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Humanitarian Action and Prevention

Presentation by Gareth Evans, President of International Crisis Group and Co-Chair of International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, to International Peace Academy and Netherlands Government Symposium on Humanitarian Action, New York, 20 November 2000

The Prevention Toolbox

No discussion about anything to do with peace and conflict these days is complete without a session on prevention, and for that small mercy we should certainly be grateful.

But all too often in the world of decision-making and action, the effort stops with the lipservice.

- In prioritising effort, in the Security Council or anywhere else, the urgent nearly always drives out the important.

- And in generating enthusiasm, the tangible can always be trusted to prevail over the intangible. It's conflict resolution that gets the press, not successful prevention, and diplomats and international public servants are not much different from any other politicians in noticing…

That said, the battle to devote increased resources and attention to prevention is gradually being won.

- Partly it's the sheer force of the argument that prevention is infinitely cheaper than cure, on any financial cost or human cost scale - whether one is talking about old-fashioned cross border aggression by state against state, or about the violence done by citizen-against-citizen or state-against-citizen that is the stuff of the humanitarian intervention debate

- But it's also because it is increasingly being acknowledged that peace, and efforts to sustain it, involves a continuum of activity. Building peace, maintaining peace, restoring peace and enforcing peace are conceptually distinct, but so closely inter-related in practice that it makes no sense to concentrate effort on any one of them alone. In particular, the boundary line between conflict prevention and conflict resolution is notoriously imprecise: while it is reasonably easily drawn before there has been any outbreak of violence at all, once it becomes a matter of preventing the escalation of violence, or its recurrence, the lines between prevention and reaction get very blurred indeed. In short, if you are in the reaction business, its hard to avoid being in the prevention business as well. Moreover, it is increasingly being recognised that the box of tools potentially available for the prevention of conflict is essentially the same as that needed to contain or resolve it

- although there will be differences in the way those tools are used, with some being primarily useful in building more stable and just institutional structures, and others having a more direct operational role. The toolbox in question has four basic compartments - for economic, politico-diplomatic, legal and military measures respectively.1

There is no good reason in principle why tools that are available to react to or suppress violence should not be also available for prevention. People sometimes get a little queasy, in this respect, about deploying as a preventive measure the threat of military force - but if available at the sharp end, it ought to be available at the soft end as well. A very specific threat, from the outset, to deploy ground troops in Kosovo - rather than vague intimations about use of air power which took a long time to become concrete - could well have avoided any intervention actually becoming necessary.

-The only issues, if availability is clear, are the usual ones of credibility (will there be delivery) and, of course, productivity: there is sometimes a case for doing something that you know is likely to be unproductive (eg. because it keeps alive some momentum of concern and involvement, internationally or domestically), but there is never a case for doing that which is counterproductive, in the sense of making things worse for the people you are trying to help.

- On the question of availability, it has become common in the recent literature - including the excellent Netherlands Government paper - to distinguish between legality and legitimacy, with a very narrow view being taken of legality, but a more expansive one being taken of legitimacy. My own view is that one should not sacrifice legality ground too readily - that there is much, in particular, that one can properly read into the term of the UN Charter that goes to the defence of human rights and human (as distinct from state) security; and arguably some developments in customary international law as well. (This is a view which will be tested, and no doubt vigorously contested, in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, sponsored by the Canadian Government, which I am currently co-chairing with Mohamed Sahnoun.)

It must be acknowledged that there is a downside involved in treating prevention and reaction activities as inseparably inter-related parts of a single continuum: those states, and there are many of them, who are resistant to the idea of coercive humanitarian intervention ever being legitimate, are likely to become more resistant as a result to efforts at prevention - seeing this as the thin edge of an unacceptable wedge.

One answer is that, whether we like it or not, resistance to preventive measures is already occurring, for exactly the thin-edge-of-the-wedge argument just mentioned, and is unlikely to become much worse in the face of a more enthusiastic embrace of preventive strategies by the Security Council and others.

