Violent conflict can have a devastating impact on individuals, communities and societies. This is evidenced by the destruction wrought by the two world wars, which claimed millions of lives, required billions of dollars for reconstruction of conflict-affected countries, and continues to have a profound physical and psychological impact on the international state system today. The United Nations is the principal international institution that emerged from the second World War, with the enormous responsibility to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” in accordance with the UN Charter. It has made concerted efforts in this regard, in terms of conflict prevention, conflict management and resolution, promoting human rights and fostering development. This paper examines the preventive diplomacy efforts of the UN, in cooperation with other intergovernmental organizations, in view of the increasing and diverse challenges faced by the Organization in today’s complex and interdependent world.
There is an old saying that prevention is better than cure. Nowhere perhaps is this more pertinent than in the case of international peace and security. Violent conflict can have a devastating impact on individuals, communities and societies. This is evidenced by the destruction wrought by the two world wars, which claimed millions of lives, required billions of dollars for reconstruction of conflict-affected countries, and continues to have a profound physical and psychological impact on the international state system today.
The United Nations is the principal international institution that emerged from the second World War, with the enormous responsibility to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” in accordance with the UN Charter. It has made concerted efforts in this regard, in terms of conflict prevention, conflict management and resolution, promoting human rights and fostering development. This paper will examine the preventive diplomacy efforts of the UN in the view of the increasing and diverse challenges faced by the Organization in today’s complex and interdependent world.
2.1. Early Prevention Efforts
The end of World War II heralded the introduction of a new international architecture for conflict prevention, based on the foundation set out in the UN Charter, and aimed at “reducing the risks of interstate conflict”. Chapter I, Article 1 of the Charter states that the main conflict prevention objectives of the UN are “to maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and . . . to bring about by peaceful means . . . adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace”.
Initially, peacekeeping missions were deployed to monitor interstate ceasefires (Israel and Lebanon, 1948; India and Pakistan 1949). However, towards the end of the cold war in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the emphasis shifted towards resolving intrastate conflicts and ending civil wars. The associated approaches included mediation of political settlements, and greater investment in peacekeeping operations to implement the agreements, as in the case of Cambodia and Mozambique. A preventive approach placed a greater emphasis on prevention of further escalation of conflict rather than preventing the outbreak of the conflict in the first place, or addressing its root causes. It was therefore not surprising that in several cases, there was a recurrence of conflict, often with devastating consequences in terms of loss of life, property and livelihoods.
2.2. The Agenda for Peace
In 1992, there was a renewed focus on the prevention efforts of the UN. The Secretary-General’s report, An Agenda for Peace, presented the following definition of the preventive diplomacy: “action to prevent disputes arising between parties, to prevent existing disputes from escalating into conflicts, and to limit the spread of the latter when they occur”. The report introduced the term “post-conflict peacebuilding,” which was defined as “comprehensive efforts to identify and support structures which will tend to consolidate peace and advance a sense of confidence and well-being among people”.
However, the inability of the UN to adequately respond to the conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia highlighted the ineffectiveness in the prevention capacity of the UN, and in particular of the Security Council. The first comprehensive report by a Secretary-General focused solely on conflict prevention was produced in 2001. This report made the distinction between operational prevention (actions taken in an immediate conflict), and structural prevention (longer-term actions aimed at addressing root causes of conflict). Later that year, the unfortunate attacks of 9/11 would take place, resulting is a shift of focus of the Security Council from conflict prevention to counter-terrorism.
At the World Summit in 2005, world leaders made a commitment “to promote a culture of prevention of armed conflict as a means of addressing the interconnected security and development challenges faced by peoples throughout the world, as well as to strengthen the capacity of the United Nations for the prevention of armed conflict”. The 2005 World Summit established the Peacebuilding Commission as an “intergovernmental advisory body”, supported the Secretary-General’s efforts to strengthen his mediation capacities, and endorsed the concept of the “Responsibility to Protect”.
