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Conflict Prevention and Resolution: The Role of the International Crisis Group

Address by Gareth Evans, President of International Crisis Group and Foreign Minister of Australia 1988-96, to New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, Wellington

Looking out at the world around us at the moment it is difficult to believe at first glance that we have learned anything much at all about conflict prevention and resolution, or that groups like mine are making any kind of difference.

To take just some of the areas in which the International Crisis Group (ICG) is presently active, there is the entirely man-made humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan’s Darfur region; the continuing security nightmare in postwar Iraq; the re-emergence of Afghanistan as a narco-state; the lack of hope for any resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict; the seriously deteriorating situation in the Congo; the danger of a further explosion in Kosovo; renewed warnings of belligerence across the Taiwan Strait; and the complete failure of the six-party talks over the last year to prevent North Korea quadrupling its plutonium stockpile, to the point where it can now make 6-8 weapons.

With the scale set early by the horror of 911, the first years of the 21st century certainly haven’t yet given us much confidence that we will do any better than in the last hundred years – by far the bloodiest century in human history – despite all the hopes for dramatic improvement in the international order we have been nurturing since the end of the Cold War a decade and a half ago. Recent events in Iraq have shown that some policy makers have still not learned the first rule of conflict prevention: that the best way of stopping wars is not to start them in the first place, at least not without clear international legal authority and satisfying multiple criteria of legitimacy.

All that said, I believe that we have learned, as an international community, a number of lessons – and I’ll spell out seven of them - as to how better to prevent the outbreak, escalation and recurrence of deadly conflict and mass violence. We are doing better on this front than we have in the past, and better than most people believe. And a new breed of international non-governmental actors – of which I think it’s probably fair to say ICG is the most intriguing example - is adding something distinctly useful to the achievement of these outcomes.

Lesson 1. Conflict prevention effort does make a difference.

During most of the 1990s the number of people being killed each year in violent armed conflicts was over 200, 000. More recently, in the first years of this century, the figure has been averaging 20,000- 30, 000.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, and perhaps all our intuitions, there has been a very significant trend decline – after a high point in the late 80s and very early 90s - in the number of wars taking place, both between and within states, in the number of genocidal and other mass atrocities, and the number of people dying violent deaths as a result of them. The figures have been gradually emerging over a number of studies, and will be consolidated in the soon to be published first annual Human Security Report edited by a team under Andrew Mack at the University of British Columbia.

The figures are less clear and more controversial when it comes to the number of terrorist incidents and the number of people killed by them, with much turning on the definitions adopted. The best judgement here is probably that the overall number of terrorist incidents has declined over the last 15-20 years but the number of ‘significant’ attacks – and those killed by them – has definitely risen, not least as a result of the widespread emergence of suicide bombing as a preferred tactic.

For the basic conflict figures, there are a number of explanations for the major downward trend – including the burning out of Cold War ‘proxy wars’, the democratisation of a number of authoritarian regimes previously sustained by the superpowers with lessening civil conflict as a result, and a growing loss of confidence or belief over recent decades in war as an instrument of state policy. But one of the best explanations is simply that governments and intergovernmental organisations are getting much better at conflict prevention and resolution, with much help in the process civil society (including, for example, the pathbreaking Carnegie Commission on the Prevention of Deadly Conflict, which did much in the early 90s to develop a culture of conflict prevention among policy makers).

The UN, World Bank, donor states, NATO, OSCE and other regional security organisations - and NGOs – have been much more sharply focused in the last fifteen years than ever previously on conflict prevention and management. There has been an increased willingness to challenge the ‘culture of impunity’ through new international criminal courts and transitional justice mechanisms like truth commissions; and much greater interest by aid agencies in development policies that address the root causes of political violence. And there has been a greatly increased reliance on peacemaking initiatives and negotiated peace agreements; an equally dramatic increase in complex peace operations focusing on post conflict peace building; and a significantly greater Security Council willingness to authorise the use of force which has helped deter aggression and sustain peace agreements. For all the things that can and do to go wrong in these various areas the effort has made a difference.

