Academic journal article Global Governance

Prevention of Violent Conflict: Tasks and Challenges for the United Nations

Academic journal article Global Governance

Prevention of Violent Conflict: Tasks and Challenges for the United Nations

Article excerpt

In endorsing the recommendations of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan committed to strengthening the organization's function to prevent armed conflict. A review of the UN's track record in the three types of conflict prevention--operational, structural, and systemic--shows its success has been limited to cases of interstate conflict between smaller powers. Serious political and institutional obstacles will continue to thwart the UN in preventing wars between powerful states or managing internal conflicts. However, the renewed prevention agenda offers an opportunity to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his team to refocus the UN's efforts to take advantage of the organization's potential as a catalyst and strategic center of political action while keeping a realistic view of its capabilities to implement conflict prevention in different contexts. KEYWORDS: conflict prevention, United Nations, preventive diplomacy, armed conflict, peacebuilding.


In endorsing the recommendations of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (HLP) in 2004, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan committed the United Nations to a newly elaborated doctrine of conflict prevention. (1) If such an agenda is to be more than rhetorical, it will have to overcome basic structural weaknesses of the UN that inhibit it from preventing and managing incipient conflicts that are internal to states or that involve great powers.

By almost any measure, the UN's record in preventing armed conflict has been mixed to poor. UN activities in conflict prevention have centered on the preventive diplomacy and mediating functions of the secretary-general's office and the Department of Political Affairs (DPA). The UN has tried to develop more comprehensive strategies for prevention through the Interdepartmental Framework for Co-ordination on Early Warning and Preventive Action (generally called the Framework Team [FT]) established in 1995. The FT brings together all departments, funds, and agencies, plus the World Bank, to pool information and analysis and develop multidisciplinary strategies to be implemented by the UN organization itself.

The HLP recommended a significant strengthening of the political clout behind such strategies by recommending the use of the proposed Peace-building Commission (PBC) for early warning and prevention. In his report prior to the September 2005 World Summit, the secretary-general preemptively rejected the proposal, which was unlikely to win assent. He suggested instead that the PBC be available to assist states that seek support in developing capacities to prevent conflict. This intergovernmental body--since established--includes the UN's political owners, both donor and recipient government representatives, as well as international financial institutions (IFIs). A Peacebuilding Support Office in the Secretariat supports its work and also exercises budgetary authority over a Peacebuilding Fund.

The PBC could also help address additional, internal challenges of the UN. These include a deeply embedded inability to coordinate based on differing mandates, governance structures, and funding mechanisms of different parts of the organization; lack of capacity for knowledge-based strategic planning; weakness of structures to support regional cooperation for conflict prevention; and an introverted overemphasis on the tasks of intra-UN coordination to the detriment of the UN's potential to mobilize external actors.

This article delineates the three types of conflict prevention activities--operational, structural, and systemic--as seen against the UN's previous track record and its potential for playing critical roles in the future. It argues that the UN has had limited effectiveness as an implementer of conflict prevention programs, and shows greater promise as a norm setter and a catalyst and strategic center of political action. …

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