In 2016, when António Guterres became Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), more countries were experiencing violent conflict than at any time in the previous three decades and non-State violence had reached the highest levels since record keeping began1.
It is therefore unsurprising that upon taking his oath of office in front of the UN’s General Assembly, he noted that “our most serious shortcoming — and here I refer to the entire international community – is our inability to prevent crises.2”
This set the tone for his tenure and conflict prevention has now become a key element of the UN’s reform agenda.
The groundwork for this was laid in 2015 when the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, the Review of the UN Peacebuilding Architecture, and the High-Level Review on Security Council resolution 1325, all pointed to the need for the Organization to revise its approach to peace and security in view of the changing dynamics of conflict.
A part of this change of tack is laid out in two Security Council and General Assembly resolutions on “sustaining peace3” , which have conflict prevention at their core. It is, however, most comprehensively described in Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict, a joint UN–World Bank Group study that originates from the conviction that the international community’s attention must urgently be refocused on prevention.
There are three important points in the UN’s new approach to conflict prevention that deserve to be re-emphasized.
First, conflict is present in every society and is a key part of human progression and societal development. The issue is how this conflict manifests itself, in other words, how society deals with differing views and interests and whether there are ways of resolving these differences without coercion or violence, something which is more difficult when arms are added to an already volatile situation.
Second, although acting before the outbreak of violent conflict is likely to be more effective, save more lives and cost less, under the UN’s new approach, conflict prevention is no longer considered something purely pre-emptive. Efforts to sustain peace include the need “to prevent the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence of conflict” and a Statement by the President of the Security Council in 2018 recalled “that a comprehensive conflict prevention strategy should include, inter alia, early warning, preventive deployment, mediation, peacekeeping, non-proliferation, accountability measures as well as post-conflict peacebuilding.4”
Third, the reviews, resolutions and studies on conflict prevention, and the activities undertaken to boost prevention, pay scant attention to a key common factor in all armed conflicts: the presence and use of arms. Quite simply, without weapons there is no such thing as armed conflict and it is the use of arms that tips a situation over from non-violent conflict into violent armed conflict. This may seem obvious, yet arms control activities are rarely integrated into conflict prevention strategies.
The UN does consider risks posed by weapons. There are systems to track arms imports, prevent the diversion of weapons from legal stockpiles into the hands of illegal armed groups, to sanction parties considered to be fueling a conflict by sending in weapons, and to establish embargoes to stymie these flows. Programmes exist to control weapons to create space for mediation and negotiation and to disarm and demobilize factions post-conflict. Many of these activities such as disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR), mine action, sanctions and the institution of ceasefires are well known. Yet they are mostly used in conflict settings or once a peace agreement has already been reached and are tied to efforts to prevent the continuation of conflict, as opposed to preventing a conflict from occurring.
In over 20 years of work on peace and security within the UN, I observed that arms control is rarely included in a pre-emptive strategy that usually involves good offices and diplomacy. Instead it is viewed as a technical fix to the presence of arms once a conflict has started. Arms control is therefore relegated to something to be addressed post-facto as opposed to something to be instituted so as to prevent armed conflict from occurring. In this regard, the UN treats guns as a by-product of conflict as opposed to an underlying cause and enabler and in doing so it denies itself a whole raft of tools that could broaden its armed conflict prevention toolkit.
This may be due to some of the more difficult aspects of both arms control and early prevention work, which is that these are politically sensitive issues, especially in situations of potential or budding conflict when the need for external involvement may be less obvious and more difficult to justify. They are also operationally difficult to execute, requiring awareness and know how to implement mitigation measures and programmes, which in turn require technical capacities and funding that may not be available through the usual development partners and donors.
Moreover, they are often carried out in countries that are not necessarily receiving adequate UN backing to recognize and tackle these issues before they escalate and conflict breaks out. UN resident coordinators are often on the front line of early prevention work and they may be more comfortable with humanitarian and development approaches and reluctant to integrate arms control issues into this, or they may lack the capacity to do so.
This is a missed opportunity as arms control could help to provide both early warning on armed conflict and entry points to head it off. Doing so requires an effort to understand these arms control-related tools and integrate them into prevention strategies. Activities such as tracking the presence and use of arms in societies, monitoring the build-up or stockpiling of weapons and the use of firearms in criminal, intercommunal or political violence may provide an early warning of raised tensions and access to arms. The diversion of weapons from legal stores is a key signifier of insecurity and a central factor in the formation of armed groups, the cross-border movement of arms and combatants a sign of the spread of a conflict from one country to another. During a recent visit to West Africa I spoke to some of those gathering this type of information and a common refrain was that this is largely ignored by those developing prevention strategies and, in a zone of regional conflicts, rarely shared across borders, making it more difficult to assess the regional threat posed by arms.
Supporting conflict prevention actors to recognize the pre-cursors of possible conflict, including those associated with conventional, arms and providing them with resources to address them would allow for earlier and more effective interventions to resolve a situation before it escalates into armed conflict. The information required for this is usually available to local, national and regional authorities and to organisations such as the UN who can support activities to reduce access to arms and prevent armed conflict. It is, however, largely missing in the conflict analysis which informs prevention activities and the corresponding programming on arms control is equally absent.
In his Agenda for Disarmament, “Securing our Common Future”, the Secretary-General requests the Organization to “explore how to better integrate an understanding of the impact of arms into assessments, risk analyses and conflict prevention activities carried out by the Department of Political Affairs and other relevant entities.5” UNIDIR is exploring approaches and practical tools that can help practitioners align their work and advance our shared goal of preventing armed conflict. In doing so the Institute is building a bridge between the arms control and conflict prevention communities, a bridge that will hopefully allow good offices to flourish and guns to remain silent.
Simon Yazgi is a researcher in the Conventional Arms Programme at UNIDIR, where he leads research on Conventional Arms Control in Conflict Prevention and Management.