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"The United Nations and Conflict Prevention", Gareth Evans

KAddress by Gareth Evans, President of the International Crisis Group, to the Dag Hammarskjold Centenary Seminar co-hosted by IFRI and Swedish Embassy, Paris, 17 October 2005

Today in New York at the United Nations, the long-awaited Human Security Report is being launched. A project supported by five major governments (Canada, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK), edited by Andrew Mack of the University of British Colombia and formerly Director of Kofi Annan’s Strategic Planning Unit, and published by Oxford University Press, this seeks to bring together for the first time in a really comprehensive way data about wars within and between states, terrorist acts and atrocity crimes that is presently not collected by any international agency. Among its key findings are these:

* There has been a dramatic decline in the number of armed conflicts since the early 1990s – by 80 per cent in the case of conflicts with 1000 or more battle deaths in a year. Although some 60 conflicts of varying degrees of intensity (most of them quite low) are still being waged around the world, war between states has almost completely disappeared – now less than 5 per cent of all conflicts – and the overall environment is one of really major reduction.

* Paralleling the number of conflicts, the number of battle deaths is also dramatically down, both in absolute numbers, and in terms of the deadliness of each individual conflict. Whereas back in the 1950s and for years thereafter the average number of deaths per conflict per year were 30-40,000, by the early 2000s this number was down to around 600 – reflecting the shift from high to low intensity conflicts, and geographically from Asia to Africa. Of course violent battle deaths are only a small part of the whole story of the misery of war: as many as 90% of war-related deaths are due to disease and malnutrition rather than direct violence. But the trend decline in battle deaths is a significant and highly encouraging story.

* There has been a dramatic increase in the number of conflicts resolved by active peacemaking, involving diplomatic negotiations, international mediation and the like: the Human Security Report states that approximately half of all the peace agreements negotiated between 1946 and 2003 have been signed since the end of the Cold War. (The High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change which reported to the Secretary-General in the lead-up to this year’s UN Summit, and on which I served, came up with the even more startling, but well-researched, statement that more civil wars have been ended by negotiation in the last 15 years than in the previous two centuries.)

* The only unequivocally bad news is the dramatic increase in high-casualty terrorist attacks since 9/11 – but even here the annual death toll from international terrorist incidents remains only a small fraction of the annual war death toll (so far anyway: things will be different if terrorists ever manage a nuclear attack).

There are a number of reasons contributing to these turnarounds in relation to the prevention and resolution of conflict. They include the end of the era of colonialism, which generated two-thirds or more of all wars from the 1950s to the 1980s; and of course the end of the Cold War, which meant no more proxy wars fuelled by Washington or Moscow, and also the demise of a number of authoritarian governments, generating internal resentment and resistance, that each side had been propping up.

* But as the authors of the Human Security Report argue, the best explanation is the one that stares us in the face, even if a great many don’t want to acknowledge it. This is the huge increase in the level of international preventive diplomacy, diplomatic peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations, for the most part authorised by and mounted by the United Nations, that has occurred since the end of the Cold War. In particular there has been:

* a six-fold increase in UN preventive diplomacy missions (to stop wars starting);

* a four-fold increase in UN peace operations (both to end ongoing conflicts and reduce the risk of wars restarting); and

* an eleven-fold increase in the number of states subject to UN sanctions (which can help pressure warring parties into peace negotiations).

The UN of course has not been the only player: regional intergovernmental organizations have played an increasingly significant role, as have the international financial institutions and individual states. And, in a development which deserves more systematic attention than it has received, a very much more central and important role has been played in recent years by NGOs and other civil society actors, working alongside the UN system and governments, needling them into action, acting as partners in delivery, or playing critical support roles in, variously, institutional capacity building, community dialogue and confidence building and actual peacemaking through mediation and conciliation. My own International Crisis Group, which didn’t exist ten years ago, but which now plays quite an influential role with our analysis and advocacy across some fifty actual or potential conflict situations worldwide, is a case in point.

But it is the revitalization of the UN system that has been at the heart of nearly all the recent process, and the UN – the only international organization with a global security mandate – that has been the central player. And that is at least some cause for celebration in a year in which those of us committed to major necessary UN reform – to make the system work very much better still, fully realizing the kind of capabilities for which Dag Hammarskjold was such a visionary pathfinder – have had reason to feel more than a little desolate about the outcome of the September Summit.

