflict, just the symptoms, which are the violence and the tools that fuel it, that is, the weapons. Ceasefires can support peace talks by demonstrating parties’ willingness to show restraint, stop the fighting, and establish favorable conditions for talks. Currently, their use is similar: they do not directly address the pandemic, but could provide some respite in the fighting and allow others to do so.

The majority of the ceasefires announced since the appeal have been unilateral, only engaging the party that declared them and with an expiration date. For example, in Yemen the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen “determined to create a conducive environment” for the UN envoy’s efforts by announcing a two-week pause in the fighting “to allow for appropriate conditions…to discuss [the secretary-general’s] proposals on steps and mechanisms to implement a permanent ceasefire in Yemen.”4 Similarly, in the only response that made reference to the Security Council’s resolution, the Colombian Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) rebel movement suggested talks with the government on a 90-day bilateral ceasefire, noting that “if this bilateral cessation [of hostilities] is agreed, a climate of humanitarian détente would be created, favorable to restart the peace dialogue between the Colombian government and the ELN.”5

In the Philippines, simultaneous unilateral ceasefires were declared by the government and the New People’s Army (NPA) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These were not negotiated between the parties, and although unilateral, they overlapped in time, demonstrating a shared desire to deescalate violence in the face of the pandemic. The NPA, “by way of direct response to the call of UN secretary-general,”6 mirrored a governmental ceasefire declared from March 19 to April 15. The NPA then unilaterally extended it by two weeks, but allowed it to lapse on May 1, accusing the government of continuing operations against its forces.

Unsurprisingly, the initial ceasefires did not last. Their purpose was never to end a conflict, but at best to signal a party’s goodwill to facilitate responses to the pandemic by demonstrating restraint from fighting and, in some cases, their willingness to engage in peace negotiations. This could change if states commit and implement Resolution 2532 to provide a unique framework to help sustain the monitoring and implementation of global ceasefires and the 90-day humanitarian pause. This is where arms control has a role to play.

An Entry Point for Arms Control

Embedded within Resolution 2532 is an invitation by the Security Council to the secretary-general to report on measures that relevant UN mechanisms, from peace operations to special political missions and UN country teams, have taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic. This call empowers the secretary-general to monitor and report on measures taken by the UN to address the pandemic “in countries in situations of armed conflict or affected by humanitarian crises” ranging from support in the areas of humanitarian access and sanctions to arms control and related confidence-building measures.7

Children walk near damaged buildings in Benghazi, Libya in 2019. Conventional arms control measures in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and many other spots could support the implementation of ceasefires in those areas. (Photo: Giles Clarke/UNOCHA/Getty Images)Seizing this entry point is crucial for arms control. It provides a clear opportunity to establish the relevance and utility of arms control as an essential tool to address security and humanitarian risks arising in situations of armed conflict that are also affected by the pandemic. Conventional arms control measures could be monitored and reported by the UN and other relevant stakeholders in supporting the call for a global ceasefire.

The short- and long-term success of any peace process can be bolstered by technical security-related measures to build confidence and manage situations. These often include activities related to regulating weapons and ammunition that are defined largely by the nature of the conflict, the arms and tactics used, and the types and disposition of forces. These measures may vary depending on when they are instituted in a peace process. For example, at the beginning of a peace process, when parties are trying to build momentum toward peace talks or early in negotiations, ceasefires are primarily about building confidence, showing restraint, and creating space for negotiations to proceed.

Most of the ceasefires announced during the pandemic fit this description. Because they are declared rather than negotiated, such arrangements tend to be light in concrete commitments, but various responses to the COVID-19 ceasefire appeal have included specific arms control activities.

