Conflict Prevention and Intervention
Presentation by Hon Gareth Evans AO QC, President of International Crisis Group and Co-Chairman of International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, to American Society of International Law 95th Annual Meeting, Washington DC, 6 April 2001
It's a long time since the international community has been united and confident in its handling of complex human rights catastrophes. The generally acknowledged success of the military response to Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, and of peace keeping operations such as those in Cambodia, Namibia and Mozambique in the early 1990s, gave way to the debacle of the international intervention in Somalia in 1993; the pathetically inadequate response to genocide in Rwanda in 1994; and the utter inability of the UN presence to prevent the murderous 'ethnic cleansing' in Srebrenica in 1995. Since then we have seen a mixed record in the Balkans; a shambles in Sierra Leon; and deep uncertainty about how to respond in the Congo.
Two big issues are thrown up by this experience. How can the international community do a better job of conflict prevention – something I wrestle with daily as full-time President of the International Crisis Group. And in what circumstances should we forcibly intervene if prevention fails – an issue which has sharply divided governments, and with which I am wrestling as Co-Chair, with Mohamed Sahnoun, of the Intrernational Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, established last year by the Government of Canada.
For effective conflict prevention, three essential conditions have to be met. There has to be knowledge of the fragility of the situation, and the risk of impending conflict - so called "early warning". There has to be a set of appropriate and policy measures available that are capable of making a difference - the so called "preventive toolbox". And there has to be the willingness to apply those measures - the issue of "political will".
Early Warning.So far as early warning is concerned, there is no doubt that governments and intergovernmental organisations need all the help that they can get. As budgets for foreign offices around the world tend to go on shrinking, bizarrely and indefensibly in an age of ever more, and ever more necessary, intergovernmental cooperation, there seems to be, even in large services like America's and Britain's, less capacity than ever to track and monitor fragile situations and crises and conflicts in the making. There is a role, as a result, to be usefully played by non-government players including the media and, especially, NGOs.
All that said, it is easy to exaggerate the extent to which lack of early warning is a serious problem. My own suspicion - and the recent pathbreaking reports on the Rwanda tragedy certainly support this - is that far too often it is an excuse rather than an explanation, and that the problem is not lack of warning but lack of timely response. Most of the time key governments, the UN and certainly the major regional organisations, know perfectly well that there is a problem looming: they just hope that it will go away; or even if they know that it
won't, they don't get around to doing anything about it because it is an iron law of both politics and the bureacracy that the urgent always drives out the important.
The Prevention Toolbox. If governments and intergovernmental organisations are minded to do something about conflict prevention, what should they do? What are the measures available in the preventive toolbox? To explore this issue in any useful detail would involve looking at much more than we have time for now - the different causes of conflict – greed, grievance or something else – to which those tools may be responsive; what kinds of measures may be appropriate when; and how those measures might most usefully be operationalised. I can only here hint at the breadth and complexity of the options available by summarising the most familiar preventive options available.1 They fall into two broad categories – structural and direct, or (in lead-time terms) long-haul and short-haul.
Structural measures include political strategies like democratic institution and capacity building; economic ones like development assistance and cooperation to address inequitable distribution of resources; legal ones like building effective and non-corrupt judicial and police systems; and security ones like reform, professionalisation and civilian control of the military.
Direct measures, by contrast (which may be either coercive or non-coercive in character) include political/diplomatic measures ranging from fact finding missions, dialogue and mediation to threat of sanctions like suspension of international organisation membership; economic measures ranging from investment inducements to threat of trade and financial sanctions; legal measures ranging from mediation, arbitration and adjudication to threat of application of international criminal process; and security measures ranging from preventive deployment (like UNPREDEP in Macedonia ) to threat of use of military force.
This list still only scratches the surface of discussing the range of options available - not only at the stage of preventing the initial outbreak of conflict, but also at the later stages of preventing its escalation and preventing its recurrence, bearing in mind that in these later stages of prevention, many of the techniques available are indistinguishable from those involved in conflict resolution.
Mobilising Political Will. The difficulty with most discussions of political will, the third crucial condition for effective conflict prevention, is that we spend more time lamenting its absence than analysing what it means. We tend to talk about it as a single missing ingredient - the gelatine without which the dish won’t set. The trouble with this metaphor or any other way of thinking about “political will” as a single, simple factor in the equation is that it understates the sheer complexity of what is involved. To mobilize political will doesn’t mean just finding that elusive packet of gelatine, but rather working your way through a whole cupboard-full of further ingredients. What then are those ingredients? Again it is only possible to broadly summarise them here.
