21 February 2012
"Conflict Prevention: Challenges and Opportunities for the United Nations"
Lecture by Mr. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev
United Nations Under-Secretary-General
Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva
Challenges and Opportunities for the United Nations”
Graduate Institute of International
and Development Studies, Geneva
Tuesday, 21 February 2012 at 18:30
Thank you, Professor Prügl, for your kind welcome. It is a privilege to be here, and I thank you for the invitation to speak at the Graduate Institute, which deservedly has a strong reputation as a very useful platform for exchanges of views on the issues on the agenda of the United Nations. The Graduate Institute offers the international community and the Swiss diplomatic community an important platform for forward-looking reflection. At the United Nations, we appreciate our collaboration and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the very complex issue of conflict prevention.
The momentous developments of the past year have only highlighted the importance of taking conflict prevention much more seriously as a guiding principle and as an operational concept.
Conflict prevention goes to the heart of the mandate of the United Nations. As it says in the preamble to our Charter, the Organization was created to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. We have made progress. Studies show that the number of low-intensity conflicts that started in the period from 2000 to 2009 is roughly half as high as those that started in the 1990s. In the same period, the number of new high intensity conflicts dropped from 21 to 16. The strengthened conflict prevention work on the part of the international community has contributed to this decline.
Yet, a considerable and unacceptable gap remains between the rhetoric and the reality on the ground where armed conflict continues to claim lives and drain much-needed resources from development. According to the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report, the average cost of civil war is equivalent to more than 30 years of GDP growth for a medium-sized developing country. Trade levels after major episodes of violence take 20 years to recover. One of the best-known studies in this field, the Carnegie Commission Report on “Preventing Deadly Conflict”, which came out already in 1997, estimated that seven major international post-conflict interventions in the 1990s of the previous century cost some 200 billion US dollars, while prevention would have required only 70 billion US dollars. And not all costs can be quantified: the loss of human life, the suffering and lost opportunities, the despair and humiliation of displaced populations, the damage to the very fabric of societies, the rise and persistence of a culture of violence, fear and extremism. Regardless of how we try to do the calculations, there is no doubt that conflict prevention is cost-effective.
Since its inception, the United Nations has been engaged in conflict prevention through early warning, preventive diplomacy, mediation and other efforts aimed at precluding the outbreak of conflict. The Charter does not explicitly give authority to the Secretary-General to play a role in preventing or mediating conflicts. Yet, this role, which is most often referred to as “good offices”, has developed in practice to become an important contribution to conflict prevention. When taking office in 2007, the Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, made it a priority to re-energize the Organization’s conflict prevention work by improving the machinery and expanding the partnerships. Building on this, the Secretary-General’s Action Plan for his second term which started on 1 January includes a strong focus on prevention as a generational opportunity – from prevention of natural disasters through prevention of conflict and human rights abuses to building resilience against economic and financial shocks. We need to create a culture of prevention across all of these challenges.
As with all important challenges, this is easier said than done. When we analyze the United Nations’ experience over the past 65 years, we can distil three key obstacles to a stronger role for the Organization in conflict prevention: the absence of political will, sovereignty sensitivity and a lack of visibility.
The will of the parties is critical to success. If the parties to a dispute do not want peace, it is extraordinarily difficult for outsiders to persuade them to seek a peaceful solution. This is quite evident. This has to be combined with political will on the part of the international community. The Security Council vote on the draft resolution on Syria a couple of weeks ago brings home that point.
While in theory there is widespread support among the United Nations membership for conflict prevention, there have traditionally been concerns that conflict prevention in practice could be used as a pretext to impinge on the sovereignty of independent States. This has been articulated as an opposition to “undue interference” or unwanted “internationalization” of a country’s internal affairs, both among the parties themselves, within the region and in the wider international community.
