" />

‘A Crash Course in Empathy’: The Stockholm Forum on Sustaining Peace in the Time of COVID-19

The annual Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development is co-hosted by the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). From a low-key start in 2014, it has grown into a key place in the international peacebuilding calendar, bringing together international organisations, civil society, governments and experts to debate international policy and build a community of practitioners working at the nexus of peace and development.

In 2020, the Stockholm Forum changed its format to ensure that global dialogue could continue in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between 11 and 22 May 22, the forum went virtual, working with over 40 partners to convene 46 High-Level Interactive Dialogues, Public Panels, and closed partner-led sessions using a combination of innovative technology and a bespoke conference platform. 

The 2020 Stockholm Forum made a virtue out of necessity. Going online opened public sessions to a wider audience, reaching not just more people, but a wider range, including global youth groups, cabinet members, and agency field staff. There were 3700 registered participants from 167 countries, with thousands more views on YouTube.

The theme for the 2020 Stockholm Forum was Sustaining Peace in the Time of COVID. The discussions of the forum were focused on what we can, should and must do to advance peace and development in the face of the pandemic. It has profound health, economic and political impacts. Though their full extent is not yet clear, what we have seen so far highlights how varied are the capacities and resources available to people and countries to manage global risks. The Forum’s discussions emphasized that, in an interdependent world, effective responses to global challenges cannot be conducted in isolation.

COVID is just one more risk that people and countries must add to a long list that they are dealing with.After decades of striking but volatile and uneven growth in income and economic output, many countries are already faced with complex challenges, originating with, for example, climate change and with national patterns of marginalization and exclusion, leading to social upheaval and sometimes violent extremism. Raychelle Omamo, Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Kenya, spoke powerfully of her country’s mobilization in the face of a convergence of threats that have left the state asking what it needs to manage climate change, locusts, terrorism, and COVID whilst maintaining sovereignty. The outbreak of COVID-19 has accentuated these trends; it has not replaced issues, it has compounded them. 

The pandemic is not a cause of violence but might be an “accelerator”. It is sharpening existing geopolitical tensions and exacerbating local disputes. The immediate impact of COVID-19 has been a dramatic reduction in conflict violence but domestic violence against women and children, has skyrocketed. Governments are tightening their grip over their populations, particularly through surveillance, whilst, cartels and gangs are opportunistically stepping up their activities, including setting up new lines of business. The economic downturns resulting from COVID-19 are likely to intensify violence. Food shortages, debt distress and unemployment are expected to intensify at a time, when so many countries on all continents were already managing (or struggling to manage) mass protests, stemming from a pervasive sense of economic injustice. Moreover, aid is expected to decrease.

The Forum underscored that COVID-19 forms a pivot-point for global institutions. The pandemic has emphasized the crisis in multilateralism. Some countries turning inwards, closing borders and pulling away from international organisations. The UN Security Council was unable to agree to support the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire. There are two competing narratives. One sees the pandemic as a reason for unreservedly putting national interest first. The other narrative emphasizes that, like climate change and other global challenges, the pandemic can be handled only through cooperative action, for which strong international institutions are essential. However, as Ambassador Thomas Greminger, Secretary-General of the OSCE underscored, we do not need a new ‘paradigm of crisis management’ we need to ensure that our investments are proactive, rather than reactive, and aligned with an actual rather than imagined threat picture.

But COVID-19 is also reminder of our shared humanity. This view of a world was captured by the keynote address by Ilwad Elman, Director of Programmes and Development for the Elman Peace Centre in Mogadishu. As we sit in between nationalism and international cooperation, with a paralyzed security council, a fractured G20 and the spread of geopolitics to questions of debt, poor security and healthcare, Ilwad reminded all participants that COVID was above all a crash-course in empathy. In that sense, it might be the kickstart for a new awareness of our connectedness. If that is too ambitious, it is at least a sharp wake-up call.

Cooperation is the new realism International organizations are mobilizing, from the European Union, to the United Nations, and the World Bank Group, to respond to the multi-dimensional challenges. But cooperation is not always straightforward. Peace is more resilient when the process includes women, youth, business and competing political groups but it is not always easy to align their interests. The Forum’s discussions recognized that we are going to have to scale up our work and be more self-aware in how we manage these tensions. 

There was an enormous positive response to the Forum’s change in format. That shows the longing and need to meet, discuss and analyse our current situation and ways forward. Beyond the wonders of technology, this shows us that the crisis doesn’t have to divide us, it can bring us together to discuss and solve problems.  

To rewatch the 2020 Stockholm Forum please visit  


More information:

Dan Smith is the Director of the renowned Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and Professor of Peace and Conflict at the University of Manchester.