Peace missions, regional organisations, and Covid-19: How the pandemic has affected peacebuilding efforts by the African Union and Organisation of American States

Hannah den Boer and Kathryn Nash outline how the pandemic has affected peace missions run by regional organisations in Latin America and Africa. This blog is part of a project mapping and analysing the responses of regional organisations to the COVID-19 pandemic. The project has analysed the impact of peace and security and intergovernmental responses to the pandemic in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and South and Southeast Asia.

Many regional organisations undertake peace missions as part of their broader work to support peace and security in their regional spheres. While peace missions have continued all over the world during the pandemic, there have been significant impacts on their operations. Many missions have found ways to continue to carry out essential military functions, but many of the functions carried out by civilians, such as support for human rights and governance, are being carried out remotely. Missions are also facing challenges because of limited engagement with communities and quarantine regulations for newly arriving troops and those that have been exposed to Covid-19. This blog focuses on peace missions run by regional organisations in Latin America and Africa, and examines how the pandemic has affected these missions. By Hannah den Boer and Kathryn Nash.

Latin America

The Charter of the Organisation of American States (OAS) codifies strengthening peace and security as a core purpose of the Organisation. The OAS works around its four pillars of democracy, human rights, security, and development, and it takes a multidimensional approach to security by responding to both traditional security threats, such as armed conflict, as well as new challenges, including drug trafficking, terrorism, and organised crime. Over the years, OAS has undertaken many peace support and political missions in its member states. For example, the OAS managed the International Commission for Support and Verification (CIAV) in Nicaragua from 1990-97, which demobilised fighters, provided humanitarian aid, and monitored rights and security guarantees. In 2008, OAS deployed a Mission of Good Offices in Ecuador and Colombia to foster cooperation on border issues and ease tensions between the two countries. In Latin America, during 2020-21 there are only two missions – in Haiti and Colombia. The mission in Haiti is a United Nations (UN) political mission; whereas the Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia (MAPP) is run by OAS.

Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia (MAPP)

The Colombian conflict in reality can be viewed as a complex set of low-intensity conflicts consisting of different groups over time. The exact roots and starting point of the conflict are disputed, but the armed insurrection against the Colombian government by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 1964 is generally considered to be an important jumping off point for the conflict. For over half a century, asymmetrical violent conflict by various actors on different levels permeated Colombian society.

An agreement was signed in July 2003 between the Colombian government and paramilitary forces to initiate disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) processes. This served as an entry point for the OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia (MAPP). The Organisation’s exact role was defined in a later agreement signed in 2004, which assigned OAS the following functions: to verify the peace process, ceasefire, and DDR initiatives; support state and local initiatives in conflict zones for confidence building; and support non-violent conflict resolution. Today, the continuation of the peace processes set in motion over 15 years ago remains relevant. There have been several subsequent peace agreements and conflict-related violence in Colombia has taken new forms, as remnants of former forces have subsumed under different names. However, MAPP has continued in its role.

In December 2020, a biannual report was published on the work of the MAPP covering the period from January 1 to June 30, 2020. The report covers the adaptations and strategies MAPP has implemented to address the risks and impacts of the pandemic on the peace mission. In the first quarter work proceeded as usual, with 495 field missions conducted throughout Colombia.[1] However, the second quarter required adjustments to the mission. A state of emergency due to Covid-19 was declared in Colombia on March 18, 2020. As the pandemic worsened, existing vulnerabilities such as violence, inequality, and state fragility converged, and the Mission had to adapt and increase its efforts to remain in constant dialogue with local communities and government institutions.

Firstly, the government’s Covid-19 policies increased the vulnerability of civilian populations to coercion and recruitment from armed groups. The period of mandatory isolation cemented social control by illegal armed groups as they co-opted public health guidance by government authorities to exert control of civilian inhabitants. Armed groups in multiple regions imposed coercive measures to force citizens to quarantine.[2] In some departments in the Catacumbo region, these groups restricted mobility within the territories by sanctioning and threatening those who did not comply. Illegal armed groups blocked community access to health care, as well as services related to justice, which led to alternative conflict resolution mechanisms where one of the conflict actors, National Liberation Army (ELN), took charge of regulating social ties within communities.[3] In some places, risk of recruitment has increased due to school closures. ELN used these places of protection for children and students, only to convince them to join their ranks.[4] These dynamics have significantly impacted the implementation of the peace agreement and the work of the peace mission.

Another challenge brought on by the pandemic is citizen participation in peace processes. For example, national border restrictions to contain the pandemic resulted in the Mission changing its monitoring and support arrangements to remote communication tools, i.e. videoconference, email, and telephone. The Victims Unit (UARIV) and the Land Restitution Unit (URT) strengthened citizen telephone and virtual services.[5] In one instance, UARIV organised a virtual organisational strengthening workshop to advance the collective reparation plan of victims in San José De Uré. Nevertheless, lack of access to digital tools for communities living in remote areas hindered effective and inclusive citizen involvement in decision-making processes. These challenges highlighted that citizen oversight and addressing people virtually ‘requires new methods for leveraging the culture of democratic and participatory dialogue’.[6]

Covid-19 exposed pre-existing issues that hampered the implementation of the peace agenda, such as limited resources, lack of control over the territory, and disconnection from remote areas. These challenges continue to impact decision-making, the continuity of public policies, and transparency in how resources are managed. In response to these and other challenges posed by the pandemic, the Mission ‘redoubled its efforts’, attempting to implement measures and strategies to mitigate and raise awareness of the potential risks of Covid-19 in addition to its usual peace efforts.[7]

Africa

Africa is a much more complex landscape for peace missions. There are several missions with diverse mandates run by regional, extra-regional, and global organisations in nearly every sub-region of the Continent. The African Union (AU) Constitutive Act codifies promoting peace, security, and stability on the Continent and created the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA).  The AU also works on peace and security with eight Regional Economic Communities (RECs), such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).

