by Constance Wilhelm
While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected professional and personal travel plans across the world, what happens when these plans can have a direct impact on cessation of hostilities in a conflict zone? What happens when a state or group may have an interest in allowing – or denying – individual travel in order to further their political aims?
Taking into consideration the current Afghan Peace Talks, as well as the ongoing political negotiations in Yemen, this article outlines how the pandemic has a potentially far-reaching impact on humanitarian assistance operations in conflict zones, and more broadly on peace.
The pandemic has severely impacted the ability of aid actors to deliver assistance, including in countries facing enormous need. Beyond peace negotiations, humanitarian and development operations are also critical to providing security and opportunity to citizens in conflict zones. In Yemen, COVID-19 is yet another health challenge to a population already battling hunger, medicine and vaccine shortages, and diseases that have been long eliminated in other countries, all within a struggling medical system.
Afghanistan faces similar issues, where health clinics are already inaccessible for many citizens, especially women, and where scepticism concerning the virus further complicates limited medical capacity to treat it. At the same time, COVID-19 has not forced a break in fighting in the lead-up to the peace negotiations discussed below, with clear Taliban resistance to ceasefire attempts or a UN call for a humanitarian pause.
How does this affect peace and stability? While aid agencies struggle with their own operational limitations, they also operate in countries where they may not be popular with both governments and armed groups due to perceived ties with Western powers, and where securing access may already be a challenge. The pandemic is being wielded as an excuse to further deny access, travel, and movement to aid workers in areas where assistance is greatly needed. As such, this pandemic could deepen humanitarian crises, and threaten greater instability. This has been seen in Yemen and Afghanistan, but also in parts of Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. In Yemen in particular, Houthis have used the pandemic to not only restrict access to the country, but also to exert greater control on needs assessments, aid distributions, and any potential involvement of international actors in political process, all by holding a firm grip on permitted operations. These limitations can threaten the fair distribution of aid to the most vulnerable.
Beyond access under COVID-19, aid agencies also face a great challenge to their duty of care and best use of their resources. They must determine how much risk they are willing to take in sending their staff to field sites potentially exposed to conflict as well as severe health issues, possibly requiring medical evacuation. While organisations improve their understanding of the degree of risk posed by the pandemic to staff health and movements, many UN agencies and other NGOs have responded with variations on a reduced footprint. Some are keeping staff in compounds (creating its own risk for staff due to the impossibility of social distancing) rather than sending them to more remote field sites. As familiarity with pandemic realities have increased and additional medical resources have been mobilized to treat sick staff, operational capacity has also increased – but humanitarians can still be denied access to their areas of intervention, with the perfect justification: it is for their own safety.
Pandemic Peace talks – Strategy and Logistics
This unique opportunity for affecting operational contexts neatly extends to peace talks, as the challenging logistics of bringing together warring sides to negotiate settlements in a third host country are intensified under pandemic conditions. In September 2020, discussions between Houthis and the Yemeni government over the release of Houthi prisoners moved forward in Switzerland. The Houthi and Yemeni delegations utilized UN Special Envoy planes departing from Saudi-controlled airspace to reach Switzerland and secured exceptions for diplomatic travel when no other movement was permitted, even as the Houthis themselves closed airports in Yemen and restricted movement for aid actors – including UN agencies. The Swiss government worked around national pandemic restrictions to allow representatives to speak directly to one another and to maintain their negotiations schedule.
The ongoing Afghan Peace Talks in Doha have been similarly impacted by logistical issues, with strategic implications. Under normal conditions, countries compete to host peace negotiations to protect their interests, ensure they are part of the conversation, and bolster their reputations as key geopolitical players. This confluence of actors and interests can pressure a negotiation and complicate participants’ calculations. However, during the pandemic, countries that might typically host peace negotiations become more focused on their urgent domestic needs and give less attention and resources to peace delegates. Where many great powers and actors may have competed to hold the Afghan talks prior to the pandemic, fewer countries are currently willing to assume the risk of hosting such an event. As such, the pandemic favours wealthy, autocratic systems such as Qatar’s that do not have to justify their decisions and risk-taking to their public. Also, a second round of talks is unlikely due to these logistical concerns, so Qatar’s willingness to host prolonged talks amid few alternative options creates pressure to conclude discussions during this round.
