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COVID-19 and Atrocity Prevention in Cameroon and South Sudan

View of shelters in Wau Protection of Civilians site Adjacent Area, South Sudan, in 2018. Refugees International

When COVID-19 first arrived, analysts and forecasters scrambled to predict its impact on a variety of phenomena ranging from climate change to civil war. Organizations like ours speculated on how the disease might impact mass atrocities and efforts to prevent them and what it meant for displaced populations reeling from conflict. Now, nearly seven months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, we are witnessing the beginnings of these effects. 

To better understand how the pandemic is interacting with atrocity risks and ultimately to improve the response to these convergent issues, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Refugees International convened a group of civil society leaders and researchers to discuss how COVID-19 has impacted atrocity prevention efforts in Cameroon and South Sudan. 

The situations in Cameroon and South Sudan differ significantly both in terms of the nature of mass atrocities and the impact of the pandemic. In Cameroon, state security forces and armed separatist groups fighting over the Anglophone region’s independence have committed atrocities against civilians. Boko Haram militants have attacked civilians in the Far North region, and government forces have committed widespread human rights abuses against civilians in their war on Boko Haram. Cameroon has the highest reported COVID-19 caseload in central Africa with more than 20,000 cases

Meanwhile, in South Sudan’s civil war that began in 2013, government and rebel forces have both committed widespread atrocities against civilians, including extremely high levels of sexual violence. The east African country’s reported COVID-19 caseload is relatively small at just over 2,700 cases, though this is likely an undercount.

But some key trends across both countries offer insights:

COVID-19’s effects on mass atrocities vary. The pandemic seems to exacerbate violent dynamics in Cameroon, while having little apparent effect on violence in South Sudan.

It is difficult to isolate the impacts of COVID-19 on mass atrocities. In Cameroon, COVID-19 has intensified the ongoing Anglophone crisis. The pandemic has distracted the international community, drawing attention away from the conflict. Armed groups and the military have taken advantage of the situation and sought to ramp up their attacks on civilians. Moreover, the behavior of the government and armed separatist groups have undercut efforts to contain and mitigate the spread of the virus. 

For example, separatist groups have attacked civilians for wearing face masks. Furthermore, when separatists have been willing to help civilians in the face of the pandemic, the government has labeled those civilians receiving such aid as supporting separatists. By the same token, the separatists tend to treat those civilians who benefit from government pandemic assistance as the enemy.

Many Cameroonians confined to their homes are spreading more online hate speech, which is often used to incite violence against civilians. Travel restrictions have prevented those especially at risk of attacks or persecution, such as human rights defenders, from fleeing the country.

In South Sudan, COVID-19 has left several mass atrocity risk factors relatively unchanged. The consolidation of power at the center--which fuels the conflict and accompanying mass atrocities--is proceeding unaffected by the pandemic, and local-level conflict remains a persistent problem. While some COVID-related dynamics--such as reduction of outside observers--might increase atrocity risks, the direct effects have not been as apparent as in Cameroon.

Governments may use COVID-19 to excuse delays in peace processes and political reforms.

The negotiation and implementation of South Sudan’s peace process have been long-delayed. Now, government actors cite COVID-19 as another reason the peace process will once again be put on hold. But there is a need to distinguish where the COVID-19 pandemic actually interferes with implementation of agreed measures--including those that will help to prevent further atrocities-- from where it is being used as an excuse by governments for inaction.

Over the next couple of years, the South Sudanese elections will be an important milestone in the peaceful resolution of the conflict--though they also have the potential to be seriously destabilizing. Given the incentive for those in power to delay or disrupt elections, international supporters of the peace should consider what length of delay is justifiable in light of COVID-19, and set benchmarks accordingly.

COVID-19 can hinder external atrocity prevention efforts. 

COVID-19-related travel restrictions have limited the presence of international monitors in South Sudan including both UN and NGO staff. This reduction of outside observers removes a potential deterrent to violence. Likewise, in Cameroon, no more than 50 people can gather in one place, making it difficult for emissaries to gather groups and preach the need for reconciliation of the Anglophone crisis.

Humanitarian aid is stretched thin, as humanitarian actors must attend to both the threat of COVID-19 and ongoing conflict and displacement. Meanwhile, humanitarian workers face restrictions on movement that hamper their ability to provide aid. This is particularly pronounced in South Sudan where a third of the pre-war population remains displaced and where more than half of the population remains food insecure. The future of UN-hosted Protection of Civilian sites presents another atrocity risk. Given ongoing ethnic tensions, UN and government officials must balance the desire to close such crowded sites with the risks of doing so.

COVID-19 also presents opportunities to prevent atrocities.

In response to the pandemic, the UN Secretary-General called for a global ceasefire to consolidate efforts to fight COVID-19 in conflict areas. Such a ceasefire is widely considered the first step in ending the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon. However, just one armed separatist group declared a ceasefire, with the Cameroonian government and other separatist groups failing to follow suit. The Secretary-General’s call represents a missed opportunity for the international community to pressure conflict actors to lay down arms and come to the negotiating table.

In addition, humanitarian actors could prioritize actions that both help control the pandemic and address risks of atrocities. For example, promoting internet access in conflict areas--while monitoring for hate speech--allows for COVID-19 awareness raising and contact tracing, and also allows for the reporting of conflict-related human rights violations.

The effects of COVID-19 on mass atrocities and atrocity prevention are varied and remain uncertain. But this discussion of Cameroon and South Sudan helped to identify some areas that should continue to be tracked. Governments must not be allowed to use the pandemic as an excuse to delay measures that help prevent atrocities. Efforts to contain the virus must be balanced with access for aid and outside observers. Finally, opportunities, like pushing for ceasefires, should not be missed. As we continue to face a pandemic with impacts that are likely to be long lasting, experts must continue to identify new risks as well as new prospects for building peace.