Preventive Diplomacy in Africa: Adapting to New Realities
Preventive Diplomacy in Africa: Adapting to New Realities
Can COP28 Deliver for Africa?
Can COP28 Deliver for Africa?
Op-Ed / Africa 20+ minutes

Preventive Diplomacy in Africa: Adapting to New Realities

The United Nations has lost significant ground in the area of conflict prevention, management, and resolution on the African continent. Despite having a significant presence in almost all crisis situations, making normative progress in some areas like international justice and the responsibility to protect, and diversifying its intervention toolbox from peacekeeping and good offices to more thematic areas like mediation support, constitution making, and human rights inquiries, there are few promising signs that the UN will regain its previous position as the primary port of call to support the resolution of crises on the continent. This trend has manifested itself most visibly in the UN Security Council's and Secretariat's increasing tendency to defer the lead role in managing conflicts in Africa to regional powers or organizations, and also in the withdrawal of consent to the deployment of UN peacekeeping missions by the host governments of Burundi, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Eritrea, Sudan, and more recently--after the mission certified that the incumbent president lost the elections--Cote d'Ivoire. 

Understanding the UN's new position--its causes and consequences--will be essential if the organization is to engage in effective preventive diplomacy in Africa at all stages of the conflict cycle. A number of factors outside the UN's control have shifted its relative position in the field, including the emergence of new global and regional actors; African disillusionment with perceived Western influence on the continent and selective acceptance of the normative agenda promoted by the UN; and the global financial crisis, which is already impacting the UN's crisis-response capacity, most notably the funding of peacekeeping operations. Other factors are related to the UN's own performance in conflict-affected states, such as the Security Council's perceived loss of legitimacy, due to its lack of reform and the absence of permanent African representation; the UN's all too frequent slow reaction to early warnings; and the Secretary-General's own preference for a regionally-led and state-centric approach. The impact of uprisings in North Africa, particularly in Libya, will also be felt profoundly in ways yet to be fully determined. While the UN-authorized intervention there revived the role of the Security Council for some of its members, it undermined that of the African Union (AU) and created deep resentment among African countries and the leading emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS), particularly against the Permanent Three (P3)-France, the UK, and the US. This paper will outline the major trends affecting preventive diplomacy in Africa and examine the effect of these trends on the application of existing efforts. Lessons drawn from this analysis offer a few key observations and recommendations for the UN going forward. Chief among these is a call for the Security Council and the Secretary-General to redefine and reassert the added value as well as peace and security responsibilities of the various parts of the UN system in the context of the current division of labor among multilateral actors, while improving the quality of strategic dialogue and coordination with key regional actors. The vague delineation of roles in the current call for "partnerships" clouds what is expected of whom, and therefore each actor's theoretical accountability.


The credibility of the UN as the chief conflict prevention and management actor in Africa is now challenged on numerous fronts. The proliferation of political actors on the continent and their growing influence in maintaining peace and security means that the UN is no longer the multilateral channel of choice for preventive diplomatic efforts.  Increasing assertiveness on the part of the African Union, subregional organizations, and influential African leaders  in responding to conflicts has in some cases displaced the UN altogether, and in others relegated it to a supporting role. As a result, UN support is often limited to technical assistance, such as electoral or constitution-making support, mediation support, human rights inquiries, or financial and logistical assistance. The mantra of "African solutions for African problems," increasingly favored by both Western powers and African leaders over the last decade, has bolstered the African Union's primacy in responding to conflicts on the continent. The concept gained ascendency as part of the postcolonial assertiveness of African leaders and in the wake of high-profile peacekeeping  failures, notably in Somalia and Rwanda, that caused the Western countries that had led the UN missions there to subsequently desire a transfer of responsibility to African countries.
The wider international community, including the Security Council, has largely embraced this trend by deferring responsibility and leadership to the AU and subregional organizations, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). This has been the case in response to the coup in Madagascar, the 2007 electoral crisis in Kenya, the ZANU/MDC dispute in Zimbabwe, the Lansana Conte succession crisis in Guinea, the destabilization of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) by an Islamist insurgency in Somalia, and the postreferendum negotiations and disputed-areas crises in Sudan.

There are two recent and notable exceptions to this pattern: the Security Council-authorized interventions in Libya and Cote d'Ivoire in March 2011. However, in each case there were marked interests in the situation by one or all of the three permanent members (France, the UK, and the US) known as the P3, combined with failed diplomatic efforts by the African Union. In Cote d'Ivoire, the AU took time to agree on a strategy of peaceful resolution regarding President Gbagbo's departure while the situation deteriorated, opening the way for a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. In Libya, the AU was never perceived as an impartial actor and similarly failed to deliver firm commitments from the Qaddafi regime or the National Transitional Council that would lead to talks. Each case illustrated an initial preference for specific regional partnerships: in Cote d'Ivoire, the Security Council declined to take up the situation for weeks, despite attacks on the UN peacekeeping mission, in favor of allowing the AU/ECOWAS an initial lead role in resolving the crisis; in Libya, the Arab League was seen as a more favorable partner than the AU in promoting a military intervention against the Qaddafi regime. Each case was also exceptional in that strong national interests on the part of the P3 superseded the overall trend of growing regional indifference. 

