Working Paper 02/2012 Conflict prevention in practice: from rhetoric to reality


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Working Paper 02/2012 Conflict prevention in practice: from rhetoric to reality

  1. 1. Conflict prevention in practice: from rhetoric to reality Dr Abiodun Williams US Institute of Peace > Paper 02/2012It is natural for policy makers, public officials and even thinktanks to focus primarily on violent conflicts that are alreadyoccurring. With people being killed daily and horrific imagesbeing shown in real time across the globe, today’s conflictssimply cannot be ignored. Yet what about tomorrow’sconflicts, those we can envisage but that are not inevitable?Today there is broad agreement on the importance ofpreventive action. An array of actors—the United Nations, inadequate. Furthermore, both practitioners and scholarsregional organisations, national governments (including continue to lament the absence of a framework allowingthat of the United States) and a host of civil society them to think systematically about the design of effectivebodies—have identified preventing violent conflict as a prevention strategies.strategic priority. As the Obama administration’s National The idea that violent conflict can be prevented is an oldSecurity Strategy states, ‘The untold loss of human life, one. It is a foundational concept of the United Nationssuffering, and property damage that results from armed and a feature of the charters of most regional andconflict necessitates that all responsible nations work to subregional organisations. More than 50 years ago formerprevent it’. This is well put, although it might be asked, UN Secretary‑General Dag Hammarskjold coined the term‘Do “all responsible nations” treat the prevention of ‘preventive diplomacy’ at the height of the Cold War. He sawarmed conflict as a “necessity”?’ It is undeniable that far preventive diplomacy as a way of helping to stop local andtoo often the answer is ‘no’. The fundamental challenge regional disputes drawing in the superpowers and sparkingis to narrow the gap between rhetoric and reality, global war. After the Cold War was over and the optimismproclamations and actions, in preventing violent conflict. in its wake had waned, the idea of conflict preventionThe current global climate of austerity and the growing gained new life. Preventive diplomacy was at the centre ofawareness of the economic, strategic and moral Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s landmark 1992 report An Agendaimperatives of prevention are increasing the momentum for for Peace. Boutros-Ghali noted that the ‘timely applicationpreventive action. But, while political support has spread, of preventive diplomacy is the most desirable and efficientthe institutional capacity for preventive action remains means of easing tensions before they result in conflict’.11 ACMC Paper 2/2012 > Conflict prevention in practice: from rhetoric to reality
  2. 2. The Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict did The recent violence in Libya, Syria, Yemen and elsewherepath-breaking work on conflict prevention, expanding both underlines the difficulty of managing crises once they eruptthe argument for prevention and its conceptual dimensions. and the importance of improving conflict prevention efforts.The commission made three important observations in its Even though not every war can be prevented, more effectiveinfluential 1997 report: use of the various conflict prevention mechanisms can reduce the number of new conflicts.>> Deadly conflict is not inevitable.>> The need to prevent such conflict is increasingly urgent. Strengthening institutional>> Successful prevention is possible.The report described ‘conflict prevention’ as including capacityactions and policies designed to prevent the emergence of The current levels of political and rhetorical support forviolent conflict, prevent continuing conflicts from spreading, preventive action are unprecedented. In a recent report toand prevent the re-emergence of violence.2 The narrower the UN Security Council, Secretary-General Ban Ki‑moonterm ‘preventive diplomacy’, which is more commonly used noted that preventive diplomacy will be a priority duringin the UN context, refers specifically to diplomatic action his second term as Secretary-General: ‘It is, withouttaken to prevent disputes from escalating into violence and doubt, one of the smartest investments we can make’.5to limit disputes’ spread when violent conflict does erupt.3 The value of prevention is affirmed in important US policy documents such as the report of the 2010 QuadrennialThe Carnegie Commission’s report also distinguished Diplomacy and Development Review, the 2010 Nationalbetween structural and operational prevention efforts. Security Strategy, and the report of the 2010 Quadrennial‘Structural prevention’—also known as conflict risk Defense Review. It is also endorsed by other major powersreduction—refers to long-term initiatives aimed at and international financial institutions such as the Worldmitigating tensions by augmenting local, regional and global Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation andcapacity to peacefully resolve disputes, strengthening Development. Statements of this nature provide a sufficientnormative frameworks conducive to peace, and confronting normative foundation for strengthening institutions forthe underlying causes of specific conflicts; examples of such preventive action but also create high expectations aboutefforts are regional integration, human rights protection, the international community’s ability to prevent the onsetand support for democratic principles and equitable and escalation of violent conflict.development. ‘Operational prevention’—often referredto as direct prevention or crisis management—involves Although there has been much progress in theboth cooperative and coercive efforts aimed at short‑term institutionalisation of prevention at the global, regional andrisk reduction in conflict situations where violence is national