Freeing Prevention From Conflict: Investing in Sustaining Peace

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This article was originally published by IPI Global Observatory on 21 April 2016.

As the preparations for the May 2016 United Nations General Assembly’s high-level debate on peace and security intensify, prevention seems to be on everyone’s lips. The three 2015 UN global peace and security reviews that frame the debate have conveyed a common message: that the political instruments, tools, and mechanisms the world body deploys to address violent conflict all attest to the failure of early prevention. All three reports, not surprisingly, recommended a greater focus on prevention. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his follow-on report on the recommendations of one of these reviews, by the High Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), wholeheartedly endorsed this.

The skeptics among political observers and those who have followed UN reforms over the years should not be blamed for asking, “So, what’s new?” This is not the first time that the UN and its member states, coming to grips with the woeful shortcomings of their responses to old and emerging global threats, have rediscovered the virtues of prevention. Nothing concentrates the mind more than imminent crisis and once that danger dissipates so does the political will needed, they would argue, to make prevention the first port of call before the outbreak of violence.

To prove these skeptics wrong, it is necessary to find ways to help move the prevention discourse from rhetoric to action and to help member states deliver on their commitment to make prevention truly the core function of the UN.

At least two inter-related strategies and conversations are needed. The first is to fully appreciate the policy, programmatic, and financial implications of this renewed focus on prevention, particularly as seen through the lens of the “sustaining peace” concept which was a common theme across the three reviews. The second is to mobilize the leadership and leverage the capacity of the UN system in support of member states who have decided to make prevention an integral part of good governance and sustainable development.

Reframing Prevention Through the Lens of Positive Peace

One way of stimulating early action on prevention, as suggested by policymakers and practitioners, would be to focus on the factors that are associated with positive, inclusive peace rather than solely on the causes that feed violent conflict. For the Institute for Economics and Peace, positive peace, as first advocated in the 1960s by Norwegian scholar Johan Galtung, is the outcome of work focusing on fostering the attitudes, institutions, and structures that create and sustain peaceful societies. A well-functioning government, equitable distribution of resources, free flow of information, and acceptance of the rights of others are among <href=”#/page/news/693″>the pillars on which peaceful societies rest, the Institute contends. Central to the positive peace discourse is inclusiveness and equality in the way power is exercised and resources are shared.

One of the main reasons positive peace is judged as a better strategy for moving the prevention agenda forward is its universal applicability and the fact that it is not confined to conflict-ridden countries. More importantly, it calls on the responsibility of all the world’s citizens to act as its proactive agents.

With different emphasis, other frameworks and legal instruments have strived to promote a similar shift. One of these is the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which became legally binding in 2012. One of the aims of the Charter is to promote and strengthen good governance through the institutionalization of transparency, accountability, and participatory democracy. Another is the UN Development Programme’s Governance for Peace strategy on creating inclusive institutions and resilient society to secure the social contract between state and citizens.

Although many of these policy or normative frameworks have encountered implementation challenges, a number of national governments have drawn on them in order to initiate reforms, which, in addition to their intrinsic political, social, and economic objectives, have explicitly integrated prevention as an added value.

This shift from conflict prevention to building positive peace through the promotion of inclusive and accountable governance has not escaped the attention of development practitioners and government officials who negotiated the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The preamble of the Agenda includes peace as one of the five key critical areas for stimulating action towards sustainable development in the next 15 years. It states, “We are determined to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence. There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.” Goal 16 is often cited as epitomizing the letter and spirit of the preamble.

In his report Agenda for Humanity, prepared for the May 2016 Humanitarian Summit, the Secretary-General called on global leaders to commit to five core responsibilities. First and foremost among them is the prevention of conflicts and finding political solutions to resolve them. Addressing early on the root causes of organized violence features prominently in another report of the Secretary-General on the prevention of violent extremism. “Oppression, corruption, and injustice are greenhouses for resentment. Extremists are adept at cultivating alienation,” Ban said in presenting the report to the General Assembly in January of this year. “That is why,” he added,” I have been urging leaders to work harder to build inclusive institutions that are truly accountable to people.”

