March 2017 Monthly Forecast

Posted 28 February 2017
Download Complete Forecast: PDF

In Hindsight: Can the Security Council Prevent Conflict?

One of the most important tasks the Security Council is mandated by the UN Charter to perform—and one of the things that it does least well—is to prevent violent conflict. In recent years, wars have erupted in the Central African Republic, Mali, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen, among other cases, while political solutions to long-standing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Darfur, for example, have proved elusive, with civilians suffering the brunt of the fighting. Humanitarian crises have become more pronounced, and there are now some 65 million people displaced by conflict worldwide, the highest number since the establishment of the UN in the wake of World War II. 

In our recent research report Can the Security Council Prevent Conflict? we analyse some of the factors that have inhibited this organ’s preventive work, and offer options for how its conflict prevention and mitigation efforts can be strengthened. 

Key Obstacles to Prevention

There are several reasons why conflict prevention is difficult for the Council. Among them are diverging views on state sovereignty, often making it difficult to address emerging intra-state crises. While respect for sovereignty is a cornerstone of international law, a tension exists between those members who have an unconditional view of sovereignty and those who tend to emphasise the responsibilities a state has toward its people. Those upholding traditional views of sovereignty often point to the devastating humanitarian and human rights consequences that can result from violations of sovereignty, citing as examples the US military intervention in Iraq in 2003 and the NATO operation in Libya in 2011. On the other hand, sovereignty concerns at times limit the tools at the Council’s disposal, including those that are non-coercive in nature, preventing it from engaging at all in crises at an early stage, when opportunities for preventive engagement are usually most promising.

Beyond the issue of sovereignty, the political interests of powerful Council members can undermine efforts to prevent conflicts from breaking out or escalating. States frequently attach a political stigma to being discussed in the Council, and powerful international or regional patrons can significantly limit or at times block discussion of crises affecting their allies. As a result, even when there are warning signs of an impending crisis, preventive action—or the mere discussion of a situation—can be delayed or precluded. The starkest example of how the political interests of powerful states can negatively impact the efforts of the Council to prevent or mitigate conflict is when the veto—or the threat of the veto—is used to forestall action.

The primary problem the Council faces regarding prevention is a lack of action rather than a lack of information. However, the Council is not always well served in terms of the quality and timeliness of information it receives from the Secretariat to inform its decision-making. A lack of integrated analysis and information-sharing remains a systemic problem. The immediate decisions of new Secretary-General António Guterres to strengthen strategic analysis and decision-making within his executive office are clearly designed to address this weakness.

The penholder system is another factor that at times militates against effective preventive action, when members, permanent and non-permanent, defer to the penholder. When the penholder delays in taking action because it is preoccupied with other agenda items or when it is slow in considering an appropriate response, the Council can be paralysed unless other members fill the void. 

Another problem with regard to the Council’s ability to prevent conflict is the sheer volume of its workload. At the present time, the Council is experiencing high levels of activity, mostly in a conflict management role, reflected in a near-record number of meetings and decisions adopted. Furthermore, the Council is divided on a number of issues. The ten non-consensual resolutions adopted in 2016 were the most in the post-Cold War period, and there were two vetoed draft resolutions (both on Syria). This level of divisiveness suggests that significant time and energy is being expended on trying to reach agreement, in large part on ongoing crises in a conflict-management capacity. The burdens placed on the Council’s workload by peace operations and other conflict-management responsibilities could in time be alleviated through successful conflict prevention. In the meantime, it is hard for the Council to focus intensively on its preventive responsibilities because it is overwhelmed with the multiple crises it must manage.

Options for Action

Despite the difficulties the Council has had in preventing conflict in recent years, there are some encouraging signs. The new Secretary-General has promised to make prevention a priority for the UN, and pledged to “foster a more trusting relationship…with the Council”. It should be further noted that the Council already possesses a variety of tools for conflict prevention and mitigation; it just needs to use them more effectively.

The following are some options for the Council to improve its work in these areas.

  • More efforts could be made to hold strategic, interactive discussions on emerging and evolving crises among senior diplomats in the Council and between these diplomats and relevant regional, sub-regional, national and local actors. In general, Council consultations and other meetings need to become more interactive, more spontaneous and more geared toward problem-solving. 
  • The work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Conflict Prevention and Resolution in Africa could be strengthened. Rather than focusing on thematic issues, it could renew its consideration of country cases (as in its early years), generate ideas for how to approach these and report to the Council with options for action.
  • The Council could make use of smaller visiting missions. Smaller missions would be able to deploy more quickly, given that logistical and security arrangements would be less onerous. Furthermore, they might be able to engage more easily in the type of face-to-face preventive diplomacy and mediation that can be difficult with a larger group. 
  • Given the positive experience of the UN’s regional offices in conflict prevention and mediation, the Council could request a report from the Secretary-General regarding how it can enhance its support for such offices. The report could include analysis of the potential implications of establishing additional regional offices, including where they are most needed, what added value they might have and how the Council could best collaborate with them.
  • The elected members could take greater initiative in drafting outcomes, including in the face of a developing crisis, rather than waiting for the penholder and the permanent members to act.  
  • There could be greater interaction between the Council and the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC). For example, the Council could follow through on its intention expressed in resolution 2282 to regularly request and draw upon the PBC’s “specific, strategic and targeted” advice in the establishment, review and drawdown of peacekeeping operations and special political missions. 
  • The Council could make better use of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). For example, it could, when appropriate, recommend that states involved in a situation that threatens international peace and security resolve the legal aspects of their dispute through the ICJ.  


Sign up for SCR emails