Preventive Diplomacy at the United Nations

By Ramcharan, Bertrand G. | UN Chronicle, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Preventive Diplomacy at the United Nations


Ramcharan, Bertrand G., UN Chronicle


The idea of preventive diplomacy has captivated the United Nations ever since it was first articulated by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold nearly half a century ago. Preventive diplomacy was presaged by Article 99 of the United Nations Charter, which allowed the Secretary-General to bring to the Security Council's attention threats to international peace and security. From the outset of the United Nations, Secretary-General Trygve Lie used the competence under this Article to gather information about situations, to establish contacts with those concerned, to send emissaries to look closely at situations, and to do whatever he could to head off or contain crises of international concern.

Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold knew that the United Nations could do little where there was a direct clash of interests between the superpowers during the Cold War. But he had in mind that, if the opportunity presented itself, he might be able to head off disputes between lesser powers and prevent them from the gravitational pull of the superpowers contest. Hammarskjold put down markers on the practice ol preventive diplomacy that are still very much in use today. He would decide if his efforts might be useful. Judgment was always involved; there was no automaticity about his involvement. He used representatives, whom he sent out on special missions or outposted in particular situations. He had in mind the deployment of a ring of representatives around the world.

Secretary-General U That moved Hammarskjold's vision forward. His role in preventing a nuclear confrontation over the Cuban Missile Crisis must rank as the most spectacular example of preventive diplomacy in the annals of the United Nations. The UN archives contain dramatic materials on his efforts. I will revert to this later.

Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim continued the practice of preventive diplomacy. He had his successes in the border disputes between Iran and Iraq in the 1960s. He resorted to appeals in dangerous situations such as the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. He acted speedily in dispatching UN peacekeepers to contain and control that situation and was praised for his efforts.

Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar acted successfully when he sent a discreet fact-finding mission to Bulgaria and Turkey in 1989 to help head off the deterioration of a dispute between the two countries. He called for the maintenance of a comprehensive global watch over threats to human security and welfare, and established a unit within the Office of the Secretary-General dedicated to the collection and analysis of information intended to help the Secretary-General provide alerts to the Security Council over situations that could threaten or breach international peace and security.

Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali took over shortly after the end of the Cold War when there were hopes of a new world order. In January 1992, the first-ever summit meeting of the Security Council requested a report from him on the future role of the United Nations in conflict prevention, peacemaking, and peacekeeping, which led him to submit the widely-acclaimed An Agenda for Peace. Boutros-Ghali practiced preventive diplomacy in cases such as the war between Eritrea and Yemen, and he supported the establishment of the first ever preventive deployment of UN peacekeepers in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan furthered the work of his predecessors and submitted three reports on the topic. He exercised preventive diplomacy successfully in the border conflict between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi Peninsula.

Current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has taken forward the practice of preventive diplomacy at the UN, and has given courageous leadership on the issue of global climate change that would be put into the category of preventive diplomacy. He has also submitted reports to the General Assembly on preventive diplomacy.

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