University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Laurie Nathan, Adam Day, João Honwana and Rebecca Brubaker

From its inception, the United Nations (UN) has engaged in preventive diplomacy in situations of conflict in order to prevent the outbreak of large-scale violence. Preventive diplomacy has recently been given fresh impetus by the Report of the High-Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations and by the appointment of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who has called for a renewed emphasis on “diplomacy for peace.”

Guterres and the High Level Panel’s report paint a gloomy picture, observing that the UN is failing at conflict prevention, but this assertion is not entirely accurate. In many places the UN, working in partnership with other international and domestic actors, has succeeded in preventing violent conflict. The failures have been catastrophic – as in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – while the successes have been less dramatic and are therefore less noticeable.

Internally, the UN has not reviewed its preventive diplomacy experiences in a comparative and systematic way. As a result, it has not built cumulative knowledge in a rigorous fashion and does not have a good appreciation of what constitutes best practice. This limits the organization’s ability to become more effective over time.

In order to address this deficiency, in 2017 the Centre for Policy Research at the UN University initiated a research project on successful preventive diplomacy by the UN. The project was undertaken in collaboration with the UN Department of Political Affairs and supported by the government of the United Kingdom. The aim was to deepen understanding of the reasons for success and generate general lessons and recommendations. The selected cases were Guinea (2008-10), Lebanon (2011-17), Malawi (2011-12), Nigeria (2015), South Sudan (2010-11), and Yemen (2011). The case studies were published along with the project’s main report.

The project defined preventive diplomacy as “diplomatic action taken to prevent conflicts from becoming violent and to prevent conflicts with low-level violence from spreading or escalating into large-scale violence.” Put colloquially, the challenge is to “prevent small fires from becoming large fires.”

Preventive diplomacy is a form of operational conflict prevention. It is undertaken by international diplomats, local politicians, and civil society leaders. It focuses on the immediate risk of large-scale violence and is concerned with short-term conflict management rather than long-term conflict resolution or conflict transformation. Unlike structural conflict prevention, preventive diplomacy concentrates on escalatory political and security dynamics and not on the structural causes of violence. If successful, it enables the conflict parties to step away from the edge of the abyss without losing face.

The research identified six critical success factors that were common across the cases:

  • The conflict parties were considering resorting to large-scale violence but had not made the fateful decision to cross that threshold. This created the potential for successful diplomatic intervention. Once a conflict party has decided to embark on mass violence, there is little, if any, space for preventive diplomacy.
  • Although preventive diplomacy is occasionally accompanied by coercive measures, it is a quintessentially consensual endeavor. The UN can only be effective if it first wins the parties’ consent to the organization playing a diplomatic role. If it cannot achieve this, an alternative approach is for the UN to support a regional body that is accepted by the parties.
  • All the successful cases were characterized by a high level of international and regional cooperation and unity: the UN Security Council was united; key international and regional actors supported UN leadership on preventive diplomacy; and/or UN preventive diplomacy was undertaken in partnership with other international actors. In the failed cases of Syria and South Sudan, by contrast, the lack of international and regional unity proved an insurmountable obstacle to successful prevention.
  • International leverage was used effectively. This was especially true of soft leverage, which included the UN Secretary-General’s Good Offices and the deployment of UN expertise and resources to support preventive diplomacy. The case studies did not reveal a clear pattern regarding coercive leverage, which has often been counter-productive.
  • The UN envoy who led the preventive diplomacy had the right set of attributes and skills. This included deep knowledge of the conflict and the parties, a regional or cultural affinity with the parties, and exceptional skill in communication, persuasion, and facilitation.
  • There was good internal UN coordination and cooperation. The UN is a collection of many different departments and agencies that sometimes work at cross-purposes with each other. Effective preventive diplomacy requires collaboration between the UN envoy, UN Headquarters, the UN Country Team, and the UN regional offices.

Preventive diplomacy focuses narrowly on the parties’ actions and rhetoric that are escalatory. If successful, it prevents the outbreak of large-scale violence, but the risk of violence will persist for as long as the structural problems are not addressed. Ideally, short-term preventive diplomacy should therefore be linked to long-term efforts to improve governance, respect for human rights, and socio-economic development and inclusion. If such efforts are politically unfeasible in a given case, operational prevention should be institutionalized and become a continuous rather than a short-term function. The case studies on Nigeria and Lebanon in this edition of Peace Policy provide examples of institutionalized prevention mechanisms.

Laurie Nathan is Director of the Mediation Program, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies; Adam Day is the Head of Programs, UN University’s Centre for Policy Research, New York; João Honwana is a former Director, UN Department of Political Affairs; and Rebecca Brubaker is a Senior Policy Advisor, UN University’s Centre for Policy Research, New York.