A less defeatist answer is to say that whole debate on intervention - and associated prevention - needs is a fundamental reconceptualisation, so there is less neuralgic reflex reaction and more attention to the substantive issues involved. One of the ways of turning the debate around (and that will, again, be explored by the International Commission) is to argue the whole issue not in terms of a "right to intervene" but a "responsibility to protect". This still of course leaves a whole host of questions to be answered, including all the familiar ones of legality and legitimacy. Exercising a responsibility to protect,

Changing the way in which we talk about an issue doesn’t in itself solve contests of substance, but it might just get the argument off to a more productive start.

The Role of the Security Council

When faced over the last decade with situations of imminent or actual man-made humanitarian catastrophe, the Security Council has not been especially good at either prevention or response. We all know the familiar litany

- the humiliating failure to heed abundant early warning signs in Rwanda in 1994

- the unwillingness to defend "safe havens" in Bosnia in 1995

- the inaction in the face of mass insecurity in the refugee camps of eastern Zaire in 1996

- the paralysis over Kosovo in 1998-99

- the manifestly inadequate deployment in Sierra Leone earlier this year

- the unwillingness, for obvious reasons of realpolitik unrelated to principle, to even consider Chechnya a suitable case for treatment.

Because of the unrivalled role of the United Nations - with its effectively universal membership, complete armoury of formal powers, and overriding constitutional commitment to peace - it is unquestionably appropriate for the Security Council to be leading the charge on questions of humanitarian action, as on the maintenance of international peace and security generally. When the Security Council exercises responsibility, and does it responsibly - as in Kuwait, Cambodia and East Timor, to take just three cases across the last decade (though none of them, strictly speaking, involving humanitarian intervention), that is the optimal outcome.

There are nonetheless real difficulties about the UN Security Council seeking to occupy centre stage in peace and security matters.

- The first is the problem of legitimacy. So long as Germany and Japan are excluded from permanent membership, along with Brazil (or Argentina or Mexico) and India (or Indonesia) and Nigeria (or Egypt or South Africa), the Security Council can hardly claim to be representative of the power balances of the modern era. And with the fading of legitimacy over time comes a diminished capacity to exert moral authority.

-The second is the problem of commitment. National interest considerations keep on intruding - as with China's veto (for the utterly unrelated reason that Macedonia had supported Taiwan) of the continued deployment of the UN preventive deployment contingent in that republic. The US abandonment of Rwanda because of its anxiety about how the Somalia experience might be playing in domestic politics was an indefensible flight from responsibility.

-Thirdly there is the problem of delivery. The experience of recent years has seen some appalling gaps opening up between theory and practice, not all of them able to be filled by the UN simply contracting out its responsibilities. Mandates have been poorly conceived; gaps have opened up between the mandates and the resources needed to implement them; military command skills have sometimes been lacking; and UN civil administration has by and large been lamentable, in particular the mobilization in broken societies of police forces and other necessary elements of functioning law and justice systems.

Some of these problems are readily fixable, with the appropriate commitment of energy and resources. The Brahimi Report has shown the way not only with its extensive, sharply focused and very practical recommendations on peacekeeping, but also with its attention to building a strong in-house information-gathering, analysis and strategic planning capacity - an absolutely critical precondition to effective preventive activity as well as peace keeping and peace enforcement.

One issue not within the Brahimi mandate but which I have long felt deserves equally sharp-eyed organisational reform, is a much more focused and coordinated approach within the UN system to peace building, both pre and post-conflict - ie. through supportive programs in the areas of security, governance, human rights and economic instititution-building, enhancing the indigenous capacity of a society to manage differences without violence.

To give peace building the profile and organisational clout it needs, as well as further strengthen other elements in the system, I continue to think there is a case for the creation of a deputy secretary-general with responsibility for both peace-building and humanitarian affairs (the latter including relief operations, basic rehabilitation and disaster preparedness); three others would be responsible, respectively, for political affairs, economic and social affairs, and finance and administration.

