Conflict prevention has been at the core of United Nations (UN) policies on peacemaking and peacebuilding as far back as the launch of UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali’s UN Agenda for Peace in 1992.1 This would become a landmark event towards actively integrating preventive diplomacy into international attempts at conflict resolution prior to high-casualty armed conflicts that would pervade the 1990s and beyond, such as the Great Lakes Region or Balkan wars. So, what armed conflicts are we talking about?
Prior to unpacking the intricacies of conflict prevention, we need to understand the nature of the beast – what armed conflicts are we talking about. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), the overall trend since the 1990s is a steady decline in interstate conflicts in favour of intra-state internationalised armed conflicts.2 Empirical data further show that there is a growing prevalence of non-state armed actors as parties to conflicts fighting both a state or other non-state armed actors. Not in vain, traditional civil wars are currently labelled ‘new wars’, which implies that combatants blend in with civilians while the motivations for protracted fighting have as much to do with grievances as they do with greed. The notion of ‘intra-state’ should not lead us to the assumption that these ‘new wars’ are taking place within state borders only. On the contrary, their link with global shadow economies and transnational armed networks lies at the heart of these wars’ perpetuation in time.
Global conflict has declined from the 1990s’ peak though there has been a resurgence from 2010 onwards when we start to witness the highest numbers of conflict-related casualties recorded in 20 years. These were also highly concentrated in three conflict countries, that is, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. According to UCDP (2017) data, more than 76 percent of all fatalities accounted for in 2016 took place in those three countries. The cost of violent conflict, however, must be measured not only by its intensity or duration alone but also by its human, social and economic impact which translates into future instability and fragility within countries and across the region. These parameters increase in relevance if we look at the number of conflict recurrences which shows how current armed conflicts have become harder to end than interstate wars.
What is conflict prevention?
Much against common knowledge, conflict prevention is not only about preventing the onset of conflict, which may be constructive, but rather about averting violent conflicts. According to the UN Agenda for Peace (1992), conflict prevention is the ‘avoidance of new armed conflicts, containment of existing armed conflicts and non-recurrence of ended armed conflicts’.
A key point that is often missed, however, is that conflict prevention pervades the whole conflict cycle, not only the pre-violence phase. Thus, we can apply conflict prevention to the three core phases of conflict. The most obvious one would be preventing the onset of violent conflict from the moment that there is a difference to an obvious polarization between the parties to a conflict, when no violent behavior has erupted between them yet. The second phase would focus on preventing the intensification, prolongation and spread of violent conflict with the aim to reaching some kind of ceasefire once violence of a substantial scale has begun. The final phase of conflict prevention would focus on preventing a relapse into violence once there is a peace agreement in place and the ultimate aim is to reach reconciliation between the parties in conflict.
Approaches & means of prevention
In order to make conflict prevention as successful as possible, we need to understand that the roots of conflict – i.e. the incompatibility between the parties – need to be addressed. Eventually, the parties should be ready to redefine their collective goals in a way that makes these compatible and hereby transforms the relationship between them for good. This speaks to a very deep and structural approach to conflict prevention that focusses on the ‘preventers of war’ such as the need to bring about political stability, higher economic equity and quality of governance, respect for the rule of law and for human rights. Complementary to this is what is known as ‘preventive diplomacy’, which is a more light and operational form of conflict prevention that works when disputes are close to a point of violence and there is room for maneuver in terms of transforming the mistrust and misperceptions between the parties to the conflict.
In tandem with these two approaches are more systemic approaches to conflict prevention whereby it is openly acknowledged that so-called ‘intra-state’ conflicts come with global risks that actually transcend particular states. The increasingly used notions of transnational conflicts and regional conflict complexes speak to this reality. However, as highlighted by UNSC Resolution (S/RES/2150 2014) from 2014 linked to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ‘States bare the primary responsibility to respect and ensure the human rights of their citizens…’.3 This does not imply that states are the only actors involved in conflict prevention, however.
Conflict prevention is far from a state-driven affair, however, with civil society organisations being actively engaged in this field as the mushrooming of NGOs operating in armed conflict-affected countries has shown. A UN Secretary-General report on Conflict Prevention of 2001 highlighted clearly how the core responsibility of conflict prevention lies with national governments supported by civil society.4 These organisations’ overlapping interests and agendas, as well as funding and operational constraints constitute another topic that would warrant a discussion of its own.
Traditionally, international organisations such as the UN and its affiliates have played a leading role in conflict prevention despite resistance by certain UN member states against the interference in the ‘internal affairs’ of other states. Regional organisations are gaining ground in this regard too with a historical leading role by the European Union (EU) and an increasing engagement of the African Union (AU), among others. It is worth noting that in an Asian context, for example, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is increasingly engaged, yet always behind the banner of interstate conflicts as a means to avoid accusations of breaching the principle of state sovereignty.
The key conclusions that we could draw on conflict prevention de facto speak to the field of conflict resolution, broadly. For one, it is key to understand the local context and its complexities, avoiding a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Having adequate contextual knowledge and being sensitive to the local perception of the conflict situation is key.
Ensuring sufficient political will to sustain conflict prevention efforts is another must. This should not only come from external players but, most importantly, from local actors too. Adequate resources – be it economic, human and political – must be provided to support such initiatives, such as through partnerships with regional actors. Finally, more effective co-ordination between actors operating in conflict prevention could avoid the overlapping of mandates and duplicity among actors on the ground.
© IE Insights.
 See ‘An Agenda for Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peace-keeping ‘, 17 June 1992, available at https://www.un.org/ruleoflaw/files/A_47_277.pdf.
 Sources: UCDP and Peace Research Institute Oslo (Allansson, Melander, and Themnér 2017, Gleditsch et al. 2002) and UCDP (Sundberg, Eck, and Kreutz 2012; Allansson, Melander and Themnér 2017).
 See Security Council Resolution 2150 (2014) adopted by the Security Council at its 7155th meeting, 16 April 2014, available at https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_res_2150.pdf.
 See UNSG Report on ‘Prevention of Armed Conflict’, UN General Assembly Fifty-fifth session, 7 June 2001, available at https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/F47125D903850952C1256E7B002D6271-CONFLICT%20PREV%202.pdf.