|HOW TO PREVENT ARMED CONFLICTS?
A TIMELY REPORT.
15 September 2006
Events around the world are always begging the question of what could have been done, in hindsight, to prevent
this or that catastrophe from happening. This is true whether we are talking about wars or disasters. The media
are often the first to ask what mistakes were made and what opportunities missed. A 54 page report just issued and
introduced by Under Secretary General Ibrahim Gambari highlights the need for a culture of prevention. It reviewed
the prevailing situation. Certain progress has been achieved. But its main message is that we have a long way to go.
Why is that? At least partly because it is so hard to make a compelling case for prevention. When it succeeds,
nothing visible happens. And how do you prove that you prevented anything?
But when prevention fails, we all pay the price. Not only in lives lost but also in resources diverted
(e.g., from development to relief, from social to military spending). And, of course, in the immensely high cost of
humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping and reconstruction.
The success stories - the recent case of the Bakassi peninsula, for example - seem to pale in comparison to the
But in fact, there is a lot going on both in public and behind the scenes, and across the U.N. system, with an
eye to preventing conflicts from erupting or spreading. It could be something traditional, such as the dispatching
of an envoy, or something at with a lower profile -- a project to teach skills in conflict mediation, for example.
The problem is these activities are not well known and not particularly well supported with the resources they
Correcting this resource imbalance is one of the key points of the report. Over the last 5 years we have spent
$18 billion on UN peacekeeping. A fraction of that spent to prevent conflicts erupting in the first place would
have saved countless lives and dollars.
It's fashionable today for policy experts to debate the merits of "soft power" vs. "hard power" in international
affairs. To make use of that same analogy, this report argues we should be spending more on the soft side of
UN activities so that we ultimately need to spend less on the hard military deployments.
So what, practically, could we do with more resources and attention directed towards prevention? The report has
lots of ideas, and I will highlight a few of them towards the end of my remarks.
A Dual Challenge
But let me first pass quickly over some of the conceptual conclusions of the report. First, it defines the
prevention challenge is a dual one: 1) to tackle the sources of stress and tension on states and societies and 2) to
make conflict resolution mechanisms stronger and more accessible.
The report finds that countries under duress tend to be more vulnerable across the board. Dealing with the
immediate political conflict is often not enough. Addressing problems like environmental degradation, migration,
poverty and HIV/AIDS can serve to reduce the risk of conflict. [Examples: Darfur - environment; Côte d'Ivoire -
The report also urges Member States to make progress in key problem areas that require global cooperation: the
regulation of certain industries (eg, conflict diamonds); stemming the illicit trade in small arms and in narcotics;
and the non-proliferation of nuclear, chemical, biological weapons. These issues serve to fuel violent conflict and
exacerbate its consequences.
But addressing these problems is only half the battle. It is also vital to strengthen the mechanisms that promote
These includes global norms and mechanisms, like international human rights and humanitarian law and the
'responsibility to protect' (which includes a specific 'responsibility to prevent').
Much can also be done at national levels to make countries less vulnerable to conflict, foremost by addressing
problems such as poor governance, corruption and inequitable development.
Countries can also embrace the prevention agenda by strengthening constitutions, and the rule of law and by
holding regular and participatory elections. The report also encourages them to explore national dialogue processes
as a means to reduce tension and promote reconciliation.
In all of these areas, the UN and others offer considerable technical assistance. For example, the UN has provided
electoral assistance in nearly 100 countries since 1992. In Guyana, a programme of national dialogue and
"social cohesion" has been in operation for several years and, this year, aimed specifically at preventing
violence in the run-up to and aftermath of the (28 August) national elections.
There is more on U.N. capabilities throughout the report, including an annex giving an inventory of system-wide
A Special Focus on Good Offices and Mediation - Preventive Diplomacy
One very important service offered by the UN to avert and resolve violent conflict is its good offices and
mediation capacity. You will forgive me if I spend some time on this before concluding, since it is so central
to the work of my Department.
For many years now, particularly since the end of the Cold War, the U.N. has been a big part of an explosion of
peacemaking all around the globe. Many more conflicts ended through negotiation than ever before. UN played vital
third party role in many cases. (e.g. Central America, Namibia, Cambodia, Mozambique, Tajikistan, Bougainville, East
But there is actually minimal capacity in the UN to support this work in a professional way. This has been
recognized by outside observers - the High-Level Panel and more recently OIOS.
At the World Summit last year, Member States approved a very small start-up mediation support capacity, which
will support peace envoys in the field and serve as a repository of lessons learned.
As these various reports have concluded, DPA remains vastly understaffed and under funded for carrying out this
very critical work in support of the Secretary-General. It is hard to gain the necessary in-depth knowledge and
contacts given so few staff (54 desk officers) and resources (travel budget etc). Hard to avoid always being in
a reactive mode. And even harder to proactively ripen situations or grasp opportunities when most funding has to
be raised ad hoc. [Example: Nepal follow-up].
It should come as no surprise, then, that this new report on Prevention recommends more resources and capacity
for DPA as a whole and more robust support for its mediation capacity.
This is not just about one Department, however. I would be remiss not to close by highlighting some of the other
recommendations for strengthening the ability of the system as a whole to contribute to prevention. Among the key
- More robust assistance in areas like democracy, constitutions, rule of law;
- More creative and constructive use of sanctions, eg) reducing illegal exploitation of natural resources by armed
groups and finding ways to channel revenues for good of population;
- Calls on Human Rights Council and Peacebuilding Commission to pay attention to prevention (in case of PBC:
prevention of recurrence);
- Prevent recurrence by not withdrawing Peacekeeping Missions too soon;
- Establish a forum for regular dialogue on prevention between Member States and key parts of UN system;
- More predictable financial support for prevention, e.g.) dedicated annual, assessed amount (suggestion is 2% of
annual PKO budget, which would be $100 million - still are relatively modest amount).
This call for funding equal to a set percentage of the peacekeeping budget is perhaps the catchiest
recommendation in the report. We need to do more than talk the talk on prevention. We need to walk the walk. And
this means, in part, making a commensurate investment in this area.