As much of the work of the United Nations in preventive diplomacy and good offices is discreet by design, its lack of visibility has resulted in an insufficient understanding and a limited recognition of what we do in this field. This challenge is compounded by the fact that conflict prevention is difficult to prove empirically. How do you demonstrate that something did not happen because of your intervention? Former United Nations Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar once famously said that “no one will ever know how many conflicts have been prevented or limited through contacts which have taken place in the famous glass mansion, which can become fairly opaque when necessary”. The lack of visibility means that it can be difficult to convince those who have doubts about its effectiveness and impact. It also makes securing the necessary funds more challenging. In a 24-hour news cycle where news outlets crave high-impact stories, prevention cannot find adequate space. It is notoriously difficult to attract attention to ongoing, sometimes slow-moving, but nevertheless effective, conflict prevention work.
Despite these challenges, I see a number of areas where the United Nations and its partners can focus efforts to maximize the chances of success for diplomacy in preventing conflicts. This includes both strengthening the norms and the institutions that make armed conflict less viable and less likely.
First, early warning capacity must be enhanced. Collection of data and analysis are critical to early warning. Previously, lack of information and difficulty of access presented significant challenges in identifying warning signs. Today, the challenge is almost the opposite: there is an abundance of information, from a myriad of sources that needs to be sifted and analyzed. In both scenarios, the overarching challenge remains getting to the right information in time and then acting on it. The resolution that established the current United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan broke new ground in this respect. For the first time, a specific early warning mandate is included, and the mission in South Sudan has drawn up an action plan for implementation of this mandate.
Better early warning also includes better monitoring of and mechanisms to react to systematic abuses of human rights. Proximity, local knowledge and a strong network are essential tools. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities play leading roles in filtering the information and drawing attention to dangerous indicators such as particular patterns of human rights violations and hate speech. The United Nations has also expanded its local networks, with NGOs, women’s groups, influential academic institutions and the business community, to improve our analytical capacities. We need to pool this information with that of regional partners to identify those critical moments when parties to a dispute feel compelled to resort to violent means.
Second, we must get better at supporting democracy and processes of transition. More than ever, the past year has demonstrated the destabilizing effects of a lack of truly inclusive and accountable governance.
There is no doubt that legitimate and trusted state and public service institutions are key to addressing the root causes of conflict. Democratic governance provides structures to manage diversity by accommodating different interests and priorities. It enables political dialogue that can ensure that disagreements and tension do not transform themselves into conflict.
Much research and reflection have considered conflict prevention and democratization separately. I believe we need to consider the two together to a greater extent. Here, it is imperative not to equate democracy merely with electoral processes. Some practitioners argue that elections that take place too soon in polarized societies, emerging from conflict or overcoming instability, have the potential to entrench divisions rather than bridging them. This note of caution must be heeded. At the same time, it cannot be disputed that free, fair and periodic elections ensure the legitimacy of Government and enable the peaceful transfer of power, backed by the will of the people.
Democratic processes and institutions are only one dimension of democratic governance. They must be coupled with an active civil society, education that enables people to participate meaningfully in their societies and a free press that can create space for dissenting voices and help people to make informed choices.
Democratization is a task fraught with difficulty. We see this in the wake of the Arab Spring and in other countries in transition. The pace and the method will vary between countries and across regions. No one size fits all. But the direction has to be clear: democratic, transparent, accountable and legitimate governance.
The empowerment of women and youth is fundamental to this process. The past year has shown the power and potential of women and youth, demanding a voice and a stake in shaping their societies. The frustration, alienation and exclusion felt by youth and women drove many of the dramatic developments in the Arab world. There is no doubt as the “Arab Spring” enters a new phase, the ability of leaders to meet their expectations and hopes will determine the long-term stability of these societies.
My third point is closely linked to the second, namely that we need to get better at supporting transitions. It is well recognized that political transitions – ranging from elections to peace agreements after civil war – often serve as opportunities for violence. Managing the risk of conflict that accompanies political transitions is a critical factor in building strong governing institutions and creating the mechanisms for durable peace. Research shows that electoral violence tends to persist so long as underlying causes remain unresolved; and persistent electoral violence reduces the consolidation of democratic norms and hence the prospects for long-term durable peace and stability.
Four, we must advance disarmament at all levels. We need to be realistic: we will not prevent conflict simply by limiting, diverting or removing the supply of arms. This would be a simplistic assumption that would ignore, or even trivialize, the underlying causes of conflict. We need to place disarmament properly in the context of broader efforts aimed at creating conditions conducive to conflict prevention and to long-term development.
