Will 2017 Be a Watershed Year for Prevention at the Service of Peace?

13 April 2017   ·   Youssef Mahmoud

Effective prevention requires an understanding of peace beyond the mere absence of violent conflict. Therefore, the United Nations should view prevention as a governance tool rather than a crisis management tool. Further, the UN should combine the breadth of recent reform agendas into a single strategic, inclusive vision.

On his first day at the helm of the UN Secretariat, the new Secretary-General António Guterres, visibly pained by the plight of the millions of people caught in violent conflict, pledged to make 2017 a year of peace and asked all those who were listening to his first address to resolve to put peace first, to make it “our goal and our guide.” This follows his commitment expressed shortly after his confirmation, to make diplomacy for peace his priority.

His message takes place at a time of disenchantment with a Security Council, primarily consumed with the crises of the day rather than preventing the conflicts of tomorrow, and a growing interest in prevention for sustaining peace as enshrined in the April 2016 identical SC/GA resolution. This resolution, for many policy makers, scholars, and practitioners, represents a refreshing normative and conceptual shift in how the UN should address present and future peace and security challenges.

Identifying challenges to more effective prevention

Sweden, a recently elected non-permanent member of the Security Council for 2017-2018, intends to make conflict prevention, a long-standing foreign policy goal, the hallmark of its two-year tenure. On January 10, 2017, in its capacity as President of the Council for the month, it held a ministerial-level debate on conflict prevention and sustaining peace. In the concept paper circulated for the debate, Sweden indicated that the event would serve as an opportunity for the new Secretary-General to set out his vision for a renewed emphasis on prevention and for member states to discuss how the Council can best support the sustaining peace agenda. The paper states that the main objective of the debate is to “help identify the challenges to more effective prevention action and propose steps to overcome them.” To help guide the debate, the paper suggests a series of questions for member states’ consideration. Of particular relevance are the last two questions aimed at generating ideas for enhancing the working relationship between the Secretary-General and the Security Council and for mobilizing the political leadership of member states to take the sustaining peace agenda forward.

How might these member states organize themselves during and after the debate to help achieve the objectives sought in the Swedish concept note? On this, I offer two ideas. The first is to reframe the interpretation of certain concepts in the UN Charter relating to prevention and the maintenance of peace and security, with the purpose of making them more relevant to the new sustaining peace agenda. The second is capitalize on the briefing of the new Secretary-General to advance the sustaining peace agenda.

Liberating Prevention from Conflict

One of the main purposes of the United Nations as stated in Article 1 of the Charter is “to maintain international peace and security, and to that end take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace.” The Security Council was entrusted, under Article 24, with the primary responsibility for this crucial task on behalf of the entire UN membership. “Peace” in the Charter is not explicitly defined, except negatively by the absence of threats, breaches, and acts of aggression that may endanger its maintenance. Although, the Council, acting under Article 39, has included, in various pronouncements non-military sources of instability in the economic, social and humanitarian and ecological fields, the aspirations for peace continue to be depicted negatively.

Focusing on factors for resilience rather than causes of fragility and violence

However it is defined, peace constitutes the ultimate aim of member states’ individual and collective action, rather than the prevention of conflicta phrase that appears nowhere in the Charter. With “peace” as the referent, rather than “conflict” and its negative connotations, prevention can be pursued as a proactive, national strategy for averting the outbreak of conflict, using, inter-alia, the tools for pacific settlement of disputes outlined in Article 33 of the Charter. With such a conceptual reframing, the emphasis would be placed on identifying and strengthening the political, economic, and social factors that are associated with peaceful and resilient societies rather than focusing only on the causes of fragility and the sources of violence. The latter approach tends to trigger reactive, short-term, often externally driven responses that deal with the symptoms of the problem rather than its structural causes, as exemplified by the Council’s occasional “proactive engagement” under Article 34, when it manages to overcome pushback from some of its own members who feel that some of these causes are better discussed by other UN organs.

Therefore, liberating prevention from its negative and often securitized association with conflict would make it possible to promote it as a common public good, as a governance tool, and a development function, rather than only as a crisis management tool. Thus framed, and consistent with the letter and spirit of the joint resolution on sustaining peace, it would be possible to integrate a prevention lens in the implementation of other global agendas, such as the gender equality agenda and the 2030 agenda where peace is both an enabler and outcome of sustainable development.

Strategic Time for Partnership with the New Secretary-General

This thematic debate initiated by Sweden took place at a time of momentous change in the world. The post-Cold War political, security, and economic order that has been taken for granted for nearly three generations is being challenged. New and emerging global and regional powers with differing perspectives are chafing under this order. They feel that the international architecture associated with it does not accommodate their grievances or ambitions. The nation-state, the building block of this architecture, is also under stress, with politics no longer the sole preserve of governments as they struggle to meet the legitimate aspirations of their citizens. The debate on conflict prevention is taking place at a time when the UN Security Council is perceived as having failed to effectively discharge its mandate under the Charter for the maintenance of international peace and security, as attested by the wars that continue to ravage many parts of the world. And by coincidence, the new Secretary-General addressed the debate 10 days before the inauguration of a new American President, who has dim views, to say the least, of the added value of multilateralism and the United Nations in particular.

Current circumstances offer an opportunity for crafting a new vision for peace

This is hardly an auspicious backdrop for a discussion designed to offer ideas on how best to salvage whatever residual credibility the Security Council may still have. But given the right political leadership, this moment could be seized to build on the opportunities it presents. Nothing concentrates the mind of an organization better than imminent crisis and the anxiety of one day becoming irrelevant. Therefore, 2017 would be an opportune year for member states refocus on prevention, and to invite the new Secretary General and the General Assembly to provide a “New Agenda for Peace” in commemoration of a similar initiative the Council took 25 years ago.

Clearly, a quarter of a century ago, times were different. The January 1992 high-level meeting took place right after the end of the Cold War when hopes for a safer, more equitable and more humane world were high. But the current circumstances offer an equally propitious opportunity for crafting a new vision for peace. A vision, as the International Peace Institute has argued elsewhere, that would bring together the emerging normative and conceptual advances, the wealth of lessons learned, and the breadth of recent reform agendas into a single strategic, inclusive vision and a plan of action for helping the UN across its three pillars deliver peace at a time when hope and trust are in short supply.

Sweden and other like-minded countries who were instrumental in shepherding the intergovernmental processes culminating in the adoption of the landmark joint resolution are well equipped to ensure, through collaboration with the new secretary-general as well as the UN General Assembly and Security Council presidents, that 2017 becomes a watershed year for putting prevention in the service of sustaining peace.

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Youssef Mahmoud

Dr. Youssef Mahmoud is a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute. This article was originally published on January 5 by the International Peace Institute’s Global Observatory.