Can pandemic catalyse diplomacy to end conflicts?
While guns have fallen silent at many places due to COVID-19 crisis, they are roaring in Kashmir
Governments in Yemen, the Philippines, Thailand, and Colombia and armed groups have heeded to the call of a ceasefire by the UN amid the coronavirus pandemic. But the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir is a far cry from peace.
The New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, announced a ceasefire in its 50-year war in late March, to ensure that all citizens can access testing and treatment.
In Colombia, a left-wing armed group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) declared a month’s ceasefire starting on April 1. In southern Thailand, local armed groups decided to postpone hostilities until the pandemic is brought under control.
The 7th Astana summit was held via teleconference with the participation of the foreign ministers of three guarantor countries: Turkey, Russia, and Iran.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Twitter that the main subject of the summit was the coronavirus outbreak and the latest situation on the ground in Syria. Thanks to the Turkish-Russian-brokered cease-fire, 18,500 refugees returned to the Syrian war-ravaged province of Idlib in March.
The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait offered Iran - the centre of one of the worst initial outbreaks outside China - humanitarian assistance.
Ironically, while guns are falling silent in the world to focus on the pandemic, they are blazing loudly in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Covid-19 pandemic may have claimed just five lives in the troubled region so far, but the armed conflict has taken away 48 lives since the start of the outbreak.
The month of April alone witnessed 35 deaths, including a toddler who was killed when Indian and Pakistani armies used heavy artillery last week to target each other’s positions. The deceased included 11 security force personnel, four civilians and 20 militants.
When the tsunami struck the Indian Ocean in December 2004, killing 250,000 people in more than a dozen countries, it brought a peace deal in Aceh, Indonesia. The government troops pulled out of Aceh, and rebels disarmed, ending a decades-long separatist insurgency in the country.
Less than a year later following an earthquake that killed 90,000 people in Kashmir region in October 2005, South Asian rivals India and Pakistan agreed to open five crossing points along the highly militarised Line of Control (LoC) to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid.
Disasters and peace
Evidence shows that natural disasters have often created ripe moments for conflict resolution by increasing the probability of ceasefires and talks.
Analysing 405 different disasters in 21 countries, Joakim Kreutz, a Swedish expert on peace and conflict studies found that talks were initiated and ceasefires were concluded in many regions following disasters.
Interestingly, he found that disasters did bring parties together to explore peace, but only if victims were between 30,000-153,885, or if the disaster had affected more than one million victims.
The phenomenon indicated that parties came together because disasters had hit their resources. “Therefore, they found an incentive in launching talks," concluded the research that was undertaken by Kreutz, a teacher at the University of Uppsala, near Stockholm.
Spanish researcher Lesley-Ann Daniels who had analysed the Indonesian peace deal said it was not the tsunami itself, but its consequences that brought the parties to enter into a peace agreement.
“The arrival of the international community changed the dynamics of the conflict, encouraging the Indonesian government into negotiations and legitimising the Free Aceh Movement," she said in her research.
Oversight of international community
She said that an external shock such as the coronavirus could pause a conflict, but does not change the underlying structures of the conflict that include territory that groups control, the access to weapons and funding unless there is oversight from the international community, such as UN peacekeepers or international mediators.
“The rebel groups are reassured that the international community will hold the national government to account later if it betrays the terms of the agreement," she added.
According to London-based Conciliation Resources (CR) - an international organisation mediating in violent conflict - disasters do provide opportunities to build back better - both in terms of building more adequate infrastructure and robust buildings and also in terms of strengthening community resilience.
“Under the right circumstances, natural disasters can contribute to restoring trust, increasing empathy among divided groups through shared grief, and can enable those affected to learn from one another,” said Shafat Ahmed, who authored a paper for CR on disaster preparedness and response in Kashmir.
He maintained that in an environmentally fragile and conflict-ridden region like Kashmir, disasters can create opportunities for increased cooperation and understanding within and between the communities on either side and across the LoC, the de facto border which divides the disputed region between India and Pakistan.
Shyam Saran, India’s foreign secretary from 2004–2006, said the humanitarian issues affecting people on both sides of the LoC were behind the Indian proposal for allowing the meeting of families in Kashmir at five designated places on the dividing line.
The proposed places were Mendhar, Poonch, Suchetgarh, Uri, and Tangdhar along the Neelam Valley. Earlier, both countries had launched the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service in April 2005, and then the Poonch-Rawalakote route was opened for travel in June 2006.
Then Minister of External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee said the expansion of people-to-people contacts, including through trade and commerce will provide an effective platform to develop and strengthen bilateral relations.
Revive cross-LoC trade to defeat contraction
In the wake of predictions that the Covid-19 pandemic will contract global trade, it has become all the more necessary to revive the cross-LoC trade in Jammu and Kashmir to sustain localised supply chain.
Last year in April, India, suspended this trade, which was going via two trade facilitation centres – Salamabad and Chakan-da-Bagh – citing concerns about security, involving illegal inflows of weapons, narcotics and currency into India.
The trade initiated in October 2008, as a confidence-building measure between India and Pakistan, allowed people on the two sides to trade 21 products on a barter system, for four days a week.
Between 2008-2019, goods worth 75 billion Indian rupees ($987 million) were traded. They also generated 1,70,000 job days, and freight revenue of about 660 million Indian rupees ($8.6 million) was earned by local transporters.
With livelihoods already shrinking, the coronavirus crises now have made it almost impossible for traders, labourers, and transporters to seek alternate avenues in the wake of the suspension of this trade.
Putting forth stronger and more transparent cross-LoC trade mechanisms can help respond to some of the economic standstill resulting from the lockdowns Kashmir experiences over the past nine months.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Afaq Hussain, director at the Bureau of Research on Industry and Economic Fundamentals (BRIEF), said as the coronavirus crisis has put globalisation into reverse, there is a case to focus on the development of regional value chains with countries in the neighborhood.
“Cross-LoC trade, if revived, can make for such a value chain - fitting in the post-Covid-19 market structures, catering to the local market of Jammu & Kashmir, and reviving the economic ecosystem created by this trade," he said.
His associate, Nikita Singla believes in the times of saving lives and livelihoods for the sake of local economy and population of troubled Jammu and Kashmir, it would be in their interest to revive the cross-LoC trade with revised operating procedures.
Retired Gen. Harcharanjit Singh Panag, who had commanded Indian troops in Kashmir, said that Covid-19 has come as an opportunity for India and Pakistan to move forward to end hostilities.
“The magnitude of the coronavirus crisis allows both countries to gracefully alter their rigid attitude and sell the idea to the emotional population and other stakeholders without giving up their perceived self-righteous stands,” he said.
The pandemic may have shut down political mobilisation and convinced protesters to stay at home all over the world. But popular grievances are likely to get further exacerbated by the pandemic and could make them even more volatile and bring new cycles of instability. The aftermath of disease coupled with economic catastrophe could sow the seeds of further disorder.
Experts also believe that it is time to unfreeze the eight-member SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) to allow some diplomatic activity in the region, more so, between India and Pakistan.
An important question haunting the diplomatic community is whether Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan will be able to travel to New Delhi to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit scheduled in September.
They believe that the unfreezing of SAARC will kickstart diplomatic activity in the region and thus help Khan to visit New Delhi and meet his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on the summit sidelines.
But after all, diplomacy depends on leaders. If parties seek peace, then they can use Covid-19 to extend the hand of friendship and seek cooperation. If they do not want peace, then dealing with an emergency can be used to score points and drive the two sides further apart.