The International Crisis Group can reasonably claim to have been part of this sea-change. The organisation was established in 1995 by a group of prominent international citizens and foreign policy specialists – including its first Chairman, Senator George Mitchell, and the current head of the UNDP, Mark Malloch Brown – who were appalled by the international community’s failure to anticipate and respond effectively to the catastrophes in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda.

The aim was to create a sophisticated, professional new international organisation, wholly independent of any government, with a high profile and highly experienced Board and senior management, which could persuade governments and intergovernmental organisations - when it came to deadly conflict and mass violence – to think about things they didn’t particularly want to think about, and do things to prevent and resolve conflict and violence they really didn’t want to do.

From very small beginnings – two people in a London office and a tiny field staff in the Balkans – ICG has grown in less than a decade to having now over 100 full time staff working across five continents in some forty different areas of actual or potential conflict, and in advocacy offices in Brussels (the Headquarters), in Washington, next to the UN in New York, and in London and Moscow; producing nearly 100 freely available reports and briefing papers a year and promoting them directly and intensely with senior policy makers; and being widely regarded now as perhaps the world’s leading non-government source of early warning, analysis and advice to governments and intergovernmental organisations in relation to the prevention of deadly conflict and mass violence.

Lesson 2. One size analysis doesn’t fit all: every conflict is different.

To understand how to prevent and resolve conflict it is necessary to understand what causes it, and one of the products of the much enhanced focus on conflict prevention is much more academic and institutional analysis than we have ever had before on what generates conflict. There is a whole literature now, for example, on the economic causes of war within, as well as between states, and the respective roles of greed and grievance in fostering and sustaining violence.

Such general analysis has become extremely helpful in getting us to ask the right questions, but it is a mistake to think it can provide all the answers. Every conflict does have its own dynamic, and there is no substitute for comprehensively understanding all the factors at work.

ICG’s particular value-added in this respect is that all our reporting and analysis is field-based. At last count we had people on the ground from 36 different nationalities, speaking between them 50 different languages. They are steeped in local language and culture, getting dust on their boots, engaged in endless interaction with locals and internationals on the scene, and operating from over a dozen regional offices, from which over forty different countries and territories are systematically covered, many on a full time basis.

While ICG’s basic methodology has three dimensions – field based analysis, policy prescription and high-level advocacy (with the latter two depending on inputs from a wider range of sources) – everything starts with the first: an accurate take on what is happening on the ground, focusing particularly on both the issues that are resonating and the personalities that are driving them.

For a variety of reasons, mainly security and budgetary, traditional diplomats are not performing this function in as much breadth and depth as they traditionally have – it’s hard to get out and about when you are locked up in a fortress or have minimal staff resources - and both early warning and effective conflict prevention capacity have become more at risk as a result. This is a gap that ICG has been widely seen as very successful in filling – particularly, eg, in our briefings of the UN Secretariat and Security Council members on what is happening in Sudan or Congo or Burundi, or Kosovo or Aceh or anywhere else in the world where accurate real-time knowledge is critical.

Lesson 3. Conflict is cyclical: the trick is to stop the wheel turning.

One of the things we now understand most clearly about conflict is that the countries and regions most likely to lapse into it are those that have been there before. There is not a straight line sequence between the anticipation of conflict and attempts to prevent it breaking out; the resolution of conflict, by negotiation or force, when it has broken out; and post-conflict peace-building. Rather there is a cyclical process, in which each post-conflict environment contains the potential seeds of the next round of destruction.

What follows from that is that far more effort has to be put into consolidating the peace after it has been won. Sustainable peace cannot be guaranteed just because a diplomatic peacemaking initiative has apparently been successful: the worst horrors in the Angolan civil war came after the Bicesse Accords in 1990, and the Rwandan genocide exploded just a year after the Arusha Peace Agreement of 1993, in each case because manifestly inadequate arrangements were made for peacekeeping and general implementation follow through. Similarly, peace cannot be ensured simply because a clear-cut military victory has apparently been won – think of Afghanistan and Iraq right now.

