The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war. — UN Secretary-General António Guterres, speech shared via Twitter on 24 March
In March, António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, pleaded with nations around the world to immediately end fighting and armed conflicts so that all of us could work in concert to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, which was then just beginning to be transmitted widely among communities around the world. His initial appeal was made in a public statement on 23 March. Now, a month later, the UN Security Council has announced only limited support for the plan.
It is difficult to imagine—in a time of global pandemic—the thought processes of global leaders who show reluctance to enact a simple pause in military aggression. Yet the government’s of both the US and Russia have declined to sign on to the ceasefire initiative, citing the need or potential need to utilize their militaries to strike targets in a variety of global war zones.
While it may be difficult for those of us in places of relative safety to understand or empathize with these leaders, we might seek to understand the sources of their motivations. Speaking for the United States, Kelly Craft, US ambassador to the UN, noted support for a global truce. However, a State Department spokesman offered a caveat: “The United States supports the secretary-general’s call for a global ceasefire, but have noted that we will continue to fulfil our legitimate counter-terrorism mission.” (The Guardian)
Such a mission, analysts suggest, could include further strikes on pro-Iranian militia in Iraq or directly on Iranian targets deemed threatening to US interests. Israel, too, has been carrying out ongoing strikes on targets in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Russian president Vladimir Putin, in turn, has also offered public support for a ceasefire, while showing reluctance to actually sign an agreement. The nation is also involved in the longstanding civil war in Syria—which entered its ninth year of ongoing conflict on 15 March—and supports battling factions in Libya and other countries.
So, while nearly all nations sympathize with the goals of a global ceasefire, some still worry about letting down their own guard in ongoing conflicts, potentially allowing opponents to gain the upper hand. And this view is not without merit. Isis forces in Afghanistan have reportedly called on followers to utilize this time of distraction to attack the so-called “crusader nations.” As such, one might empathize with leaders who hesitate to lay down arms in the hope of averting such attacks.
Nonetheless, the already unthinkable toll of war threatens to be completely devastating if ceasefires cannot be brokered to allow humanitarian and medical aid to reach COVID-19 stricken civilians. As such, with more than 70 nations so far signing the ceasefire, efforts continue to pursuade the US and Russia, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, to join.
Humanitarian groups such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have urged all countries to halt violent conflicts during the pandemic, calling on world leaders to “protect children under attack.” UNICEF strategic communications advisor Kent Page added: “As we face the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, children need peace more than ever.” (Common Dreams)
Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary—and acting prime minister while Boris Johnson continues his recovery from COVID-19—has pledged Britain’s support for the ceasefire plan. Coronavirus is “the fight of our lives and we must unite against it,” Raab said. (The Guardian)
We can also recognize that progress can be made even without US and Russian support—considerably helpful as it would be. In several conflict zones already, at least one party has voiced support for a ceasefire in light of the pandemic. Importantly, the Saudi-led coalition has announced a ceasefire in Yemen, a nation which—in addition to war—has also suffered nearly four years of famine.
On 9 April, Guterres offered remarks directly to the UN Security Council on the topic of the COVID-19 pandemic. There, he specifically brought up conflict settings, stating that: “The economic fallout of this crisis could create major stressors, particularly in fragile societies, less developed countries and those in transition. Economic instability will have particularly devastating impacts for women, who make up the vast majority of those sectors worst affected. The large numbers of female-headed households in conflict-settings are especially vulnerable to economic shocks.” (United Nations)
He further cautioned that: “In some conflict settings, the uncertainty created by the pandemic may create incentives for some actors to promote further division and turmoil. This could lead to an escalation of violence and possibly devastating miscalculations, which could further entrench ongoing wars and complicate efforts to fight the pandemic.” (United Nations)
As Buddhists, we often practice observing our choices and impulses as they arise, trying to ascertain their source. One method for this is watching the feeling tone of a thought to see if it draws us in, and is thus rooted in attraction or greed; if it repels us, thus stemming from aversion or anger; or if it leads to an unclear response, one grounded in ignorance. The practice relies on the Buddhist principle that these three roots of unwholesome or unskillful action are behind the majority of human action. Thoughts and acts that flow freely, lacking attraction or repulsion, and maintaining a character of clarity, are said to be wholesome or skillful.
We also know that habit patterns become stronger the more often they are acted out. A person who is violent as a child, violent as a teenager, and violent as a young adult cannot easily cease to be violent in a time of need. Many global leaders, and indeed, entire nations, are like this. The long-entrenched habits of violence will not go away overnight.
And yet, we know that to ease suffering around the world, this violence must come to an end eventually. So we seek out our own ways to lessen the violence in the world: whether it be in our own words and actions, or those we support in our purchases and votes. We also seek out a deeper understanding of the effects of both the coronavirus and warfare around the world, knowing that the ripples from these will touch our lives, no matter how insulated we might unwisely attempt to become.
The Dalai Lama raised this point in his recent message for Earth Day (22 April), saying: “The current global pandemic threatens us all, without distinctions of race, culture or gender, and our response must be as one humanity, providing for the most essential needs of all. . . . Whether we like it or not, we have been born on this Earth as part of one great family. Rich or poor, educated or uneducated, belonging to one nation or another, ultimately each of us is just a human being like everyone else.” (The Office of the Dalai Lama)