What have we learned over the last fifteen years or so from all that has gone both right and wrong in our efforts to prevent deadly conflict, in particular as this relates to the UN’s role? For present purposes, I will leave to one side the issue of terrorism (which requires an overlapping but for the most part distinct policy repertoire); nor will I plunge on this occasion into issues related to arms control and disarmament (which are obviously very directly related to conflict prevention, but being dealt with at this seminar by Hans Blix), or into those related to peace enforcement and peacekeeping (also highly relevant, but Jean-Marie Guehenno’s territory today); nor will I even begin to touch upon development issues (often directly bearing upon conflict prevention, but being addressed by Michel Camdessus).

But I will take – as Crisis Group does – a broad view of conflict prevention, treating it as involving not only the prevention of outbreak of conflict (conflict prevention in the classic, core sense) but also prevention of its continuation, and prevention of its recurrence. Let me give you a quick check list, from my own experience, of the major lessons we have learned – or should have learned – for each of these crucial stages of the conflict cycle.

Preventing Conflict Outbreak

* The first rule for preventing deadly conflict is not to start it, a message the U.S. is certainly now pondering after its rush to war in Iraq. There are circumstances in which there will simply be no alternative to taking military action, to respond to real and immediate cross-border threats, and – in the case of man-made internal crises of the kind we confronted in the Balkans and Rwanda and elsewhere so often in the last decade – to do so in the context of the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’ now endorsed by last month’s UN Summit (one of its very few positive achievements). But military action should only ever be undertaken in the most serious cases, as a last resort, and in circumstances where it will do more good than harm: unfortunately, one of the many things the UN Summit failed utterly to do was address the guidelines for Security Council action in this respect that had been proposed by the High Level Panel, and the Secretary-General in his own In Larger Freedom report.

* The second rule of conflict prevention is to understand the causes: the factors at work – political, economic, cultural, personal – in each particular risk situation. The basic point about conflict is that it is always context specific. Big overarching theories – whether cast in terms of clash of civilizations, ancient tribal enmity, economic greed, economic grievance, or anything else – may be good for keynote speeches, and certainly good for royalties. They may also be quite helpful in identifying particular explanatory factors that should certainly be taken into account in trying to understand the dynamics of particular situations. But they never seem to work very well in sorting between those situations which are combustible and those which are not. For that you need detailed, case by case analysis, not making assumptions on the basis of experience elsewhere, but looking at what is under your nose.

* The third rule is to fully understand, and be prepared to apply flexibly as circumstances change, what’s in the conflict prevention toolbox – the range of possible measures, both long-term structural and short-term operational, that can be deployed to deal with high-risk situations. Broadly speaking, there are political and diplomatic tools (eg negotiation of new power or resource-sharing arrangements), legal and constitutional tools (eg human rights protections for individuals or groups – of the kind often negotiated by the OSCE’s High Commissioner for National Minorities), economic tools (eg development measures to redress inequities, or targeted sanctions) and military tools (including security sector reform, preventive deployments and, in extreme cases, the threat of military force) – and we know a lot more about how to use them now than we did even just a decade ago.

* The fourth rule is to be prepared to put in the necessary government and intergovernmental resources, when and where they are needed, and particularly at the early prevention stage, where any investment now is likely to be infinitely cheaper than paying later for military action, humanitarian relief assistance and post-conflict reconstruction - something the international community is still much better at talking about than doing. Early warning and response capability is a critical requirement for effective early prevention, and one of the long-running battles in the UN system – brought to a head by the Brahimi Panel on Peace Operations recommendations in 2000 – has been about giving the Secretariat increased capacity in this respect, over the objections of those who think this might identify them sooner as suitable cases for treatment. It may be that this battle is now being won. One of the little-noticed achievements of the UN Summit was the incorporation, in the ‘responsibility to protect’ section of the outcome document (para 138), in the context of prevention of genocides and other crimes against humanity, of the following words: “The international community…should support the United Nations to establish an early warning capability”.

* The fifth rule is for governments to leverage those resources by using all the extraordinary capability that is now available from non-governmental organizations and civil society generally in the ways I have already mentioned.

Preventing Continuation: Conflict Resolution

When prevention fails, and the task becomes that of conflict resolution – hopefully achieved by peacemaking negotiations rather than the use of overriding military force. In this context, again, there are a number of lessons we have painfully learned about what makes a successful peace accord:

* First, it is not an event so much as a process, and signing the agreement is not the end of it. The critical need is to generate commitment to, and ownership of, the peace by the warring parties: so their commitments are not just formal, but internalized, and will stick. That takes real skill on the part of those mediating or otherwise assisting the negotiation, a conspicuously variable quality among UN special envoys and representatives. The UN Summit did agree ‘to support the Secretary-General’s efforts to strengthen his capacity in this area’ of good offices, but it remains to be seen what this means in terms of new resources, and the need for better selection and training of envoys (about which the High Level Panel was a little more direct in its report than was the Secretary-General in his).