  • A prohibition on certain types of attacks or the use of certain types of weapons. For example, in a non-COVID-19 related ceasefire between the government and separatist groups in Ukraine, “measures to strengthen the ceasefire” that were agreed on July 27 included a ban on the use of “any types of aerial vehicles” and on “the deployment of heavy weapons in and around settlements.”8
  • Refraining from moving troops and weapons to avoid being seen as taking advantage of a situation. Further to the secretary-general’s appeal, the Southern Cameroons Defence Force declared a unilateral ceasefire and requested government forces to “stand down and remain in their current position.”9
  • Refraining from offensive actions. In the Philippines, the NPA announced that it would “cease and desist from carrying out offensive military operations” and that “active-defense operations shall only be undertaken in the fact of clear and imminent danger and actual attack by hostile forces.”10 In Darfur the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army Abdul Wahid adopted a similar stance.11
  • No show of weapons or limitations on the movement of troops with weapons outside of duty. On March 21 in Mali, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad initiated Operation Tagaste with the stated aim of strengthening security and preventing the spread of COVID-19. This included the requirement for those carrying weapons to have an authorization to do so.12
  • When such activities bear fruit and allow for further measures to be taken to control the arms, a sequence of steps may be considered and, where appropriate, reported on.
  • Disengagement of forces usually by moving out of the direct line of fire or range of weapons. In Ukraine, this has previously involved the “disengagement of units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the armed formations of individual areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine.”13
  • Withdrawal of troops or weapons from certain areas. The Free Papua Organization offered the Indonesian government a ceasefire in an effort to contain the pandemic and conditioned this on the government withdrawing “non-organic” troops from Papua.
  • Redeployment of forces and arms from one tactical military position to another. In its initial offer of a ceasefire, the ELN asked that the government order the quartering of its troops.14

These measures can be further supported by the establishment of a variety of zones governed by rules on the presence and use of weapons in the designated areas.

  • Demilitarized zones, defined in the Fourth Geneva Convention as areas from which “all combatants, as well as mobile weapons and mobile military equipment, must have been evacuated”.
  • Restricted zones, where certain activities or certain types of weaponry or activities may be prohibited.
  • Coordination zones, where movement of the parties’ forces must be announced and coordinated, usually through ceasefire monitoring structures.

Although none of the COVID-19 ceasefires have progressed to this stage so far, such zones have been used in previous peace processes in Colombia, Western Sahara, Ukraine, and the Korean peninsula, among others.

Increasingly, transitional arms control measures are also being used to regulate arms during a predefined period, often as a part of ceasefires that accompany negotiations or a political transition. These seek to limit or control the parties’ use of certain weapons without necessarily removing their access to them. This can be useful in situations where there is a need to build trust, deescalate violence, or create a favorable environment for talks. They can include elements of transitional weapon and ammunition management15 as the parties are asked to strengthen oversight and governance over their arms and ammunition. For example, in Libya the Security Council has repeatedly asked that, in order to facilitate coherent international assistance and support, arrangements are made to secure uncontrolled arms, ammunition, and related material to ensure their management.16 Such efforts not only reduce the risk of accidental explosions, but also ensure that those materiel are not utilized by perpetrators and other unauthorized end users to fabricate improvised explosive devices.

These conventional arms control and related confidence-building measures contribute directly to support ceasefire implementation. As a part of efforts undertaken to address situations of armed conflict during the COVID-19 pandemic, they merit close monitoring and reporting by the UN and other relevant stakeholders.

Humanitarian Pauses and Arms Control

Another unique opportunity provided by Resolution 2532 is the call by the Security Council for a 90-day humanitarian pause to save lives in situations of armed conflict during the global pandemic. The UN defines this as “a temporary cessation of hostilities purely for humanitarian purposes. Requiring the agreement of all relevant parties, it is usually for a defined period and specific geographic area where the humanitarian activities are to be carried out.”17 Arms control is equally relevant in supporting this humanitarian pause.

First, arms control measures can support the humanitarian pause when parties to a conflict refrain from certain types of attacks and the use of specific weapons categories that may cause grave human suffering and an escalation of violence. More specifically, the humanitarian pause serves to remind all parties of their international humanitarian law obligations to strictly refrain from indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks. This includes disengaging or otherwise not using specific weapons categories and calibers that cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants or affect civilians indiscriminately,18 such as certain types of heavy explosive weapons with wide-area effects and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), especially in populated or urban areas, where effects have reverberations, including on immediate access to health care and longer-term humanitarian recovery efforts.

