“Preventive diplomacy is not an option; it is a necessity” – Ban Ki-moon

August 26, 2011

In August 2011, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, released the report Preventive Diplomacy: Delivering Results. This report, fittingly dedicated to former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of his death, was prepared in response to a request made during a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) open debate on preventive diplomacy in Africa in July 2010. That debate preliminarily renewed attention to the issue of preventive actions and called on the Secretary-General to produce a report with “recommendations on how best to optimize the use of preventive diplomacy tools within the United Nations system and in cooperation with regional and subregional organizations and other actors.”

Preventive Diplomacy: Delivering Results is one of several expressions of Ban’s pledged commitment to make preventive diplomacy a "fundamental priority" in his second term – presumably in increased vigour than his first. Though it is worth noting that during Ban’s first four years, two regional offices for preventive diplomacy were created (United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia [UNRCCA] and United Nations Regional Office for Central Africa [UNOCA]) and the UN Department of Political Affairs (UNDPA) received a substantial funding boost for 50 staff focused on preventive diplomacy.

Though the report does not necessarily break any new ground in terms of the conceptual or operational understanding of preventive diplomacy – tools such as good offices, special envoys and the like, have entered into standard, global political lexicon – it is a stand-out for two main reasons.

Firstly, by highlighting cases of successful diplomatic prevention (such as the peaceful referendum in Sudan, resolution of the 2008 democratic crisis in eastern DRC, and democratic transition in Guinea), the report demonstrates the feasibility and cost-benefits of preventive diplomacy. Because causality is inherently difficult to prove when something does not happen, the report has taken a big step forward in analyzing what measures are effective, and in what circumstances. These success stories are also a refreshing intermission from the ubiquitous dismal reports of violence – evidence of our failures to prevent.

Secondly, the report offers economically-minded recommendations to strengthen international preventive capacity over the next five years. In order to “maximize the impact of the resources we already have”, the report advises to strengthen strategic partnerships with the African Union, European Union, ECOWAS, other regional and subregional organizations and civil society actors. One particular recommendation is to improve early warning information-sharing between UN and regional and other partners, to increase our collective ability to identify “threshold moments” and determine a division of labour when diplomatic actions are deemed necessary. Calls for increased efficacy (rather than focusing only on increased funds) make preventive diplomacy a particularly palatable means to avert a potential political crisis the face of fiscal belt-tightening.

The report was subsequently brought before the UNSC for a high-level debate on September 22, 2011. Chaired by Lebanese President, Michel Suleiman, the debate brought together six Heads of State and seven Foreign Ministers, including Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, South African President Jacob Zuma, and British Foreign Minister William Hague.

The debate, much like the report, served to underline what has already been proclaimed so many times before:  prevention is better than reaction. This truism however has not necessarily been translated into effective preventive policy. With all the rhetoric and agreement that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, it is important to have frank discussions on the actual lack of implementation of the old adage, despite the existence of many tried-and-true low-cost tools.

This is not to say that all of the “failures to prevent” could have necessarily been avoided by preventive diplomacy alone; which Ban indeed recognized in his address to the UNSC: “[p]reventive diplomacy may not be effective in all situations.” Rather, a mix of diplomatic along with economic, political, legal, social and security measures that incentivize peace over force in both the long and short-terms will more likely lead to more peaceful and secure regions.

Both the debate and report renewed political support and resuscitated the political discussion on preventive diplomacy, if only briefly. While Ban has been somewhat successful at keeping a spotlight on the issue (as mediation was the focus of a debate in the General Assembly and the 66th UN Day on October 24) the question remains whether he will be able to effectively embed a culture of prevention in UN architecture.

One of the greatest challenges faced to preventive diplomacy is that it does not exude the same sense of urgency of famine, justice of women’s empowerment, or compassion of HIV/AIDS; that is to say, preventive diplomacy simply does not stir the collective imagination. The image of Ban in negotiations – unlike a photo of a child soldier – causes little if any emotional response. And in an age when social media can facilitate popular uprisings that take down regimes, the question of what moves the collective and mobilizes masses, can and does make a difference. Whether or not Ban will deliver on his promise to prioritize early action will in part depend on his ability to maintain not only political, but also public support for it during the remainder of his tenure.

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