Just ten days into his tenure as United Nations’ 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 10 January, the new SG 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’ predecessor as SG, 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 are not able 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 mainstreaming 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 advisor, 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 necessary 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 successfully 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 typically 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’ 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 2007/2008, 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 has 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.
Secretary-General 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 way in which we approach peace and conflict in the world.
Read a related paper ‘A Stitch in Time: Preventive Diplomacy and the Lake Malawi Dispute‘