The UN and Conflict Prevention: From Rhetoric to Concrete Action

Tasneem Jamal

Lynne Griffiths-Fulton

The Ploughshares Monitor September 2001 Volume 22 Issue 3

“[M]ake conflict prevention the cornerstone of collective security in the twenty-first century.”
Kofi Annan, Secretary-General, United Nations

In June, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, produced a report outlining the UN’s responsibilities in the area of conflict prevention. This article provides an overview of the report and highlights those recommendations, which the international community, and in particular the UN Member States, should support in order to cultivate a culture of prevention. Kofi Annan uses the report to confront the obstacles which have plagued preventive measures in the past – lack of coordination between agencies, lack of political will on the part of Member States – and produces the most far-reaching measures yet in the UN’s history of dealing with global conflict. The report highlights areas in need of reform and pays particular attention to early-warning mechanisms, case-by-case analysis of the root causes of conflict, multi-track diplomacy, and greater cohesion of efforts by the main preventive organs – the Secretary-General’s Office, the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the Department of Political Affairs. In essence, the report challenges the international community, which for too long now has done ‘too little, too late’, to use those non-military mechanisms for preventing conflict that are at their disposal.

The need to prevent, rather than merely react, to conflicts has been an on-going challenge for the United Nations (UN) and its Member States. In more recent years, the UN’s efforts in this area have been backed-up by international and regional organizations, non-governmental organizations, and civil society groups. Academics, practitioners, and policy-makers have begun to view conflict prevention as a preferred instrument for the creation of peace in a war-torn world. And there is a growing understanding, with the UN leading the way, that there must be greater cooperation between these different actors if a culture of conflict prevention is going to be inculcated into the international community’s collective security agenda.

In 1992, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali published An Agenda for Peace, and in 1995 the Supplement to An Agenda for Peace, both of which outlined what the future role of the UN in the areas of preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peacebuilding, and peacekeeping should be. Member States were called upon to throw their weight and financial resources behind efforts to deal with the conflicts that confronted them in a post-Cold War world.

Boutros-Ghali’s successor, Kofi Annan, has continued to develop the UN’s policy and approach to conflict prevention. In 1998, he challenged the international community to re-think its role in managing global peace and security: “human security is, in the broadest sense, the United Nation’s cardinal mission. Genuine and lasting [conflict] prevention is the means to achieve that mission.” He has also managed to keep conflict prevention on the agenda of the General Assembly during his term in office, and more recently the Security Council issued a resolution that sought to address conflict at all stages – from peace agreement to post-conflict peacebuilding.1

In his report to the Security Council in June, the Secretary-General followed up on last year’s presidential address and made conflict prevention the focus once again. This year, there were far-reaching recommendations that should guide the UN’s future approach to conflict prevention:

1) Conflict prevention is one of the primary obligations of Member States set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, and United Nations efforts in conflict prevention must be in conformity with the purposes and principles of the Charter.

2) Conflict prevention must have national ownership. The primary responsibility for conflict prevention rests with national governments, with civil society playing an important role. The United Nations and the international community should support national efforts for conflict prevention and should assist in building national capacity in this field.

3) Conflict prevention is an activity best undertaken under Chapter VI of the Charter. The means in Article 33 include negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, and other peaceful means. It must also be recognized that certain measures under Chapter VII of the Charter, such as sanctions, can have an important deterrent effect.2

4) Preventive action should be initiated at the earliest possible stage of a conflict cycle to be most effective.

5) The primary focus of preventive action should be in addressing the deep-rooted socio-economic, cultural, environmental, institutional, political, and other structural causes that often underlie the immediate symptoms of conflicts.

6) An effective preventive strategy requires a comprehensive approach that encompasses both short-term and long-term political, diplomatic, humanitarian, human rights, developmental, institutional, and other measures taken by the international community, in cooperation with national and regional actors. It also requires a strong focus on gender equality and the situation of children.

7) Conflict prevention and sustainable and equitable development are mutually reinforcing activities. An investment in national and international efforts for conflict prevention must be seen as a simultaneous investment in sustainable development, since the latter can best take place in an environment of sustainable peace.

8) The preceding suggests that there is a clear need for introducing a conflict prevention element into the United Nations system’s multifaceted development programs and activities, so that they contribute to the prevention of conflict by design and not by default. This, in turn, requires greater coherence and coordination in the United Nations system, with a specific focus on conflict prevention.

9) A successful preventive strategy depends upon the cooperation of many United Nations actors, including the Secretary-General, the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice, and UN agencies, offices, funds, and programs, as well as the Bretton Woods institutions. Also, Member States; international, regional, and subregional organizations; the private sector; non-governmental organizations; and other civil society actors have very important roles to play in this field.