The Small Arms Survey, based here in Geneva, estimates that up to 875 million small arms and light weapons are in circulation worldwide. While accurate assessments are difficult, their annual authorized trade is thought to exceed USD 6 billion and they are responsible for over half a million deaths every year. Most conflicts are fought using mainly small arms and light weapons, and they are used in acts of terrorism, organized crime and gang warfare.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, world military expenditure has now topped 1.6 trillion dollars. While the rate of increase has slowed, the figure continues to go up. Global military expenditure has doubled since the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000. This testifies to a general proliferation of arms, of all types, that contribute to fuelling and sustaining instability in the world. Disarmament at all levels can help to build confidence among States, across regions and even within communities, which militates against the outbreak of conflict.
Five, we need to broaden and deepen partnerships, and expand our ability to act on a regional basis. Regional and sub-regional organizations not only have unique knowledge of regional dynamics but also often, though not always, enjoy the trust of countries in the region and have unparalleled access. Regional organizations are especially well-placed to undertake investigations, fact-finding, mediation or direct conflict resolution based on these assets. Importantly, most conflicts – whether they are between or within States – have an important regional dimension that needs to be factored in for a solution to be sustainable.
Experience shows that where conflict prevention has been most effective, it has been undertaken in collaboration with regional partners – whether it has been in a leading or a supporting role, depending on the circumstances. The close collaboration with the OSCE in responding to the crisis in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 was critical to the effective response following the ouster of the President and the emergence of inter-ethnic violence. In 2009 and 2010, the United Nations worked closely with ECOWAS and the African Union in facilitating Guinea’s transition from military to constitutional rule. In this fragile context, it was imperative to prevent any political tensions from destabilizing neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In Madagascar, the United Nations continues to work in support of the Southern African Development Community in resolving the political crisis and restoring constitutional order. This list goes on.
Over the past five years, the United Nations has established and deepened conflict prevention partnerships with the African Union, the European Union, the OSCE, the League of Arab States, the Organization of American States, CARICOM, ECOWAS, the Southern African Development Community and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. These partnerships need to be further enhanced to realize their full potential. As there are no mechanisms and procedures for deciding collectively what to do in a given situation, we need to ensure the best possible sharing of information and channels of communication that enable joint action in a timely fashion. The difference in governance structures in the different organizations remains a challenge.
An important innovation has been the establishment of regional offices as platforms for conflict prevention efforts in West Africa, Central Asia and Central Africa. In my national capacity, I was closely involved in the establishment of the United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia, which I believe has already clearly demonstrated its value in responding to cross-border threats. The Centre played a critical role in supporting the regional and international response to the Kyrgyz crisis that I mentioned earlier. The newest regional office – the United Nations Regional Office for Central Africa – was opened in March 2011, just last year, and will help to address cross-border challenges such as arms trafficking, organized crime and the presence of armed groups. As these centres accumulate experience, there is also scope for sharing lessons among them, across regions.
Lastly, good intentions must be matched by resources. As I said earlier, conflict prevention is cost effective. This does not mean that it is free. It needs predictable, coherent and timely financial support to be successful.
Mediation, which is a central component of conflict prevention, requires preparation and technique, knowledge coupled with quality information, resources and a support system to back up peace envoys. The Organization’s mediation capacity has in recent years been bolstered through the creation of a Mediation Support Unit with experts across a range of disciplines relevant to peacemaking, such as constitution-drafting, wealth and power-sharing arrangements and transitional justice. In addition, the United Nations has a Stand-by Team, a number of “mediators on call”, available at short notice to provide informal and discreet advice to active envoys. Over the past year, the stand-by team was deployed 18 times.
The most important resources are the mediators and envoys themselves who engage with the parties, to earn their trust and inspire confidence that a solution is possible. The United Nations has invested significant efforts in improving the rosters of senior envoys, mediators and experts who can be deployed to fragile situations. Similarly, we have focused on building a cadre of staff who can provide high-quality support.