Regional Organizations

Since its creation in 2002, the AU has become more active and assertive, both in response to the leadership of chairpersons of the commission (currently Jean Ping) and peace and security commissioners (Said Djinnit and now Ramtane Lamamra), and under instruction from Africa's heads of state, who are willing to be more responsive and make the Peace and Security Council (PSC) decisions more binding. The AU, which included the promotion of peace, security, democracy, and good governance, as well as a common defense policy, in its founding principles, has become increasingly interventionist, in both political crises and military matters. The suspensions of Mauritania (2005, 2008), Eritrea (2009), Guinea (2008), Madagascar (2001, 2009), Niger (2010), and Cote d'Ivoire (2011), each by a PSC decision and mainly as a result of unconstitutional attempts to seize power, are particularly illustrative, as are ECOWAS and AU mediation efforts in the crises of Liberia, Togo, Kenya, Darfur and North and South Sudan, Eastern Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, and now Libya, and the deployment of protection forces in Burundi and Darfur. The sovereignty of individual member states is no longer considered an absolute bar to intervention within the region; in several cases, the AU has already implemented the "principle of non indifference" embodied in the 2000 Constitutive Act of the AU Charter.

This push for political intervention within the AU is the result of a combination of factors: the end of apartheid and the subsequent push for an African Renaissance led by South Africa; stability and economic growth in large parts of the continent, including much of southern Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, and Mali; the end or decrease in intensity of extremely violent conflicts in the Mano River and the Great Lakes, as well as the incremental stabilization of Sudan through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) process. These developments have gradually opened new political space and freed up the capacity of individual states to intervene. African countries with powerful militaries, such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda, having gained some UN peacekeeping experience, now deploy their troops in regional peacekeeping or peace-enforcement operations, such as the AMIB in Burundi, AMIS/UNAMID in Darfur, and AMISOM in Somalia. In most of these cases, the deployments took place in the absence of political will at the Security Council to send UN peacekeeping missions under very unstable conditions. 

This trend has been backed by Security Council members and within the UN Secretariat, where there has been much rhetorical support over the last decade for the AU's leadership role on the continent, as well as various commitments to capacity building for the AU. The UN Secretariat has also made a concerted effort to provide technical support to the regional organizations, while maintaining a low profile so as to allow both to build confidence in the new institutions and to provide political cover to prevent potential backlash against UN, perceived as Western, influence. These efforts coincide with a gradual fatigue regarding African conflicts and the P3's shift in focus to counterterrorism and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. France and the UK, as former colonial powers, have reformulated their African policies and scaled down their military, financial, and political engagement on the continent, which has impacted the UN's own role on the continent too.

Along with its own growing confidence and capacities, the AU's assertion of primary responsibility for African conflicts is also driven by a postcolonial orientation and disillusionment with "Western interventions" and double standards. African states often perceive the UN Security Council as Western dominated and unrepresentative, making African leaders skeptical of interventions promoted by external actors, whether they involve the use of force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, issues of human rights accountability, or other conflict-prevention measures. Some even view UN peacekeeping forces as postcolonial operations intended to dominate weak states and question their motives. However, in some cases, this criticism of UN interventions also masks a rejection by some African leaders of the democratic and accountability agenda promoted by the UN. The AU's opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment of Sudan's President Bashir, is a case in point: while it was in part justified by a pragmatic perception that the pursuit of accountability would make implementation of the CPA more complicated, it was also rejected by some African leaderships as "judicial imperialism" promoted by the West against an Arab-African head of state, and not backed by principled positions on accountability in other forums. Despite the depth of these disagreements over the UN normative agenda and concerns about representativeness and selectivity in the work of the Security Council, neither the council as a whole nor the P3 has made much effort to address the core values issue through genuine and open dialogue. 

