The past year has seen the United Nations take a long, hard look at how it does the work it was founded to accomplish, namely to secure global peace and security. In 2015, the Organization reviewed the way it conducts peace operations, both political and peacekeeping; assessed its work to help countries coming out of conflict build peace; and took stock of progress in ensuring greater participation of women in peace processes. These exercises produced a great number of recommendations, but converged on one conclusion: there is an urgent need to make conflict prevention a priority.
The case for prevention was made again earlier this month, when the General Assembly held a ministerial-level debate entitled, ‘In a World of Risks: Today’s Threats to International Peace and Security’. It was evident from that discussion that everyone is committed, rhetorically at least, to conflict prevention. And yet, the multiplication of conflicts over the past two decades points to a jarring reality: prevention remains, in fact, critically under-prioritized.
So, what will it take to bring prevention “back to the fore”, as the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations recommended a year ago? We recently asked General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft about that body’s role in conflict prevention and more broadly the maintenance of international peace and security. Today we look at the part the Security Council can play.
Taking the Lead
As the organ with the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, the Council has a critical role in conflict prevention.
Of the various functions assigned to the United Nations under the Charter, prevention is right at the top. Article 1:1 notes that a core purpose of the Organization is “to maintain international peace and security, and to that end, to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace”. Through its working practices, the Council has historically translated this into a number of concrete modalities.
Council Modalities for Addressing Prevention
Throughout its history, the Security Council has explored different options to address emerging situations not formally included on its agenda. In recent years, a number of different modalities have been explored, but the Council may not be fully capitalizing on the opportunities for effective preventive action inherent in these and other methods.
Regional agenda items:
Regional agenda items such as “Peace and security in Africa”, or “The situation in the Middle East” have, in recent years, provided the Council with a means to address emerging situations that did not feature formally on its agenda, such as the post-electoral crisis in Kenya or piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
“Any other business”:
Briefings on situations not formally on the Council’s agenda have also been carried out under “any other business”. In 2015, there were 56 such discussions, addressing situations such as Burkina Faso, Guinea and Nepal.
Informal briefings and “horizon scanning”:
In several recent instances, for example, resolutions 1625 (2005) and 2171 (2014), the Council has sought to assess developments in regions at risk and requested the Secretary-General to provide information, pursuant to Article 99 of the Charter. Through the years, the Secretariat has provided daily situational briefings to the Council; “horizon scanning”, on emerging issues in countries not necessarily on the Council’s agenda; and most recently/currently, informal monthly briefings focusing on preventive diplomacy in relation to country situations or on specific issues. The Council also holds a monthly luncheon with the Secretary-General, yet another venue to discuss emerging issues.
The “Arria Formula” allows the Council to meet informally to hear the views from a broad range of interlocutors -- individuals, organizations or institutions -- regarding issues under its purview. Such meetings have, at times, also been used to further the Council’s interaction with civil society actors.
Council Tools for Prevention
Chapter VI of the Charter provides the Council with a comprehensive toolkit to defuse tensions and prevent escalation. Over the years, the Council has given these operational meaning. In particular, Article 34 – its power to investigate any dispute or situation that may lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute – allows it to gather information and encourage parties to a conflict to seek a peaceful solution.
Security Council fact-finding missions:
Council fact-finding visits to a country or region facing a risk of conflict can have a powerful deterrent effect, help define strategies for a political response or even encourage the parties to the negotiation table. The Council’s visit to Indonesia and Timor Leste in 1999, in response to an outbreak of violence following the Council-authorized referendum, is considered to have played an important preventive role in forestalling the deterioration into further violence. Such visits can also help bring a wider set of international actors (regional and sub-regional organizations, regional powers and neighbouring countries) together around common principles for addressing a crisis.
Security Council Subsidiary Organs:
The idea of a dedicated Council subsidiary organ for conflict prevention has sometimes been mooted as a way to ensure continuing focus on emerging situations prior to the Council moving to consultations or formal meetings. The Ad Hoc Working Group on conflict prevention and resolution in Africa, established in response to the Secretary-General’s report on Prevention of Armed Conflict, had this aim, in part. Its focus has been primarily thematic and on UN-AU cooperation, but it has also engaged on situations such as Guinea Bissau.
Groups of Friends:
Groups of Friends on a particular country- or region-specific situation may play a useful role in complement to the Council’s engagement. The recommendations related to Groups of Friends made by the Ad Hoc Working Group on Conflict Prevention and Resolution in Africa (S/2002/979) highlighted the potential value of such groups in support of the Council, enabling more extensive analysis and rallying key members of the international community around a common strategy.
Under Article 34, the Council has employed investigative mechanisms, either directly under its own purview or by others. Recent examples include the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission established under resolution 1595 (2005), the investigation of allegations of the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria under resolution 2118 (2013), and the request for the Secretary-General to establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate violations of international humanitarian law, international human rights law and abuses of human rights in the Central African Republic, under resolution 2127 (2013).
The Council has increasingly used sanctions as a preventive tool (read our article explaining how sanctions regimes work). Resolution 2171 (2014), for example, notes that sanctions imposed under relevant provisions of the Charter can create conditions conducive to the peaceful resolution of situations that threaten or breach international peace and security, and support prevention. However, sanctions are generally considered an instrument of last resort vis-à-vis other tools.
Beyond these, other regular Council instruments, such as resolutions, presidential statements and press statements, can constitute strategic tools for preventive diplomacy. The Council’s regular engagement with regional entities, notably the AU Peace and Security Council, has also allowed it to build common strategies towards challenges.
Council Interaction with Other UN Organs and Bodies
In various resolutions and presidential statements on conflict prevention and preventive diplomacy, the Council has reiterated that it sees conflict prevention as a comprehensive activity, requiring engagement by a wide array of actors: national, regional and sub-regional, but also different parts of the United Nations system. The Council’s interaction with other UN entities therefore remains an important piece of the conflict prevention puzzle. This is, inter alia, a key element of Security Council resolution 2282 (2016), in response to the 2015 Review of the Peacebuilding Architecture.
Secretariat: the Secretary-General’s mandate under Article 99 of the Charter gives the Secretariat an important supportive role in bringing to the Security Council’s attention early warning and analysis on emerging crises. The High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations highlighted this role in particular.
The Secretary-General’s good offices, and the relationship with the Council, are vital. Early engagement by the Secretariat aims to resolve situations peacefully before they reach the Council’s agenda. In some situations, the Council may decide to “keep its powder dry”, giving space for good offices. In others, the Council may perceive that its visible, decisive engagement is needed to create entry points.
Most of the “tools” discussed are not spelled out in the UN Charter. It is evident that the Council has throughout its history – and especially the last 15 years or so -- proved to be quite innovative in addressing emerging situations not formally on its agenda. But given the current challenging international peace and security environment we face, and the unrealized potential of prevention, it is fair to ask how the Council first of all can more fully capitalize on opportunities for preventive action.
We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on conflict prevention and how it could be made more effective. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Title Picture: Members of the United Nations Security Council pose for a group photograph during a visit to Mogadishu, Somalia, on 19 May, 2016. They were received at Aden Abdulle International Airport by officials from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), the Federal Government of Somalia, and the African Union. UN Photo / Omar Abdisalan