Preventive Diplomacy: A More Effective Approach to International Disputes

Article excerpt

The United Nations today is staggering under unparalleled expectations by the international community that it should deal effectively with a multiplicity of extremely complex and serious threats to peace and security and do so with resources which are woefully inadequate to the task.

The nightly news provides a constant reminder that if even one major conflict, such as a Bosnia or a Somalia, could be prevented, massive and needless human suffering and devastation would be avoided. Yet until very recently there has been no mechanism within the UN system for early dispute settlement, even though it is well-established that peaceful methods of dispute settlement, such as mediation, are more likely to be effective early in a dispute, before issues have generalized, before hostilities have escalated, before parties have become committed and entrapped, before the main motivation has become retribution.

The crisis orientation of the Security Council and the slowness of the multilateral decision-making process provide "too little, too late", thus failing to keep disputes from escalating out of control. The creation of more appropriate mechanisms and practices of preventive diplomacy is urgent.

What is "preventive diplomacy"?

The term "preventive diplomacy" is used here to refer to the range of peaceful methods of resolving disputes mentioned in Article 33 of the UN Charter, when applied before a dispute crosses the threshold to armed conflict. These include: "negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means". The term "peacemaking" refers to the use of these same methods after a dispute has become an armed conflict.

Discussions of preventive diplomacy are often confused by two different images of how it might work, based on different time perspectives and different goals.

* Late prevention: On this model, the UN would monitor situations around the globe, but do little until it was fairly certain that a particular dispute was going to erupt into armed conflict. When this "early warning" system indicated a problem, the UN would become involved in an attempt to persuade the parties to desist. In this situation, the Security Council is often considered the best UN organ for carrying out preventive action, since at this late stage, pressure or "leverage" may be needed.

"Early warning" is an important feature of this model. Advocates of this approach often emphasize the need for "intelligence" information, such as troop movements or refugee flows, which indicates that a situation is about to become violent. The term "early warning" is an artifact of the nuclear stand-off, pointing to the potential for extremely rapid deterioration of a situation. Thus, the "warning" is not of the presence of a dispute, but rather of the probability that it is about to "go critical" and erupt into armed conflict. Late prevention is thus primarily oriented to containing a dispute just before file situation crosses the threshold into a crisis and armed hostilities. This, however, is one of the most difficult times to intervene. At this point, the dynamics of escalation are usually so strong that they are very difficult to stop.

* Early prevention: A somewhat different vision of preventive diplomacy is that the UN should offer a dispute resolution service to its members, to assist them in complying with their obligations under Chapter VI of the Charter. The goal would be to provide skilled third-party assistance through good offices and mediation as early as possible in a dispute, when the opportunity for dispute resolution is most "ripe". Such a service would be best located in the Secretariat and staffed by highly skilled professionals trained in conflict resolution, who could both urge the parties to avail themselves of its services and provide advice, good offices and mediation should the parties desire. On this model, "early warning" would mean identifying potentially serious disputes and developing an in-depth understanding of the issues that might be important in resolving them.

The aim of such a service would be to assist the parties in reducing tension and in actually resolving the issues and grievances in dispute before they deteriorated into an international crisis. Advocates of this view argue that international disputes do not often develop into full-blown conflicts overnight, at least from the point of view of those who have been following the development of the situation. Many of the serious disputes which have erupted into conflict and are now the object of UN peacekeeping efforts were well-known to the international community far in advance.

Although late prevention and early prevention are not mutually exclusive, they are quite different in terms of what type of information is collected, what kind of staff is needed and which UN organ should have primary responsibility. It would seem appropriate that priority should be given to the development of "early prevention" within the UN Secretariat. If early prevention efforts fail and the situation deteriorates, late prevention strategies could still be employed.

Responsibility for preventive diplomacy

Although the Charter gives the Security Council primary responsibility for maintenance of peace and security, in reality it is not the best structure for carrying out preventive diplomacy. Member states are often reluctant to bring their disputes to the Council because they do not wish to relinquish decision-making control over matters of such importance. Moreover, the Council's range of potential action is largely coercive in nature, and its members are not always perceived to be impartial. The frequent discussions of "sovereignty" and concerns about "internationalizing" a dispute indicate that many if not most states prefer to maintain control over how their own disputes will be resolved, at least until the situation becomes desperate. Similar concerns may also make third parties reluctant to bring a situation to the Council at an early stage. Thus, other member states and past secretaries-general seldom bring a dispute to the Council, even though they have the authority to do so, presumably because this might be considered by the parties to be an unfriendly act.

Moreover, the kinds of actions which the Council can offer are not particularly well-suited to dispute settlement at this early stage. The notion of the Council as a kind of arbiter causes parties to engage in adversarial debate rather than problem-solving. Mutual recriminations and arguments by each side to convince the Council of the "rightness" of its case may further harden positions and inflame a situation. And when Council members are forced to declare their sympathies, support for one or both sides may widen the situation or encourage the parties.

