Peace and humanitarian groups appealed for a cessation of hostilities in the southern Philippines to allow communities to focus on battling the coronavirus pandemic.
The groups called on all parties to “de-escalate” armed violence that displaces more individuals and put the already burdened communities at risk of the disease.
In an online forum on July 6, Noraida Abo, executive director of the United Youth of the Philippines-Women, said the number of displaced communities are growing amid the health crisis.
At least 26,300 individuals have been displaced due to armed conflict and natural calamities in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in the first quarter of the year.
Since March 2019, about 370,000 others have been displaced because of conflict despite the ongoing transition to a new Bangsamoro government.
“The law enforcement operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines against non-state armed groups continue to displaced individuals,” said Abo.
She said “banditry and clan feuding,” which are worsened by extreme poverty and the threat of various natural hazards, also force affected families to flee.
“Many towns in the Bangsamoro region still experience bombardment and intermittent firefights in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak,” she said.
“This rising conflict situation, apart from the many social and economic issues that the region is facing, makes internally displaced people more vulnerable to the disease,” she added.
As of May this year, more than 2,800 indigenous people in South Upi town in Maguindanao have fled their villages due to conflict.
Froilyn Mendoza, executive director of Teduray-Lambangian Women’s Organization Inc., appealed to state and non-state armed forces to end the fighting and allow the people to go back to their homes.
Tirmizy Abdullah of the Institute for Peace and Development in Mindanao said more than 126,775 individuals are still displaced in Marawi City since the siege in 2017.
“Since the war turned the whole of Marawi City into rubble, people from 24 villages in the most affected areas have not yet returned home,” he said.
Abdullah said the prolonged displacement increases the vulnerability of the people to the pandemic.
“Physical distancing and frequent hand washing are extremely difficult in temporary shelters. They are densely populated and overcrowded,” he said.
He also stressed that these temporary shelters “do not have adequate access to clean water and sanitizing essentials” to prevent widespread COVID-19 transmission.
Gus Miclat, executive director of the Initiatives for International Dialogue, urged all stakeholders including political leaders and armed groups in Mindanao to heed the call for peace.
He also encouraged the Philippine government to broaden “its localization of the global health alert and response mechanism” in the fight against the pandemic.
Pope Francis expressed support for the United Nations’ call last week for a global ceasefire amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In remarks made following the Angelus in the Vatican on Sunday, July 5, the pontiff said the call for a global and immediate ceasefire is “commendable.”
“[It] would allow the peace and security essential to provide the humanitarian assistance so urgently needed,” said Pope Francis in his remarks.
Call for global ceasefire
The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted on July 1 a resolution demanding “a general and immediate cessation of hostilities” around the world.
The resolution calls on parties to armed conflicts to immediately, in a “durable humanitarian phase,” provide aid to countries to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.
In the resolution, the Council also voiced support for UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who first proposed a global ceasefire on March 23.
That appeal has been echoed by world leaders, including Pope Francis, who invited everyone “to follow it up by ceasing all forms of hostilities.”
In his message on Sunday, Pope Francis expressed hope that the UN decision “will be implemented effectively and promptly for the sake of the many people who are suffering” throughout the world.
The pope prayed that the Security Council resolution might “become a courageous first step towards a peaceful future.”
The Council noted that the extent of the pandemic “is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security.”
It also said that the outbreak could also “set back peace-building and development gains” in countries emerging from conflict.
Mindanao situation ‘disheartening’
In a statement, at least 22 organizations under the network Mindanao PeaceWeavers urged authorities to address the “intersection of internal displacement and armed conflict” amid the health crisis.
The network said the humanitarian and security situation in the region “is disheartening and worrisome as we struggle with a public health emergency.”
“The pandemic predicament of coping with the ‘new normal’ now incorporates displacement and armed conflict,” read the statement.
The network raised “grave concern” over recent armed incidents in the towns of South Upi, Lebak, and Pikit that have reportedly resulted in internal displacements and killings.
The incidents, the groups said, “involve multiple armed actors instigating hostilities” and displacing civilians mostly coming from the indigenous communities.
The groups warned that the violence “will spill over to other areas and potentially lead to a large-scale humanitarian crisis” if left unattended.
“A resurgence of armed hostilities such as these is a wake-up call for peace and security mechanisms to come to the fore in addressing the conflict spiral in the midst of COVID-19,” added the groups’ statement.
The groups urged stakeholders and state and non-state armed forces “to support and commit” to the appeal to “declare an immediate stand-down by all armed actors and implement a cessation of hostilities during the pandemic.”
“Proclaim the conflict hot spots and potential flashpoints as “humanitarian peace zones”, to facilitate unimpeded delivery of humanitarian assistance, civilian protection, and COVID response,” the groups said.
They also urged all parties to “mobilize and sustain humanitarian support” to all internally displaced people in the evacuation camps across the region.
“Let us work together in pursuing the imperatives of peace-building, de-escalating armed violence, and strengthening community participation in finding local and durable solutions alongside efforts to address the health emergency,” the groups said.