The conflict containment structures and capacities that need to be applied in a post-conflict environment, to prevent violence recurring, are essentially exactly the same as those that need to be applied in failed or failing states to prevent violent conflict breaking out in the first place. The focus in each case must be on structural prevention – building institutional structures and processes (military, political, legal, economic and social) which are capable of relieving non-violently all the crucial stress points that arise between individuals and groups. Post conflict peacebuilding is a hugely complex and often hugely costly enterprise. It has all too often been neglected or mismanaged, and when this happens it is only a matter of time before the boil erupts again.

ICG, for all these reasons, puts just as much effort into monitoring and analysing post conflict peace building as we do into pre-conflict prevention and current conflict resolution. We have people on the ground - producing a substantial series of reports on what is going wrong and what is needed to correct it – in, for example, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burundi, Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Algeria, Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia and Haiti.

This week, for example, we are publishing a major report on the reconstruction of Iraq which not only focuses on what went wrong – reconstructing with an ideology but without a plan, internal turf wars, shifting timelines and priorities, insufficient reliance on Iraqis, and all the obvious security problems - but sets out 16 specific recommendations, addressed respectively to the Iraqi and U.S. governments, and international donors and creditors, as to how things might at this stage be improved, covering everything from privatisation strategy to project staffing to debt restructuring.

Lesson 4. Conflict prevention requires complex strategies: one-dimensional fixes rarely work

As a result of the much more systematic focus on conflict prevention since the early 1990s we now have a much better understanding not only of the causes of conflict but the repertoire of measures available to deal with them. There are many different ways of categorising and classifying them, and there is a voluminous literature on the subject, but the simplest way of getting one’s head around the options available in any given situation may be to think of a toolbox with two trays – for long term structural prevention and short term more direct operational measures.

Each tray in turn has four basic compartments for, respectively, political and diplomatic measures, legal and constitutional measures, economic and social measures, and security sector an military measures. And there are sub-compartments within each of these – for example direct economic measures might include positive incentives (eg an energy package for N Korea), negative incentives or sanctions (eg. cutting off the flow of remittances to N Korea from Japan), and focused humanitarian aid.

The crucial thing is to recognise not only that each situation has its own characteristics, and that one-size spanners don’t fit all, but that each situation is likely to require a complex combination of measures, the balance between which is bound to change over time as circumstances evolve.

ICG is extremely conscious of these realities and our recommendations, accordingly, tend to be quite complex: our reports don’t easily lend themselves to seven-second sound bites – except for occasional cases like Darfur where to get any action at all a major campaign had to be initially mounted with a very simple core message: “stop the killing and get the humanitarian aid flowing now or a million will die”.

But adding detail and complexity is a crucial part of ICG’s value-added. When I was a Minister I found it not always especially helpful to be told by NGOs that the government should ‘care more’ about a particular situation and ‘do something’ about it. My response was invariably that I did care and would find it rather helpful to have good analysis and creative new ideas about what realistically could be done – the issues were who had the leverage, what coalitions could be mobilised, and who could do what, when, where and how. ICG was essentially created to give those kinds of answers and we do. We are presently engaged in distilling our experience into a book length report – The Conflict Prevention Toolbox – which we hope to publish in 2005, our tenth anniversary year.

It is perhaps worth adding that in offering policy recommendations, ICG has amply demonstrated that we are not at the wimpish end of the NGO spectrum. When a situation has deteriorated to the point that it cries out for coercive military action as the only way of preventing a greater harm, ICG – with all appropriate regard to both legality and prudence – will be in there arguing for it, as we did for example with Kosovo in 1999, and will certainly be inclined to do in the case of Darfur, as a last resort, if things get much worse. We did not, by contrast, seek to make a case for last year’s coalition invasion of Iraq.