The United Nations currently leads 13 special political missions in the field with very different mandates and of varying size, configuration and duration, with a total of just over 4,000 staff. Much of this is funded by voluntary contributions which impacts on both the size and predictability of the available resources. By comparison, the United Nations deploys 16 peacekeeping missions, with some 120,000 personnel and a budget of just under 8 billion US dollars. Mainstreaming conflict prevention activities into the regular budget to a greater extent would have a positive impact.
Against a background of budgetary austerity and continued economic uncertainty, channelling further resources towards conflict prevention will be difficult. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile investment that pays dividend in lives saved and development sustained. With ever scarcer resources, we need to identify the right priorities. Conflict prevention has to be one of them.
This brings me to a final and, from my point of view, crucial point. Conflict prevention must be placed within an overall framework of efforts for long-term development, good governance and respect for the rule of law. The current economic situation remains a challenge to stability worldwide. The Secretary-General has also voiced his concern that the ongoing economic and financial crisis could generate social instability. The comprehensive Global Risks Report that was launched by the World Economic Forum in January argues that societies that fail to manage ageing populations, youth unemployment as well as rising inequalities and fiscal imbalances can expect greater social unrest and instability in the years to come. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that chronic labour market imbalances, chronic fiscal imbalances and severe income disparity create conditions where mistrust and fragmentation can thrive – and potentially sow the seeds of conflict. As we all work to overcome the financial deficits we see across the world, we cannot let this hide the underlying deficit of trust in institutions which may represent an even more serious challenge.
Continued high unemployment, in particular among youth, is a critical factor in this regard. According to the International Labour Organization, the world must create 600 million productive jobs over the next decade in order to generate sustainable growth and maintain social cohesion. The younger generations are disproportionately affected. The global youth unemployment rate is currently at 12.7 per cent and young people are nearly three times as likely as adults to be unemployed. This is a trend that has prompted the ILO to warn of a “lost generation”. I am convinced that if we do not step up efforts to counter these trends, we will collectively lose an important opportunity to prevent instability and conflict in many parts of the world.
We also live in a world where natural disasters and environmental change can push entire populations to the extremes of subsistence, whether due to 1) the devastating impact of rising sea levels on small island states, or 2) as a result of the two billion hectares of crop-land lost annually to desertification. Displacement and acute food insecurity are severe examples of the social exclusion that can contribute to volatility. These underlying factors must be addressed as an integral part of long-term planning on preventing instability leading to conflict.
Secretary-General Dag Hammarkjöld who first articulated the concept of preventive diplomacy over half a century ago said that, “it is when we all play safe that we create a world of utmost insecurity. It is when we all play safe that fatality will lead us to our doom.” I firmly believe that the challenges we face call on us not to play it safe. We need to do away with business-as-usual. Nowhere is that more important than when it comes to thinking about and practicing conflict prevention.
Finally, I would like to emphasize my belief that Geneva has a particularly important role to play in facilitating conflict prevention. Let me share with you a few thoughts on how Geneva can capitalize on the increasing focus on conflict prevention to become a pre-eminent conflict prevention platform.
As the world’s disarmament, human rights, development and humanitarian capital, Geneva brings together all dimensions of conflict prevention. The international community in Geneva is especially well-placed to make connections across these dimensions, in a holistic and integrated fashion. The presence here of the Human Rights Council and human rights treaty bodies is a particular asset.
Geneva provides a much-prized platform for discrete talks and negotiations that are central to conflict prevention. Over the past year, we have hosted, for example, the Geneva International Discussions in relation to the situation in the Caucasus, key talks concerning Cyprus as well as sensitive discussions on Western Sahara. Talks aimed at resolving disagreements between Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, and between Nigeria and Cameroon have been held here recently. I see scope for expanding this role as a conflict prevention venue.
Geneva has unique convening power. The multilateral machinery available and the variety of actors present enable Geneva to bring all the relevant partners together. This city is the chosen home of several non-governmental organizations working in the field of prevention and mediation, such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and Interpeace – among many others. The rich civil society presence is particularly valuable, combined with the research capacity that we often label “Intellectual Geneva” – and from where we have many prominent representatives in the audience today.
In this dynamic setting, I welcome your questions and I thank you for your attention.