The Jakarta Post
In many of the world’s conflict regions where health may be one of the first casualties, the coronavirus poses a discernible threat to the local population.
This is largely the case in south Lebanon, where sporadic skirmishes still occur at the border with Israel, and the only medical facilities are located at the compound of the United Nations peacekeeping mission.
The COVID-19 outbreak has had the unintended consequence of putting an end to all direct contact with the Lebanese people, a vital aspect to the work female peacekeepers do, according to Indonesian peacekeepers with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that women held a central role in UN peacekeeping operations because they had greater access to local communities, improved the protection of civilians and promoted human rights in the line of duty.
But the outbreak threatens to upend their most vital work.
As a civil military coordination (CIMIC) officer embedded with UNIFIL, First Lt. Rima Eka Tiara Sari is used to interacting with the local community, but now she is mostly coordinating remotely with local authorities and nongovernmental organizations because of the pandemic.
“We still do [border patrols] while following protocols like wearing masks, using hand sanitizer and gloves,” Rima told reporters in a virtual briefing on Wednesday, hosted by the UN Information Center in Jakarta.
“But other activities like the various [civilian] training programs are postponed until the COVID-19 outbreak ends,” added the 37-year-old psychology graduate from Semarang, Central Java.
UNIFIL was formed in 1978 to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and to assist the Lebanese government in restoring its authority. Among its operational activities is patrolling along the "Blue Line" border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel, established by the UN in 2000.
Another Indonesian UNIFIL operative, Second Sgt. Yazella Agustin, also lamented that the outbreak had greatly reduced her interaction with civilians.
“We can only contact them by phone to ask them about the latest situation, whether it is a problem caused by the coronavirus, an economic situation or other things,” Yazella said at Wednesday's press briefing.
Many medical workers on the forefront of the COVID-19 response are putting their own health at risk to protect the Lebanese people and the UN peacekeepers stationed there.
But even such crucial services had been forced to stop, said First Sgt. Imakulata Ngamel, an Indonesian Air Force nurse stationed with the UNIFIL's Indonesian battalion. “We can no longer accept local patients,” she told the briefing.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on Thursday reiterated the nation’s concerns about the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on countries in conflict, that Indonesia was committed to upholding any and all efforts to resolve conflict and build peace.
Earlier this month, the minister noted that the already vulnerable situation in conflict countries had “now worsened [...] due to limited health infrastructure, fragile security, challenging economic situations and humanitarian conditions”.
According to data on May 29 compiled by statistics site Worldometer, 1,168 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Lebanon, with 26 total deaths. While 699 people have recovered, the country’s economy has been hit hard, with businesses closing down and people losing their jobs.
Separately, the Foreign Ministry's director general for multilateral cooperation, Febrian Ruddyard, said that the safety and security of Indonesian peacekeepers were of utmost priority.
“During Indonesia’s presidency of the UN Security Council last year, we specifically raised the issue of the safety and security of peacekeepers through training and capacity building,” he said.
Febrian, who leads Indonesia's Peace Maintenance Mission Coordination Team (TKMPP), said that the government was closely monitoring the latest developments in the field while ensuring that all missions followed the UN's COVID-19 health protocols.
He said that Indonesia was also deliberating a draft UN Security Council resolution on managing the pandemic amid the challenging conditions in conflict areas.
“We are paying very close attention to our peacekeepers because they are our assets that we lend to the world, in this case to the UN,” said Febrian.
Friday is the 20th anniversary of the International Day of UN Peacekeepers. The day is paying special tribute to female peacekeepers with this year's theme, “Women in Peacekeeping: A Key to Peace”.
UN Undersecretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix said in a statement that "ensuring women’s meaningful, equal and full participation in peace operations, as well as in peace and political processes, is key to protecting civilians and building durable peace".
However, women represent just 6 percent of all uniformed military, police, justice and corrections personnel in field missions, according to the UN.
As a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council, Indonesia has advocated for women’s participation in peace processes with an aim to increase the deployment of female peacekeepers to more than 3 percent at present.
Out of the 2,852 military and police officers Indonesia has deployed to nine UN peacekeeping operations around the world, only 159 are women.