Conflict prevention is back in vogue — and not a moment too soon

For decades, the UN deployed hundreds of thousands of peacekeepers to clean up after devastating armed conflicts. The current UN Secretary-General is intent on elevating conflict prevention to the top of the agenda — here are the reforms needed to make it work.    

By: , /
June 4, 2018
UN Congo
United Nations peacekeepers drive their tanks past the deserted Kibati village, Democratic Republic of Congo, August 7, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

The threat of catastrophic war between great powers is at the highest point since the end of the Cold War. Rising tensions between the United States and its closest rivals — especially Russia, China, Iran and North Korea — have set the world on edge. In addition to the growing risk of international warfare, civil wars are making a stunning comeback. There were 49 armed conflicts in 2016, compared to just 38 in 2010. These wars are longer-running and more intractable than in the past. Some of them have spilled across borders or are threatening to do so. This spike in warfare is unexpected; just a few years ago, experts predicted that inter-state armed conflict could be extinct by the middle of the twenty-first century.

Not surprisingly, then, conflict prevention is back in vogue, especially at the United Nations. The UN and the World Bank even released an unprecedented report earlier this year — Pathways for Peace — making the case for prevention. This is not the first time they’ve made this plea. After all, these organizations were designed with the express purpose of preventing international wars from breaking out. It was with peace in mind that 50 countries assembled in 1945 to forge a global architecture to prevent a relapse into world war and wipe out the economic nationalism that gave rise to it in the first place. Despite being tossed some of the world’s toughest problems, the UN system has often helped prevent, contain and wind down dozens of nasty wars.

During the Cold War, however, the worthy goal of preventing armed conflicts lost ground to the distinctly less ambitious objective of containing and managing them. Rather than tackling the underlying political, social and economic factors giving rise to warfare, the UN Security Council instead instructed peacekeepers to clean up after wars had already broken out. These operations expanded dramatically from the late 1940s to the early 1990s, and after the Cold War, the resort to peacekeepers intensified further.

There have been 71 peacekeeping operations in total since 1947 involving hundreds of thousands of military personnel, police and civilians. About 80 percent of all peacekeeping operations occurred after 1988. Many of them adopted more robust — that is to say, aggressive — mandates. Today, there are 14 international peacekeeping missions (down from the peak of 22 operations in 2007) involving over 104,000 personnel from 124 countries. While not even remotely as costly as the human suffering and foregone development caused by war, peacekeeping operations don’t come cheap. The UN budgeted some $6.8 billion for the year ending June 2018. Even though peacekeeping appears to be a cost-effective way of increasing global security, the UN is severely overstretched and struggling to keep up with relentless demand.

Aware of these political and economic challenges, successive UN Secretary-Generals have tried promoting a preventive culture within the organization. Due in part to the UN’s dramatic failures to prevent genocidal violence in Rwanda (1994) and Darfur (2003), their efforts were often met with skepticism by the ambassadors of the UN’s member states. Some of them vehemently opposed expanding the UN’s prevention agenda on political grounds, fearing violations of their countries’ national sovereignty. Other diplomats openly questioned the effectiveness of conflict prevention, describing it as a waste of money. Even some UN agencies undermined attempts to rethink approaches, fearing that the focus on prevention might divert funding from their core programs.

Few UN Secretary-Generals have agitated more for the restoration of a conflict prevention agenda than António Guterres. Installed as secretary general in January 2017, Guterres has made the issue a centerpiece of his mandate. Central to this new agenda is the idea of “sustaining peace” across all areas of the UN — including concrete investments in early diplomacy, mediation and targeted development programs. The secretary general envisions conflict prevention not as a niche issue but as a central priority for the UN as a whole. Given the vast array of competing priorities around the world and across the UN, his refocusing on prevention is more radical than it seems.

The practical needs, from capacity to inclusive politics

The secretary general understands that structural reforms are needed to transform the way the UN deals with conflict prevention. Rather than leading quixotic efforts to reform the Security Council, a virtually impossible task, Guterres is exploring practical ways to improve the UN’s impact in some of the world’s hot spots. He is proposing a host of dull, but important, bureaucratic reforms, including integrating the UN divisions that deal with political affairs, peacebuilding and peacekeeping, which too often act separately. Guterres is also urging more investment in local early warning systems and grassroots capacities for building peace. This is prudent. Mounting budgetary pressures coupled with the reluctance of some member states to adequately fund the UN means that appetite for peacekeeping is rapidly declining. The UN will need to do much more with far fewer resources.

The secretary general can point to some solid evidence to back his crusade to prevent conflict. Investments that foster inclusive governance, support sustainable development and strengthen local capacities to build peace have a decent track record. While peace agreements fail about half the time, inclusive peace processes in Colombia, Northern Ireland and Nepal contributed to lasting outcomes, including a sharp drop in violence and improvements in the quality of democratic governance. Moreover, peace operations are also more likely to be successful when combined with prevention, since the latter can reduce the underlying tensions that drive armed conflict to begin with. 

"Rather than leading quixotic efforts to reform the Security Council, a virtually impossible task, Guterres is exploring practical ways to improve the UN’s impact in some of the world’s hot spots."

So how can Guterres further strengthen a culture of conflict prevention in and outside the UN?  

A key priority is for the UN to promote more inclusiveness in politics. When certain groups are excluded from political processes — especially young people, women and minorities — legitimate grievances can devolve into protest and even open violent conflict. This is especially the case during the negotiation and implementation of peace deals. Creating channels for excluded voices to be heard and to mediate grievances is essential for keeping conflicts from breaking out. Inclusive mechanisms such as Fiji’s 2012 constitutional drafting process, Guatemala’s National Assembly, and Colombia’s Gender Sub-Commission are all concrete examples of how to design-in inclusivity from the start.

What is more, the UN cannot focus conflict prevention efforts reservedly on elites in capital cities. Too often, peace deals are limited to exclusionary bargains and pacts made between top-level politicians and rebels. While this may be necessary, it is insufficient. The UN and its partners need to double down on localized conflict prevention that involves municipal authorities, civic leaders and potential spoilers. Often, by the time elder statesmen have finally agreed to come to the negotiating table, social tensions may have intensified on and offline, with violence breaking out at the provincial, municipal and neighbourhood level.  

Moreover, the UN cannot focus narrowly on armed conflicts alone — it must expand its gaze to a wider array of contexts. For too long the UN has sent out supermen mediators to put out simmering fires in a handful of conflict-prone settings rather than setting up sprinkler systems in a wider range of countries in advance. As wars in middle-income settings across North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe amply show, conflict is not the preserve of poor fragile countries alone. By refocusing on structural prevention — the underlying triggers that give rise to conflicts in the first place — the organization might finally be able to live up to its 72-year-old promise. This will require deploying not just political and security assets, but development ones as well, including climate change mitigation.  

The twenty-first century security environment is volatile and uncertain. As the recent experiences in Libya, Syria and Ukraine show, all countries — whether low-, middle-, or high-income — can rapidly tumble into devastating armed conflicts. If the UN’s conflict prevention agenda is to truly take hold inside and outside the organization, the responsibility to uphold it will need to be genuinely shared. Conflict prevention cannot be held as the preserve of a poorly funded UN Secretariat and its over-stretched peacekeepers. It will require genuine and strategic commitments in prevention from all of the key players — from member states to the business community and civil society — to avoid wars kicking off in the first place.