The UN, AU, European Union (EU), and RECs have all been engaged in peace missions in Africa during the pandemic, and there have been challenges to peace missions across Africa. Early on the pandemic, the AU recognised that the pandemic would have an impact on peace and security. The AU has adapted its approach to peace and security to address the needs of vulnerable populations, notably refugees and displaced persons, and has encouraged synergies between peacekeepers and health workers. One notable initiative is using peace mission radios to disseminate public health information. For example, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has a radio station that reaches listeners in two-thirds of the country, and it has been broadcasting songs written by popular musicians with advice on social distancing and hygiene practices to combat Covid-19.

AU Mission to Somalia (AMISOM)

One of the most significant missions is the AU Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). This mission was created by the AU Peace and Security Council in 2007 and is operated by the AU with the approval of the UN and receives support from the UN and other international donors.  AMISOM has a multi-faceted mandate that includes not only mitigating threats but mentoring Somali security forces and providing protection to help Somali authorities carry out governance and reconciliation functions.

As with other missions around the globe, Covid-19 significantly impacted AMISOM operations and required the mission to quickly adapt. For example, meetings dealing with sensitive information now had to be socially distanced or virtual and this reduced the intelligence on Al-Shabab. On the civilian side, capacity building activities such as workshops and trainings were converted to virtual events. Police activities were also impacted, with mentoring in police stations and joint patrols being suspended until the adoption of Covid-19 Patrol Protocols. Finally, troop and staff rotation was also impacted and this had repercussions on fatigue and morale.

After Covid-19 cases began to emerge in Somalia and amongst AMISOM personnel, the mission created a multidimensional Covid-19 committee consisting of military, police, and civilian representatives. In addition, an AMISOM-UN Joint Task Force on Covid-19 was created to ensure coordination. AMISOM has taken a number of steps to respond to Covid-19 both within the mission and amongst the Somali population. Safety protocols were established, such as social distancing measures and screenings at all AMISOM ports of entry.  The mission also had to quickly adopt more flexible ways of working and build capacity for virtual engagement. AMISOM did what it could to assist with the broader response to Covid-19 in Somalia. For example, in partnership with the United States Army Civil Affairs Unit, AMISOM distributed personal protective equipment to traders in a market frequented by military personnel to augment the safety of soldiers and traders and to help the market to re-open. AMISOM troop contingents have also donated supplies to hospitals in light of the huge strain that Covid-19 has put on health systems.

Going forward

We are seeing that peace missions across regions cope with numerous challenges as a result of the pandemic. While each conflict situation is unique, there appears to be commonalities across regions and conflicts. Conflict actors are benefiting from Covid-19 policies while existing vulnerabilities and inequalities are becoming more entrenched, with the potential to drive conflict. Peace missions have had to adapt their operations to respond to these changing conflict dynamics as well as public health guidelines designed to stem the transmissibility of the virus. To maintain operational strength, peace missions have to put in place mitigation measures to promote health and safety among its personnel, while simultaneously preserving the continuity of their missions and mandates. Many missions have had to cut back on civilian activities, such as capacity building, and move the remaining activities online. This and other factors have created challenges for engaging with vulnerable communities during delicate periods of peace implementation. The pandemic has also impacted troop rotation and, like everywhere, daily life due to social distancing and hygiene measures.

Our previous work has explored the impact of Covid-19 on broader peace and security practices as well as on regional governance. As we have seen in these other domains, the pandemic has radically transformed many practices, policies, and institutions. The questions for ongoing research are what changes were made only for the duration of the crisis and what changes are longer-term or even permanent. For example, will civilian activities undertaken by multidimensional peace missions return to fully in-person or will there be  lasting capacity to hold virtual events or even allow some virtual participation? And will this enhance community participation in peacebuilding by allowing more accessibility, or restrict it because of limited internet access? What are the costs and benefits of taking on emergency tasks of promoting health mitigation strategies on ongoing missions? Also, how to ascertain that peace missions remain responsive enough to adapt to changing conflict dynamics during emergencies? These are open questions with answers that will likely be very context specific. However, it is critical to understand what has changed as a result of the pandemic and start these questions for ongoing research about how the pandemic will shape peace and security moving forward.

 

References

Twenty-Ninth Report Of The Secretary General To The Permanent Council On The Mission To Support The Peace Process In Colombia Of The Organization Of American States (MAPP/OAS), June 2021, OAS.

[1] Page 1
[2] Page 18
[3] Ibid.
[4] Page 9
[5] Page 31
[6] Page 5
[7] Page 2

Photo: A medical officer serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) prepares to administer a vaccine during a COVID-19 vaccination exercise in Mogadishu, Somalia on 30 August 2021. AMISOM Photo / Fardowsa Hussein via Flickr