UN Mideast envoys plead for ceasefires amid coronavirus threat

Special envoy to Israeli-Palestinian conflict joins ambassadors in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq in calling for sides to fight deadly virus instead of each other

A man sprays disinfectant at the Central Health Laboratory in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, on April 11, 2020. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)
A man sprays disinfectant at the Central Health Laboratory in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, on April 11, 2020. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations envoys in Middle East hot spots urged all warring parties on Saturday to translate Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ appeal for immediate ceasefires to tackle the coronavirus pandemic into concrete actions aimed at ending hostilities.

The envoys for Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stressed that solidarity is required to face the challenge of COVID-19 and this cannot happen “if the guns of war and conflict are not silenced.”

They said “many parties have responded positively” to the secretary-general’s March 23 appeal but stressed the need for stepped up action, stressing that COVID-19 has compounded the suffering of people caught up in Mideast conflicts.

“At a time like this, partisanship and narrow interests must yield to the greater cause and the good of the people,” their appeal said. “That is why we echo the secretary-general in calling on all parties in the Middle East to work with the U.N. so we can “focus on the true fight of our lives” which is COVID-19.

The UN envoys called on all parties to conflicts to engage without preconditions in negotiations to immediately halt hostilities, to sustain existing cease-fires, and to achieve “longer-term resolutions to the persistent conflicts across the region.”

An Israeli border policeman wearing a face mask stands guard in front of the Damascus gate in Jerusalem’s Old City amid movement restrictions due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, on April 4, 2020. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

They also urged all feuding parties “to reach out across conflict lines and cooperate locally, regionally and globally to stop the rapid spread of the virus,” and to allow access for humanitarian aid and “humanitarian releases.”

The appeal was signed by UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen, UN special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov, UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis and UN Special Representative for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.

Palestinian Authority security forces enforce restrictions against the coronavirus in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Last month, Mladenov praised what he called “excellent cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

Guteress also singled out Israelis and Palestinians during a press conference in March announcing the launch of the “COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan.”

“I see… different parties to a conflict cooperating in order to respond to this dramatic situation,” he said. “To give an example, in fighting COVID-19, the Palestinian Authority and Israel have been able to work together, even if we know the extreme division that exists politically between the two.”

On April 3, Guterres said that warring parties in 11 countries had responded positively to his cease-fire appeal: Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press briefing at United Nations Headquarters in New York City, on February 4, 2020. (Angela Weiss / AFP)

He told the UN Security Council Thursday in its first meeting on the coronavirus pandemic that he has been encouraged by support for his call for a global cease-fire to all conflicts from world leaders, regional partners, civil society activists and religious leaders.

“From South America to Africa and from the Middle East to Asia we have seen conflict parties take some initial steps to end violence and fight the pandemic,” he said. “Still, we must remain cautious, as any gains are fragile and easily reversible, as conflicts have festered for years, distrust is deep, and there are many spoilers.”

He also stressed that concerted international efforts, including by UN envoys, will be required to move from “good intentions to implementation,” noting that “in many of the most critical situations, we have seen no let-up in fighting, and some conflicts have even intensified.”

Medical workers disinfect streets to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Qamishli, Syria, March 24, 2020. (AP/Baderkhan Ahmad)

In Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country which is suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, a two-week cease-fire proposed by the Saudi-led coalition backing the UN-recognized government went into effect on Thursday.

But Iranian-backed Houthi Shiite rebels, who control northern Yemen and the capital, Sanaa, quickly dismissed the Saudi cease-fire as a ploy to boost its international standing and accused the coalition of several attacks on Thursday.

The war-torn country reported its first case of COVID-19 on Friday, raising fears of an outbreak.

Aid groups have warned that when the coronavirus hits Yemen’s broken healthcare system, the impact is likely to be catastrophic for a country already in the grip of what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

“What’s facing Yemen is frightening,” said Lise Grande, the UN coordinator for Yemen.

“More people who become infected are likely to become severely ill than anywhere else.”

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