Con­flict preven­tion is UN chief’s pri­or­ity

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE - Aditi Lal­ba­hadur is the pro­gramme man­ager of the For­eign Pol­icy Pro­gramme at SAIIA. She is also the au­thor of HYPERLINK “http://­icy-in­sights/a-stitch-in­time-pre­ven­tive-diplo­macy-and-the-lake­malawi-dis­pute” “A Stitch in Time: Preven­tiv

TEN days into his ten­ure as UN sec­re­tary-gen­eral, Antonio Guter­res chose his first for­mal ad­dress to the UN to be about the im­por­tance of con­flict preven­tion and sus­tain­ing peace.

At a UN de­bate spon­sored by the gov­ern­ment of Swe­den on Jan­uary 10, the new sec­re­tary-gen­eral said: “Preven­tion is not just a pri­or­ity, but the pri­or­ity.”

The idea that “preven­tion is bet­ter than cure” is age-old, but the merit of pre­vent­ing con­flict among and within coun­tries was first touted in the 1960s when Guter­res’s pre­de­ces­sor, Dag Ham­marskjold, in­tro­duced it into pol­icy dis­course.

While the no­tion has been grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity, it has been no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to im­ple­ment. This is mainly be­cause it re­quires a shift in our minds from be­ing re­ac­tive to con­flicts to­wards be­ing proac­tive to pre­vent them.

Bereft of images of starv­ing chil­dren and corpse-rid­den streets, th­ese cases typ­i­cally fail to gar­ner the me­dia at­ten­tion that has proved so ef­fec­tive in mo­bil­is­ing pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment – and by ex­ten­sion, for­eign gov­ern­ments – to as­sist.

What a boon it is then, that the cause has seem­ingly found a for­mi­da­ble cham­pion in the new sec­re­tary-gen­eral.

In his ad­dress, Guter­res out­lined some key chal­lenges he faces in main-stream­ing this idea and called for the un­equiv­o­cal sup­port of mem­ber coun­tries.

He also an­nounced sig­nif­i­cant changes ahead for the peace and se­cu­rity ar­chi­tec­ture of the UN, to spur the or­gan­i­sa­tion to be­come more for­ward-look­ing: a newly-es­tab­lished ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee will be re­spon­si­ble for in­creas­ing the ca­pac­ity to in­te­grate all the pil­lars of the UN un­der a com­mon vi­sion.

Guter­res also an­nounced the ap­point­ment of a se­nior pol­icy ad­viser, Kyung-wha Kang of South Korea, tasked with map­ping the preven­tion ca­pac­i­ties of the UN sys­tem, to spear­head ini­tia­tives to amal­ga­mate them into an in­te­grated plat­form for early de­tec­tion and ac­tion.

The gar­gan­tuan na­ture of this task can­not be over-em­pha­sised.

The UN sys­tem, since its in­cep­tion in 1945, has op­er­ated in a re­ac­tive man­ner – sanc­tion­ing in­ter­ven­tion in con­flicts when the spill-over ef­fects be­gin to have global sig­nif­i­cance.

One lag­ging loose end re­mains how Guter­res-pro­posed re­forms will af­fect the work­ings of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, which has been the primary body deal­ing with con­flicts brought to the at­ten­tion of the UN.

Ex­ist­ing con­flict preven­tion mech­a­nisms – typ­i­cally man­i­fest as early-warn­ing units – have the abil­ity to de­tect the out­break of im­mi­nent vi­o­lence. How­ever, the root causes of con­flict fre­quently fol­low a much longer-term arc. This prob­lem has been ex­ac­er­bated by the lack of a sin­gle, clear def­i­ni­tion on what con­flict preven­tion ac­tu­ally is.

The need for con­cep­tual clar­ity is im­por­tant be­cause it pro­vides the pa­ram­e­ters to de­ter­mine when in­ter­ven­tion is re­quired.

In ex­pand­ing the UN’s man­date to con­flict preven­tion, Guter­res po­ten­tially ex­poses the UN to ar­bi­trate on is­sues of do­mes­tic con­cern. Where, for in­stance, does one draw the line be­tween pref­er­en­tial ac­cess to pub­lic goods as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of in­ef­fec­tual gov­ern­ment ver­sus it be­ing the root cause of po­lit­i­cal cleav­age in a so­ci­ety with the po­ten­tial to lead to the out­break of vi­o­lence?

As­sum­ing that the new sec­re­tary-gen­eral is able to nav­i­gate the con­cep­tual wa­ters of defin­ing con­flict preven­tion, he will have to do so with care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of the in­ter­ests of mem­ber states if he is to se­cure their buy-in.

Coun­tries around the world all jeal­ously guard their sovereignty and es­chew any for­eign in­ter­ven­tion in their af­fairs. Broad­en­ing the scope of the UN man­date to con­flict preven­tion there­fore in­creases the risk coun­tries face of be­ing ex­posed to the ex­i­gen­cies of the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem and it is likely that they will see Guter­res’s ef­forts as an en­croach­ment on sovereignty.

The like­li­hood that the ini­tia­tive will re­ceive re­sis­tance is high, con­sid­er­ing coun­tries’ gen­eral malaise sur­round­ing the “Re­spon­si­bil­ity to Pro­tect” doc­trine. Ar­guably, the R2P ini­tia­tive was the last as­pi­ra­tional ini­tia­tive spear­headed by a sec­re­tary-gen­eral (Kofi An­nan).

Ac­cord­ing to this credo, states had the prin­ci­pal re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect their cit­i­zens. How­ever, where states were un­able to pro­vide this good, or where they were deemed to be the per­pe­tra­tors of vi­o­lence against their peo­ple, the re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect or­di­nary peo­ple fell upon the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Kenya in 2007/8, Côte d’ Ivoire in 2011, South Su­dan, Bu­rundi and oth­ers are some ex­am­ples of when this norm was in­voked that led to scep­ti­cism around its im­ple­men­ta­tion.

Res­o­lu­tion 1973 on Libya sounded the death-knell for the prin­ci­ple and left coun­tries like South Africa call­ing even more loudly for the re­form of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

The re­sul­tant stale­mate over UNSC in­ter­ven­tion in Syria has left mem­ber states more dis­il­lu­sioned about the power and ef­fi­cacy of the UN.

Guter­res ought to be con­grat­u­lated for his at­tempts at in­vig­o­rat­ing the UN sys­tem. His ap­proach prom­ises to shake up rank and file op­er­a­tions to con­sider world prob­lems in an in­no­va­tive way.

Al­though he faces con­sid­er­able chal­lenges, th­ese are not in­sur­mount­able – and if he is even par­tially suc­cess­ful, he will have gone some way to­wards in­spir­ing us all to re-con­sider the waywe ap­proach peace and con­flict in the world.

Guter­res needs to se­cure buy-in of mem­ber states

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