By Ray Acheson

The UN Secretary-General’s appeal for a global ceasefire during the COVID-19 outbreak has now been circulating for a few weeks. Many governments and non-state armed groups around the world have responded favourably. An update from the Secretary-General’s office issued on 2 April office indicates that parties to conflict in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen have said they would comply with a ceasefire—though not everyone has. Seventy UN member states have supported the call and an online petition in support of the appeal has so far collected about two million signatures. Activists in some warring countries have also issued statements supporting the ceasefire, such as Women4Yemen and GPPAC Southeast Asia, while others have begun mapping the response and keeping track of commitments.

But of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, only France and the United Kingdom have indicated support for the ceasefire appeal. Russia has said it supports the ceasefire, but has also said this does not include its “counterterrorism” operations, which includes its relentless bombing of populated areas in Syria alongside the Syrian government.

Arms production and sales continue

Meanwhile, other aspects of the war machine continue to churn, unabated by the coronavirus or the ceasefire appeal. As WILPF noted in an earlier blog, arms manufacturers are being treated as essential services in most major weapons producing companies. Despite risks to workers and despite the urgent need for medical equipment and protective gear, war profiteers are continuing to pump out bombs and bullets. Some gun manufacturers in the United States have had to pause production because of state-issued orders, but others have continued to operate. US officials in charge of military acquisition have even said they plan to accelerate contract awards during the COVID-19 crisis in order to protect the profit margins of weapons companies.

Arms transfers have also continued during the pandemic. Some countries are even using the chaos of the moment to conduct controversial arms sales that would otherwise face public opposition, in a classic demonstration of disaster capitalism. The Canadian government, for example, announced that it is lifting a moratorium on future exports of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, which it had previously paused after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It was already under pressure to cancel a $14.4 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia due to the Saudi-led war on Yemen and its  crackdown on nonviolent Saudi civilians. But Canada has decided to not only go ahead with that deal, as it was already, but now to also lift the moratorium on future deals. This decision comes a few months after the Canadian government ratified the Arms Trade Treaty and mere days after it endorsed the UN Secretary-General’s ceasefire call. Canada’s support for “putting armed conflict on lockdown” clearly does not translate to putting arms sales that sustain those conflicts on lockdown, highlighting the ongoing hypocrisy of arms exporters that condemn the fire while providing the fuel.

The costs of war

“COVID-19 has shown how swiftly it can move across borders and devastate countries and bring life to a standstill,” remarked the US Secretary-General in his update on the ceasefire. So too guns and bombs. How many lives in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Palestine, and so many other places around the world have already been brought to a standstill by war? How many lives have been lost from decades of occupation and armed violence? What have been the physical, psychological, economic, and environmental costs of armed conflict over generations?

Most of our money, and so much of our ingenuity, has gone into making bombs and bullets, into developing bigger, badder, or more “efficient” ways of killing each other. And nearly all of our philosophy and imagination about security and safety is guided by militarism, to the point where we even keep referring to the coronavirus as an enemy and supporting the deployment of soldiers to “protect” us from the pandemic.

Patriarchy’s role in perpetuating violence

At the core of society’s reliance on militarism to solve its problems are patriarchy and toxic masculinities. These are ideas and systems in which strength, courage, and protection are equated with the male sex and, in turn, with violence. Within this construct of masculinity, the capacity and willingness to use weapons, engage in combat, and kill other human beings is seen as essential to being “a real man”.

This type of violent, militarized masculinity harms everyone. It results in violence against men. Men mostly kill each other, inside and outside of conflict. A big part of this is about preserving or protecting their masculinity—a masculinity that makes male bodies more expendable. Women and children, obnoxiously lumped together, are more likely be deemed “innocent civilians,” while men are more likely be to be considered militants or combatants. In conflict, civilian men are often targeted as militants only because they are men of a certain age.

But the construct of violent masculinity also harms everyone who does not fit into the masculine stereotype—women, queer-identified people, non-normative men. It requires oppression of those deemed “weaker” on the basis of gender norms. It results in domestic violence. It results in violence against women. It results in violence against gay, trans, and gender non-conforming people.

Where is the war zone?

Gender-based violence happens everywhere, at all times—including during this pandemic. Responding to the surge in domestic violence seen during COVID-19 related lockdowns and quarantines, the UN Secretary-General noted that “violence is not confined to the battlefield. For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest: in their own homes.”

This connection between violence in war zones and violence in homes is a crucial one. We need a global ceasefire not just between armed forces but also in our homes and our communities. During previous outbreaks and pandemics, research has shown an increase in domestic violence. The militarisation of responses to pandemics also tends to increase risks of gender-based violence with the influx of military personnel into communities, while resources available to help survivors of this violence are diverted to deal with the pandemic response. There are many ways in which the impacts of COVID-19 are gendered, which is why a comprehensive rights-based approach with a gender analysis is crucial for all responses to the crisis.

So far 136 governments so far have joined the UN Secretary-General’s appeal on gender-based violence and COVID-19. The attention to this issue is very welcome. But we cannot just seek to end or prevent violence during the pandemic. Sexual- and gender-based violence is a pandemic all on its own, as are armed conflict and war profiteering. We must not just lay down our weapons on the battlefield or work to prevent domestic violence now and then go “back to normal later”. The efforts we make now to lessen the harms caused in the midst of the coronavirus must be sustained later to “end the scourge” of war and violence as the UN Charter promised all those years ago.

Towards peace and nonviolence

“In the midst of this terrible despair,” writes Arundhati Roy, “it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”

Whether we are talking about the doomsday machine of nuclear war; or the doomsday machine of endless bombs and bullets raining down on cities and causing displacement and famine and trauma; or the doomsday machine of public and private acts of gender-based violence in communities and homes; or any of the capitalist doomsday machines we have created that have led to our inability to adequately address this crisis and its economic consequences—all of these machines can be dismantled. Human beings created them; human beings can take them apart.

We do not all share in the creation of the systems that oppress us. But we can all be involved in their dismantling and the construction of alternatives. “No social movement begins with the question of what is possible; it is typically fuelled by imagining what could be,” writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. “This will be the challenge of the new movement that emerges to challenge the vast inequalities that Covid-19 has exposed.”

Supporting nonviolent alternatives to conflict, ceasefires and the cessation of weapons production and sales, an end to gender-based violence, equitable distribution of resources, new ways of organising and acting in solidarity—all will be crucial to surviving this crisis. Breaking down the systems that got us into this mess in the first place will be essential for preventing another one.