2.3. Towards Sustaining Peace
Globalization and the increasing interdependence of the world has brought with it a change in the nature and causes of conflict. Today’s conflicts are no longer interstate, but are also intrastate, and do not only involve conventional military forces. The combatants also include non-state actors, who have “transnational goals”. Many of these conflicts also risk spilling over into neighboring countries, and so the internationalization of domestic conflicts is of primary concern.
The international conflict prevention architecture is currently confronted by other “new and complex challenges [that] have arisen since the end of the Cold War that range from terrorism and violent extremism to cybersecurity, from climate change to massive forced displacement, and from global illicit activities to outbreaks of disease”. In August 2007, a presidential statement of the Security Council noted that conflict prevention strategies should incorporate systemic prevention (measures taken to address transnational threats, and “to prevent existing conflicts from spilling over into other States”). The need to address these challenges adequately prompted three reviews of the UN’s peace and security architecture in 2015: the High-Level Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO); the Advisory Group of Experts (AGE) review of the peacebuilding architecture; and the Global Study on Women, Peace and Security.
The HIPPO report pointed out that conflict prevention remains “the poor relative of better-resourced peace operations deployed during and after armed conflict” and warned against the “chronic severe under resourcing of prevention activities”. The AGE report emphasized that “peacebuilding is an activity that happens not only in post-conflict situations but rather as a process before, during and after conflict”. The AGE also proposed the concept of “sustaining peace” as more appropriate to describe the comprehensive nature of peacebuilding. This report led to the Security Council and General Assembly issuing twin resolutions on the peacebuilding architecture. These resolutions defined sustaining peace as:
Activities aimed at preventing the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence of conflict . . . and should flow through all three pillars of the United Nation’s engagement [peace and security, human rights and sustainable development] at all stages of conflict.
The Global Study on Women, Peace and Security, which looked at both operational and structural causes of conflict, reaffirmed the link between peace and development, and called on the UN to “support women’s engagement . . . in preventive diplomacy efforts”. In 2015, the UN General Assembly also adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which consists of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Included among these is Goal 16, which again emphasized sustainable development as a prerequisite for peace and vice versa: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
3. Examples of UN Preventive Diplomacy
3.1. UN in the Lead
UN preventive diplomacy is an aspect of conflict prevention that is a “means to engage with individual actors” and to “influence their strategies in situations at risk of conflict”. UN preventive diplomacy interventions include 1) undertaking good offices; 2) supporting domestic and regional prevention; and 3) international coordination. The good offices activities include engaging with the parties to find peaceful solutions, facilitation of dialogue, and mediation.
In Burkina Faso in 2014, following an attempted coup by former members of the presidential against the transitional authorities, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the UN Regional Office for West Africa (UNOWA) together with ECOWAS engaged with the coup leaders to convince them that “they did not enjoy political support.” They also worked with national political actors and civil society organizations to engage in dialogue. These efforts by a UN Special envoy, along with unified messages from the regional political actors and the international community, supported by staff from UN HQ, ensured timely preventive diplomacy intervention. This led to a revised constitution and restored transitional arrangements leading to successful elections in 2015.
In Kyrgyzstan in 2010, the UN Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy (UNRCCA), and in coordination with the EU, OSCE and the UN Country Team supported the efforts of a UN Special Envoy, who had been sent to address a political and humanitarian crisis there. The conditions of instability were caused by “nationalist, extremist and criminal groups” in the south of the country, as well as by clashes between the most populous ethnic groups, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. The joint efforts involved “capacity-building . . . facilitating regional dialogues, especially around terrorism, water and energy; and providing aid to displaced Uzbeks”. This allowed for the de-escalation of tensions and the creation of an environment for a reform process and eventual elections.
