Peace support operations (PSOs) across Africa are adapting their responses to the new reality of COVID-19. Since the outbreak, PSOs have provided critical support in the fight against the pandemic in situations where protracted conflict has destroyed the health infrastructure of many African countries.
Both the contribution of PSOs in responding to the risk posed by COVID-19 and the effect of the pandemic on operations show that the UN Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) agenda – aimed at improving the impact and performance of PSOs – has to take disease outbreaks such as COVID-19 into consideration.
Africa, as host to the highest number of PSOs in the world and the biggest contributor of troops and police, should prioritise this issue. The Peace and Security Council (PSC) of the African Union (AU), in collaboration with African non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), should emphasise the need to expand the ‘protection of civilians’ mandate. This mandate has so far been focused on conventional security threats, but should take into account new and unforeseen threats such as epidemics or pandemics.
The African Standby Force (ASF) should adopt a similar framework. While a humanitarian response is in the purview of the ASF, its rapid deployment capabilities should also enable regional forces to respond swiftly to health-related crises. Airlifting of medical staff and equipment to respond to COVID-19 in West and Central Africa has already started with ASF achieving full operational capacity in May 2020. Institutionalising such support will however require a new PSO doctrine on disaster management, building on existing guidelines for civil-military relations.
Adapting to a new reality
PSOs had medical infrastructure in place before the outbreak of COVID-19 that helped in rapidly adapting measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic in their areas of deployment and among mission personnel.
The medical guidance of PSOs was also expanded to include pandemic preparedness and medical intervention, including testing, isolation and evacuation if the need arises.
According to Atul Khare, Under-Secretary General for Operational Support at the UN, personal protective equipment (PPE) and supplies for treatment centres have been dispatched to all PSOs. In Africa, Mali, Somalia and Kenya have become stations for the further distribution of stocks, including testing equipment, while Egypt, Uganda and Kenya have agreed to receive COVID-19 patients evacuated from PSOs.
The role of PSOs in raising awareness
PSOs are playing an important role in supporting national efforts to fight the spread of the virus. Working in collaboration with governments, PSOs are disseminating information and raising awareness about the pandemic.
Most missions have established radio stations, such as Mikado FM in Mali, Radio Miraya in South Sudan, Radio Okapi in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Guira FM in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Radio Yalla Nebni in Darfur. They have wide-reaching transmission, including across territories that might be controlled by militants. Radio programmes also provide tailored content to audiences such as children and those that require psychosocial support.
Sensitisation among communities also helps to counter misinformation and deep-seated mistrust of the government and healthcare professionals. Misinformation during a health crisis has at times resulted in attacks on healthcare providers and hospitals, as seen during Ebola outbreaks in the DRC.
A number of PSOs are also distributing PPE and sanitary supplies to communities, and are involved in the transportation of medical equipment to areas that are remote and difficult to access.
In addition, PSOs are supporting the most disenfranchised in accessing food and basic provisions that have become more difficult to acquire in some areas owing to limitations on movement and local transportation during the pandemic.
While some armed groups in Darfur, the CAR and South Sudan have heeded the call by UN Secretary-General António Guterres for a global ceasefire during the pandemic, it is too early to gauge to what extent violence has reduced as a result. Most PSOs continue to operate regardless of the levels of violence and conflict, highlighting the importance of the protection PSOs provide to civilians during the pandemic.
In addition to COVID-19, PSOs are also responding to the outbreak of other diseases, such as Ebola, cholera and measles in the DRC, and tuberculosis, malaria, and measles in the CAR.
Need for social distancing
The spread of COVID-19 among PSOs has so far been very low. Nonetheless, PSOs have been affected by measures taken to curb the spread of the virus.
The need for social distancing has meant that PSOs can only undertake critical functions within their mandate. Especially, full implementation of the mandate of offensive operations, such as that of the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), has been hindered. Despite continued attacks on AMISOM and MINUSMA contingents by terrorist groups, the missions cannot undertaking full-scale combat operations.
Civil–military relations and a number of development activities that require direct contact with local populations have also been suspended. An exception was legislative elections in Mali in March and April 2020, supported by MINUSMA as part of its mandate. The election took place amid fears of the spread of COVID-19 and instability following the kidnapping of main opposition leader Soumaila Cisse by gunmen.
Support to peace processes and state institutions has also been scaled back since the outbreak of COVID-19. The Sudan peace process, supported by the AU–UN Mission Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), has been suspended. In the CAR, the momentum for implementation of the peace deal, signed by the government and militants in 2019 and of which the UN Mission in the CAR (MINUSCA) was a guarantor, is stalling.
PSOs in Mali, the DRC and South Sudan have to contend with growing anti-foreigner sentiments and a backlash caused by misinformation about the pandemic. This could disrupt crucial operations, and the supply of aid and healthcare provisions.
The impact of the pandemic on global freight service and sea carriers has also affected the timely supply of goods to PSOs. While many countries are allowing supplies to pass through their closed borders, there is an inevitable delay.
Rotation and mandate renewals impacted by COVID-19
Meanwhile, the pandemic has also affected the rotation, deployment and repatriation of troops and police, which the UN secretary-general has suspended until the end of June 2020. Although police- and troop-contributing countries have committed to deploying their contingents beyond their term limits, the suspension might affect the capacity of some missions in instances where planned reinforcement and replacement of troops has been suspended.
The mandate of the majority of PSOs in Africa will end in 2020. These include MONUSCO in the DRC, UNAMID in Darfur, MINUSMA in Mali, and the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara.
So far it has been possible to renew mandates, as witnessed from the six month extension granted to the UN Interim Security Force for Abeyi by the UNSC and the one year extension of AMISOM’s mandate by the PSC in May through video conferencing. However, virtual meetings of the UNSC and PSC do not allow the same level of deliberation and debate in reviewing the performance of PSOs in meeting their mandates. Independent field assessments to evaluate PSOs and provide policymakers with accurate information for decision-making will also not be possible during the pandemic. However, rigorous review of PSOs is more crucial in 2020 than ever, since the ability of most missions to fully meet their mandates has been hindered by COVID-19.
Delays in the drawdown of both AMISOM and UNAMID are also probable during the pandemic. Negotiations expected to bring about comprehensive peace in Sudan, and upon which UNAMID’s drawdown is partially dependent, have been halted.
AMISOM’s drawdown, on the other hand, is directly linked to the capacity of Somali security forces to control and secure territories handed over by AMISOM. It is therefore unlikely to take place when the fight against COVID-19 has diverted some of their capacity to respond to al-Shabaab.
Severe funding constraints pose another challenge PSOs will continue to face during and in the aftermath of the pandemic. Currently, the UN is appealing to all countries to pay their contributions on time in order to ease the burden of financing PSOs from police- and troop-contributing countries that are yet to be reimbursed for their personnel and equipment.
Nevertheless, fear of an imminent economic crisis may cause contributing countries to prioritise rebuilding their economies devastated by COVID-19. Availability of funding could become the biggest challenge in deploying PSOs, and especially the ASF, in a health crisis. Rethinking the mandates and responsibilities of PSO’s in this context will thus become crucial.