In summary, even if the Security Council were to improve its mechanisms for addressing disputes, it is unlikely that they would be used. What is needed therefore is a less political and more professional approach to dispute resolution which can address the problems of timing and control, bypass the problem of international will and offer the right kind of assistance for resolving disputes at an early prevention stage. Establishing such a mechanism in the Secretariat would provide an excellent complement to the work of the Security Council.

What has hindered the practice of preventive diplomacy in the Secretariat? The Cold War, of course, not only paralyzed the Security Council but also had a detrimental effect on the Secretary-General. As a consequence, the necessary structures were never developed to carry out preventive diplomacy within the UN Secretariat.

In the early years, when the organization was smaller, it was generally considered that the Secretary-General would personally be able to provide whatever was needed in terms of good offices and mediation. Indeed, Secretaries-General have spent long hours and tireless efforts trying to assist members in resolving their disputes and conflicts. As the number of member states has expanded and the number of conflicts on the UN's agenda proliferated, it has become increasingly unrealistic to expect the Secretary-General to do this in every case while at the same time carrying out all his other functions and duties. Over time and out of necessity, Secretaries-General began assigning senior staff or diplomats to assist in providing good offices and mediation.

These assignments, however, were typically ad hoc measures in response to a crisis, and the choice of personnel was usually limited to a very small number of trusted individuals. Often they did not have sufficient resources of personnel or infrastructure to back them up. In addition, fact-finding missions evolved as a mechanism for gathering information and sometimes as a forum for diplomatic initiatives. This, too, was a largely ad hoc procedure. On short notice, staff who had not worked together before were hastily assembled from various parts of the Secretariat and sent off to the field. In some cases, they were unfamiliar with the situation and its political, historical and cultural context. Often, once they reported back, they returned to their previous post with no follow-up of the situation.

These ad hoc arrangements, together with the Security Council's focus on crises, meant that the Secretary-General and senior staff were swamped with situations which had deteriorated to the point where they could no longer be ignored - or, in many cases, controlled. As it was structured and practised, handling conflicts already on the agenda was more than the system could manage. There was no time or structure for early preventive diplomacy and even late preventive diplomacy was often neglected.

Of course, preventive diplomacy continuously takes place behind the scenes throughout the UN system as the Secretary-General and his staff, as well as the diplomatic community, engage in informal preventive efforts through a wide range of conversations and consultations. What has not existed, however, is a more systematic and institutionalized approach to early dispute resolution.

At the January 1992 Security Council summit, repeated calls were heard for the UN to engage in preventive diplomacy. The Secretary-General was invited to offer his ideas about how this could best be done. For the first time, the growing consensus which had been developing about preventive diplomacy was being expressed at the highest levels.

The restructuring process initiated by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was intended among other things to enhance the Secretariat's capacity for preventive diplomacy and peacemaking. Small geographical divisions were set up in the new Department of Political Affairs to replace even smaller desks in the former Office of Research and the Collection of Information. These new divisions have indeed provided a more viable system for preventive diplomacy, but as so often happens at the UN, resource shortage and bureaucratic constraints have rendered even these reforms less than adequate for this vital task.

While those appointed to head each of these divisions are experienced in carrying out good offices, the UN still has only a handful of senior staff who can be assigned to such tasks. As a result, directors and their small divisions are simply unable to meet the huge demands, and ongoing crises still overwhelm the capacity of staff to engage in preventive efforts. In addition, divisions are understaffed, staff are not trained in dispute resolution and some do not have an in-depth grounding in the region they are covering. The infrastructure to support these divisions is inadequate. Information-gathering processes are cumbersome; there are no research assistants and little access to outside consultants; funds for travelling to the region are inadequate; communication and computer equipment is poor.

Furthermore, the system has little means of improving itself. Until recently, there has been no training in dispute resolution for UN staff and virtually no means of access to the body of expertise developing in this field over the past few years. When a training programme was established, it became evident that many Secretariat staff are so overwhelmed by the demands of the job that it is difficult to release them for training.

A related problem is that there has been little systematic analysis or overview of UN efforts at good offices which could serve to preserve the lessons of peacemaking and mediation and so improve and refine the UN's methodology of dispute resolution. As a consequence, the UN has no body of documented case histories and thus no "institutional memory" of fundamental issues or problems.

Regional conflict-prevention centres

One additional issue is whether preventive diplomacy staff should be based in the region or at UN headquarters in New York.

Advocates of the former argue that only "on the ground" and "in the field" can a true assessment of a situation and the opportunities for resolution be grasped. Handling this by sending fact-finding missions from headquarters to the field - at least as currently practised - is less than ideal.

The name "fact-finding" itself causes concern among some member states because it implies to them that the UN will be investigating "who did what to whom". Even if the mission has a broader mandate than this, the name causes resistance among those who fear that they may be subject to condemnation or humiliation in the sensitive world of international relations. Another drawback to fact-finding missions is that they tend to "internationalize" a dispute. While there are instances in which the Council or Secretary-General may indeed wish to "internationalize" a situation, in the early stages of a dispute this practice can be counterproductive and could lead members to reject good offices overtures which they might have accepted if they had been offered quietly.

