Dr Kathryn Nash and Hannah den Boer examine the role of regional organisations in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Regional organisations have played significant roles in managing conflicts, and this work has continued throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. There are active conflicts across many areas of the globe, and the pandemic has impacted both the nature of some conflicts and responses to these conflicts. This blog highlights ongoing work by the African Union (AU) and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to adapt their peace and security work and respond to ongoing conflicts in the light of Covid-19 while also raising key questions for future research about how the pandemic may transform conflict management.
At the start of the pandemic, the AU and its specialised health institute, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), stood up a significant response guided by the Africa Joint Continental Strategy for the COVID-19 Outbreak. However, the AU has ongoing priorities that it also sought to advance and adapt during the pandemic. One priority is the African peace and security agenda, which includes campaigns to stop violence, peace missions, and support for peace processes among other activities. The AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) recognised the negative toll the pandemic would have on AU peace and security activities and the broader ramifications for economies, livelihoods, and stability, and the AU has sought to continue with its peace and security mandate while adapting it to respond to the dynamics brought on by the pandemic.
One example of an ongoing AU campaign is the Silencing the Guns by 2020 initiative to address conflict on the continent. Silencing the Guns is a multi-year effort by the AU and one of the flagship projects of Agenda 2063, which is a comprehensive plan formulated by the regional body to transform Africa. The fundamental aim of Silencing the Guns is to end all wars and violent conflict. The scope and lack of clarity on how to achieve this have made implementation difficult. However, implementation thus far has included the creation of a Silencing the Guns Coordinating Unit in the Office of the Chairperson of the AU; multiple high-level appointments to lead on particular issues; enhanced partnerships with the United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU); and improved response mechanisms through the creation of the Mediation Support Unit and other initiatives.
As challenging as implementing Silencing the Guns was before COVID-19, the pandemic has added challenges and levels of complexity. The AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, Ambassador Smail Chergui, acknowledged early on in the pandemic that COVID-19 slowed the Silencing the Guns agenda. However, the AU has sought to shift coordinating discussions online and keep some momentum for critical campaigns. For example, the AU held a virtual session on the role of illicit financing in fuelling instability in Africa. African Amnesty Month also proceeded in September 2020 with a campaign to encourage anyone with an illegal weapon to hand it into their local authorities without fear of repercussions.
The AU has also sought to understand the impact of COVID-19 on specific conflict regions. For example, the Sahel states have long experienced instability due to violent extremism and organised crime. In this context there were many pre-pandemic initiatives that have continued. For example, the G5 Sahel was initially established by the Heads of State in the region, and other actors that are involved in stopping violence in the Sahel include France, the EU, AU, UN, and some African Regional Economic Communities (RECs). In response to COVID-19, the G5 Sahel and other missions have continued with their mandates and operations. Bilateral partners have also continued their support with the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the European Council either confirming their commitments to Sahel operations or increasing their support. However, the pandemic has also changed some dynamics by negatively impacting food insecurity and state governance in ways that could exacerbate conflict. One way that COVID-19’s impact on governance is leading to an increased potential for conflict is through enhanced recruitment for extremist groups. These groups have already used COVID-19 in their propaganda to communities in need who are suffering from diminished capacity by their governments to provide services.
The Sahel is a crucial area of concern given the prevalence of terrorist groups and the potential for illicit supplies to be channelled to other regions. Even with a strong commitment to ongoing peace and security work in a critical region such as the Sahel, there is the potential for future impacts, especially on work that requires coordination and resources. While international partners maintained or even expanded funding during the pandemic period to support conflict mitigation in the Sahel, there are questions about future funding given massive government spending across the globe to counter the effects of COVID-19. How will the pandemic impact spending on conflicts in areas that are of less geopolitical importance?
There are also ongoing peace agreements that the AU and other international organisations are party to. For example, the Accord Pour la Paix et la Reconciliation au Mali – Processus d’Alger (Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali) was signed in 2015 but is still being implemented. Article 54 stipulates that the AU, UN, Organisation of West African States (ECOWAS), and OIC committed to politically supporting the agreement, and the UN and AU were tasked with following its implementation. Articles 57 and 58 established the parameters of a Committee to Monitor Implementation of the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali (CSA). These articles stipulate that the Committee should include representatives from the signatories to the agreement and the mediation team, including representatives from neighbouring countries, the EU, ECOWAS, UN, OIC, and AU. The full extent of the impact of the pandemic on monitoring this peace agreement is unclear. However, we know at least one the guarantors – the OIC – participated in virtual monitoring and implementation meetings during the pandemic period. In May and June 2020, representatives from OIC virtually attended meetings on implementation of the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali and reviewed progress on the agreement’s main themes. This raises questions around how agreements could be monitored via virtual gatherings. Would this enhance progress by allowing for more consistent monitoring by more guarantors or would the lack of a physical presence allow for conflict parties to manipulate the implementation process? More broadly, ongoing and future research must examine how travel restrictions and the expansion of the use of digital technologies impacts coordination across regions and structures to address complex security situations.