levels in recent years, important gaps remain. Inconsidered imminent; examples of such mechanisms are addition, the prevention mechanisms of the United Nations,third-party mediation, sanctions, demobilisation, and the European Union, the US Government and other sizeablepreventive deployment. Although a number of conflict bureaucracies are spread across agencies, departments,prevention mechanisms are often used to alleviate funds and programs, and new structures are continuallytensions between countries, most prevention strategies created. In view of its global mission, universal membershipare specifically attuned in order to increase stability and technical expertise, the United Nations is currently thebetween political, ethnic, religious or social groups. primary organisation engaged in the prevention of conflict between and within states.Conflict prevention was also a priority for Kofi Annanduring his tenure as UN Secretary-General. It was the There has been some progress in developing institutionaltheme of his 2001 report Prevention of Armed Conflict and structures for prevention within the UN system. In 2001 thehis 1999 annual report to the General Assembly, which UN Development Programme created the Bureau for Crisisurged member states to move ‘from a culture of reaction Prevention and Recovery, which provides development andto a culture of prevention’.4 This was, however, a fiendishly technical support to countries so that they can strengthendifficult task because it posed a transformational challenge. their own capacity to prevent conflict. The UN InteragencyA separate but related challenge was to bring together those Framework Team for Preventive Action is a system-widepolitical and security actors in the UN system engaged mechanism that promotes interagency cooperation on earlyprimarily in preventive diplomacy or operational prevention preventive action. Establishment of the Mediation Supportand the development and governance actors engaged in Unit in the Department of Political Affairs in 2006 and thestructural prevention.2 ACMC Paper 2/2012 > Conflict prevention in practice: from rhetoric to reality
  3. 3. creation of a new joint office for the prevention of genocide interagency Atrocities Prevention Board that will ‘coordinateand promotion of the responsibility to protect should a whole-of-government approach to engaging “early,strengthen the United Nations’ capacity for preventive proactively, and decisively” in situations at risk of massdiplomacy and early warning. There remains, however, atrocities’.6 The directive could improve America’s abilitya need to have a more systematic conflict prevention to analyse and prevent violent conflict more broadly andperspective in the UN’s multifaceted programs and change the reactive culture that continues to prevail.activities, so that they can contribute to the prevention ofconflict by design and not by default. The UN also needs toensure that the several major streams of information that Conflict prevention in practiceare disconnected from each other are better synchronised in Effective preventive action calls for knowing how, whenorder to improve the organisation’s early warning capability. and where to design and implement preventive strategies. The US Institute of Peace has developed a strategicThe European Union’s integration process is itself a conflict framework for preventing violent conflict that helpsprevention tool. The EU has also developed an early warning practitioners start thinking systematically about thecentre, intelligence fusion centres, and a checklist of the root design of preventive action. The framework is organisedcauses of conflict. A new European External Action Service in terms of the desired end state, primary objectives andhas been created with the explicit purpose of improving leadership responsibilities. The desired end state—stablethe effectiveness and coherence of the EU’s foreign policy. peace—does not necessitate the absence of disputesThis diplomatic service will include a Directorate for Conflict since the airing of differences can lead to constructivePrevention and Security Policy, designed to coordinate change if properly handled. Conflict prevention strategiesthe EU’s prevention activities, and could place the EU’s are therefore not aimed at the avoidance of conflict per se;operational impact on a par with its institutional capacity. rather, they are aimed at the avoidance of violent conflict.Other regional and subregional organisations—such as the The framework’s primary objectives are divided into threeOrganization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the broad, potentially complementary categories—mitigationAfrican Union, the Organization of American States, and the of global risks, mitigation of societal risks, and reversal ofEconomic Community of West African States—have also escalation. The crucial leadership responsibilities includestrengthened their capacity to prevent violent conflicts from planning and coordinating multifaceted strategies involvingerupting. For example, the Economic Community of West a diverse cast of actors and ensuring that short- andAfrican States has adopted a Conflict Prevention Framework, long‑term strategies are complementary. The frameworkprobably the best existing intergovernmental framework of should not be mistaken for a checklist or a ‘one-size-fits-all’its kind. The framework is, however, extremely ambitious template: for any strategy to succeed it must be tailored togiven current capacities. the specific context and dynamics and based on a thoroughWithin the US Government, the Department of State and the conflict analysis.7US Agency for International Development have prevention as A wide array of parties engage in conflict prevention efforts,their primary responsibility. The State Department’s Office using a variety of cooperative and coercive tools. In his 2001of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization report UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan emphasised thatwas established in 