Conflict prevention is at the heart of the UN’s mission. Yet, it remains a relatively little known and understood area of the Organization’s work. A natural tendency on the part of the media to focus on crises only after they have turned violent, as well as the difficulty of demonstrating that diplomacy has kept a conflict from breaking out, have contributed to the low profile of conflict prevention work. A recent initiative from the Department of Political Affairs – the publication “United Nations Conflict Prevention and Preventive Diplomacy in Action” – takes on this challenge, illustrating real-world examples from Burkina Faso, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Guyana and Colombia. We spoke to Teresa Whitfield, head of DPA’s Policy and Mediation Division, about the initiative.
Could you tell us a bit about how the publication came about?
Teresa Whitfield: If you look around the world, we have to recognize that progress in conflict prevention has been very uneven. There are a lot of conflicts that haven’t been prevented, by the UN or anybody else. But at the same time, a less headline-grabbing story – because good news on conflict prevention is not very newsworthy, while the bad news attracts attention – is that in the last five to ten years the UN has actually made huge progress, working with partners and others, in its approach to conflict prevention. There are cases and examples across the world we can point to, but they tend not to be cases and examples that are very well known. We thought of doing a publication that was very short, very accessible, but based in case studies, so it is grounded in empirical knowledge of what happened. Now, the countries we look at are not necessarily all out of the woods: they are all complicated countries with a lot of different dynamics pulling in different directions. Yet we are highlighting places where conflict prevention has played a positive role. We tried to avoid the too-easy-use of the word “success”. But all these cases are positive in that they point to and illustrate not just good stories in themselves, but how and what the ingredients are, when we are more successful.
A final point that comes across is not only the different engagements, but also a range of timeframes. And that is also something that is difficult to publicize – in some cases being effective involves a very long-term engagement.
Was it challenging choosing the case studies in the publication?
Yes, it can be challenging choosing examples, because – and this relates also to the communication challenge – the places where our good offices efforts are engaged are often very sensitive political environments, where we may be supporting national processes or regional efforts, sometimes very much from behind, with a differing degree of recognition of what we are doing and the utility of that recognition. We would be the first in not wanting to draw attention to ourselves; the countries themselves might be sensitive about being looked at as a prevention case, or wanting to acknowledge the extent to which they are working with us. And that is absolutely fine, it is not a problem for the UN role not to be acknowledged at all, but it obviously makes it difficult to talk about.
We were looking for relatively successful but also some relatively unknown cases, diverse in terms of geography but also in terms of UN engagement. There are five cases and they range from places where our regional political offices were very deeply involved – Burkina Faso and Kyrgyzstan; to others like Liberia, which has a long history of peacekeeping operations and now is a case of transition away from a peacekeeping operation. Guyana is a non-mission setting, that you wouldn’t necessarily think of in prevention terms. Colombia is a different kind of case, where the UN has long had a large UN country team presence and a humanitarian and human rights response to the decades-long conflict, and then increasing involvement in building resilience and capacity in the midst of conflict, with a view to helping nurture and prepare the terrain for a peace process. This was followed by extensive engagement with the government and other actors, organizing consultations at regional and national level within the country in an incremental role in the peace process itself. This eventually led – rather to the surprise of anybody who has followed the UN role in Colombia over the years – to two special political missions and a very direct role in efforts to monitor and implement specific elements of the peace agreement, sustain and build peace and prevent a relapse into conflict.
So, what you have with these five cases is a broad sense of the different levels and ways in which we work.
Who would you list as your main audience and what would you like them to take away from the lecture of this booklet?
This is a very short booklet and if people do pick it up or go to it online they will realize that the cases have only a double-page spread each. So, it’s not going to be of much use to the scholar or expert on any of these cases – nobody is going to learn anything new – but that’s not the point. We were more concerned that it be helpful for Member States and others who say: “Well, what do you actually do?” “Where can you be effective?” I also think it’s helpful for colleagues in the Secretariat and elsewhere in the system, many of whom are quite understandably buried in the details of one particular country or region, and might find it useful – and a very quick read!
Does this maybe also help to de-mystify the work of conflict prevention?
Yes, I think that’s exactly it. I think it can help de-mystify and take any fear out of it. From the cases as a whole you can see that many different levels of actors were involved. And some general lessons can be extracted.
The first and very consistent lesson is that we’re effective where we work in support of national processes with regional support. Conflict prevention doesn’t work if the actors themselves – authorities, civil society, organized or not (in several of the cases women’s organizations played very strong roles, I am thinking particularly but not only of Liberia and Colombia) – are not driving it forward. Societies as well as governments drove the transitions that are documented in the cases. Another thing that comes out very strongly from the cases, is the role of the region and the regional actors, despite their different constellations. We all look at West Africa as giving the ingredients of what can work in a variety of cases – we know it’s not just Burkina Faso: there is the UN’s regional office, its close relationship with the very effective sub-regional organization ECOWAS, and its alignment in preventive efforts with the regional organization, the African Union. In other contexts as well, we know, empirically, that a supportive environment in the region is a basis for prevention that works. Conversely, if you look at situations where we are all struggling, whether it’s in the Middle East or the Horn of Africa, a contested regional environment makes it impossible to solve a national conflict in a sustainable way. The most elusive conflicts have, in addition to this, transnational economic and other flows – of armed groups, finances, and illicit activities of all kinds. But those are not addressed by this set of cases.
How do the different parts of the UN system work together in prevention?
Another thing that the cases in the publication show very clearly – particularly important given the reforms put forward by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the shift towards operationalizing sustaining peace – are the benefit and necessity of an integrated effort across the UN system. The cases speak to the involvement of UN Special Representatives (SRSGs) in regional offices and the involvement of the UN country teams. Almost all of them reference the close work with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the role of human rights in prevention. They also include funding from the Peacebuilding Fund, support from Headquarters where needed, and the role of peace and development advisers. The cases reflect a mix of tools and partners that will be more or less important in each situation, but in all cases where you have successful engagement, it will have this kind of integrated, collaborative process. It will often be centred around a very clear role for the SRSG, or Resident Coordinator in some cases. Although this doesn’t come out so clearly in these very brief cases, individuals who have deep histories, contacts and relationships in the country and the region concerned, and can count on the direct support of the Secretary-General when needed, play a very important role. This mix of good offices efforts spearheaded by leadership but being able to bring together the integrated efforts of the UN system and broader partnerships is what works.
I think the third element for successful prevention – really the first of them as I mentioned earlier – comes from forces inside societies themselves. What we are doing is supporting efforts within countries that are urgently engaged in preventing the outbreak or the recurrence of violence. So, we need to work with them first of all, and engage a circle of actors from regional and other partnerships and from within the UN system who are able similarly to support those efforts.