The wars in Syria, Yemen and the Central African Republic, among other countries in crisis, can be seen as examples of failed attempts to prevent violent conflict. These confrontations are justly the subject of global attention, even if the level of international engagement they elicit is not always equal to the suffering they cause. Less well covered by the media are instances in which conflict prevention has been successful. Politically Speaking recently sat down with Professor Laurie Nathan, Director of the Mediation Program and Professor of the Practice of Mediation at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, to hear more about his research on standing mechanisms for operational conflict prevention. As Prof Nathan said, “[W]e need to understand the reasons for success in order to reproduce it.”
Politically Speaking: You have looked at several cases where standing mechanisms for conflict prevention have been used in attempt to avoid violence, including the National Peace Accord in South Africa, the African Union High Level Implementation Panel for Sudan and South Sudan and UNSCOL/UNIFIL’s role in Lebanon. Can you give us an example of when these standing mechanisms were used to avoid conflict?
In January 2015, there was an Israeli airstrike that killed six Hezbollah members, and in addition, an Iranian general. Hezbollah fired missiles at an Israeli army convoy, killing two soldiers and injuring others. The Israeli army returned fire into Lebanon, triggering further rocket reprisals from the Lebanese side. The risk of war was real. None of them - not Iran, not Hezbollah, not Israel, not Lebanon – actually wanted a war. But no one was able to back down easily without losing face, and they were not talking to each other. The level of mistrust and enmity was very high. Through the existing forums and communication protocols, UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] and UNSCOL [Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon] were able to communicate from the one to the other and calm the parties down. Would there have been a war in the absence of UN actions? We cannot say with certainty, but the risk was significant, there was low-level violence going both ways and the crisis was escalating. This is an example of successfully putting out a small fire that was in danger of becoming a raging fire.
What about an example of a failed attempt to avoid conflict despite the existence of a standing preventive mechanism?
A failed example is the South Sudan civil war, where the early warnings were loud and sharp. It was clear that the President was moving in an increasingly authoritarian fashion against his critics within the ruling party. When he fired his cabinet, the AU [African Union], the UN and IGAD [Intergovernmental Authority on Development] all saw the warning signs. Preventive efforts were made. The UN tried, the AU tried, and IGAD tried. They all failed, and the result was a catastrophic civil war. A big problem was the lack of coordination among the external actors, which had different messages and solutions. This allowed the parties to play the external actors off against the other. When external actors are coordinated, we see from successful cases, there is no wriggle-room for the parties. The international community and the relevant regional organization must therefore speak with one voice. They should make clear that they are not taking sides in the conflict but emphatically rejecting violence by any of them. This puts a lot of pressure on the parties.
How can the UN system do better at conflict prevention?
I would say to the UN: Do not only study your failures. Study your successes. Seek to identify general best practice from your successes. What are the lessons that are broadly applicable and how can these lessons be institutionalized? In successful cases that we have studied, the skill and personality of the envoy is absolutely critical. It is partly good political judgement, political experience, subtlety, finesse, but it is also a cultural fit. An envoy that speaks the language, or languages, of the parties, and/or shares a common ethnicity, regional background or religious orientation, is more likely to win the parties’ trust than someone who does not look like them or speak the language. When I say to Nigerians, tell me about Dr. Chambas [Dr. Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa and the Sahel and head of UNOWAS], who is from Ghana, they say: “He is one of us. He is Nigerian.” They mean that figuratively, of course. He speaks Hausa, and he is their brother. They do not see him as a threat in the way they may see somebody from a completely different region. The fact that a particular envoy has been effective in one part of the world does not make him or her necessarily the right choice for a different country or region. All generalizations are going to have exceptions, but this is a question that potentially has enormous positive implications: What can we learn from previous experiences in order to determine who is the right person for this case?
Title picture: Joint EU-UN visit to the Far North region of Cameroon to assess the consequences of and the response to Boko Haram. UN Special Representatives for Central Africa and West Africa and the Sahel were part of this visit. UN Photo/UNHCR Cameroon
Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily reflect positions of the United Nations.