Trading handguns for hand wipes

Several armed groups have heeded a U.N. call for cease-fires to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. The move reflects an emerging “conscience” to see “the folly of war.”

A girl walks past members of the Syria Civil Defense Forces who are sanitizing a camp for internally displaced persons in Azaz, Syria, March 26.

In a plea last Monday, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres asked armed groups around the world to call an immediate cease-fire in their hot conflicts. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he said. Indeed, the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic does put a clarifying perspective on all human differences. 

By Thursday, rebel forces in at least four countries – the Philippines, Syria, Yemen, and Libya – had heeded the call. The coronavirus has reached most conflict zones in the world’s poorest countries, putting everyone on a level playing field.

In effect, these militia groups decided to trade handguns for hand wipes and don humanitarian hats for military helmets. Some also welcomed outside medical aid for both themselves and the noncombatants around them.

At a deeper level, the change of heart reflects what Mr. Guterres calls “a clear conscience emerging.” By continuing to fight, armed groups are aiding the spread of the virus. The health emergency compels a “lockdown” on war, he said, so that everyone can “focus together on the true fight of our lives.”

U.N. humanitarian programs reach some 100 million people, many of them stuck in conflict areas and living in crowded camps. Arranging local cease-fires is part of the job of international aid groups so they can deliver food, water, shelter, and health services. The U.N. call for a global cease-fire in all conflicts may be a first. It reflects both the widespread health threat and an international norm to protect innocent life in the midst of war.

Armed groups often must bend to the ideals of the people they claim to represent. A poll of Palestinians, for example, shows that two-thirds support cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In Gaza, Hamas has released a video of its fighters using hoses to spray disinfectant.

Besides seeking a cease-fire, Mr. Guterres also asked wealthy countries to provide $2 billion to aid in fighting the virus. In addition, the crisis has led a few countries to temporarily set aside their differences. Colombia and Venezuela had the first official contact in over a year during a teleconference on a joint health response. The United Arab Emirates has airlifted aid to hard-hit Iran. President Donald Trump has offered aid to North Korea.

“The scale of the outbreak creates room for humanitarian gestures between rivals,” states a brief by the International Crisis Group. Or as Mr. Guterres put it, a clear conscience is emerging among people bent on conflict.

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