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“Corona can worsen conflicts”

Armed conflicts are continuing unabated despite the pandemic, says peace and conflict studies expert Nicole Deitelhoff. 

Interview: Helen Sibum, 21.07.2020
Libya: militants wearing face masks
Libya: militants wearing face masks © dpa/pa

Crises and conflicts around the world are the subject of Professor Nicole Deitelhoff‘s research – though to date pandemics have hardly featured in her work at all. That will change, says the political scientist. She heads the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), a member of the Leibniz Association. In an interview with she looks at crises in the corona era.

Professor Deitelhoff, during the corona pandemic we have been seeing pictures of armed militants wearing face masks in crisis regions. As an expert in peace and conflict studies, what feelings do such images provoke in you?

Frustration, first and foremost. It is frustrating to see that fighting is continuing unabated in many conflict areas and indeed has even worsened in some cases. We have observed that conflicting parties are taking advantage of the pandemic to make territorial gains or pursue their political objectives. UN Secretary-General António Guterres had called for a global ceasefire to protect the civilian population. Unfortunately, only a small number of the conflicts have actually seen temporary truces, such as in Afghanistan at the end of May. Fighting in the majority of conflicts has continued unabated, for example in Syria and Yemen.

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What role has the issue of health played to date in peace and conflict studies?

It certainly hasn’t been a central focus of our research. Health tended to play more of an indirect role due to the general correlation between development and peace. Key indicators of development include aspects such as infant mortality and vaccination rates. Of course, even before corona there were epidemics that played a marginal role in research. However, they never reached such a level that required us to focus on them as the cause of conflict. Corona has changed this – and peace and conflict studies have also become more sensitised to this topic.

It is difficult to broker compromises during a video chat.
Nicole Deitelhoff, Executive Director of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

How is the pandemic changing conflicts?

A key feature of the corona pandemic is the lockdown. The restrictions and bans on contact are evident in three main ways in conflicts: first, violence has flared up again in fragile post-conflict societies because security forces have had to withdraw from the region, such as has been the case in Latin America. Second, UN missions have come under pressure because peacekeepers have been unable to leave their bases. Third, it has been virtually impossible to continue mediation and crisis diplomacy. It is difficult to broker compromises during a video chat. When they feel uncomfortable, conflicting parties can simply press the Off button.

Diplomacy is difficult during the pandemic, in other words?

In diplomacy it is very difficult if one is unable to talk in person. Diplomacy relies on being able to take gestures, facial expressions and other factors into account, rather than focusing only on what is actually said – this allows one to judge for example where there might still be potential for concessions to be made. Virtual formats are fine for exchanging information, but establishing trust is much more difficult.

I believe that corona can also present a great opportunity for German diplomacy.
Nicole Deitelhoff, Executive Director of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt

What impact does this have on the scope for German and European foreign policy?

I believe that corona can also present a great opportunity for German diplomacy because it has long been committed to civilian crisis prevention. Corona is a case in point: the pandemic cannot be tackled with weapons. It is not the best military strategy that is needed, but the best recovery strategy. This is an area in which German diplomacy and foreign policy have a great deal of experience and expertise. Germany’s activities during the pandemic have been very closely tied to the EU and Team Europe initiative. The more issues of civilian prevention and post-crisis support that come into the spotlight, the more the role of Germany and Europe on the global political stage will be strengthened.

You say that corona has if anything worsened conflicts. Was it naive to believe that the pandemic might also give rise to solidarity and encourage conflicting parties to make concessions?

The basic problem is that conflict situations tend to be highly heterogeneous: they do not involve merely one or two conflicting states. In many of the especially virulent conflicts these days we have a variety of non-state armed groups on the one hand and a state – often a very repressive one – or external intervention by several states on the other. Take Libya for example: an internationally recognised government there is battling with rival non-state challengers. One of these – the militants led by General Haftar – is being provided with weapons and soldiers by Russia. In situations like this there is very little chance of making effective moral appeals.


Political scientist and PRIF Executive Director Nicole Deitelhoff
Political scientist and PRIF Executive Director Nicole Deitelhoff © Uwe Dettmar

So there are no grounds whatsoever for optimism?  

As far as international conflicts are concerned, unfortunately not. Where progress really is being made is in the EU, however. In the past three months we have seen some amazing movement, for example the tacit agreement to incur joint debts, albeit within the narrow confines of legal treaties. An incredible dynamism has emerged that one would never have expected just six months ago. There are positive, indirect effects, in other words: possible mediators who are interested in a legally regulated system are being strengthened during this crisis.