Within weeks of the protests that claimed several lives in Malawi in 2011, the Secretary General dispatched an Envoy to the Southern African nation. The work of the Envoy, which was supported by analysis provided by the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative on the ground, involved engaging with the Government and civil society to desist from activities that would escalate the conflict. Moreover, both parties were persuaded “to accept a UN-facilitated dialogue,” and the subsequent discussion of the procedural aspects of which were facilitated by the UN Resident Coordinator, until such time as an external facilitator could be identified.
3.2. UN in Support
The UN also plays an important role in support of preventive diplomacy efforts of regional and sub-regional organizations. In the wake of the post-electoral violence and loss of life in Kenya in 2007, the African Union appointed a mediation team to help the parties to find a way out of the conflict. As a member of the technical support team for these talks, I personally witnessed the UN System, both in Nairobi and in New York, heavily supporting the mediation efforts of the AU team through the provision of political and humanitarian analysis, electoral technical advice, as well as financial and material resources. The UN team also coordinated with the technical support teams from the AU and Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in the provision of secretariat services to the mediation team.
In Yemen in 2011, a youth uprising demanding the resignation of the country’s president turned violent after lethal force was used by the government. This led to an agreement in principle by the President to step down, and a subsequent initiative by the Gulf Cooperation Council to assist the Yemenis in drafting an agreement on the terms of the president’s departure. However, there was no implementation plan for the agreement. The Secretary-General sent a Special Advisor to Yemen, who assessed that “the UN’s added value lay in helping develop an [inclusive] implementation plan”. The Special Advisor coordinated with GCC, keeping the Security Council informed, resulting in the passing of a SC resolution on October 2011 that “urged the parties to comply with the terms of the GCC initiative,” and the implementation plan. Three months later, after the holding of elections, the President finally stepped down, transferring power to his deputy.
4. UN Preventive Diplomacy Tools
While the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council and the International Court of Justice all have important roles in the prevention of conflict, it is the Security Council and Secretariat that bear the brunt of the burden in the UN’s preventive diplomacy. The UN Security Council has several tools at its disposal for taking preventive action, one of which is the visiting Security Council mission. In this regard, all or part of the membership of the Security Council may undertake visits to countries at risk of conflict, for the purposes of “information gathering, support for peace operations and peace processes, conflict mediation and preventive diplomacy”.
Article 34 of the UN Charter gives the Security Council the mandate to “investigate any dispute, or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute”. Actions under this mandate include “commissions of inquiry, Council fact-finding missions and the establishment of investigatory subcommittees of the Council”. Another set of tools available to the Council under Article 41 of the Charter are sanctions, which can be applied to influence the behavior of parties in order to prevent armed conflict. The Council also created the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) and through the twin resolutions on sustaining peace have created a framework for greater engagement between the Council and the PBC.
The UN Secretariat, for its part, employs a diverse range of mechanisms in its conflict prevention toolkit, including special envoys (senior diplomats deployed by the Secretary-General to resolve a diverse array of disputes); special political missions (ensuring sustained preventive efforts in a country, across a range of disciplines); and peacekeeping operations (integrated civilian, police and military operations aimed at providing security, political and peacebuilding support).
Regional offices (platforms for preventive diplomacy, supporting national actors, UN Country Teams, and regional organizations); standby mediation experts (senior mediation practitioners able to deploy at 72 hours’ notice); UN country teams (the UN in-country presence of agencies, funds and programmes); and Resident Coordinators (senior UN officials who coordinate the efforts of the UN Country Team) provide the requisite country-specific and technical expertise that is required to support preventive diplomacy initiatives.
Other tools at the disposal of the UN Secretariat include electoral assistance (electoral experts deployed to support the conduct of credible elections); gender and inclusion expertise (experts deployed to ensure gender mainstreaming and inclusion in the national social and political processes); and political and human rights analysts (providing analytical capacity where there are risks of serious human rights violations). Sanctions monitoring groups (Panels of Groups of Experts deployed to monitor implementation of sanctions regimes) are also employed in particular circumstances.
