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Coronavirus pandemic threatens peace, risks new conflicts: UN chief

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Wednesday that the COVID-19 pandemic not only threatens gains in fighting global poverty and building peace but risks exacerbating existing conflicts and generating new ones.

The U.N. chief told a Security Council meeting on the challenge of sustaining peace during the pandemic that his March 23 call for an immediate cease-fire in conflicts around the world to tackle the coronavirus led a number of warring parties to take steps to de-escalate and stop fighting.

“Yet, regrettably, in many instances, the pandemic did not move the parties to suspend hostilities or agree to a permanent ceasefire,” Guterres said.

Read more: Coronavirus: UN food agency, Air Force to tackle hunger in Latin America

His predecessor as secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, told the council: “It is truly astonishing that in response to this pandemic, the world has placed billions of people under lock-down, closed international borders, suspended trade and migration, and temporarily shut down a whole variety of industries _ but has not managed to suspend armed conflicts.”

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Ban criticized the U.N. Security Council for wasting valuable months “in arguments over the details of the text” and not adopting a resolution until July 1 demanding an “immediate cessation of hostilities” in key conflicts including Syria, Yemen, Libya, South Sudan and Congo to tackle COVID-19.

“This has weakened the message that this council needs to send to all warring parties: now is the time to confront our common enemy,” Ban said.

And he said delayed council action “further aggravated the current volatile global security situations.”

“The impact of COVID-19 on conflict-affected settings has been much worse than initially thought,” said Ban, who is a co-chair of the group of prominent world leaders founded by Nelson Mandela known as The Elders.

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He pointed to health and humanitarian ramifications, social cohesion, governance, the rule of law and threats to multilateralism which are jeopardizing ongoing efforts to sustain peace, “or may even cause a reversal in hard-won peace and security gains to date.”

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While governments try to confront the pandemic, some groups have seen an opportunity to ramp up violence, Ban said, citing as examples Boko Haram and other militants in Nigeria, growing mob violence in Congo and murders by drug cartels in Mexico.

He also warned that the economic impacts of the pandemic “will be both long-lasting and severe, with ripple effects for many fragile and conflict-affected states.”

As examples, Ban said Lebanon’s political and economic crisis, exacerbated by last week’s deadly explosion at Beirut’s port, is being compounded by COVID-19’s impact on two key money-earners, tourism and trade, while Iraq’s budget is being stretched thin because of the collapse in oil prices.

Secretary-General Guterres said the pandemic has raised growing questions about the effectiveness of health systems, social services, trust in institutions and systems of governance.

“All of this means that our commitment to sustaining peace is more urgent than ever,” he said.

Read more: Only half of children with HIV are getting treatment due to coronavirus: UN report

Guterres pointed to three key dangers: erosion of public trust, destabilization of the global economic order, and weakening of “the social fabric.”

“The perception that authorities are mishandling the crisis, or not being transparent or favouring political allies can lead to public disillusion in government and its institutions,” he said.

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The U.N. chief also warned that “without concerted action, inequalities, global poverty and the potential for instability and violence could grow for years.”

While there have been many peaceful protests, Guterres said, “in a number of countries, COVID-19 has been an excuse for harsh crackdowns and a spike in state repression.”

Guterres stressed tbe importance of leadership.

“The world is looking to all leaders _ including the council — to address this epic crisis in ways that make a concrete, meaningful and positive contribution to the lives of people,” he said.

Guterres called for all sectors of society to engage in building peace and preventing and ending conflicts.

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