Since Dag Hammarskjold first articulated the concept of preventive diplomacy more than half a century ago, the idea that diplomatic engagement can head off violent conflict has been at the heart of the UN. But over the past 30 years, the nature of armed conflict has changed dramatically, and today’s diplomats are faced with a far more complex array of actors, intra-state dynamics, and global risks than ever before. Violent conflict is growing and becoming more difficult to resolve. As a result, the need to prevent violent conflict before it starts has become the UN’s overriding priority.
Yet while the UN Secretary-General has called for a “surge in diplomacy for peace,” very little is actually known about what preventive diplomacy really is, and what makes it work. In a paper to support a joint UN-World Bank project on prevention, Alexandra Pichler-Fong and Adam Day set out to answer the question, “Under what conditions does UN diplomacy help shift the calculus away from violent conflict?”
The World Bank Group-IMF Spring Meetings, held April 17-19 in Washington D.C., offered an opportunity to take stock of progress on our work to end fragility, conflict and violence (FCV), as well as to embrace the renewed commitment expressed by the Bank Group’s shareholders.
Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict—the flagship study jointly published by the UN and the World Bank—has been touted as an unparalleled, potentially paradigm-shifting piece of work. But so often, conflict prevention approaches are weighted toward Africa or the Middle East; is the study relevant to Australia’s region and interests?
This study is a mix, but it tips toward the positive for Australia’s approach to security, politics, and development. It features several countries of high interest to Australia, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Timor Leste. Even Bougainville rates an instructive mention, although Solomon Islands is not discussed. Subnational conflict and middle-income country dynamics are certainly considered in a general sense. Predictably, though, African and Middle Eastern experiences are more prominent, given they are in many cases acute, high profile, and the destination of much conflict or peacebuilding support and political interest of UN and World Bank members.
Most conflicts take place in fragile low- and middle-income countries. Therefore, monitoring, measuring, and evaluating the risk of violent conflict in such environments poses a huge challenge, but is necessary to inform strategies and interventions. Can we monitor the risk of conflict, or is this an impossible task? What tools do we have at our disposal for doing so?
The renewed focus on conflict prevention—resulting from the jointly published UN–World Bank study, Pathways for Peace—along with the recent rise in intra-state and regional conflicts, has thrust conflict prevention back to the center of global security sector reform (SSR) discourse.
As highlighted in the 2017 DCAF report, “The Contribution and Role of SSR in the Prevention of Violent Conflict”, security and justice institutions are often the primary interface between states and the populations they are meant to serve. But their protracted ineffectiveness or poor governance can leave the door open for conflict to escalate. It is therefore encouraging that we are going back to the roots of SSR and reassessing its role in conflict prevention.
It is often in the wake of conflict and political crises that nations face their greatest challenge – the road to recovery. It is in these tenuous moments, where countries wish to look forward and emerge anew that they often need the most help. Over the years, it has been the World Bank Group’s purview to provide such support, coordinating a common platform for government and international efforts towards recovery and peacebuilding. This work often begins with a needs assessment, known as a Recovery and Peacebuilding Assessment (RPBA), a joint approach of the United Nations (UN), European Union (UN) and the World Bank (WB) to help countries identify and prioritize recovery and peace building activities. This is done by focusing on the conflict and security situation and a thorough understanding of the social, political and economic drivers of the crisis.
Studies on conflict prediction and prevention often investigate places that experience civil war and try to determine why they occurred, with the idea that knowing the answer can inform policymaking efforts. This approach has two weaknesses. First, it provides an incomplete understanding of conflict, as there are no comparisons between these observed cases and a set of systematically chosen and similar peers. Second, it does not answer the question of whether the international community can identify risk factors in time to do anything about them.
Following periods of violent conflict, states often dedicate significant energy, time, and funding to a variety of endeavors broadly aimed at improving the rule of law. These include pursuing prosecutions or legally enacted amnesties to address past human rights violations; revising constitutions to expand human rights protections; undertaking reparatory and truth-seeking processes; and creating national human rights institutions and ombuds offices to monitor future human rights violations. Existing research, however, has not fully assessed whether these endeavors have any payoff in terms of preventing further violent conflict.
It was around this time a year ago, when I gave away the keys of my newly renovated apartment back to its owner. After having lived in the U.S. for more than 12 years, I had decided to return home, to Jerusalem. I packed my belongings in a rush, afraid that the more I stay, the more time I would have to think about it and never leave.
Do political institutions matter when explaining why some post-conflict countries fall back into conflict? On the one hand, many believe inclusive political institutions to be key for conflict prevention. On the other hand, the academic literature so far, mostly focusing on the effect of regime type more generally, fails to find consistent effects – more democratic states do not clearly experience less conflict recurrence. This blog post summarizes a paper, which argues that rather than democracy more generally, very specific political institutions can very well have an influence on whether conflict recurs or not.