While the world struggles to break the back of a raging pandemic, regional conflicts of biblical proportion fueled largely by war and gruesome persecution have been quietly destroying no fewer lives. With deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, civilian objects, and besieged towns, the human toll on those caught in the midst of the fighting has been colossal. Tragically, the arrival of the worst pandemic in over a century pushed vulnerable civilians further into crisis. As the international community tackles COVID-19’s spread and mitigates its global repercussions, it is critical to acknowledge that the pandemic will further compound the human cost of regional conflict; conversely, these instances of violence and instability will intensify the global health crisis. What is more, the pandemic has acutely revealed the shortcomings of the international community’s response to both humanitarian emergencies and human rights violations. Concrete measures must be taken to mitigate the pandemic’s devastating effects on the world’s most vulnerable populations, to strengthen their inclusion in the global COVID-19 response, and to ensure that they are not further isolated.
There are millions of Yemenis trapped in the middle of the globe’s deadliest active conflict. And there are the 730 thousand destitute Rohingya who fled genocidal violence in Myanmar to settle in Cox’s Bazar, a city in Bangladesh now home to the world’s largest refugee encampment. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers being brutalized by Libya’s warring tribes and millions of Syrians, displaced from their homes by the Assad regime’s exterminatory assault, currently packed into rudimentary camps in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and the Greek islands. Already impoverished and homeless, these millions now face an enemy as deadly and indifferent to their despair as warlords and tyrants: COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus behind it—a zoonotic pathogen, one-thousandth the width of a human hair.
After the deadly virus gained a foothold in many parts of the world, it spread unchecked in combat zones and refugee-hosting states. Ongoing fighting, dilapidated social and economic infrastructures, and weak healthcare systems incapable of triaging, testing, tracing, and isolating allowed the virus to run rampant in war-torn nations, many teetering on the brink of collapse. Government restrictions on travel and the movement of vital humanitarian supplies further hindered any chance at mitigating the devastation.
Yemen offers an enlightening case in point. Trapped in the middle of a savage, multi-faction proxy war since March 2015, more than 100 thousand Yemeni civilians have been killed. Millions more displaced Yemenis live in the shadow of death due to hunger, disease, and relentless military assault. The chief causes of civilian casualties in Yemen’s forgotten war include an indiscriminate aerial bombing campaign and punishing air, land, and naval blockades imposed by a Saudi-led military coalition backed by US logistical and intelligence support.
The pandemic came at the worst possible time for Yemen, described as the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster. The statistics are both staggering and tragic. Eighty percent of the war-ravaged nation’s population — 24.1 million people — require humanitarian assistance and protection, with half on the verge of starvation. Over one million people are suffering from a growing cholera outbreak; between April 2015 and October 2018, an estimated eighty-five thousand children died from malnutrition or disease. After reporting the first Yemeni COVID-19 case on April 10, 2020, the UN warned that war and conflict put Yemen at risk of a wider, faster, and deadlier spread than anywhere else. With 2,436 confirmed cases and 660 COVID-related deaths as of December 10, 2020, Yemen has the highest ratio of deaths to cases in the world. But the actual numbers are likely far greater, given the country’s limited testing, severely reduced health care capacity, and shortage of medical supplies. Millions of severely malnourished Yemenis now suffer further because vital humanitarian aid is being held up by the blockade. A push by the Trump Administration, in its waning days, to designate the Houthis, the Yemeni militia that rules over the vast majority of the country’s population, as a foreign terrorist organization, will essentially cut off humanitarian aid into Houthi-controlled areas. It would also hamper the distribution of a coronavirus vaccine in the country.
The pre-pandemic international response to Yemen’s catastrophic unraveling was sluggish. UN-led mediation attempts, largely focused on implementing a patchy peace deal between the warring sides during December 2018 peace talks in Rimbo, Sweden, have stalled. In June 2020, a UN emergency aid fundraiser—co-sponsored, ironically, by Saudi Arabia—failed to meet its target by one billion dollars, raising fears that essential aid services in the war-torn country would shut down. Without an immediate and unconditional end to the fighting and a massive scaling up of the humanitarian capacity response, many more Yemenis will die.
In a searing report titled “Yemen: A Pandemic of Impunity in a Tortured Land”, UN experts found that “the parties to the conflict continue to show no regard for international law or the lives, dignity, and rights of people in Yemen, while third states have helped to perpetuate the conflict by continuing to supply the parties with weapons.” So far, there has not been a shred of accountability for the perpetrators. In the words of Kamel Jendoubi, chairman of the Group of Independent Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, “Yemen remains a tortured land, with its people ravaged in ways that should shock the conscience of humanity.” He noted that “the international community has a responsibility to put an end to this pandemic of impunity, and should not turn a blind eye to the gross violations that have been committed in Yemen.”