The failure to foster dialogue was most recently exhibited in the marginalization of the AU in the Security Council's decision to intervene in Libya, which gave birth to renewed bitterness and resentment against the West. The council's decision to preference Arab League cooperation over AU engagement laid bare the relatively unchanged political reality that African leaders can still be marginalized whenever overriding national interests of the P3 are present, despite years of rhetoric in favor of AU leadership on the continent. The situation was likely doubly frustrating for many African leaders because it also revealed the weakness of the AU's position in its failure to achieve any real concessions from Muammar Qaddafi or to negotiate a political alternative to NATO-led intervention. It also made clear the paradoxical position of the African countries on the Security Council. Neither South Africa nor Nigeria, as nonpermanent members, abstained or voted against Resolution 1973, unlike emerging powers India and Brazil. The UN Secretariat made subsequent efforts to bring the AU into the discussions of the Contact Group on Libya and into consultations with UN Special Envoy AI Khatib, but the repudiation of 1973's implementation by top African leaders at a joint meeting between the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the PSC in Addis in June made their frustration evident. As more than half the items on the Security Council agenda are related to African crises and involve some form of intervention in internal affairspeacekeeping, peacebuilding, or good offices, it is crucial to mitigate the impact of historical legacies on coordination between the UN and regional organizations by sharing analysis on a continuous basis and defining joint policy objectives for any given situation. 

The institutional capacity of the AU Commission to support conflict-prevention efforts, much less complex peace processes, remains limited despite ongoing efforts to provide technical and financial assistance to the commission. Even when the AU may lead, mobilization of resources from external actors is often still essential to sustain its work. For example, the UN provided extensive support to Kofi Annan's team during South African Development Community negotiations on Zimbabwe and to the Mbeki panel on postreferendum negotiations in Sudan, and it brought significant technical and political expertise to crisis management in Guinea. Yet, resource mobilization to support regional efforts has also proven to be a highly politicized task that leads to a certain degree of confusion about which institutions have the political lead and ultimately bear responsibility for the intervention. In peacekeeping, for example, expectations that the UN would generate support for the AU have led to tensions over policy formulation and burden sharing, resulting in some mixed experiences of collaboration: in Darfur, the participation of the AU was the sine qua non condition imposed by the government of Sudan to allow the deployment in Darfur, which the UN had no choice but to accept. Conversely, in Somalia, the AU intervened in 2007 on the assumption that there would be automatic funding and logistical support, but also an eventual re-hatting of the mission by the UN, which the UNSC has been extremely reluctant to authorize. Unless the fundamental gap between aspiration and growing political legitimacy on the one hand and AU capacity to sustain efforts over a long period of time and deliver effective interventions on technical and political fronts on the other is openly recognized and addressed, genuine reform will prove difficult.

Effective AU-UN cooperation also assumes there is internal unity in both organizations, which is not always the case. There are well-known divisions within the Security Council on key issues of sovereignty and intervention, as seen in the case of the intervention in Libya, and significant divisions among Africa's most powerful countries that have sometimes led to policy paralysis. Differences of vision and competition between individual leaders and among regional powers, such as between Nigeria and South Africa, have prevented consensus within the AU on key preventive diplomacy efforts. This was evidenced by failure to promptly tackle the electoral crisis in Cote d'Ivoire. In that case, South Africa and Angola initially supported a power-sharing agreement between former President Gbagbo and elected President Ouattara. Their position was informed by their own liberation struggles, resistance to a perceived Western (French) intervention agenda, old connections within the socialist movement, and gratitude for Gbagbo's position against the Angolan UNITA movement in the 1990s. Nigeria and the majority of ECOWAS countries forcefully promoted respect for the outcome of the election and the departure of Gbagbo from office, but those efforts were hampered through diplomatic bumbling and limited resources to back up the more coercive threats, and because the UNSC did not provide substantial backing. Nigeria and South Africa again took different positions on the conflict in Libya, with the former recognizing the insurgents' National Transitional Council early on and the latter promoting an alternative conflict-resolution framework and expressing concern at the precedent created by Security Council Resolution 1973. Likewise, in Madagascar, it can be argued that the competition between the AU and SADC has been detrimental to existing efforts at mediation. Due to strong differences between member states, there is little willingness to delegate authority to the different secretariats, which makes cooperation with the UN difficult.

Subregional Organizations 

Like the AU, subregional organizations are also asserting an increasingly active role in preventive diplomacy, with varying degrees of success. The first sign of this was in the 1990s, with the ECOWAS interventions in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau.The subregion's role in peace and security has grown significantly since then. The engagement of ECOWAS and particularly of one of its members, Burkina Faso, in the crisis in Guinea following the September 2009 stadium massacre was largely considered a successful effort to avert further violence or escalation to civil war. Recent ECOWAS efforts in Cote d'Ivoire were perhaps less successful, particularly in their coordination with the AU, demonstrating that the organization's current strength is in its diplomatic response to coups and other unconstitutional attempts to seize power, and not in its capacity to intervene militarily. Meanwhile, IGAD plays an increasingly important role in guiding international policy with respect to Somalia, as illustrated by its recent unilateral decision to recommend extension of the Transitional Federal Government's (TFG) mandate. The dominance of Ethiopia and Uganda as regional powers and a lack of coherence among the other key international actors-including between IGAD and the rest of the international community regarding Somalia-has resulted in a fragmented and ineffective approach to conflict resolution. This has allowed one party, the TFG, to essentially be part of an Ethiopian-led military strategy to contain Islamist groups and Somali irredentists. In this case, a regional power actively prevents the resolution of a conflict through political dialogue and is unchecked by the wider international community in pursuit of its own national agenda, particularly its conflict with Eritrea. This demonstrates the risks of over-reliance on subregional configurations to lead in conflict resolution, where there is little counterbalance from the wider international community, preferably through the UN, to a regional power pursuing narrow interests above conflict prevention or resolution. 

