Preventive Diplomacy: A More Effective Approach to International Disputes

By Peck, Connie | The Ecumenical Review, July 1995 | Go to article overview

Preventive Diplomacy: A More Effective Approach to International Disputes


Peck, Connie, The Ecumenical Review


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. …

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