In May, the secretary-general reported that, “for the ninth year running, 90 percent of people killed by explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians.”19 The use of such weapons by conflict parties have had devastating impacts on civilians and civilian objects and humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, among others. Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, noted that a “change of behavior” is urgently needed20 and, in considering the humanitarian response to the pandemic in July, added that “the choices are there” for conflict parties to “choose to respect the ceasefire.”21

Second, the humanitarian pause provides an opportunity to further reduce risks to civilian populations from weapons and explosive hazards remaining after fighting ends, such as obsolete weapons, explosive remnants, and unexploded ordnances. These arms control measures include weapon and ammunition management; the clearance, collection, and disposal of arms and ammunition, mines, and other explosive remnants of war (ERW); and risk awareness and educational efforts on the ground to reduce the safety and security risks to people and communities posed by these weapons.

For example, in 2015 during the Colombian peace negotiations, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) and the government agreed to the joint clearance of mines. This was a strong confidence-building measure, and when the final agreement was signed in 2016, it included provisions that the FARC-EP contribute to the clearance of mines, IEDs, and unexploded ordnance or ERW to improve the safety and security of communities and provide humanitarian access.22A Colombian rebel stands by as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionares de Colombia-Ejercito del Pueblo ratifies a peace accord with the government on Sept. 23, 2016. The two sides agreed to undertake joint landmine clearance activities during the peace negotiations, and the final agreement included measures for removing explosives that endangered civilian communities. (Photo: by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Similar to “demilitarized” or “restricted” zones of ceasefire arrangements, local and initially time-bound weapons-free zones23 can be established to reduce arms-related risks to conflict- and armed violence-affected communities. Context-specific weapons-free zones have been used in many countries, including Colombia, El Salvador, the Philippines, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and the Solomon Islands. Some of these included the signing of official declarations, statutes, or commitments by parties. All of them have aimed to build peace in postconflict settings, reduce crime-related violence, or prevent election-related armed violence. More recently, a local weapons-free zone was established in an area heavily affected by armed and criminal violence in the Central African Republic capital Bangui to decrease intercommunal tensions and support a wider peace process.24

Unfortunately, the potential for the 90-day humanitarian pause has not been realized. It was initially hoped that conflict parties may be more receptive to the Security Council’s call, but more than a month after its request for an “immediate” humanitarian pause, none has been established. Despite this, parties in conflict can undertake arms control measures during the pause that can be supported or monitored by the UN and other relevant stakeholders.

Addressing the Supply Side

The success of the call for a global ceasefire and the 90-day humanitarian pause, respectively, is partly dependent on creating an environment where violence can be prevented or reduced while enabling conditions for talks to take place. This also requires steps to address the supply side of arms proliferation into conflict and at-risk situations.

The most applicable supply-side arms control measure to situations of armed conflict and the council’s agenda is adherence by all states, not just those party to a conflict, to UN arms embargoes. This would require full and complete state adherence to UN-mandated arms embargo regimes that prohibit or limit the direct or indirect supply, sale, transfer, or reexport of arms and related material to embargoed parties and individuals. It also involves monitoring of the implementation of such arms embargoes and reporting by Security Council-mandated entities of violations including the UN. When violations are found, the council should hold parties accountable.25

The strategic use of targeted arms embargos can support ceasefires and peace mediation efforts by preventing spoilers from accessing weapons. For example, in 2015 in South Sudan, the threat of sanctions was used to pressure parties to accept a ceasefire and agree to a negotiated settlement.26 Although an agreement was signed, following continuous violations, sanctions were eventually imposed, and an arms embargo was established in 2018. In Central African Republic, an arms embargo established in 2014 has aimed to impede individuals and groups from committing violence, lay down their arms, and implement peace agreements. Since then, the implementation of the arms embargo has served as one form of a benchmark to help the UN Security Council to monitor and reassess progress made by the government. In Libya, an arms embargo regime established in 2011 has aimed to bring parties to a ceasefire and an inclusive transitional process, as well as constrain all parties from undermining the peace process.27 Unfortunately, some of the very countries that authorized the embargo have been accused of violating it.