The UNSC's deferral to regional organizations, realized both politically and through the Secretariat's activities, has led to the creation of new partnerships and networks of contacts, but also sometimes to an increasingly ad hoc approach. However, as each phase of diplomatic engagement is too often conceived as sequential and hierarchical, the number of policy options and points of leverage at any given decision point may, in fact, shrink. This has been evident in particular in the response to the elections and security crisis in Cote d'Ivoire, where though a substantial UN peacekeeping mission was under intense pressure, the council repeatedly deferred action to the subregional and regional actors, with no obvious mechanism for coordinating a coherent political strategy among the various actors. The international community, including most notably the UN, did not seem to have planned for a Ouattara victory scenario or a challenge to the election results. In this policy vacuum, and amid contradictory and poorly-coordinated responses from ECOWAS and the AU, the situation was allowed to significantly deteriorate, as each actor looked to the other to lead. For months, both sides fell short of effective response. Finally, the AU achieved consensus by appointing a panel of heads of state, but it failed to appoint a high representative or deliver a diplomatic solution before the political and security situation had deteriorated so far that key actors, including President-elect Ouattara, France, and the Security Council, decided to take robust military action to end the crisis. The last and most violent episodes of the Cote d'Ivoire electoral saga showed the limitations of the current division of labor between international and African organizations.

New Global Actors

In addition to the new actors that have emerged with the devolution of authority and responsibility to regional and subregional bodies, newly assertive global players are also changing the nature of preventive diplomacy. Most notably in Africa, Chinese bilateral economic engagement (through foreign direct investment, lending mechanisms, and bilateral aid) is shifting the balance of power within the international community and impacting not only discrete points of leverage with various regimes and decision makers, but the overall political calculations of many leaders on the continent. Some, such as Joseph Kabila, Robert Mugabe, Omar Al Bashir, and even Dadis Camara during his brief time in  power in Guinea, have become particularly adept at playing these various actors and their interests against each  other, diversifying their patronage system and paralyzing the international community. 

Growing assertiveness by China and other emerging powers is manifest in the Security Council as well, particularly among those countries eager to gain a permanent seat, such as India and South Africa. The emergence of new global powers raises the question of their contribution to preventive diplomacy; at present there is little evidence that the permanent seat aspirants represent any real shift away from the more cautious approach preferred by China and Russia, in which strict interpretation of sovereignty and aversion to preventive action predominates. While the IBSA countries (India, Brazil, and South Africa), along with Turkey in some instances, have attempted to promote a "third way" on the council, there has been little evidence of its manifestation in council decision making on situations, including such a high-profile one as Syria. While reforming the Security Council would be an important signal that the council is prepared to remain credible and relevant, it would not necessarily lead to a more engaged and active body. There is also an obligation on the P3 to sustain their engagement in and support to conflict prevention and resolution in Africa through the UN, acting more consistently in support of UN principles, even as their own national interests and capacities may wane. The P3 have proven with the Libya intervention that when they are determined to act,they can  still drive an agenda within the UNSC, even if it requires additional diplomatic work to build coalitions, such as with the Arab League. It is vital for these powers to engage in dialogue, through the UNSC, with both the emerging powers and regional leaders in Africa, so as to address the gap between legitimacy and capacity within the AU, as well as selective engagement in peace and security issues by both the Security Council and the PSC. 

The emergence of new actors and shifting power centers is a fact of life. The UN has adapted to this changing reality by creating new "partnerships", but with very little overall strategic vision for either the evolution of multilateral engagement or the coordination of crisis-specific responses. Weakness is evident in both the Secretariat and the Security Council. There is a perceived willingness (or even eagerness) to use chapter VIII of the UN Charter and cede responsibility for conflict prevention to other international actors, in part due to a recognition of the limits of the UN acting alone; this has weakened the organization's authority and legitimacy, perhaps more than is warranted. On the council, the US is no longer the lone superpower, and it has generally become more necessary for the to build coalitions than in the past. After making substantive progress in dealing with internal crisis situations over the last fifteen years and engaging massively in major African peace processes and peacekeeping operations in the last decade, the recent weak record of political engagement by the various UN bodies and departments on crises from Eastern DRC to Cote d'Ivoire and Zimbabwe is highly disappointing. Likewise, responding to a relatively weaker P3 and more assertive emphasis on non-intervention by China, Russia, and others, the Secretariat is less able to mobilize enough support from member states for conflict-prevention and preventive-diplomacy initiatives. 

