New UN Chief calls for new priority: Conflict prevention

Special to

metzlerBy John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS— Calling for a major reappraisal of how the international community responds to a widening series of conflicts, and challenging policymakers to take a courageous look at a new template to maintain global peace and security, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, made a bold and far reaching appeal for conflict prevention initiatives.

“We spend far more time and resources responding to crises rather than preventing them,” the Secretary General told the Security Council, “People are paying too high a price … we need a whole new approach.” He stressed that while “conflict prevention must be the priority,” he conceded “conflict prevention does not attract attention. The television cameras are not there when a crisis is avoided.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Conflict prevention is emerging as a signature issue for the new Guterres Administration.

Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom of Sweden, the country sponsoring the debate stated, “The UN’s humanitarian and peacekeeping instruments have come under immense pressure. $22 billion USD in humanitarian appeals. Over 100,000 UN peacekeepers. Meanwhile, research shows that measures to peacefully prevent conflict cost, on average, just a tenth of post-conflict recovery efforts. Investing in prevention is not only morally right. It is the smart, economically sound and sustainable thing to do.”

In other words given the human and economic cost of widening and often seemingly endless UN Peacekeeping operations, it’s far less costly to prevent a conflict in the first place rather than picking up the pieces after its bloody aftermath.

Wallstrom advised, “Prevention requires addressing the root causes of conflict and instability before they reach the front pages or this Council’s agenda.”

Again Secretary General Guterres set the agenda, “We must rebalance our approach to peace and security. For decades, this has been determined by responding to conflict. For the future, we need to do far more to prevent war and sustain peace.”

Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski advised that the current global conflicts and the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II have led to a “particularly fragile security landscape in many regions of the world.” He stressed that it’s imperative that the “international community identifies and tackles the root causes of conflicts in a more accurate and timely manner.”

More specifically Italy’s Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano advised, “We need to encourage the effective use of early warning indicators of violence, radicalization, extremism and assaults on human rights, religion and culture.” Yet he warned, “Terrorism attacks our fundamental values and spreads fears. We shall not be fearful, because people in fear are not free. Fighting terror and fear means fighting for our freedom.”

Israel’s delegate David Roet stated, “While it is clear that courage is needed in the conflicts that take place on the battlefield, courage is even more important for actually preventing conflicts.”

He added, “Courage should mean, not turning a blind eye to actions that are setting the grounds for future conflict.” He gave the example, “In order to prevent the next conflict between Israel and Hizbullah the Security Council must acknowledge the dangerous buildup of Hizbullah in southern Lebanon.”

He urged the Council, “to put an end to Iran’s destabilizing actions in our region and throughout the world.”

“The primary work of conflict prevention lies with member states,” Guterres advised. Thus given the 193 UN members with often conflicting interests, such noble sentiments are easier said than done.

As Antonio Guterres stressed, “War is never inevitable. It is always a matter of choice…But peace, too, is never inevitable. it is the result of difficult decisions, hard work and compromise.”

The new secretary general’s stoical realism is confronted by a chaotic and combustible global order. Yet trying to defuse these smoldering trouble spots, be they regional ethnic conflicts or great power rivalries, through preventive diplomacy remains a noble and lofty aim as success will be measured in tangible but quiet victories.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]