5. Obstacles to Effective Preventive Diplomacy
While the importance of conflict prevention is undeniable, the effectiveness of the UN’s preventive diplomacy efforts has come under question following outbreaks of violent conflict around the world. According to the UN/World Bank report, “Data suggest that, while diplomatic engagement is the most common form of international recourse in violent conflict, evidence of its ability to halt the outbreak of conflict is mixed”.
There exist several challenges to the UN’s efforts at preventive diplomacy. Within the Security Council, for example, divisions exist over the extent to which there can be “external involvement to prevent or mitigate conflict,” given that the UN Charter places a great deal of importance on the issue of state sovereignty. Some Security Council members who agree with this view, believe that such interventions “can have the effect of exacerbating instability and conflict,” and are suspicious of the motives of the proponents of intervention. Critics of this viewpoint suggest that this is simply a way to “protect . . . allies from international scrutiny.” The political interests of Security Council members, especially when “one or more . . . is party to a conflict or provides support to one of the parties,” have therefore also inhibited timely prevention efforts in several conflict situations.
The report of the Advisory Group of Experts highlighted several challenges to effective peacebuilding by the UN, several of which also apply specifically to preventive diplomacy activities. The fragmentation of the UN System, with responsibilities distributed among the various Departments, Agencies, Funds and Programmes, as well as those between the Headquarters and field levels, is seen as one of the contributors to the ineffectiveness of effective peacebuilding. The UN has fallen short in its efforts to “Deliver as One,” and has continued to work in silos.
The AGE report also cited the insufficient institutional focus on conflict prevention, as well as a lack of women’s political participation. It also highlighted the positioning of the UN with regard to national leaders, noting that it is counter-productive for the UN to align itself to leaders “whose strategies and interests proved not to be aligned with peacebuilding,” at the expense of engaging with “broader domestic constituencies”.
Another factor that can inhibit the effectiveness of preventive diplomacy is the number of parties involved, each having its own diverse agenda. According to the UN/World Bank report, “the breadth and complexity of the conflict [in Yemen, for example] and the multiplicity of actors involved have defied long-standing efforts to secure lasting peace”.
6. Effective UN Preventive Diplomacy
6.1. Understanding Escalation
Nathan et al point out that, in order to succeed, “preventive diplomacy actors must have a very good understanding of the conflict parties’ perspectives on violent and non-violent courses of action”. They add that the context in which these actors operate (power structures, economic relations, social norms and ideology) impacts their behavior, and that violence is a chosen response to the prevailing social, economic and political conditions.
The authors describe the elements of an escalatory dynamic: 1) action-reaction; 2) growing polarization; 3) intense mistrust; 4) inflammatory threats; and 5) mutual demonization, which also influence the choice of the actors to take a path towards violence. Preventive diplomacy aims to assist parties to exit the escalatory dynamic and to “re-calibrate their cost-benefit analysis in favor of a non-violent course of action”.
6.2. Prerequisites for Prevention
In their paper on conflict prevention, Day and Fong identify five variables as being necessary for effective preventive diplomacy: 1) consent of the conflict actors; 2) timing of the diplomatic intervention; 3) the situational knowledge and associated relationships; 4) leverage available to be applied on the conflict actors; and 5) sustainability.
UN preventive diplomacy requires the “willingness of the parties to a dispute to permit the UN to play a part in resolving it,” otherwise known as their consent. Where this consent is not readily achieved, as a result of sovereignty concerns or other factors, the UN can continue to gradually work towards generating it, slowly “building the trust and the space to engage”.
Regarding timing of the diplomatic intervention, the authors make use of a model developed by Gowan on the stages of escalation from pre-conflict to conflict. These comprise: “1) ‘latent tension,’ in which potential causes of conflict have been identified; 2) ‘rising tension,’ in which conflict is emerging and violence is spreading; 3) ‘decision points,’ when actors are on the verge of deciding for or against violence; and 4) ‘post-decision points,’ when actors have entered into either all-out violent conflict or fragile settlements”. They suggest that preventive diplomacy has a unique potential for greater impact in stages two and three.