On African matters, the Secretariat once relied heavily on France and the UK to champion initiatives, or exercise leverage, but this is less and less feasible now as both countries have lost interest in African affairs, bar some exceptional cases like Libya, and both face declining financial capacity and political influence on the continent as well. To adapt, the UN will need to modify its approach and consider ways to expand its partnerships with diverse member states, including emerging powers.


Good Offices. Special Envoys, and Mediators

Envoys and formal mediators are key tools of preventive diplomacy. Both have been important factors in cases of recent effective preventive diplomacy in Africa. Kofi Annan in Kenya, Haile Menkerios in Zimbabwe and Sudan, Said Djinnit in Guinea, Thabo Mbeki in Sudan, Blaise Compaore in Cote d'Ivoire and Guinea, Olusegun Obasanjo in the Rwanda/DRC conflict, Augustine Mahiga and Jerry Rawlings in Somalia, and Joachim Chissano on the LRA-affected areas are all good examples. However, a number of these cases can be viewed only as highly qualified successes. 

While Mr. Menkerios may have been instrumental in helping to finally negotiate a unity government in Zimbabwe after eight years of "quiet" South African diplomacy, thus averting the collapse of the country, the lack of international policy coherence and due diligence in the follow-up to the Global Political Agreement raises serious doubts about whether democratic transformation is afoot and crisis has truly been prevented. Without any clear coordination mechanism to achieve policy coherence, the rest of the international community, including the UN, will be left to wait and watch whether the South African/SADC mediation will be sufficient to help avert a potential crisis in the upcoming elections. In the DRC case, President Obasanjo's mediation between the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) rebels and President Kabila's government could only carry the process so far. The rapprochement between Presidents Kabila and Kagame, whatever its terms, was deemed sufficient to get a ceasefire and avoid an absolute collapse of Kabila's authority after the CNDP show of force and Kabila's army's defeat in October 2008. However, President Obasanjo was quick to recognize the limitations of this type of diplomacy, when the key international actors, in this case Western governments such as the US, France, and the UK, and regional powers such as South Africa, were unwilling to support a comprehensive diplomatic process to resolve the underlying causes of the conflicts in Eastern DRC. Without this support, the violence in Eastern Congo continues to fester at an unacceptable level, and no single third party accepts any real responsibility to facilitate a lasting solution to the myriad land, justice, citizenship, intercommunity coexistence, wealth-sharing, and other economic issues in the Kivus. The lens through which the conflict is viewed has been stubbornly state-centric, an insufficient approach to deal with the conflict in Eastern Congo, which also has local and regional dynamics.

Other challenges manifest themselves in more obviously failed mediation efforts, such as those in Darfur, Western Sahara, and Madagascar. In Darfur and Western Sahara, as well as Somalia, important regional dynamics are at play. In such situations, a fragmented international approach, coupled with a highly state-centric mode of engagement has left mediation efforts floundering. Failures of diplomacy in Darfur and Madagascar are equally illustrative of the challenges of proliferating actors and uncoordinated mediation. In each case, individual personalities and institutions were embroiled in competition with one another at the expense of creating a coherent diplomatic strategy. In the case of Darfur, Thabo Mbeki, Djibril Bassole,and Ibrahim Gambari were competing, while there continues to be no overall political strategy to resolve the crisis. In the case of Madagascar, the UN withdrew its special envoy in large part to give space to the AU and SADC, but the whole process has hit a dead end. Thus, while individual capacities and relationships are highly relevant to the success of any given envoy, the institutional and global dynamics must also be managed through a coherent and organized political process if mediation is to succeed and, as importantly, if coherent follow-up to mediation is to be sustained.

Regional Offices

The establishment of regional offices in West and Central Africa is an interesting and welcome addition to the UN's preventive-diplomacy capacity. The UN Office in West Africa (UNOWA) played a useful role in the transition in Guinea by providing logistical and technical support to the ECOWAS mediator and helping to ensure policy consensus through regular briefings by Special Representative (SRSG) Said Djinnit to the International Contact Group and the Security Council, as well as through his personal contacts with leaders in the region. While important contributions, the role of the office should not be overstated at the expense of recognizing the unique regional and global dynamics that allowed for a rapid and relatively coherent response to the crisis following the stadium massacre and subsequent departure of Moussa Dadis Camara. Active engagement by the US and France, who, along with willing partners in the region, pushed for the creation of a UN commission of inquiry following the massacre, was a decisive factor, according to US embassy cables available on WikiLeaks. Of course, the assassination attempt on Camara by his aide-de-camp provided the opportunity for all players to promote a quick transition to civilian rule. Here, the leadership of  President Compaore, particularly by facilitating the appointment of Sekouba Konate as the head of transition and making him agree to organize elections, was crucial. Finally; the diagnosis that the Camara regime would not provide stability to Guinea was shared by ECOWAS members, as well as key players with significant investments in the country, such as Russia and China. 