2004 with a mandate to coordinate ‘the primary responsibility for conflict prevention rests withboth prevention and reconstruction initiatives. Among the national governments, with civil society playing an importantnew tools that have been developed is the Interagency role’.8 Prevention starts with domestic efforts to buildConflict Assessment Framework, which looks at the capacity for the constructive management of disputes, meetcauses of conflict and mitigating factors. The Office of the obligations under international peacebuilding norms, andCoordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization conducts accept assistance from external parties if needed. SeveralICAF exercises but is constrained by capacity limitations factors do, however, continue to impede the development ofand political sensitivities. Other assessments are agency or effective prevention strategies, among them governments’sector specific. unwillingness to acknowledge their country’s fragility, theImportant institutional developments relating to the interest of elites in exploiting ethnic differences for politicalprevention of conflict and mass atrocities are also under gain and the absence of well-established mechanisms forway. The August 2011 Presidential Study Directive on prevention and resolution of conflicts. This means externalMass Atrocities alters the focus to strengthening the players are needed to encourage conflict-mitigatingUS Government’s capacity to prevent genocide and behaviour using the available ‘carrots and sticks’.other atrocity crimes and authorised the creation of an3 ACMC Paper 2/2012 > Conflict prevention in practice: from rhetoric to reality
  4. 4. The United Nations and regional organisations remain the crisis has erupted. Three main factors contributed to theleading players in prevention activities worldwide. The UN’s preventive push in Sudan:prevention activities include the Secretary‑General’s good >> There was a clear, discrete event—the referendum—offices, provision of electoral assistance, fact finding, that, it was feared, could trigger major violence.the involvement of UN regional offices, the use of politicalmissions, and even the deployment of preventive >> The history of conflict in Sudan raisedmilitary force. At the request of the UN Security Council, fears that, if war was not averted, the warthe Department of Political Affairs delivers ‘horizon scanning’ could be extremely long and bloody.briefings that assess the situation in both ongoing conflicts >> Atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region in the precedingand countries at risk. several years had led to a public outcry and forcedNon-government organisations—for example, the Sudan onto the international political agenda.International Crisis Group, International Alert, the GlobalPartnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, and Challenges for preventive actionthe West African Network of Peacebuilding—are alsoinstrumental in the prevention of conflict. They provide Although much progress has been made in the field ofearly warning, build relations with local communities, conflict prevention, there remain some specific challenges.draw attention to human rights abuses, and help to mobilise The warning–response gappolitical will. They are often present in places after othershave left and provide support to implement preventive The ‘disconnect’ between early warning and timely, decisiveprojects in fragile environments. political action poses a major challenge for the prevention of armed conflict. New communication technologiesDespite formidable impediments, progress has been made allow analysts to detect and draw attention to signs ofnot only at the normative level but at the operational level. instability at an early stage. The number of organisationsThe UN Preventive Deployment Force was deployed in providing early warning has also increased rapidly in theMacedonia from 1993 to 1999, and its work is generally past decade: early warning of armed conflict now comesregarded as one of the more successful UN peacekeeping from non-government organisations, governments, regionaloperations. In an unprecedented move, UN peacekeepers organisations, risk assessment firms, and so on. But thus farwere deployed before the outbreak of violent conflict, rather the availability of so much information has had only a limitedthan after hostilities had broken out. This ground-breaking impact on prevention strategies. The gap between warningpreventive deployment in Macedonia ensured that war did and response can be a consequence of ambiguous warnings,not spill over into that fragile republic.9 poor analysis or information overload. Responding to thisOne example of successful preventive action by a regional challenge calls for adjustments on the part of both theplayer concerns the involvement of the Organization for producer and the receiver.Security and Co-operation in Europe in Estonia in the early Conflict analysts and intelligence officials need to make1900s, after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the sure their information is timely, precise and The former OSCE High Commissioner on National The warnings also need to be actionable—including notMinorities, Max van der Stoel, effectively contributed to the only diagnosis but also prescription—linking warning withprevention of a conflict relating to the Russian-speaking concrete response options.10 Decision makers should beminority through his discreet diplomatic engagement and by more receptive to the analytical capacity of the intelligenceencouraging reform of citizen laws that discriminated against community and others who produce warnings and shouldthis minority in Estonia. set up new procedures that facilitate information sharingThe upsurge in action to head off a potential conflict within their own governments and organisations, as well asprompted by the Sudan referendum in January 2011 is also externally with civil society, partner organisations and allies.notable. The US Government, the United Nations, the African The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human RightsUnion, civil society groups and others exerted tremendous and the new joint office for the prevention of genocide andenergy with the goal of averting a return to major violent promotion of the responsibility to protect are working toconflict. Although it is still too early to assess the ultimate improve the UN’s early warning capability by signalling thevalue of these efforts, the case of Sudan generated much risk of both conflict and mass atrocity crimes directly tohigh-level attention and activity in advance of a potential the Secretary-General, who in turn can alert the Securityconflict, the alternative being a belated response after a Council. In his recent report on preventive diplomacy4 ACMC Paper 2/2012 > Conflict prevention in practice: from rhetoric to reality