Day and Fong also point to the importance of an on-the-ground presence, mediator credibility, frank communication and engagement with all the parties, as critical to enhancing local knowledge and building the necessary relationships required for successful preventive diplomacy. The UN regional offices, Resident Coordinators and the UN Country Teams have been important platforms for ensuring the on-the-ground presence. Given the personal nature of diplomacy, mediators with situational knowledge and existing relationships with the actors prior to the crisis will have greater credibility. The mediators should also possess very good communication, coordination and persuasion skills, and should adopt a “non-threatening, discreet posture, avoiding public criticism of the conflict parties”. However, their pre-existing relationships with the parties can be used to facilitate candid exchanges with the actors on the options available as a result of their actions. Also, as the authors also point out, “Diplomacy can no longer afford to be state- or elite-centric, it must also account for a broader range of actors who can influence the trajectory of a conflict”.
With regard to leverage, the authors suggest that this is less of a requirement when parties are “looking for a [peaceful] way out”, in which case “discreet good offices” may suffice. However, if “their motivations . . . are pulling them towards violent conflict rather than away from it,” then forms of leverage – including “incentives and inducements” all the way to coercive measures, such as “sanctions, threats of prosecution by the International Criminal Court, or military intervention – may be applied. However, caution is advised in the application of coercive measures, as there is an accompanying risk of unexpected negative consequences, including escalation of the conflict. Instead, others suggest that “the deployment of UN resources and technical expertise can constitute soft leverage in support of UN diplomacy”. In this regard, examples of possible entry points could be through support to elections, or UN development projects.
The last variable, sustainability, is critical in avoiding the outbreak or recurrence of violent conflict. The authors stress that “preventive diplomacy . . . should remain largely focused on agency and the core tasks of persuasion and political deal-making. At the same time these efforts should be linked to longer-term arrangements that can engage society more broadly in addressing underlying drivers such as inequality, relative poverty and exclusion”. They suggest that 1) maintaining a supportive political constellation of regional and international actors; 2) achieving the buy-in of all conflict-affected parties; and 3) linking the political process with development, and thus “including development actors in crafting a diplomatic engagement and vice-versa, involving the political pillar more systematically in longer-term development planning”.
Today’s conflicts are complex, with a multiplicity of actors, each with competing interests and claims to legitimacy. Nor is it a straightforward affair of one traditional state army against another, fighting across borders. Today’s conflicts are largely intrastate, and in some cases, involve proxies, funded and equipped by governments with their own agendas. However, regardless of its nature and form, the common thread is the adverse and debilitating consequences of violent conflict on the societies directly affected. And it is here that the UN, as well as other regional and sub-regional organizations have a responsibility to prevent the outbreak of violent conflict.
We have seen that there are several factors that work against the UN’s preventive diplomacy effectiveness. These include Security Council disunity and political interests, UN system fragmentation, lack of inclusivity in the interventions, particularly of women and affected constituencies. At the same time, there have been successes in places where these obstacles have been overcome like Burkina Faso, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi and Yemen. However, these achievements have not prevented the recurrence of violence in Kenya in the 2017 elections or in the civil war that continues in Yemen. Conflicts are also ongoing in Libya, South Sudan and Syria, which indicate that there is still a lot or work to be done by the UN and other preventive diplomacy actors.
The good news is that the UN continues to evaluate its performance in this area, and lessons continue to be learned. The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the recent restructuring of the UN Secretariat Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, and Peace Operations, are signs that the Organization is slowly moving away from the fragmentation that has plagued its existence and towards a unified approach across its peace and security, human rights and development pillars. Action must now speak louder than words, because it is what those most affected by conflict are demanding.
Conflict of Interest
The author declares no conflict of interest.
I wish to acknowledge the support and direction provided by EUCLID University towards the completion of this paper.
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