10) Effective preventive action by the UN requires sustained political will on the part of Member States. First and foremost, this includes a readiness by the membership as a whole to provide the UN with the necessary political support and resources for undertaking effective preventive action in specific situations.3

In addition, the following briefly outlines some important developments contained in the Report:

Role of Member States

The report refers to the role that Member States play in conflict prevention and stresses that they must take the lead: “It is axiomatic that effective preventive action will require sustained political will and long-term commitment of resources by Member States and the United Nations system as a whole if a genuine culture of prevention is to take root in the international community.”4 In the past, states have not seen prevention as being in their national interest, but that appears to be slowly changing. The political will to take effective action in times of conflict is increasingly changing as conceptions of national interest evolve.

One reason for this may be that states do not see conflict as a cost-effective way of ensuring a just and peaceful international order. The Carnegie Commission on the Prevention of Deadly Conflict put paid to the notion that conflict pays: “We have come to the conclusion that the prevention of deadly conflict is, over the long term, too hard – intellectually, technically, and politically – to be the responsibility of any single institution or government, no matter how powerful. Strengths must be pooled, burdens shared, and labor divided among actors.”5 The report estimates that in the 1990s, the international community spent approximately $200-billion US on seven major interventions – Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, the Persian Gulf, Rwanda, Cambodia, and El Salvador (this number does not include Kosovo and East Timor). The international community has to be prepared to pay up-front for prevention even if the benefits lie only in the future. The human cost of war – death, injury, destruction, displacement – and the post-conflict reconstruction efforts far outweigh the costs of prevention.

The Secretary-General’s view is that this approach will help to strengthen, rather than to diminish, sovereignty. States such as the UK have welcomed the description of conflict prevention as “being the best protection for a state’s citizens against unwelcome outside interference.”

Role of the Security Council

The Security Council was also identified as a UN organ which could play a greater role in identifying windows of opportunity for preventive action. In order to change the present situation, in which many disputes are not submitted to the Security Council until it is too late for their peaceful resolution, this report seeks to give higher priority to early prevention.

The report suggests that one such role for the Security Council would be to provide periodic regional or sub-regional reports to the Council on disputes with a potential to threaten international peace and security. Another proposal was for Council to establish new mechanisms through which prevention cases could be discussed in a more sustained and structured way and increased analysis on potential conflict zones could be established through fact-finding missions with multidisciplinary expert support.

In subsequent meetings, the Security Council has identified the need to take its responsibility in the maintenance of international peace and security more seriously, which would mean defining conflict prevention as part of a collective security agenda in the future. On 30 August, Resolution 1366 was passed, committing the Security Council to pursue conflict prevention “by all appropriate means.6 It also called up Member States to provide the necessary human, material, and financial resources for timely preventive measures and to support the development of a comprehensive conflict prevention strategy which incorporates the initiatives of regional and subregional organizations.

The Council has also undertaken to give prompt consideration to early warning situations brought to its attention by the Secretary-General’s office, Member States, or the General Assembly or to information supplied by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Role of the Secretary-General’s office

The UN Secretary General’s office could itself be a primary actor by increasing its fact-finding and confidence-building missions to potential trouble spots. The Secretary-General recognizes the need to develop a greater interaction between relevant UN organs and agencies and their regional organizational counterparts. Also, he suggests the establishment of an informal network of eminent persons, which would improve the resource base for preventive action in the UN Secretariat. The UN’s Early Warning System could also be enhanced by greater dissemination of information between the Secretary-General’s office and the Security Council, in order to put a potential conflict situation on the Council’s agenda before it is too late to take preventive measures. To this end he will seek to provide periodic regional or subregional reports on disputes to the Security Council.

Role of the General Assembly

The report stresses the need for greater interaction on conflict prevention between the Security Council, the General Assembly, and ECOSOC and a move toward a more binding commitment on conflict prevention by the General Assembly. There is also a need to develop stronger links with UN country teams in the field who can supply information to the General Assembly on potential trouble spots.

Role of non-state actors

The Secretary-General seems determined not to continue the practice of intervening only when a conflict has escalated to the point where military might seems the only solution. Most significant in the UN’s evolution in thinking about conflict prevention is the notion that states are not the ultimate purveyors of peace and stability.

As the report states, the UN needs to work with, and help strengthen the capacity of, regional partners. This has been a key conclusion of several recent Security Council debates on conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Now many international and regional organizations have added the issue of conflict prevention to their agendas, recognizing that effective prevention strategies require the cooperation of both national and regional actors. Of particular significance is that the G8 Summit to be held in Canada next year will address, as it has in the recent past, the issue of conflict prevention. These initiatives are encouraged and supported in the Secretary-General’s report.

Cooperation between UN agencies is also seen as a key element in tackling conflict. The report addresses the need for the Administrators of UN Funds, Programmes, and Specialized Agencies to consider how best to integrate conflict prevention into their various activities. The use of Inter-Agency Task Forces to strengthen the interaction and cooperation between agencies, UN Country Teams, regional and subregional organizations around a specific theme is also helpful.

The initiatives of non-governmental organizations and civil society must not be overlooked. The Secretary-General sees UN strategies being enhanced by the involvement of civil society and private sector actors, particularly in areas where there are no formal international or regional organizations. Multi-track diplomacy – the use of a wide range of peacebuilding actors, including governments, professional organizations, the business community, churches, media, private citizens, training and educational institutes, activists, and funding organizations – is one area in which a variety of different actors can play a role in the early prevention and detection of conflict. Because so many current conflict situations have multiple causes, they require a variety of actors to resolve them.