  5. 5. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed cautious unwilling to compromise or acknowledge the potentialoptimism about these developments. He also emphasised for violence within its borders, or if the use of violence isthe need to improve the UN’s ability to anticipate ‘threshold considered the best policy alternative for safeguardingmoments’ that could rapidly trigger widespread violence in the country’s interests, outsiders will need to apply theirfragile countries.11 diplomatic skills to produce incentives and disincentives and persuade the relevant parties that peaceful engagementPreventing electoral violence is necessary and preferable to the use of violence.12The five months of violence that followed Cote d’Ivoire’s A number of countries in the UN General Assembly—presidential election in November 2010 tragically particularly the most vocal members of the G-77—stilldemonstrated why preventing electoral violence should consider international conflict prevention an unwarrantedbe a priority. The moral imperative for preventing such interference with their sovereignty and lament the risk ofviolence is clear: electoral violence can lead to great loss unintended consequences, partiality and selectivenessof life and, in extreme cases, mass atrocities or civil war. associated with international engagements.There are also strategic reasons for making prevention When tensions are rising it remains a challenge to sellof electoral violence an important objective: electoral the logic of prevention in some of the power centres ofviolence undermines domestic support for representative international politics, such as the UN Security Council ordemocracy, and countries that have a history of electoral the US Congress. Conflict prevention is generally viewedviolence have a tendency to experience recurrences in a as non‑urgent, invisible and extremely hard to evaluateseemingly vicious circle. because political leaders assign priority to action thatUnderstanding the causes of electoral violence is the first allows them to produce tangible results before the end ofstep towards effective preventive action. An election can their short electoral cycles.ignite violence in a country at risk, but the causes are usually When assessing the suitability of alternative foreign policymore fundamental and structural. There is a need for a approaches, decision makers are often persuaded by previousbetter understanding of the elements of an effective strategy success stories and quantitative evidence. A broad effort tofor preventing electoral violence. analyse case studies of prevention successes and failures andThe role of rising global powers existing measures that quantify the advantage of preventive action might help tip the balance in favour of prevention.The support of rising or emerging powers will beindispensable to strengthening international effortsaimed at conflict prevention. The so-called BRICS—Brazil, NotesRussia, India, China and South Africa—together with other 1 A/47/277–S/24111, 17 June 1992.regional powers such as Indonesia, Turkey, Nigeria, Mexico 2 Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, Final Report,and Argentina can offer invaluable regional influence Carnegie Corporation, New York, 1997, p. xviii.or experience and the necessary human, financial and 3 S/2011/552, 26 August 2011, p. 2.diplomatic capacity to implement the global conflict 4 A/54/1, 31 August 1999, p. 13.prevention agenda. But advocates of preventive action 5 S/2011/552, 26 August 2011, p. 19.face a sizeable challenge in encouraging the rising globalpowers to acknowledge that conflict prevention is in their 6 The White House, Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities, 4 August 2011,‑press‑office/strategic interest and ensuring they act accordingly. 2011/08/04/presidential-study‑directive‑mass‑atrocities.Those rising powers that suffer from internal violence Viewed 17 October 2011.emphasise the primary responsibility of each sovereign 7 US Institute of Peace, Strategic Framework: preventing violentstate to prevent conflict within its own borders. Concerns conflict, Peacebuilding toolkit, Institute of Peace, Washington DC, 2009.about sovereignty erosion and the breakdown of the 8 A/55/985-S/2001/574, 7 June 2001, p. 2.non‑intervention principle enshrined in the UN Charter still 9 See Abiodun Williams, Preventing War: the United Nations andprevail over the perceived need to strengthen international Macedonia, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham MD, 2000.and regional institutions so they can act preventively. 10 Christoph O Meyer, Florian Otto, John Brante et al., ‘RecastingMaking the case for conflict prevention the warning–response problem: persuasion and preventive policy’, International Studies Review, vol. 12, no. 4, 2010, pp. 556–78.Generating political will—both within the target country 11 S/2011/552, 26 August 2011, p. 13.and among external parties capable of mitigating the risk 12 S/2011/552, 26 August 2011, p. 12.of conflict—is another crucial challenge for internationalprevention efforts. If the regime of a country at risk is5 ACMC Paper 2/2012 > Conflict prevention in practice: from rhetoric to reality