Without diminishing the UN's contributions, the Secretariat must carefully reflect upon the role it can realistically play in preventive diplomacy, particularly in moments of crisis, and sharpen its attention to those areas in which it can offer the most added value. The UN system should strive to provide an enabling environment for diplomatic efforts by key actors and enhance its capacity to help build and sustain policy consensus through relevant and available mechanisms. Building relationships is key, and the appointment of an SRSG with high credibility in the region is essential. However, without substantial enhancements to the regional offices' budget and capacities, as well as robust political support from key member states, expectations for these offices to meet the existing gaps in early warning and analysis or act as a default principal lead in preventive diplomatic efforts are unrealistic. UNOWA, for example, has to cover sixteen countries with a very small team. It would also be useful to give regional offices the necessary staff and the capacity to support the International Contact Groups on specific crises, which have proven to be useful mechanisms to coordinate international action. When there are no political offices on the ground, the Secretariat should be able to deploy political officers very rapidly. Resident coordinators, who are the representatives of the Secretary-General for development operations, should develop a monitoring and reporting capacity and exercise greater initiative and responsibility to contribute to early warning within the UN system. 

UN Peace Operations 

Other UN presences, such as special political missions and complex peace operations, must not be overlooked as critical preventive-diplomacy tools. While renewed interest in structural and early conflict prevention is welcomed, opportunities for preventive diplomacy in the UN context, and particularly in Africa, are most likely to emerge in already fragile states that are in the process of resolving conflicts or consolidating peace. With the largest peacekeeping operations concentrated in Africa, numerous conflict-affected states, and the high risk of relapse to conflict in these states, failure to actively integrate a preventive-diplomacy approach into existing missions is costly. The UN's record is mixed in this regard. In Sudan, too little was done to help prevent the eruption of mass violence in Darfur in 2003, as attention was narrowly focused on negotiations between the north and south. While diplomatic efforts by the UN and others leading to the referendum for South Sudanese independence were squarely rooted in an understanding of the potential risk of the collapse of the CPA process, more was required to manage the fallout, particularly in northern Sudan. After a worrying initial last-minute push for unity in early 2010, the UN leadership took a less biased position and helped the international community reach a policy consensus on the need to peacefully hold the referendum and ensure respect for the outcome. It also worked cooperatively with the AU to maintain consensus and assisted the parties in peacefully navigating the referendum and launching postreferendum talks. The peaceful referendum was an important and impressive accomplishment for the parties and for the UN. Unfortunately, policy consensus within the international community began to fray after independence, and there is not yet satisfactory coordination on a coherent strategy to deal with the crises in the north, notably in Darfur, and in the transitional areas, Abyei, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile. Again, given their respective points of leverage and legitimacy, the P3, UNSC, AU, regional powers, and even the Arab League must act in concert. 

In the DRC, on the other hand, the UN appears to be shying away from a preventive-diplomacy role. Focused on perpetual conflict management and security crises in Eastern Congo, the international community and the UN are failing to demonstrate active engagement with the relevant parties to address key potential conflict risks that could cause further deterioration of the security environment through organized mass violence or renewed war beyond the already unacceptable levels now present in the East. The 2011 presidential and parliamentary elections were flashpoints for violence, and the long-neglected governance issues continue to sow the seeds for greater conflict. The preference to take an overly-cautious approach to challenging the government with respect to the conditions in which the elections will be held and to avoid another confrontation "a la Cote d'Ivoire" may prove to be a critical error: indeed, a flawed process in the DRC could open the way to new groups taking up arms and challenging the legitimacy of the central government. The challenges are myriad and compounded by neglected conflict-prevention and resolution efforts to thoroughly address the intercommunal and interstate dynamics and drivers of the violence in the East. The greatest attention has seemingly been given to short-term civilian-protection concerns, focused on the proximate causes of discrete attacks; infrastructure building as a means of extending state authority; and rebuilding a relationship with the government, albeit one in which the UN is fundamentally handicapped by a retreating Security Council and hyper-vigilance to prevent any further confrontation over the future status of the mission. However, the UN's significant presence in the country and strong mandate gives it greater authority and responsibility both to protect its reputation and exercise responsible preventive diplomacy. It would be a shame if twelve years of peacekeeping failed to prevent the emergence of an illegitimate government and more violence in eastern DRC.