In the first place, some of them are institutional. There is a great deal to be said, in any organisational setting, to have some organisation - i.e. in this context, some institutionalisation and routinisation of prevention, someone or some group within the system whose responsibility it is to think about prevention, and devise and recommend up the decision-making food chain appropriate policy responses. Another way of putting it is in terms of deliberately trying to build, through more focused arrangements of this kind, a "culture of prevention" .
More substantial organisational innovations are possible. Probably the most successful example of the approach of creating a whole new organisation (on the principle that there is thereby a better chance of its functions being employed) has been the OSCE's appointment of a High Commissioner on National Minorities. Max Van der Stoel's full time application over many years to the task of devising and encouraging preventive measures to stop ethnic communities tearing at each other's throats in many parts of Europe has been hugely more effective than a series of case-by-case diplomatic excursions is likely to have been.
Institutional innovations will only take far in mobilising the political will to get something actually done about prevention. From my own experience both in government and beating on the doors of government, you just have to recognise that there are key individuals at or near the top of the food chains, and you have to at the end of the day find good arguments that will appeal to them. The well-equipped political- will- mobiliser needs to be equipped, as I see it, with five different kinds of argument in favour of preventive action.
These arguments are, respectively, moral (however base and self-interested their actual motives may be, governments always like to be seen - - both internally and internationally - - as acting from higher motives); financial (prevention will be cheaper, by many orders of magnitude, than responding after the event - whether through military action, humanitarian relief assistance, post-conflict reconstruction, or all three); national interest (countries have a hard-headed interest not just in traditional security and economics, but in being good international citizens); manageability (that global conflict may be declining, so its not a bottomless pit of commitment); and domestic politics (that the proposed action will appeal to, or at least not alienate, the governments primary support base).
The Role of NGOs in Conflict Prevention. In the peace, security and human rights band of the spectrum, in which my own organisation , the International Crisis Group, is located, if one leaves aside the aid and humanitarian relief organisations (whose work does quite often overlap what the others of us are doing), the most active, prominent and useful NGOs generally concentrate on one or other of three quite distinct kinds of activity, viz, thinking, talking or doing.
The 'thinking' NGOs are by and large the research institutes and think tanks, whose product is books and papers, and who engage in data gathering, idea generating, network building, paper publishing and conference organising. Their rationale tends to be contributing to the ideas pool and general debate, though some are more sharply focused.
The 'talking' or advocacy NGOs - for example Asia Watch and Amnesty - engage in research and analysis, but their primary emphasis is on spotlighting governmental abuses and engaging in tom-tom beating advocacy accordingly.
The 'doing' NGOs - and Search for Common Ground, International Alert and the Community of San Egidio are examples - tend to focus on field operations which bring people together, build confidence, and mediate disputes; they also tend to be much involved in improving governance through training and general capacity building programs.
My own organisation is something of a unique hybrid, but I think a good example of what NGOs can and should be doing to help the cause of conflict prevention. ICG concentrates essentially on conflict prevention and containment rather than on conflict resolution or peace building more generally; and, while being very much field based, engages in research, analysis and advocacy - ie. thinking and talking - rather than operationally doing things.
The group was formed in 1995 by a group of prominent internationalists and foreign policy specialists who wanted to create a wholly independent new organisation which might be capable of injecting - through high quality analysis, policy prescription and advocacy - a little more substance and responsiveness into the international conflict prevention effort.
ICG now has a team of nearly 60 worldwide, with field operations in Africa, Asia and the Balkans and advocacy offices in Brussels (the headquarters),Washington, New York and Paris;and a budget of $6million with funding coming 40 per cent from sixteen governments, 44 per cent from major foundations and 16 per cent from individuals. Last year we produced and distributed in printed form and electronically, to many thousands of recipients, 49 reports and briefing papers on the prevention or containment of conflict in eighteen countries; and had in the last twelve months seven million hits on and half a million visitors to our website, www.crisisweb.org .
There's no doubt that you need a certain masochistic streak to get involved in the conflict prevention and containment business. Because the blood isn't yet running in the streets the media don't find it nearly as fascinating as conflict resolution, and the attention of decision makers is hard to grab. The most frustrating thing of all is that when a government or an intergovernmental body, urged on by NGOs like mine, does actually put together a conflict prevention or containment strategy which triumphantly succeeds, so that instead of the feared violence nothing at all happens, then you can be absolutely certain that nobody will notice!
The frustrations notwithstanding, this is a deeply satisfying business to be in. Nothing is worse to contemplate - against the background of all the horror that has been wrought this last century, and all the avoidable horror of the last ten years - than the thought of the pain and terror and misery that lies ahead for so many men, women and children if we fail yet again to prevent what is preventable, and deadly conflict again breaks out. To play a part, however small, in making that horror just a little less likely, is to be as richly rewarded as one could ever be.