Lesson 5. Conflict prevention requires effective institutional structures.

These are necessary at the global, regional and national government levels.

Globally, there are at least three major structural problems, all of which are currently being tackled by the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on 21st century security challenges, of which I am a member.

One is finding a better way of assisting the stabilisation and normalisation of the many existing failed, failing and fragile states around the world, in both pre and post conflict situations, which is a cross cutting problem in meeting many security challenges, not least terrorism: the trick will be to find an institutional arrangement which brings together, effectively, all the key players, including the UN and its agencies, the Bretton Woods Institutions and the key bilateral donors.

A second big problem is Security Council- not just ensuring its commitment and and effective delivery, both of which have often been problematic, but in ensuring its continued legitimacy, when its structure is so manifestly a reflection of the world of 1945, not 2005. The complacency of the Permanent Five veto-wielding members is misplaced: their powers will be a diminishing asset unless the credibility issue is seriously addressed before much longer.

A third issue is Secretariat reform: getting more resources into the peace and security area, ensuring their quality, and enabling the Secretary-General to have available to him a large store of early warning and analysis capability – a function that has been largely denied it so far by member states anxious not to be seen as suitable cases for treatment (and one that is presently being performed as much by ICG as anyone else!).

Regionally, although significant progress has been made in recent years, especially by the African Union – and interestingly recently by the South Pacific Forum with its endorsement of Australia’s involvement in the Solomons - much more needs to be done to strengthen conflict prevention and resolution capability, which in many parts of the world is non-existent, or so deeply reluctant to become involved in the security problems of the neighbourhood that it might as well be.

There have been some very specific regional conflict prevention arrangements that deserve wider emulation elsewhere, notably the OSCE's appointment after the end of the Cold War of a High Commissioner on National Minorities, who devised and encouraged many preventive measures, especially of a legal minority rights protection character, to stop ethnic communities tearing at each other's throats in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe.

So far as national governments are concerned, increasing efforts have been made to develop structural arrangements both ‘mainstreaming’ conflict prevention – requiring all relevant policy officers to give attention to this dimension in developing aid and other external policies – and also specifically ‘tasking’ it by giving particular individuals or groups within the government the specific responsibility to think about prevention, and devise and recommend up the decision-making food chain appropriate policy responses.

The role for NGOs like ICG in all of this is essentially just to keep pressuring governments at all levels to make the necessary systemic changes, and to make their own inputs into the policy making and delivery process. Without the persistent nagging of a whole range of peace and security-focused NGOs it is very doubtful that as much would have been achieved as, for all its shortcomings, has been.

In the spectrum of international NGOs engaged in peace and security issues, ICG in fact occupies a quite distinctive niche. Such organisations are usually characteriseable as either pure think-tanks/research institutions/policy forums (like Centres for Strategic Studies, Councils on Foreign Relations, Institutes of International Affairs and some Foundations) ; or as campaign organisations (like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch); or as on-the-ground operational organisations (engaged in mediation, capacity building, confidence building and the like - like the Carter Centre, Search for Common Ground or Open Society Institute) ; or are humanitarian relief organisations (like MSF or CARE).

ICG fits into none of these precise categories: what we do is essentially a unique combination of the first three – engaged as we are in the three basic functions of field based analysis, policy prescription, and both high-level and public advocacy.

Lesson 6. Conflict prevention requires application of resources.

Like many other worthwhile public policy activities, conflict prevention struggles to get its share of public resources. Part of the problem is that it doesn’t generate immediately visible returns: you succeed most in conflict prevention when nothing happens, and nobody notices. And for most people in public office performing good works without anyone noticing it is like having your teeth pulled.