Political Missions and Peacebuilding Offices

Special political missions and peacebuilding offices are similarly situated to play an important preventive-diplomacy role at any given point in the conflict cycle. The UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone has been credited with playing a constructive role in preventing the potential escalation of violence following tensions between the governing and opposition parties in March 2009. On the other hand, the office in Burundi struggled against an assertive host government, and the UN, which found itself severely weakened by the turnover of the mission's head, too often failed to defend its role in the country. 

The UN Political Office in Somalia (UNPOS) has failed to play a strong convening role among the various international actors to help build policy consensus and coherence. Without an effective political process in place and with little or no mandate to chart a new course, the office has limited options. The UN is precariously positioned between key members of the wider international community (e.g., the US and the UK), the dominant regional powers (Ethiopia and Uganda), an extremely weak transitional government, and an AU-led peacekeeping mission. In this case, the UN should focus on one of the few ways it can bring added value to the situation by building substantive relationships with local authorities through both its political and humanitarian work. The robust diplomatic efforts by SRSG Mahiga in August and September 2011 to establish a way out of theimpasse over the Transitional Federal Government's mandate were positive steps and illustrate the critical role of the UN. The organization should go further by challenging the current state model and making very clear that there will be no stability without decentralization. 

In all cases, whether Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Sierra Leone, or DRC, thlesson is clear that diverse parts of the UN system, including development and humanitarian actors, can play an important preventive-diplomacy role. However, the points of leverage, whether opportunistic or inherent in the UN's large presence, must be utilized and informed by an overall conflictprevention framework that is supported by the Security Council and mainstreamed across relevant actors. This unity of purpose and cohesion is a challenge for the UN, as its system works in silos. 

Justice Mechanisms, Electoral Assistance, and Human Rights Monitoring

For the moment, the UN remains the dominant international actor in the area of peacekeeping and large peacebuilding missions; it also retains unique credibility in the utilization of other prevention tools, such as justice and accountability mechanisms, electoral assistance, and human rights monitoring, despite an increasingly crowded field.

Electoral assistance in a preventive-diplomacy context generally functions in one of two ways. It is either an important component of a transition out of violent conflict, in which assistance is often mandated by the Security Council and conducted through a peacekeeping or peacebuilding mission, or it is provided at the request of a host government, which is often in transition and facing potentially risky elections. To be an effective tool, electoral assistance that gives the UN's Department of Political Affairs (DPA) an opportunity to engage must be provided as part of a broader conflict prevention strategy. It can be particularly useful in transitions from authoritarian regimes, providing an entry point for political engagement by the UN and donors, such as may prove to be the case in Tunisia. 

Unfortunately, the opportunity is too often wasted, as the UN, with the complicity of key donors, fails to coordinate an overarching strategy, preferring to focus instead on purely technical support to the host government. An overly technical approach without regard for an overarching political strategy in an at-risk environment not only risks aggravating conflict risk factors, but also jeopardizes the UN's added value as a standard-bearer for peace and security. Whether an existing UN presence or new actors offer to provide electoral assistance, as well as when and on what terms, is a critical and highly political question the UN and the rest of the international community will face with great frequency in the next year in Africa. The UN has the potential to make an important contribution to overall conflict prevention by identifying volatile elections; providing substantial political analysis of the risks, actors, and dynamics; and engaging in preventive diplomacy well in advance of the immediate campaign period. This requires not only sufficient resources and support from member states, but also enhancement of analytical capacities and willingness to bring together diverse actors across the UN system -and outside of it- to ensure policy coherence, including between the Electoral Assistance Division in DPA and the United Nations Development Programme.

Ideally, preventive diplomacy would prevent gross crimes and abuses that merit an international fact-finding mission or a commission of inquiry and threats of international accountability. Unfortunately, in the current environment, preventive diplomacy is likely to remain most effectively mobilized in response to some triggering event. All too often, this triggering event is a violent outbreak or crisis. This is true even when many of the well known precursors of violence are clearly present. Fact-finding missions have proven useful in shifting the calculations of perpetrators in a few cases, such as Guinea and Kenya. One of the potentially more potent tools of conflict prevention in this category is the Secretary-General's discretion to seize the Security Council of a situation through Article 99 of the Charter; unfortunately, it is rarely tested. In other situations, fact-finding missions or commissions of inquiry have increased pressure on international actors to respond to a trigger in an event, such as in Darfur. A constant effort must be made to strike a balance between preserving the independence of such missions and ensuring diplomatic coordination to maximize the political impact of the effort.