Above and beyond implementing and monitoring arms embargoes, there is the responsibility of all states to exercise responsible arms transfers and constraint when considering providing supplies into conflict and at-risk environments. This includes prohibiting transfers of arms when there is a risk that those supplies may be used to commit grave crimes that violate international human rights and humanitarian laws. Further, when a decision has been taken to supply an item, states have the responsibility to mitigate the risks of diversion to unauthorized recipients, that is, preventing that they fall in the “wrong hands,” through the conduct of comprehensive export and diversion risk assessments at pretransfer stages and, where substantial risks are identified, to restrict transfers including the reexport of arms, ammunition, and related material, as well as the enhancement and application of systems to better control their end users and uses.28 Such efforts have had better successes when postdelivery control measures, including postdelivery notification and verification mechanisms and, in cases where there is suspected diversion, tracing are instituted, as was done in Somalia to supplement supply-side export and transit controls.

Masks and Muzzling Guns

The COVID-19 pandemic and violent conflicts continue to create victims despite efforts to the contrary. Although the calls for global ceasefires and humanitarian pauses may appear to have done little to reduce the impact of the latter, steps have been taken in each case to avoid escalation while longer-term solutions are found. Just as social distancing or masks are concrete actions to inhibit the spread of the virus while a vaccine is sought, arms control measures can help prevent a conflict from intensifying while peace efforts get underway.

Arms control needs to be better understood by conflict prevention and management actors as being one of the fundamental components to prevent and reduce violence and create a conducive environment for peace talks. Agreement on and implementation of such concrete arms control actions—not words or promises—may not bring immediate peace, but it can help build it. Reducing weapons-related risks will not only bolster any ceasefires or humanitarian pauses, it can provide impetus to go beyond a temporary deescalation in violence and open the “precious windows for diplomacy” to which Guterres referred in his original appeal.


1. António Guterres, "Remarks to Security Council Open Video-Teleconference on the Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Implications of COVID-19," July 2, 2020, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2020-07-02/remarks-security-council-maintenance-of-international-peace-and-security-implications-of-covid-19.

2. UN Security Council, S/RES/2532, July 1, 2020.

3. Guterres, "Remarks to Security Council Open Video-Teleconference on the Maintenance of International Peace and Security.”

4. “The Joint Forces Command of the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen: Announcing a One-Month Extension of a Comprehensive Ceasefire in Yemen," Saudi Press Agency, April 24, 2020.

5. Comando Central Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), “Propuesta del ELN al Presidente Iván Duque Cese el Fuego Bilateral,” July 7, 2020.

6. Communist Party of the Philippines Central Committee, “Ceasefire Order: 00.00H of 26 March 2020 to 23.59H of 15 April 2020," March 24, 2020, https://cpp.ph/statement/ceasefire-order-00-00h-of-26-march-2020-to-23-59h-of-15-april-2020/.

7. See Richard Gowan and Ashish Pradhan, “Salvaging the Security Council’s Coronavirus Response,” International Crisis Group, August 4, 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/salvaging-security-councils-coronavirus-response.

8. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), “Press Statement of Special Representative Grau After the Regular Meeting of Trilateral Contact Group,” July 22, 2020.

9. Southern Cameroons Defence Force, statement of April 8, 2020.

10. Communist Party of the Philippines Central Committee, “Ceasefire Order.”

11. Abdul Wahid al Nur, “Response by Sudan Liberation Movement to UN Secretary-General and UNAMID on COVID-19 Crisis and Security Conditions in Darfur,” April 4, 2020, https://katakata.org/response-by-sudan-liberation-movement-to-un-secretary-general-and-unamid-on-covid-19-crisis-and-security-conditions-in-darfur/.

12. Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad, “Décision N˚ 006/2020/CD/CMA portant mise en place de l’opération dénommée TAGASTE,” March 21, 2020, http://mnlamov.net/oeil-sur-lazawad/605-decision-n-006-2020-cd.html.

13. “Framework Decision of the Trilateral Contact Group Relating to Disengagement of Forces and Hardware,” OSCE, September 21, 2016, https://www.osce.org/cio/266266.