* Second, any peace accord must deal with all the fundamentals of the dispute: all the issues which will have to be resolved if normality is to return. Sometimes that can be done in a sequential or stage-by-stage way, with confidence building measures now and some key issues deferred: the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the Caucasus might be such an example. But the failed Oslo process for Israel-Palestine shows how risky that approach can be.

* Third, any successful peace accord must get the balance right between peace and justice. The South African truth and reconciliation commission model, with its amnesties for the perpetrators of even serious crimes, is widely admired, but in other cases sustainable peace will not be possible without significant retributive justice: visible trial and punishment. What is clear is that the people of every country, whether it’s Cambodia or Rwanda or East Timor or Liberia, have to resolve what works for them.

* Fourth, the terms of any accord, and the method of its enforcement and implementation, must be sufficiently resilient to deal with spoilers – those who would seek to undermine or overturn it.

* Fifth – and this follows particularly from the last point – a peace accord to be successful must have the necessary degree of international support: with all the guarantees and commitment of resources that are necessary to make it stick.

Preventing Recurrence: Post-Conflict Peacebuilding

The biggest lessons of all about the handling of conflict that we have learned in recent years - not least from Rwanda (where the 1994 genocide, taking 800 000 lives, followed the Arusha peace deal just a year before), Angola (where the 1991 Bicesse Agreement to end the war in was followed by a relapse into bloody conflict for another decade with another million or more lives lost), Haiti, Afghanistan and now Iraq, is the critical necessity of effective post-conflict peacebuilding, to ensure that the whole weary conflict cycle does not begin again. We know all too well that the best single indicator of future conflict is past conflict – reflecting the reality that over and again the critical underlying conflict-causing factors have simply not been properly addressed.

My quick checklist here of what we have learned about what is necessary to make international peacebuilding missions successful:

* First, sort out who should do what and when - immediately, over a medium transition period and in the longer term: allocate the roles and coordinate them effectively both at headquarters and on the ground. High-level coordination is one of the critical roles envisaged for the new Peacebuilding Commission, approved at the UN Summit – if it’s detailed operating arrangements can now be agreed.

* Second, commit the necessary resources, and sustain that commitment for as long as it takes: this again is envisaged as a critical role for the Peacebuilding Commission, given the long and lamentable history of ad hoc donors’ conferences, and rapidly waning attention, and generosity, once the immediate crisis is over.

* Third, understand the local political dynamics – and the limits of what outsiders can do. Iraq is an unhappy example of how much can go wrong when that understanding is lacking.

* Fourth, recognise that multiple objectives have to be pursued simultaneously: physical security may always be the first priority, but it cannot be the only one, and rule of law and justice issues, and economic governance and anti-corruption measures, deserve much higher priority than they have usually been given.

* Fifth, all intrusive peace operations need an exit strategy, if not an exit timetable, and one that is not just devoted to holding elections as soon as possible, as important as it obviously is to vest real authority and responsibility in the people of the country being rebuilt. Every peacebuilding situation has its own dynamic, but many of the worst peacebuilding mistakes of the last decade have had more to do with leaving too soon or doing too little than staying too long or doing too much.

There never seem to be many good news stories around when it comes to crisis and conflict: for the media, the rule is that ‘if it bleeds, it leads’, and for the UN, its triumphs inevitably get less attention than its disasters. Moreover the hopes and expectations we had of this year’s Summit have mostly turned to dust. The embrace of ‘responsibility to protect’ was a shaft of light, but last week’s extraordinary lineup of the US, China, Russia and Algeria to deny a Security Council hearing to Genocide Adviser Jean Mendez on the still very troubling situation in Darfur is an indication of just how far we have to go, case by case, in applying it. We have a shell, but not yet the substance of a Peacebuilding Commission; we have barely even the shell of a new Human Rights Council; and we have all movement on management reform, as on other issues, still hostage to the spoiling of a hard core of antagonistic developing states. We have blank pages on disarmament and arms control, on principles governing the use of force, and on a new definition of terrorism; and indefinite postponement, yet again, of any structural changes to the Security Council to enhance its representativeness and legitimacy.

For all that, and for all that has gone wrong and continues to go wrong when it comes to war and civil war, not to mention mass violence and terrorism, conflict is not inevitable. We have learned a great deal about how to prevent and resolve it, particularly over the last decade, and the record of achievement is very much better than most people think it is. We can as an international community do very much better still, but for those of us who spend our lives in trying to prevent and resolve conflict, the good news is that we have not been wasting our time.