Likewise, international justice and accountability mechanisms are important tools in preventive diplomacy, if properly managed and executed. The early engagement of the ICC prosecutor was important for helping to deter further crimes and stabilize the crises in Kenya and Guinea. Containing and pressuring repressive and abusive regimes can be useful, but again this must be carefully managed and attuned to the diplomatic environment. The international justice regime remains an inherently political tool, albeit in the context of a rules-based international order. The arguably counterproductive role played by the ICC indictments in Sudan, widely perceived as advancing an anti-National Congress Party (NCP) political agenda more than doing justice to the victims of Darfur, should serve as a reminder of the need for careful management of preventive diplomacy efforts.


In addition to adapting to the global trends and challenges illustrated in the previous sections, the UN and its member states, if they are truly committed to conflict prevention, should actively work against the erosion of the organization's role as a key multilateral actor in the field. There is certainly an important role for regional and subregional actors in conflict prevention and preventive diplomacy, as legitimized by Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, and efforts to improve their technical and political capacity to perform this role effectively should be continued and enhanced. These efforts should not, however, be used by the international community to abrogate UN responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. Policymakers must have a clear-eyed approach to the actual capacities of various conflict-prevention actors and be prepared to facilitate coordination, negotiation of common policy objectives, and a division of labor for key activities. 

The UN has an important role to play even in the new environment, and the Secretariat should be better prepared to assert its coordination tasks, including internally, and fulfill the responsibilities of guiding a process to reach the greatest possible policy consensus. Capacities that could be enhanced in this regard include: improving relationships with regional and subregional actors; negotiating clearer roles and responsibilities vis-a-vis these actors; and enhancing the UN's own capacity to guide agreement on a common conflict risk assessment and vision for preventive action. Strategically, the Secretary-General and his special representatives could work to enhance their own legitimacy and political space by helping to negotiate a division of labor and a common approach among diverse actors, including at the regional and subregional level, as well as with key global actors such as top donors and the international financial institutions. At a technical level, significant improvements could be made to anticipatory analysis, interest mapping in situations of concern, and better integration of existing analytical capacity within the system. This would require enhanced expertise, as well as better internal coordination. Continuing efforts to build a constituency for preventive diplomacy in specific situations and increasing the comfort level of skeptical member states with preventive efforts more generally should be encouraged. The DPA "horizon scanning" briefings on emerging security issues to the Security Council are a welcome initiative and could be bolder in both presentation and analysis.

Looking ahead, the Secretariat should prepare itself to deal with difficult democratization processes. Indeed, there are as many as seventeen elections in Africa in 2012 including crucial ones in North Africa (Egypt and Algeria). Some of these could produce electoral disputes or even lead to armed conflict, including in DRC or Zimbabwe. When democratization is not sustained by an effort to shape democratic societies--with a role for the opposition, economic alternatives to state power and the will to accommodate diverse communities--elections can prove very divisive, and rebellion can become the only option, as was seen in Cote d'Ivoire. When the political work to make sure that results are acceptable to all sides is not done, results are simply ignored and can lead to a military coup, as in Algeria in 1992. Both DPA and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) need to think innovatively about the current disproportionate emphasis on elections as the natural conclusion to a peace process, and about more inclusive and sustainable ways to nurture democratic governance, such as with enhanced support through checks and balances, a free press, and strong judiciaries. Attention to the role of political opposition parties to counter the winner-takes-all mentality is also important.

There is a vibrant debate in Africa about whether the revolutionary winds of North Africa will blow southward to Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Senegal, and Equatorial Guinea. Events in the north could inspire sporadic, uneven, or more powerful protests, and the UN needs to prepare contingency plans for difficult eventualities. The impact of the Libya conflict and removal of Qaddafi will create many opportunities to resolve conflicts that his regime was fueling or complicating through patronage and clientelism. But it will also create new problems--for example, in the Sahel region and notably in countries like Chad, Mali, and Niger, where there is already a flow of weapons and fighters towards al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali as a result of the Libyan conflict. The impact will likewise be felt by the AU, as Qaddafi was contributing close to 30 percent of the AU budget. 

New causes of conflict can also be anticipated. For example, conflicts over resources as a result of climate change, food insecurity, water shortage, and population movements are expected to intensify. Particular attention must be paid to land issues in Africa, including the strategy by Asian and Arab states to acquire new land in countries such as Ethiopia, Mali, and Sudan. The linkages between organized crime and the erosion of state structures in West Africa are worrying. A number of conflicts are also affected by processes of delayed decolonization and state transformation. And older, persistent challenges will remain. Some large states--for example, the DRC--are slowly imploding, or, in the case of Sudan, breaking up. Authoritarian trends in countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, and Ethiopia are equally concerning, not least because of their regional influence. These transformation processes are long term, often violent, and difficult to address from a conflict prevention perspective; but they need innovative thinking.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.