Increased funding

Donor states must be encouraged to increase their funding for development assistance, which has been at low levels for many years. Although more assistance in itself will neither prevent conflict nor end it, it can contribute to the development of societies that are more just and equitable.

As well, support by Member States for the UN Trust Fund for Conflict Prevention must be strengthened. The Fund’s assistance to efforts aimed at conflict prevention and peacekeeping – in Africa, for instance – is vital. By linking conflict prevention and development, the Secretary-General has greatly enhanced the prospects for global development and poverty reduction in many countries. And by reducing the level and intensity of conflicts, we will significantly enhance prospects for global development and poverty reduction.

Overcoming the obstacles

The report highlights the following means to overcome some of the obstacles to conflict prevention strategies:

• Develop an overall understanding of the various causes behind the outbreak of a conflict, bearing in mind efforts from pre-conflict through to post-conflict stages.

• Strongly support the linkage between conflict prevention and sustainable development when formulating political, economic, social, and development policies and measures.

• Encourage Member States to view prevention of conflict as a national security interest.

• Increase involvement of non-state actors.

• Increase pressure on governments to be open to UN involvement in potential conflict situations.

• Increase coordination of early warning systems within the UN system and other international and regional organizations.

• View prevention as a long-term process with costs paid in the present, while benefits lie in the future.


There are many reasons for optimism following this latest report. The need to move from rhetoric to concrete action is clear. The report sent a strong signal to Member States that the implementation of these recommendations should proceed without delay. Like Sweden, the Netherlands, and Norway, which have embedded conflict prevention into their wider foreign policy objectives, Canada should welcome this report. The Canadian government was one of the first to support the UN’s Agenda for Peace in 1992, and has subsequently woven the goal of preventing wars into its concept of peacebuilding. Thus Canada should seek to lead the way in supporting these recent recommendations by the Secretary-General.

As past experience has shown, overcoming the obstacles to a more fully implemented regime of conflict prevention will remain a challenge. However, it is not insignificant to note that since the Agenda for Peace, there has been no change in the importance assigned to the prevention of conflict, no wavering from the idea(l) that prevention is better than cure. Conflict prevention has remained a priority for the UN and its relevant organs and agencies over the years but these statements are the most ambitious and far-reaching expressions of the importance of conflict prevention to date. There is every reason to believe that conflict prevention will continue to dominate discussions in the international arena in the coming years. By the Secretary-General’s own admission, implementing the preventive strategies outlined in his latest report will not be easy, but it is certain that he will keep trying.

1 Security Council Resolution SC/Res/1318, 2000.

2 Chapter VI of the UN Charter refers to the Pacific Settlement of Disputes; Chapter VII refers to Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression.

3 Extract from UN Secretary-General’s report on conflict prevention, A/55/985-S/2001/57, June 2001.

4 Report of the Secretary-General on the work of the Organization to the 55th General Assembly Session, Prevention of Armed Conflict, 7 June 2001, A/55/985-S/2001/574.

5 Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict 1997, Preventing Deadly Conflict: Executive Summary of the Final Report, Washington, DC.

6 Security Council Resolution 1366 (2001), 30 August 2001; see also Security Council, 4334 Meeting, SC/7081, 21 June 2001.

Examples of preventive measures which exclude force

Preventive action/peacemaking*

• Identification of potential crises areas through early warning
• Timely and accurate advice to the Secretary-General
• The UN Secretary-General’s good offices
• Mediation/Negotiations
• Public statements and reports by the Secretary-General
• Fact finding, goodwill and other missions
• Political guidance and support to special representatives and other senior officials appointed by
   the Secretary-General for political missions
• Partnership with funds and programs as well as other agencies in the UN system
• Support for UN legislative bodies (Security Council, General Assembly)
• Deterrent value of targeted sanctions
• Support for Track II initiatives where the UN is not able to play a direct role

Preventive peacebuilding*

• Political guidance and support to special representatives and other senior officials appointed by
   the Secretary-General for political missions and, in particular, peacebuilding offices
• Partnership with funds and programs as well as other agencies in the UN system
• Electoral assistance, including technical assistance and support of national electoral institutions
  and processes
• Support for the UN legislative bodies
• Cooperation with regional organizations
• Outreach to NGOs and civil society, media

* Identified by the United Nations Department of Political Affairs
Some recent international and regional initiatives

• G8 – Miyazaki Summit Initiatives for Conflict Prevention 2000
• OAU – Conflict Prevention Management Mechanism (on-going)
• EU – Programme for the Prevention of Violent Conflicts 2000
• ECOWAS – Protocol for Conflict Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security 1999
• IGAD – Terms of reference for Conflict Prevention, Resolution, and Management Program
• OECD – Helping Prevent Violent Conflict: Orientations for External Partners and DAC
   (Development Assistance Committee) Guidelines on Conflict, Peace and Development
• OSCE – Conflict Prevention Initiatives 1999/2000

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