COVID-19: Calling an Olympic Truce on Global Conflict

29 Apr, 2020    ·   5681

Tanvi Kulkarni considers the logic, feasibility, and viability of a global ceasefire

Calling for a global ceasefire on conflicts around the world, in March 2020, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, said that the world is fighting a “common enemy” in COVID-19. However, this pandemic does not appear to have driven home the Secretary-General’s point, as war and armed conflict continue without pause in different pockets of the world and a global ceasefire is nowhere in sight yet. This article explores the logic, feasibility, and viability of a global ceasefire in a situation in which all bets are off.


A global ceasefire or truce essentially calls for a temporary cessation of armed conflicts around the world. It is governed by international humanitarian law and requires warring parties to pause active hostilities for a given period so that the international community can collectively address the most outstanding challenges they face at that time.

The logic of any ceasefire follows from the logic of war: the rationale or benefits from the ceasefire must be perceived to outweigh the costs of continuing aggression. In his March 2020 appeal to “pull back from hostilities” and “silence the guns,” Secretary-General Guterres expounded the immediate and long-term necessity for a global ceasefire.

The immediate logic is of course to have international attention and efforts converge to fight the spread of COVID-19 within and beyond national and local boundaries, prepare healthcare systems to cope with the pandemic’s onset and peak, and open corridors for health and economic aid to safely reach the most vulnerable of humankind, including children, women, the poor, those marginalised and displaced, and, in this case, healthcare professionals as well.

In war-ravaged places like Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa, where healthcare infrastructure has been significantly crippled by on-going conflict, and huge populations have been displaced, a pause in active hostilities is critical for facilitation of foreign aid. In his speech, the secretary-general also hoped that the cooling-off period offered by a global ceasefire could be used for diplomacy and building confidence, to pave the way for long-term conflict resolution.


It is not unusual for conflict belligerents to negotiate ceasefires for reasons other than crisis management or conflict resolution, such as religious, cultural, or humanitarian motivations. For instance, from 1965 to 1968, an unofficial ceasefire— the Tet Truce—was observed between the Viet Cong forces of North Vietnam and South Vietnam during the Vietnamese festival of Tet in February. Ramzan or Eid ceasefires have been observed occasionally in Afghanistan, Gaza, Syria, and Kashmir. After the 2004 Tsunami that hit in the Indian Ocean, the separatist Free Aceh Group (Gam) in Indonesia declared a unilateral ceasefire so that disaster relief could reach the rebuilding process.

An example that is analogous to a global ceasefire is the Olympic Truce. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution reviving the ‘Olympic Truce’; observed at the time of the Olympic Games in ancient Greece. In 776 BC, King Ifitos proposed a truce called 'Ekecheria' (Olympic Truce) for seven days before and after the Games so that sportspersons could travel without becoming collateral in the ongoing conflict between the Greek states. The modern Olympic Truce was adopted before the 1994 Winter Olympics and has been renewed before every Olympic Games. The truce facilitated humanitarian assistance to a conflict-ridden Sarajevo in 1994, and brought together the delegations of South and North Korea to march behind the flag of the Korean peninsula at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

These examples, particularly the Olympic Truce, show that conflicting parties and countries can and have previously agreed to expressions of solidarity for a common cause. Given the multi-dimensional costs of armed conflict, a global humanitarian ceasefire during this pandemic, agreed to collectively by the international community, could bring much needed, albeit temporary, relief to governments and populations. The deadly conflation of war and pandemic allows governments to misrepresent or even hide information about one or the other. For instance, public memory about the Spanish Flu in Europe was weakened through heavy press censorship during the First World War, and led to the representation of pandemic deaths as war casualties.

A global ceasefire can avoid a similar fate in the time of COVID-19.


Whereas Guterres’ appeal has garnered a positive reception in many parts of the world,  fighting continues in Afghanistan, Libya, Myanmar, and Iraq. From March through April 2020, ceasefire violations have spiked on the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir amidst lockdowns imposed by both countries to tackle the pandemic.

It can be relatively easier to negotiate ceasefires than to sustain them. Temporary ceasefires are especially fragile. In the absence of formality, they can easily collapse. The local ceasefires declared recently have mostly been announced unilaterally, and could be violated as soon as one side sees benefit in an opportunistic strike. If the global ceasefire is to be a durable one, it should be endorsed by the major powers and monitored by an international body like the UN.  

The solidarity of the UN Security Council, which is responsible for international peace and security as per the UN Charter, is therefore crucial for a viable global ceasefire. The UNSC has been indecisive on the French proposal for limited ceasefires in conflict zones. Reports suggest that the US and Russia fear that a universal ceasefire would inhibit their counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations around the world. Current UNSC efforts to reach consensus on a global response to the pandemic have also been held up by the downturn in US-China relations. So far, politics has prevailed over the pandemic.

To rephrase Guterres, the fury of the virus also illustrates the folly of our times.


Tanvi Kulkarni is Assistant Professor of Defence and Strategic Studies at Pune University, and a Visiting Fellow with IPCS.