The Role of Regional Organisations

The weaknesses of the UN system, not least of the Security Council itself, which are likely to continue into the foreseeable future, mean that there is no choice but to bring a number of other players into the international peace and security game. The Security Council may retain primary responsibility, but it should certainly not be seen as having sole responsibility for building, maintaining, restoring or even enforcing peace.

Apart from the regional organisations, to which I will return, there are four other groups of actors that deserve quick mention:

- First, there are players other than the Security Council itself in the UN system, including the economic support agencies, the development assistance agencies and international judicial tribunals.

- Secondly, there are individual countries - and not only the heavyweights in the P5 and G8: middle and smaller powers like Australia have from time to time played a significant niche role.

- Thirdly, there are NGOs, many of which play a useful role as think tanks; in hands-on analysis, policy prescription and advocacy (like my own International Crisis Group); or in more operational roles in mediation, confidence and capacity building, and in general peace making and peace building.

-Fourthly, there is also the research community: generating information, recording lessons from the past and stimulating new ways of thinking about both old and new security problems.

But most of the focus has understandably focused on the regional organisations, not least because they are specifically identified in Ch VIII of the Charter as having a potentially large peace and security role, albeit one supposedly subordinate to that of the Security Council 2. I say "supposedly" because although Art 53 states that "no enforcement action shall be taken under regional arrangements or by regional agencies without the authorization of the Security Council" the practice has been otherwise, for example

- the military interventions in Liberia in 1991, Sierra Leone in 1998 and in Kosovo in 1999

- the economic sanctions implemented against Burundi and the FRY

The Charter leaves quite open what consitutes a regional agency or arrangement, and the definition is wide enough to embrace organisations varying as enormously in capacity, and who have played peace roles as different as: in Europe, NATO, the OSCE and the EU itself; in Africa, the OAU and sub-regional bodies like ECOWAS, SADC and IGAD; the OAS; the ASEAN Regional Forum in the Asia Pacific (essentially a dialogue forum, though it has aspirations to eventually engage in preventive diplomacy) - as well as a host of others around the world with primarily economic mandates who have usually played no peace role at all.

Outside Europe - with its own special Balkans pathology - it is in Africa that the regional organisations have been in recent years , and seem most likely to remain, active in conflict prevention and resolution and peace keeping, not least because of the less than enthusiastic international response to assisting with African crises in recent years. What is particularly interesting about the African organisations is the quite broad-ranging mandates of some of them: for example ECOWAS, which has authorised a stand-by force to be deployed when a conflict "threatens to trigger a humanitarian disaster, poses a serious threat to national security, [or] following the overthrow of a democratically-elected government".

However, there are both practical and conceptual problems about trying to throw at the regional organisations too much of the responsibility for dealing with peace and security problems generally, and humanitarian action in particular

- The practical difficulty, felt particularly by the Africans, is the inability to assume and sustain, in the absence of strong international support, the financial burden of peace initiatives

- Another difficulty is that although regional organisations appear to have a comparative advantage given their greater familiarity with the issues and self-interest in peace, this can and often is offset by the disadvantages flowing from partisanship and local rivalries, of the kind that appeared with SADC's Congo intervention, and is evident in the Francophone-Anglophone division within ECOWAS.

- A more fundamental conceptual issue is that it is the Security Council which is vested under the Charter with "primary responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security", and (as Asst Sec Gen Danilo Turk put it in a speech in July 1999) in a case such as Eritrea-Ethiopia, where the UN left the initiative to the regional organisation and other local actors, it is a question as to whether it could be said to have fulfilled that primary responsibility.

All that said, there is an obvious case for strong cooperation between the UN Secretariat, the Security Council and those regional organisations who are both able and willing to act, and that the financial, control and accountability problems which have afflicted some so-called "sub-contracting exercises in the past " continue to be systematically addressed.

In the ever more complex, globalised and interdependent world of the 21st century, maintaining peace and security will depend, more than ever before, on cooperation. At the end of the day, security - and in particular the man-made catastrophes that cry out for a protective response - cannot be left to the Security Council or any other single entity: it is everyone's business.