Across the Arabian Sea, in Bangladesh, the situation of the Rohingya refugees provides another striking example of the devastation wrought by the pandemic on the forcibly displaced. The Rohingya’s current humanitarian crisis follows decades of persecution of the predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in northwest Myanmar. On August 25, 2017, life for the Rohingya took a brutal turn after Myanmar’s military and security forces indiscriminately targeted Rohingya civilians in a bid to drive them out of the country. More than 700 thousand Rohingya fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh. They joined 300 thousand Rohingya who had been forced out during previous waves of state-sponsored violence. All told, over a million Rohingya Muslims, half of whom are women and children, have been displaced from Myanmar. The perpetrators’ declared intent—so-called “clearance operations”—was to permanently remove the Rohingya from their homeland. In doing so, Myanmar’s military and security forces relied on an official policy of massive displacements, forcible population transfers, and other international law violations, including mass rape and other forms of sexual violence.
Allegations against Myanmar are currently the subject of a case under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide at the International Court of Justice. Additionally, the International Criminal Court launched a full-scale investigation into Myanmar’s alleged crimes against humanity and persecution against the Rohingya population. However, while the wheels of international justice turn at a leisurely pace in the distant courts of the Hague in what could be years-long proceedings, the Rohingya refugees still wait for salvation.
One million Rohingya currently live in the squalid and overcrowded camps of Cox’s Bazar, where social distancing is not an option. Within the camps, there is little knowledge about the disease or its prevention. The camps are also dangerously unequipped, lacking necessary isolation wards and treatment centers for COVID-19 patients. All this, coupled with the harmful stigma and discrimination now faced by virus survivors, means the crisis is growing worse by the day.
When the virus reached the refugee camps in May 2020, it brought new horrors to the existing calamity. Restrictions on movement, work, and education tightened. Access to food, clean water, sanitation, and healthcare were further limited. Underlying health conditions, including acute malnutrition, now pose even greater threats. The World Health Organization reported that, as of December 9, 2020, Cox Bazar’s host community recorded 5,194 coronavirus cases, while some 363 refugees in the camps tested positive. Among the refugee population, ten have died of COVID-19.
As the prospects for repatriation or resettlement in third countries fade away, hopeless Rohingya flee the dismal conditions of makeshift camps and the assault of COVID-19 by sailing in wooden boats to find sanctuary at ports in Southeast Asia. But the virus makes their risky journey even more perilous. Citing COVID-19 measures as justification, countries across the region, including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, have largely ignored the Rohingya crisis, with some countries even refusing them safe disembarkation. These refusals blatantly violate the international law principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits states from sending refugees back to countries where their lives and liberty can be endangered. Hundreds of Rohingya have been stranded on boats for months. Tragically, many have perished at sea.
The plight of Yemenis and Rohingya echo those of the Libyans, Syrians, Iraqis, Ethiopians, and millions of other innocent civilians caught in the midst of crushing wars and those fleeing intractable conflict. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the world, the international community must move toward more effective and binding solutions that protect the millions of people for whom COVID-19 poses the greatest threat. In the immediate term, states must take concrete measures to influence behavior: namely, by re-engaging in efforts to implement a worldwide cessation of hostilities and prioritizing the protection of civilians affected by armed conflicts. More specifically, the international community must prohibit the use of collective punishment against civilians as a weapon of war, implement a ban on weapons transfers to countries with a history of flagrant human rights violations, and hold those responsible for violations of international law accountable.
In the long term, COVID-19 and other, future pandemics will continue to magnify the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable. Their plight represents one of the most defining challenges of our time. The current response is woefully inadequate. The international community has a moral and legal duty to act swiftly and decisively, now and in the future, to ensure those already suffering from tragic conflict are not further and disproportionately subjugated by infectious disease.
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Djaouida Siaci is an international lawyer specializing in international litigation and arbitration, and cross-border criminal investigation with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. As part of her pro bono work, Mrs. Siaci has been engaged in efforts to pursue international justice and accountability on behalf of victims of human rights violations and mass atrocities. She is the founder and vice-president of the Rohingya Support Group (RSG). Mrs. Siaci holds a Master of Laws from Harvard Law School; a postgraduate degree in Public International Law and Law of International Organizations from the University of Paris, Sorbonne; and a law degree from the University of Algiers, Faculty of Law.
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