14. ELN, “El ELN Frente a la Pandemia por el coronavirus COVID-19,” March 28, 2020.

15. UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), “The Role of Weapon and Ammunition Management in Preventing Conflict and Supporting Security Transitions: Preliminary Findings and Key Policy Considerations,” 2019, https://unidir.org/sites/default/files/publication/pdfs/the-role-of-weapon-and-ammunition-management-in-preventing-conflict-and-supporting-security-transitions-en-773.pdf.

16. See UN Security Council, S/RES/2144, March 14, 2014, para. 6(c); UN Security Council, S/RES/2213, March 27, 2015, para. 9(b); UN Security Council, S/RES/2323, December 13, 2016, para. 2(iv); UN Security Council, S/RES/2376, September 14, 2017, para. 2(iv).

17. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Glossary of Terms: Pauses During Conflict,” June 2011, https://www.unocha.org/sites/unocha/files/dms/Documents/AccessMechanisms.pdf.

18. See “Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects as Amended on 21 December 2001,” https://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B8954/(httpAssets)/40BDE99D98467348C12571DE0060141E/$file/CCW+text.pdf.

19. See António Guterres, “Remarks to the Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” May 27, 2020, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2020-05-27/protection-of-civilians-armed-conflict-remarks-security-council-debate.

20. See International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), “Amid COVID-19, We Must Not Lose Focus on Violations and Abuses of War,” May 27, 2020, https://www.icrc.org/en/document/amid-Covid-we-must-not-lose-focus-violations-and-abuses-war.

21. See ICRC, “Six Essential Lessons for a Pandemic Response in Humanitarian Settings,” July 2, 2020, https://www.icrc.org/en/document/six-essential-lessons-pandemic-response-humanitarian-settings.

22. “Final Agreement to End the Armed Conflict and Build a Stable and Lasting Peace,” November 24, 2016, pp. 67, 113, 134, 184, http://especiales.presidencia.gov.co/Documents/20170620-dejacion-armas/acuerdos/acuerdo-final-ingles.pdf.

23. See “Guidelines: How to Establish and Maintain Gun-Free Zones,” UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, 2014, https://unoda-web.s3-accelerate.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/assets/publications/more/gfz-guidelines/gfz-guidelines.pdf.

24. Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique, “PK5 officiellement déclarée ‘zone sans armes,’” December 31, 2019, https://minusca.unmissions.org/pk5-officiellement-d%C3%A9clar%C3%A9e-%E2%80%9Dzone-sans-armes%E2%80%9D.

25. Ibid. See also UN Security Council, S/RES/2117, September 26, 2013, para. 3.

26. UN Department for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, “Subsidiary Organs of the United Nations Security Council: 2020 Fact Sheets,” August 14, 2020, p. 30, https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/sites/www.un.org.securitycouncil/files/subsidiary_organs_factsheets.pdf. See Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Targeted Sanctions Initiative, Sanctions App, South Sudan, Ep. 1, summary (accessed July 30, 2020).

27. Global Governance Centre, Graduate Institute Geneva, “Targeted Sanctions Initiative,” n.d., https://graduateinstitute.ch/research-centres/global-governance-centre/targeted-sanctions-initiative (accessed August 21, 2020).

28. See UNIDIR, “Enhancing the Understanding of Roles and Responsibilities of Industry and States to Prevent Diversion,” August 29, 2019, https://www.unidir.org/sites/default/files/2019-09/enhancing-the-understanding-of-roles-and-responsibilities-of-industry-and-states-to-prevent-diversion-en-819.pdf; UNIDIR, “A Menu of Options to Enhance the Common Understanding of End Use/r Control Systems to Strengthen their Role in Preventing Diversion,” January 31, 2019, https://www.unidir.org/sites/default/files/publication/pdfs/a-menu-of-options-to-enhance-the-common-understanding-of-end-use-r-control-systems-to-strengthen-their-role-in-preventing-diversion-en-737.pdf.

The authors work in the Conventional Arms Programme (CAP) of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. Simon Yazgi is a senior researcher, leading research into conventional arms control in conflict prevention and management. Hardy Giezendanner, a researcher, also works on arms control in conflict prevention and management. Himayu Shiotani is the CAP program lead. This article expands on a commentary, “Does Arms Control Matter: Enabling a Ceasefire in the Fight Against the COVID-19 Pandemic,” available on Unidir.org