But there is no doubt a formidable case can be made for conflict prevention on pure financial cost-benefit grounds alone. As Australian Foreign Minister in the early 1990s I estimated, with the help of my Department, that the first Gulf War, which cost the allied coalition some $US 70 billion to wage, could conceivably have been avoided through more effective preventive diplomacy - which in the institutional form of six small but highly professional regional conflict prevention centres around the world would have cost the whole international community just over $20 million a year.

Similar calculations have been made in many other contexts. UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw estimated a few years ago that the small preventive military deployment in Macedonia, stopping the slide to war there, cost the British taxpayer Ł14 million: fighting the war in Kosovo, by contrast, cost Britain Ł200 million, and in Bosnia over Ł1.5 billion. He could no doubt make an even stronger case, if he chose, based on what the recent Iraq war, eminently preventable as it was, has already cost his taxpayers and the expenditure benefits elsewhere that have been foregone in the process.

That kind of calculation has been done recently in the US, where a New York Times published study earlier this month showed that the $144 billion already spent in Iraq could have paid for, among other things, the more or less complete safeguarding of US ports, airports and airliners ($34 billion); the security from theft of the world’s stock of weapons-grade nuclear materials and the deactivation of warheads (another $34 billion); the complete rebuilding of Afghanistan, including drug crop conversion ($20 billion); the addition of another 65 000 U.S. troops, if anyone thought this necessary ($40 billion); and another $10 billion in development assistance (which would fill, for one year anyway, nearly 20 per cent of the gap presently identified if Millennium Development goals relating to poverty, disease and the like are to be met).

It is not only additional money that is needed for conflict prevention and resolution, but a more intelligent application of money already being spent, for example on armed forces. A critical resource problem constantly facing planners is the availability of deployable military assets of the necessary quality for peacekeeping, peace enforcement and peacebuilding tasks. As we become more and more aware of the magnitude of the post-conflic follow-through task in countries like Afghanistan, and the Congo (currently a major ICG preoccupation) it becomes more and more obvious that the developed countries have a greater burden to bear than they are currently shouldering.

A major part of the problem is the lingering on of Cold War configurations in force structures - for example in Germany, where of 250 000 men and women currently in uniform, only some 10 000 are deployable at any given time on international peace operation tasks. One recent estimate (Thomas Donnelly, AEI) is that ‘of the 2.5 million personnel nominally under arms in Europe, at most 3 per cent are deployable’. A good many of the rest are presumably still waiting by their tanks for the Russians to come.

ICG, like other NGOs working in the peace and security field, would be more than delighted if just a tiny splinter of the amount presently devoted to military budgets – now around $400 billion a year for the US, and that amount again for the rest of the world put together - could be diverted to our own.

At present we operate on an annual budget of between $ US 10 and $11 million, which comes approximately 40 per cent from governments (including both Australia and New Zealand, I am pleased to say), 50 per cent from foundations, and 10 per cent from others, mainly private individuals. We have grown very rapidly – at the rate of nearly $2 million a year, with a commensurate increase in staff and activity - over the last five years, but have now reached the necessary critical mass to be effective: my task, not an easy one at all when one has no endowment and every year is a new challenge, is to sustain ICG’s operations at around their present level.

Lesson 7. Conflict prevention requires political will.

This is hardly a new lesson, but as in many other areas of public policy it is always the bottom line: unless the relevant decision makers, at the national or international level, want something to happen it won’t. What we perhaps still need to learn is that merely lamenting the absence of political will – as so many commentaries do, stopping the analysis right there - doesn’t help very much: what we have to is work out how to mobilise it. And that requires a combination of good institutional structures – of the kind I have earlier discussed – and good arguments.