Qatar’s hosting has additional advantages: a strong Qatari national health authority able to handle testing and tracing, combined with the ability to indefinitely block off a 5-star hotel for talks, to mobilize private jets for transport, and to offer luxury accommodations for Taliban representatives and their families, all as representatives arrive from high-risk countries and are granted entrance health waivers for indefinite stays. This pandemic then serves Doha’s goals: they are at the centre of peace talks, ensuring international – including American – support despite being in a hostile neighbourhood. Senior diplomats leverage personal relationships with Qatari officials to get clearance to enter, while others less favoured find that their travel has ‘accidentally’ not been cleared. While externally entrenching their centrality to the negotiations, internally Qatari actors are also using their roles to leveraging power against one another. At the same time, Doha is a relatively less experienced host, which has opened the way for interested third parties to establish strong support groups and facilitate consultative, collaborative assistance to the talks to protect their interests.
Actors at the margins also lose; with COVID-19 travel restrictions in place, meetings on the margins – for example, side events on gender, minority rights and protections – are less likely to happen. Participation of civil society in peace talks becomes more tenuous, and inclusive representation at peace negotiations, which are already often seen as elite-driven or elite-bargaining processes, also suffer. When citizens do not have the opportunity to directly challenge leadership, it becomes more difficult to ensure that a range of views are accounted for in a potential settlement. In Doha, conference organizers fought to secure access for 30 Afghan journalists to attend the opening ceremony of the talks, allowing for some interaction between national press and the Taliban. This benefits the overall objective of the talks – with fewer sideline attractions, attention can be focused on the single outcome of reaching agreement – but inclusivity can suffer.
Another key difference in the current climate is that peace negotiations are commonly preceded by (secret) pre-negotiation discussions where key agenda items, red lines, and starting positions can be clarified on both sides. These have the advantage of accelerating formal talks once they begin but can also create tension should personalities or political positions combust from the start. Partly due to the pandemic, parties have arrived at the Afghan talks without pre-existing personal relationships, resulting in increased caution on both sides when interacting with one another, but also creating an opportunity to focus discussions free from personal distractions.
While it is too early to make comprehensive conclusions, the COVID-19 pandemic directly affects peace. It is being used as a justification to exert greater control over humanitarian activities in fractious contexts, further complicating operations in already difficult environments. The direction and execution of peace talks are being similarly constrained, resulting both in more concentrated but also less inclusive events. Whether these factors will increase chances for resolution remains to be seen. It is clear, however, that lessons drawn from this unique time can offer insights to practitioners once the post-pandemic chapter begins.
 Formally, the Intra-Afghan Peace Talks.
 Such diseases include measles, cholera, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and polio.
 Interview with UN official, UN OCHA, Yemen, 11 November 2020.
 Interview with UN official, UN OCHA, 11 November 2020.
Interview with NGO worker, Afghanistan, 15 November 2020.
 Six months ago, at least 4 rounds of talks in Qatar, Germany, Norway, and Uzbekistan were envisioned, with all but Doha ultimately being scrapped.
 Capacity to properly address protocol and logistics are also a concern, for example with Doha releasing press statements concerning the talks without first clearing them on both sides, or releasing invitations and agendas to participants that are only available in Arabic (Dari and Pashto being the official languages of Afghanistan).
Constance Wilhelm is a Senior Editor for the Strife Journal, and a doctoral researcher with the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where she focuses on approaches to the return and prosecution of the European women that have joined Daesh. She is also an experienced researcher and Public and Humanitarian Policy consultant, specialising in conflict-affected areas and fragile states. She has worked with think tanks at Princeton University and New York University, with the Afghan Mission to the UN in New York, the OECD in Paris, humanitarian and international development organisations and consulting firms in Lebanon (leading teams in Syria), in Jordan (leading teams in Yemen), in Afghanistan, in Libya, as well as across both the Horn of Africa and the Sahel-Lake Chad region. Constance has an MA in Conflict Management and International Economics from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a BA from McGill University.