Humanitarian Disarmament’s Twin Solutions to Two COVID-19 Problems

Lan Mei, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

The devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic serve as a stark reminder of the importance of humanitarian disarmament’s principles and activities. Countries continue to experience shortages of medical equipment, testing, and other resources needed to tackle the coronavirus, and the pandemic and responses to it are creating special challenges for victims of armed conflict and other persons with disabilities. Humanitarian disarmament’s twin pillars of prevention and remediation could help society address these issues: 1) ceasing the development and production of internationally banned weapons would free up resources to deal with to the global health crisis; and 2) implementation of victim assistance measures would help ensure that pandemic response plans involve victims in the process and meet their specific needs.

Victim assistance in Iraq.
Credit: Victor Mello|UNDP Iraq, 2011

Prevention and Reallocation of Funding to COVID Response

Health care systems in even the wealthiest countries in the world still lack adequate resources to treat, track, and prevent the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic response, including stay-at-home orders and closures of non-essential businesses, is also straining government social welfare programs. At the same time, some of the largest arms-producing countries have designated weapons production an essential service that has been allowed to continue. For example, the US National Nuclear Security Administration sites’ “minimum mission-critical operations” include the assembly of nuclear weapons and components, and the US Department of Energy is moving forward with plans to build a new plutonium pit production site. Some countries, such as South Korea and Thailand, have announced cuts to their defense budgets and re-appropriations of those funds to coronavirus response, but such a move remains embroiled in debate in other countries, including the United States.

Upholding the humanitarian disarmament principle of preventing arms-related human suffering could help alleviate some of the humanitarian consequences of the pandemic. Ceasing production, development, and stockpiling of internationally banned weapons, as required by humanitarian disarmament treaties, would free up significant resources that could be re-directed elsewhere. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons has calculated that the resources spent on nuclear weapons in the United States could alternatively pay for hundreds of thousands of hospital beds, tens of thousands of ventilators, and hundreds of thousands additional health care workers. Reallocated funding from arms production could also be used to support the broader public health system and social protection measures.

Remediation and Victim Assistance

COVID-19 has affected people across the globe, but victims of armed conflicts, past and present, face additional burdens in navigating the pandemic. Landmines and explosive remnants of war threaten civilian lives and create physical barriers to adequate health care, food, and safe water, which are especially important in the current situation. Survivors of nuclear weapons use and testing suffer from compromised immune systems that could increase their vulnerability to COVID-19 and decrease their ability to fight it. Victims of arms-inflicted harm and other persons with disabilities also experience difficulties because of a disruption in health services, including medication, mobility support, or rehabilitation, and social distancing guidelines, which are important but restrict the help they can receive with daily activities.

A reduction in victim assistance activities has exacerbated the challenges conflict victims encounter. As Ambassador Osman Abufatima A. Mohammed, president of the Mine Ban Treaty, observed, victim assistance activities have ceased in many countries as a result of the pandemic without clear indications of when they might resume. Other remedial measures required by humanitarian disarmament—notably clearance of remnants of war and risk education—have been similarly suspended.

The victim assistance activities required by humanitarian disarmament should be considered essential to the pandemic response. Human rights groups have pointed out the necessity of considering the specific needs of victims and other persons with disabilities in the development of pandemic response strategies, and providing them with additional social support and services. Without such focused consideration, the rights of victims and other persons with disabilities are at risk of being violated.

Victim assistance measures can be linked to relevant national pandemic response policies, plans, and programs. The Mine Ban Treaty’s Oslo Action Plan commits states parties, for example, to removing “physical, social, cultural, political, attitudinal and communication barriers to access [support] services” and ensuring that “relevant national humanitarian response and preparedness plans provide for the safety and protection of mine survivors in situations of risk.” The Dubrovnik Action Plan of the Convention on Cluster Munitions calls upon states parties to strengthen their national capacity to assist cluster munitions victims and “to promote inclusion of victims in all relevant national policies, plans and programs.” These and other measures outlined in the Oslo and Dubrovnik Action Plans parallel the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on protecting those with disabilities during the COVID-19 outbreak. States should implement victim measures in accordance with WHO and OHCHR guidance to protect victims and other persons with disabilities in the current crisis.

The Path Forward

Humanitarian disarmament, at its core, is about protecting civilians from the suffering inflicted by weapons of war. It calls for preventing future harm by ending the development and production of certain weapons and remediating existing harm by assisting victims. Adherence to these humanitarian principles would not only advance the specific goals of humanitarian disarmament but also strengthen the COVID-19 response, including as countries begin to re-open. It would entail redefining “essential” activities to re-allocate resources away from producing weapons to addressing public health. It would also involve fully considering the needs of victims and other persons with disabilities in emergency response planning. Applying the humanitarian disarmament approach in responding to COVID-19 would prevent further injury to individuals while instituting a more robust system for assisting victims, even during times of crisis, thus paving the way for a more sustainable, humanitarian future.