Organisation of Islamic Cooperation
Created in 1969, the OICs efforts were first primarily directed at issues pertaining Palestine, poverty alleviation and promotion in education. However, since 2005 the OIC has taken on a more active role in peace and conflict resolution issues.
The form of regionalism initiated by the OIC transcends Middle East and North Africa (MENA) geographic borders, as OIC membership is organised around common faith and therefore includes member states from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and South America.
Unlike the AU, the OIC does not have strong, ongoing campaigns to address conflict. However, the OIC does play a role in conflict resolution and mediation in OIC member states as well as in conflict situations in all regions involving Muslim communities, one example of which is their engagement in the ongoing peace process in Mali described above.
During the COVID-19 crisis, OIC Secretary General Al-Othaimeen has called parties in conflicts in the OIC region to initiate immediate ceasefires, and to focus their attention on mitigating the pandemic while striving for peaceful resolutions. In accordance with Summit and Council of Foreign Ministers resolutions on Afghanistan, Al-Othaimeen called several times for a ceasefire within a framework of an ‘Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process’ and stressed the need for all leaders and parties to support the measures taken by the Republic of Afghanistan to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Additionally, the Secretary General called on Yemeni concerned parties to carry through the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement.
OIC continues moreover to closely monitor developments in several conflict regions through Special Envoys. These are comprised of experts chosen by the Secretary General from the member states’ diplomatic, political or scholarly fields. In early March 2020, the OIC Special Envoy to Jammu and Kashmir travelled to Pakistan to meet the Pakistani Prime Minister and several other senior officials to discuss issues and the role of the OIC in peace efforts. The pandemic, however, most likely affects the abilities of Special Envoys to travel, and thus impacts the OIC’s oversight on developments of the conflict situation.
The Impact of Covid-19 on Conflict Management
Examples from these two organisations convey just a snapshot of the work being undertaken to continue with conflict management during the pandemic and adapt it where necessary. However, even a snapshot provides powerful indications of emerging issues that will impact conflict and conflict management practices in the future. Critical questions for scholars and policymakers to consider are among others 1) how is the pandemic changing conflict dynamics – both for worse and better; 2) what aspects of longer-term conflict mitigation initiatives have needed to be adapted; and finally, 3) how will digital technologies and new ways of collaborating be used both by conflict actors and peacemakers.
 Wafula Okumu, Andrew Atta-Asamoah, and Roba D Sharamo, “Silencing the Guns in Africa by 2020: Achievements, Opportunities and Challenges,” August 2020, 24–25, https://issafrica.s3.amazonaws.com/site/uploads/monograph-203-3.pdf.
 In addition to a report on the Sahel region, the AU and UNDP also conducted an analysis on the COVID-19 impacts on governance, peace and security in the Horn of Africa. Available at: https://www.undp.org/content/dam/rba/docs/COVID-19-CO-Response/UNDP-AU-Horn-Africa-RegionalBrief_final.pdf
 “The Impact of the COVID-19 Outbreak on Governance, Peace and Security in the Sahel,” Regional Brief, November 2020, 30–31, https://au.int/sites/default/files/documents/39871-doc-190121_impact_of_covid_on_governance_peace_security_in_sahel_version_9.pdf.
 “The Impact of the COVID-19 Outbreak on Governance, Peace and Security in the Sahel,” 7.
 “The Impact of the COVID-19 Outbreak on Governance, Peace and Security in the Sahel,” 25.
 The latest report (2019) on OIC’s peace and security architecture is available at: http://www.sesric.org/files/article/659.pdf
 “Efforts of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and its Organs in Serving Islamic Causes and Addressing the Effects of the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19),” 14 May 2020, 12, https://www.oic-oci.org/upload/covid19/oic_efforts_overviews_2020_en.pdf
 “Achieving Peace and Security in A World of Turmoil,” January 2019, 94, http://www.sesric.org/files/article/659.pdf
 “Efforts of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and its Organs in Serving Islamic Causes and Addressing the Effects of the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19),” 11.