When prevention does fail, and deadly conflict erupts, there are very few policy options left to the international community. One very traditional option - employed periodically through the Cold War years, for example in Cyprus, and as recently as the Ethiopia-Eritrea war last year - is for diplomatic peace making efforts to be initiated, and if the combatants are susceptible to rational argument (or maybe less subtle forms of diplomatic persuasion), and can be brought to agree at least on a ceasefire, that can be followed by the deployment of a peace keeping mission to monitor, supervise and verify the peace thus agreed.
The trouble is that in the world of the 1990s and beyond - with most of the conflicts internal in character, with less well defined belligerents, less capacity for coercive but non-military measures like sanctions to have an impact, less capacity to negotiate anything, and even less capacity to make a negotiated agreement stick - that traditional line of approach has not, most of the time, seemed very relevant. As Brian Urquhart has recently put it:
So long as they scent possible victory, regional warlords, embattled ethnic leaders, or politically ambitious thugs are seldom susceptible to legal arguments, international pressures or humanitarian appeals.3
Although the end of the Cold War actually made some long-term civil conflicts easier to settle - notably in Cambodia - it also meant the end - most obviously in the Balkans - of the often artificial cohesion that the superpowers had forced, for better or worse, upon the member countries of the blocs that owed them allegiance, and major new violence erupted accordingly. This coincided with the spread of ever more graphic instant international television coverage, forcing viewers in major countries to confront images of human suffering in far away places that previous generations had been able to ignore: the so-called CNN factor. These things together created both the occasion and the demand for governments, and in particular the UN, to do something. And that something - it seemed it had to be, when prevention failed, and other options were not obvious - was military intervention.
So, during the 1990s, we have seen the emergence (or more accurately re-emergence, because interventionist doctrines in one form or another have been around for a long time) of the doctrine of the right of humanitarian intervention. The core idea is that if human rights - and in particular the most basic of them all, the right to live - are being violated, or are about to be violated, on a massive scale within a country, then there is a moral and legal right for others to forcibly intervene in that country, without its consent and irrespective of its claims to sovereignty, in order to stop that violation occurring.
And military intervention, for humanitarian or human rights protecting motives, is exactly what has happened - with or without Security Council endorsement - throughout the 1990s, over and again - in Somalia for example, in Northern Iraq, Liberia, Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda , Sierra Leone and in Kosovo. (East Timor is a marginal case, because Indonesia's consent,
although unquestionably the result of heavy international pressure, was essentially genuine - and the Australian-led intervention would not have occurred without it.)
The trouble is that - as a result of the way in which that right has been claimed and actually exercised on too many occasions throughout the 1990s - the initial consensus about the permissibility of military intervention in extreme cases, which seemed to be developing not only among lesser mortals but in the Security Council itself, seems to have evaporated. It has given way to endless, and increasingly bitter, disputation as to whether there is such a right, and if so when and how it should be exercised.
The basic reason for the shift in attitude, which was gathering momentum before Kosovo, has been clear enough: so many of these interventions have been too little too late, misconceived, poorly resourced, poorly executed - or all of the above. NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999 brought matters to an intensely controversial head. Security Council members were divided; the legal justification for military action without new Security Council authority was asserted but largely unargued; the moral or humanitarian justification for the action, on the face of it much stronger, was clouded by allegations that the intervention triggered more carnage than it averted; and the means by which the NATO allies waged the war continue, justly or not, to be much criticised.
The result of all this is that the so-called right to humanitarian intervention, and the sea of questions that swirl round it, is probably the single most controversial unresolved foreign policy issue of the 1990s. Questions like whether it exists legally; when it arises morally; whether Security Council authority is necessary or sufficient; in what circumstances it should be exercised; how it should be exercised; and what are the political conditions that might justify and enable its exercise, all seem as far away as ever from being resolved as we enter the new century.
The central question was starkly posed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his 1999 speech to the General Assembly4; and put again in his 2000 Millennium Report5 in these terms:
…if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica - to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?
He partly answered his own question by going on to say:
But surely no legal principle - not even sovereignty - can ever shield crimes against humanity…Armed intervention must always remain the option of last resort, but in the face of mass murder it is an option that cannot be relinquished.