The obligation on all of us, both inside and outside government systems, who are concerned about better conflict prevention is to provide those arguments. The most relevant ones are:

moral arguments (however base and self-interested their actual motives are governments always like to be seen as acting from higher ones); financial arguments (preventive action is likely to be cheaper by many orders of magnitude, as we have already seen, than responding after the event, whether through military action, humanitarian relief assistance, post-conflict reconstruction, or all three); national interest arguments (bearing in mind that, given the number of international problems, like terrorism or health pandemics, that can only be solved by cooperative action, all countries have an interest not only in the traditional security and prosperity objectives, but in being, and being seen to be, good, cooperative international citizens); and domestic political arguments (of a kind which appeal to parties in power, and these can include shoring up a political base as much as getting through to waverers: the Bush administration’s preoccupation with its Christian right has certainly been an important element in its wholly desirable commitment to peace processes in Sudan).

ICG, as you would expect, spends a great deal of time in its advocacy not only on getting the analysis and policy recommendations right, but honing the way in which our arguments are presented to key decision-makers. Our advocacy takes four basic forms:

getting our reports and briefing papers, including the monthly CrisisWatch conflict alert bulletin, out to the widest possible audience of decision-makers and those who influence them (we currently send them electronically to a total of over 12 000 specifically targeted recipients and in printed form to 3 800, and make them immediately available on our website, which is now being accessed at the rate of 1.8 million visitors – and 1.5 million downloads – a year); getting our message into the media, particularly through publishing a regular flow of op-eds in the world’s leading papers – 100 of them in the last 12 months – and working with diplomatic correspondents and leader writers: who don’t always, or even very often, mention our name, but it’s the influence that counts; high-level advocacy, conducted directly with policy makers from presidents and prime ministers and secretaries-general down to desk officers: made possible by the active involvement of our extremely high level Board of Trustees, our government-experienced senior management, and the interest of policy makers in hearing directly from our field-based analysts when they visit capitals, as they often do, for advocacy purposes; and public campaign advocacy, of the kind familiar from Human Rights Watch and like organisations, but in which we have only really embarked upon so far in relation to Darfur, where it became desperately necessary to beat a public drum in order to capture private attention.

Measuring the success of all this effort is the hardest single thing for me to do. When conflict prevention efforts succeed there is the problem of establishing what precisely ensured that nothing happened; and when conflict resolution efforts visibly succeed, following assiduous efforts – for example in Sudan, the Congo, and Liberia - to identify workable processes and acceptable solutions and win the cooperation of crucial parties, there will always be plenty of others claiming a share (and in the case of governments always the dominant share!) of whatever accolades going around.

The best measure of our achievement is probably the financial support we continue to attract from some 20 governments, averaging around $250 000 per annum which certainly wouldn’t happen if we weren’t thought to be useful; and the accolades we often receive on the record from senior government and international figures, including the likes of Kofi Annan, Colin Powell and Chris Patten - not to mention Alexander Downer and Marian Hobbs – all lovingly recorded each year in our Annual Report.

A good many of the compliments are also off the record, especially for example the praise given to our Indonesia project’s analysis of the origins and reach of terrorist organisations – notably Jemaah Islamiyah and its afilliates - as being more far reaching and pertinent than anything generated by government intelligence agencies: though I guess these days that’s not quite the compliment it might once have been!

At the end of the day, success or failure in conflict prevention and resolution, for ICG as for every other actor, comes down very much to the calibre of individuals, and in particular the key national leaders on whose decisions so much depends, and not all of whom who are quite as forthrightly prepared to accept responsibility for error as President George W. Bush. I’m thinking here not so much of his statement this week that Iraq was a ‘catastrophic success’ - although that comes close to what I had in mind – as rather his immortal comment at a signing ceremony for a major military spending bill earlier this month, on 5 August, that

Our enemies are innovative and resourceful and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.

So much does seem to depend just on the luck of the draw: whether at a time of fragility and transition a country finds itself with a Mandela or a Milosevic, an Arafat or an Ataturk, or as in Georgia at the moment, yet another area of ICG attention, a Shaakashvili or a Shevardnaze. Despite all our best efforts, that has always been so, and I suspect it always will be. Looking around the world at those individuals who currently matter most, let me conclude this presentation – as I have many others – by expressing the fervent hope that even if leaders are not always born, they can at least on occasion be made.