Prevention and Sustaining Peace

In the finalized draft resolution on the UN’s peacebuilding architecture, expected to be formally adopted later this month by the Security Council and the General Assembly, “sustaining peace” was adopted as the overarching framework for guiding national and international peacebuilding and prevention efforts. In the agreed draft, sustaining peace as a process and a goal is defined as encompassing, among other things, activities aimed at preventing the outbreak, escalation, continuation, and recurrence of conflict. “Prevention,” it says, “is a shared task and responsibility that needs to be fulfilled by the government and all other national stakeholders, and should flow through the political, developmental and human rights pillars of United Nations engagement at all stages of conflict, and in all its dimensions.” Inclusive dialogue, mediation, accountable institutions, good governance, access to justice, and gender equality were cited among the positive measures which, if enacted, would sustain peace.

Against this background, it is no wonder that the clarion call of prevention is heard everywhere, inside and outside UN corridors. The question now is how best to capitalize on this wealth of thinking and convergence in order to attempt once again to move the prevention agenda from rhetoric to action.

Leveraging the Leadership and Capacity of the UN System for Prevention

Beyond peace operations, the UN system has developed over the years an impressive array of tools for engaging member states, at their request or at the initiative of the secretary-general, in activities aimed at addressing emerging or incipient conflict. These activities range from good offices to preventive diplomacy and mediation, to a discrete facilitating role carried out by UN regional political offices, to targeted governance reforms and development projects, implemented by UN Country Teams, with the support of the Peace and Development Advisor network.

As the UN gears up for the selection of a new secretary-general, a number of actions could be envisaged to maintain the momentum for prevention generated by the three global policy reviews, by the various recent reports, and by the agreed draft resolution on the peacebuilding architecture, mentioned above.

One of the actions that could be contemplated would be for the new secretary-general, jointly with the president of the General Assembly and the Peacebuilding Commission chair, to launch, within six months of his or her new mandate, a high-level forum on prevention. The idea of the forum was recommended by the HIPPO report, but attracted little attention by Secretary-General Ban in his follow-on report. The primary purpose of this forum would be to develop a shared and practical understanding of the “sustaining peace” concept, and the values underpinning it. A secondary purpose would be to serve as a platform for member states, regional organizations, civil society, and the global business community to showcase innovative approaches (for example, infrastructures for peace, job creation programs, and social entrepreneurship) and experiences to promote prevention not only as a conflict mitigation imperative, but also as a cross-cutting, political, governance, and development dimension for building and sustaining positive peace. The forum would also allow members of the UN system to reflect on how to work together differently across some of the entrenched divides, in order to serve the intents and purposes of sustaining peace and prevention and help member states deliver on their 2030 Agenda commitments. The outcome of the ongoing review by UN Development Group of current capacities of the UN for prevention and mediation should go a long way in facilitating a meaningful conversation at the forum.

Another action would be to enhance the capacity of regional preventive diplomacy offices in fragile regions, which have proven on numerous occasions their added value in facilitating collective responses to national and transnational peace and security challenges, in collaboration with regional member states and organizations. As recommended by the HIPPO report and endorsed by the Secretary-General, additional, well-resourced offices, particularly for North Africa and West Asia, would be a worthwhile investment for peace in light of the multifaceted threats these regions face in increasingly unstable environments.

Much has been written about the cost of war and the devastating economic and human consequences of global violence, but relatively little on the price of peace. Nearly two decades ago, the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict found that, on average, early, preventive action to avert war and mass atrocities cost 60 times less than late response and military interventions. Another action, therefore, would be for the UN, independent think tanks, and research institutions to embark on the difficult task of figuring out what investing for peace would cost compared with what would have been saved had member states summoned the political will and resources to promote accountable institutions and peaceful and inclusive societies, and acted on the early signs of much of the violence that is wracking many corners of our planet.


Compelling as this action plan may seem, it may still prove the skeptics right, unless member states exercise the right leadership and shoulder their primary responsibility for prevention. The plan will have a fighting chance to succeed if the same member states and the multilateral system as a whole mobilize civil society, the media, the private sector, and citizen networks, in particular women and youth associations, in its design and implementation. More importantly, without the support of local governments, including city mayors who are in the front line of much of the organized violence afflicting urban areas, this plan would have little chance of making a difference. It needs to be recalled that it is the combined leadership of governments and assertive participation of ordinary people that made last year’s Paris climate change agreement possible and the 2030 Agenda a truly global and transformative plan of action for all.

Youssef Mahmoud is a senior adviser at the International Peace Institute.

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