The trouble is that the Secretary General didn’t quite bring his audience with him. The debate that followed his initial speech to the General Assembly, and which has continued in these terms ever since, saw fervent supporters of intervention, and anxious defenders of sovereignty, dig themselves into two deep trenches from which they have not yet emerged. The supporters of intervention focused single-mindedly on the humanitarian or human rights imperative; the defenders of state sovereignty, while not indifferent to claims about the need to redress human suffering, worried what pig-in-a-poke powers they would be giving their former colonial masters to abuse this time round.
An ambitious exercise has recently been set in train, in which I personally am much involved, to try and find a way for the protagonists in this debate to dig their way out of their trenches. The Canadian Government and a number of major foundations announced at the General Assembly last September the establishment of a new International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), co-chaired by Mohamed Sahnoun of Algeria and me.6 We were asked to wrestle with the whole range of issues rolled up in this debate - legal, moral, operational and political - and to bring back a report within a year that would help the Secretary General and everyone else find some new common ground.
That will not be an easy task: in fact a Latin American colleague described it to me yesterday, in rather a surreal turn of phrase, as like trying to milk an ant with boxing gloves! But I think there are at least four good reasons why the new Commission may be able to add value to what has become a rather sterile and set piece debate.
First, because it is the most representative and consultative exercise yet attempted in this area. The Commission is evenly divided between North and South in its composition. From the South there is Mohamed Sahnoun, Fidel Ramos, Cyril Ramaphosa, Eduardo Stein and Ramesh Thakur; from the North, in addition to me, Lee Hamilton, Gisele Cote-Harper, Michael Ignatieff and Klaus Naumann; with, in addition, Vladimir Lukin from Russia, and the former head of the ICRC Cornelio Sommaruga, whom our Chinese friends might describe as a Northener with Southern characteristics. The Commission will meet in Asia and Africa as well as North America and Europe, and hold roundtables and other consultations in Latin America, the Middle East and Russia. Our ears are open.
Second, because the exercise will be comprehensive in scope - addressing not just the legal and moral dilemmas which have been at the heart of most of the academic and policy debate about coercive intervention so far, but operational and political issues as well. It will try and take into account and build upon all the best thinking and writing that has been done on the issue around the world so far, with our Report planned to have a substantial accompanying volume containing newly commissioned research and an annotated bibliography of previous writing.
Third, because the whole exercise will have a sharply practical political focus. None of us want to see the report disappearing from sight soon after its release, having no other life than in classrooms. To avoid that fate, it has to become part of serious inter-government debate, and that needs a significant government to pick up the ball and run with it. That is the role that Canada plans to play, and it has already been active in starting to build a coalition of the
interested to carry the debate forward, hopefully with the Secretary General himself playing a major part in the enterprise.
Fourth, we hope the new Commission's report will add value by being innovative - bringing some genuinely new ways of thinking about the issue into the debate. We have already agreed to drop some of the terminological baggage the debate has been carrying, by using the neutral expression "intervention" rather than the loaded one "humanitarian intervention" , which latter has tended to enrage both humanitarian relief organisations, who don't like the H-word being used to describe what may be a military intervention, and also many of those on the pro-sovereignty side of the argument, who think the H- word is a 'hurrah' one which stacks the cards in favour of intervention in a given case before the argument has even started.
The Commission's most important single contribution, however, may be to reconceptualise the core concept of the right to intervene. We have in mind - and are now testing this in all our consulations - trying to turn the way in which we all think about the issue upside down, so that we talk not about rights but responsibilities, and not about intervention but protection - with "the right to intervene" becoming rather "the responsibility to protect". This immediately puts the focus where, arguably, it always ought to be - not on the countries throwing their weight around, for better or worse, but on the victims of conflict, who need the assistance of others if they are to be protected from suffering.
One of the virtues, perhaps, of looking at the issue this way is that it brings the need for conflict prevention back to centre stage. The "responsibility to protect" obviously embraces, with equal clarity and force, not only the responsibility to respond effectively if suffering is occurring or threatened but also the prior responsibility to prevent suffering . (Perhaps it embraces a third element as well, the responsibility to follow through, mend and reconstruct after suffering has occurred - but that's a discussion for another day.)
We have in the past tended to think of prevention and intervention as being quite separate and distinct concepts, connected only by chronological sequence, with intervention being triggered as an option after prevention failed (if indeed it was ever tried). What talk about the responsibility to protect might conceivably do is establish not just a chronological but a substantive connection - the main normative consequence being that governments and intergovernmental organisations would need to take much more seriously, and treat as a core obligation rather than as a marginal afterthought, the responsibility to act to prevent deadly conflict.
And that would be a Very Good Thing. Coercive intervention after the event is always going to be controversial, always going to be hard to mobilise, and as likely as not to be too little too late anyway. Prevention, with conflict as with so much else, beats the hell out of cure.