One proposal which seems to overcome many of the operational problems with preventive diplomacy in the UN system is to establish UN Conflict Prevention and Resolution Centres in each region. To give such Centres the necessary political support, they could be established under a mandate by the Security Council and/or the Assembly to assist members in finding a peaceful method for settling their disputes. They could report regularly to the Council (and/or Assembly), much as Special Representatives currently do, through the Secretary-General.

Centres would be staffed by senior professionals with expert knowledge in conflict resolution and sufficient experience and stature to negotiate at the highest levels. Each Centre's teams would include regional or area experts well-versed in the cultural, historical and political perspectives of states and actors in the region.

Moreover, such UN Centres would require adequate resources and infrastructure: a sufficient number of research assistants, on-line computer facilities with immediate access to wire services, research institutions and data banks; advanced and secure telecommunications equipment for instant conferencing with actors in the region, consultants and UN headquarters; operations rooms with detailed maps and cable television; funds for regular and routine travel throughout the region and participation in relevant meetings within the region. Specialized expertise should be available on a consultative basis when required. Better use could also be made of other parts of the UN and of Peace Research Institutes, which could be asked to hold special working meetings of experts on particular issues.

Centres could assign some of their teams exclusively to preventive diplomacy, while others were assigned to peacemaking. Such a division of labour would overcome the problem of ongoing crises overwhelming preventive efforts and absorbing all of the organization's capacity.

Regular routine travel by preventive diplomacy staff to the capitals and "hot spots" of their region would allow them to discuss regional problems with relevant actors from the region, identify emerging disputes, track developments in existing disputes and deepen understanding of them, develop a sense of trust and a reputation for fairness, urge the parties to come to the negotiating table and offer a range of dispute-resolution options. Quiet diplomacy could develop in a manner which did not call attention to itself or "internationalize" the dispute.

Moreover, UN Centres would not have to wait for the disputing parties to approach them. Preventive diplomacy teams could proactively urge the disputants to begin negotiation or mediation without delay. Secretaries-General, by contrast, often tend to wait to be asked to provide their good offices, because they do not wish to be seen to be interfering, while the parties fear that if they request help it might be viewed by the other side as a sign of weakness. They may be willing to accept assistance which is offered.

Such Regional Centres could also offer a wide range of options for reaching a settlement. In uncomplicated disputes the staff could merely track the progress of negotiation. In other instances, the Centre might offer its own services as an impartial third party to facilitate initial contacts between disputing parties, assist in beginning a dialogue, establish "talks about talks" or become involved in structuring or guiding talks. Such an approach could be based on new problem-solving methods of negotiation rather than on traditional negotiation strategies. The goal would be to reconcile the parties' differing interests through innovative solutions rather than through adversarial bargaining over positions.

Using such an approach, UN intermediaries could encourage discussion of the issues and interests which lie behind positions, suggest development of a range of innovative options, propose objective criteria or principles of fairness or precedent as a basis for settlement, package proposals to meet the parties' concerns and rally influential third parties as a source of support. Throughout the negotiations, the team could carefully manage the mediation process, provide a neutral site, keep emotions under control, encourage acts of goodwill and exclude audiences.

UN Centres could assist parties in making full use of the UN system. They could help disputants avail themselves of constitutional experts. election monitors, human rights specialists or disarmament specialists, who could provide information helpful for formulating agreements or supervising their implementation. In other instances, Centres might refer the parties to a third-party intermediary or assist in setting up a more formal dispute-resolution procedure, such as conciliation or arbitration, in which the third party crafts a substantive decision. Centres could also advise disputing parties about the appropriateness of referring to the International Court of Justice.

Once agreement of any kind had been achieved, staff could assist in monitoring compliance with the agreement, intervene to prevent slippage and mediate disputes arising from breaches of the agreement. Centres could also provide regular reports or recommendations to the Secretary-General and the Security Council. In cases where the dispute was of sufficient concern or was escalating to the "late prevention" stage, the Council could then be asked by the Secretary-General to consider exercising its range of late prevention actions.

Finally, Centres could systematically study and analyze the nature and causes of disputes in their region and the factors which lead to their escalation. Such analysis might lead to recommendations for changes in international practice or point out certain types of situations (such as resource shortages) which lead to conflict. The methodology of preventive diplomacy could also be continually refined through the analytical study of the factors which promote or inhibit progress in dispute resolution.

At a broader level, Centres might be involved in Setting up training programmes in problem-solving forms of negotiation for diplomats from countries in their region. Over time, officials from member states might thus become increasingly knowledgeable about how to resolve their own differences in a more constructive manner. Centres could also support regional or sub-regional confidence-building and peace-building exercises.

Of course, some parties would not want to avail themselves of preventive diplomacy and in some cases it would not work. But even if preventive diplomacy is effective only part of the time, it will be worth the effort. Expenditure on early preventive diplomacy will ultimately save later expenditure on peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace enforcement, all of which are much more costly endeavours. Moreover, preventive diplomacy is not only more cost-effective in financial terms, it is more cost-effective in human terms.

Connie Peck is co-ordinator of the programme for Peacemaking and Preventive Diplomacy of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research.