The Use of Conference Diplomacy in Conflict Prevention

By Williams, Abiodun | UN Chronicle, December 2014 | Go to article overview

The Use of Conference Diplomacy in Conflict Prevention


Williams, Abiodun, UN Chronicle


For those seized with the imperative of preventing deadly conflict, the "peace conference" has many assets as part of the diplomatic toolbox. It allows focused attention to the issue at hand, brings together all relevant actors--ideally in a neutral setting and by a trusted convener--and fosters both momentum as well as a clear deadline for action.

"Conference diplomacy" may strike us as a relatively recent innovation, coterminous with the development of modern multilateralism and the growing recognition of global interconnectedness. Yet as we mark the bicentennial of the Congress of Vienna, we are reminded of previous attempts to maintain order (if not to promote justice) by an "international community". Moreover, a lack of historical perspective would be reminiscent of Prince Klemens von Metternich's right-hand man, Friedrich von Gentz, who in proclaiming that the 1815 Congress was "a phenomenon without precedent in the history of the world", (1) ignored the many peace conferences convened by the city-states of Renaissance Italy, and in the intervening centuries. (2)

THREE TYPES OF CONFERENCE DIPLOMACY

There are three types of conferences that contribute to conflict prevention. The first is the peace conference that either follows a major conflict, or is held to negotiate an end to one. Examples include the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, and the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, and more recently, the Geneva I Conference and the Geneva II Conference, which have sought to bring an end to the Syrian civil war. Such conferences can contribute to conflict prevention by providing a forum for negotiation over the terms of a conflict's conclusion, as well as laying the ground for the development of sustainable peace.

Another type of conference focuses on promoting general peace throughout the world, or at least efforts to mitigate and regulate the occurrence of conflict. The First Hague Conference of 1899 and the Second Hague Conference of 1907 are emblematic of such initiatives. These conferences sought to contribute to conflict prevention by clarifying the jus ad bellum (and also the jus in hello), and promoting procedures for the peaceful arbitration of conflict. A modern analogy is found in the Rome Conference that presaged the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which has a mandate to investigate, charge and try those suspected of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes worldwide.

Lastly, conference diplomacy is conducted at the so-called "global conferences", which took root in the 1960s and henceforth spread in quantity, although not necessarily in quality. (3) Such conferences have a more indirect effect on conflict prevention. Even while pursuing specific aims in and of themselves, they serve an underlying or supplementary purpose of tackling the root causes of conflict, such as environmental degradation, poverty and cultural misunderstandings.

DEVELOPMENT AND PRACTICE OF PEACE CONFERENCES

The roots of peace conferences can be traced to fifteenth century efforts to end the wars that had ravaged the Italian peninsula, and through subsequent centuries the mechanism was intermittently used to put an end to protracted and widespread war, as at Westphalia. It was not, however, until the Congress of Vienna that conference diplomacy was employed self-consciously as a new instrument of international organization. The Congress--and Concert of Europe that emerged from it--was a prototypical example of a conference designed to manage the end of a war and to facilitate a general peace in its wake. Informed, as it was, by the political presumptions of its time, namely the salience of great power politics and the conspicuous rejection of universality or sovereign equality, (4) its rationale was nevertheless informed by assumptions similar to those which lead modern conferences to be convened.

While other nineteenth century conferences followed the lead of Vienna, particularly the Congress of Berlin of 1878, which aimed to prevent conflict between the European powers, and in so doing partitioned the wider world without regard for self-determination of colonized territories, a trend towards greater inclusivity was in evidence at the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907. …

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