November 2021 Monthly Forecast

Posted 29 October 2021
Download Complete Forecast: PDF

Preventive Diplomacy

Expected Council Action

In November, the Security Council is expected to hold an open debate on “Peace and security through preventive diplomacy: a common objective to all UN principal organs”. This is one of the signature events of Mexico’s November presidency. Briefings are expected from Abdulla Shahid, President of the General Assembly; Collen Vixen Kelapile, President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC); Joan E. Donoghue, President of the International Court of Justice (ICJ); and Secretary-General António Guterres. A presidential statement is a possible outcome.


Preventive diplomacy is an integral part of broader conflict prevention efforts. First articulated by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, the concept of preventive diplomacy was formulated in the Secretary-General’s 1992 report, An Agenda for Peace, which defined it as actions “to prevent disputes from arising between parties, to prevent existing disputes from escalating into conflicts, and to limit the spread of the latter when they occur”. While preventive diplomacy takes many forms, its most prevalent expression is found in the work of envoys assigned to crisis regions to promote dialogue, compromise and the peaceful settlement of disputes.

The UN Charter is clear that conflict prevention is a fundamental responsibility of the Security Council and the UN system more broadly. Article 1(1) stipulates that “to maintain international peace and security” the UN may “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to peace”. In this regard, Chapter VI envisions preventive action by the Security Council. Article 33(2) says that the Council shall “call upon the parties to settle their dispute by [peaceful] means” and Article 34(1) calls on the Council to “investigate any dispute, or any situation which…is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace”.

While the Security Council has generally focused on operational prevention (measures, such as the use of diplomacy, to prevent the proximate outbreak of conflict or limit its escalation), several of the UN’s other principal organs have taken a broader view of preventing conflict focused on long-term, structural prevention (building resilience by taking actions that address the underlying causes of conflict such as socioeconomic inequality, ethnic discrimination and lack of participatory politics). Member states have increasingly recognised that operational and structural prevention are interdependent, complementary and non-sequential. As a result, they have sought to strengthen cooperation among the UN’s principal organs to improve conflict prevention efforts.

One of the earliest collaborations between ECOSOC and the Security Council took place in 1998. Following an invitation by the Security Council in its resolution 1212, ECOSOC established an Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Haiti, which led to enhanced interaction between the two organs. On 31 January 2002, the Council adopted a presidential statement reaffirming “the importance of strengthening its cooperation, through greater interaction, with ECOSOC…in the area of prevention of armed conflicts” and committed itself to considering the establishment of an ad hoc working group to “enhance coordination with ECOSOC”. From this, the Ad Hoc Working Group on Conflict Prevention and Resolution in Africa was established in 2002 and has been active ever since.

In November 1999, the Council adopted a presidential statement recognising “the importance of building a culture of prevention…and the need for a contribution from all principal organs of the United Nations in that regard”. It recognised the need for “the development of effective long-term strategies” and emphasised “the need for all [UN] organs and agencies to pursue preventive strategies and to take action within their respective areas of competence”.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s 2001 report on the prevention of armed conflict was the first to explore the specific contributions that the principal UN organs can make towards conflict prevention. Acknowledging that conflict prevention could be made a focus for meaningful strategic interaction between the Security Council and the other principal organs of the UN, the report made three recommendations. First, it advised the General Assembly to “consider ways of enhancing its interaction with the Security Council on conflict prevention”, particularly in developing long-term prevention strategies. It also suggested that ECOSOC be more involved “in the prevention of armed conflict”, given its role in addressing the root causes of conflicts. Lastly, it urged the Council to resort to the ICJ “earlier and more often to settle their disputes in a peaceful manner”.

In 2011, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s “Preventive Diplomacy: Delivering Results” was the first report to focus specifically on preventive diplomacy. It underscored the importance of preventive diplomacy throughout the conflict spectrum and highlighted several factors that contribute to successful preventive diplomacy. Regarding the UN’s principal organs, the report noted that “through its norm-setting capacity and deliberative functions, the General Assembly has a central role in contributing to a conducive environment for conflict prevention”. Furthermore, given the General Assembly’s budgetary authority, it is also well placed to allot effective resources for the UN’s conflict prevention activities, the report maintained.

The need to strengthen cooperation among the UN’s principal organs was also raised during the review of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture. In April 2016, the General Assembly and Security Council adopted twin resolutions (70/262 and 2282, respectively) emphasising that “sustaining peace requires coherence, sustained engagement, and coordination between the General Assembly, the Security Council, and [ECOSOC], consistent with their mandates as set out in the [UN] Charter”. The resolution also took note of the General Assembly’s decision to invite the Secretary-General to submit a report on peacebuilding and sustaining peace. The resulting report, distributed on 18 January 2018, stressed that “coherence and complementarity among the principal organs of the United Nations, including the governing bodies of United Nations entities, are critical” for peacebuilding and sustaining peace.

More recently, the Secretary-General’s “Our Common Agenda” report, disseminated in September, stresses the importance of system-wide cooperation and the need for greater focus on prevention. The report articulates the need for the UN to be able to address the cross-cutting issues of security, climate change, health, development, gender equality, and human rights from a prevention perspective, citing the expanding role of the Peacebuilding Commission in this regard. The agenda’s commitment to boosting partnerships envisions stronger engagement within the UN system and calls for reforms of the UN’s three principal organs: making the Security Council more representative, revitalising the work of the General Assembly, and strengthening ECOSOC.  

Interaction among the UN’s principal organs was formalised in Note 507 on the Council’s working methods when it was updated in August 2017. The note by the Security Council president underscored the importance of “increased coordination, cooperation and interaction among the [UN’s] principal organs” and articulated the Council’s commitment to maintaining “regular communication with the General Assembly and ECOSOC”, including through the holding of meetings with all respective presidents on “a regular basis”. Interaction has also taken place during specific Council meetings, with the presidents of the General Assembly or the ICJ invited to participate pursuant to rule 39 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure. Since 2000, Council members have also held annual meetings with the ICJ president for a more general discussion, usually timed to occur after the ICJ president addressed the regular session of the General Assembly.

Key Issues and Options

The key issue is how the Security Council can enhance its engagement in and support of preventive diplomacy initiatives through collaboration and coordination with the UN’s other principal organs.

The Council may consider issuing a presidential statement reaffirming its commitment to strengthening cooperation between the main organs on preventive diplomacy and laying out concrete steps to achieve that goal. Potential elements of such a statement could include:

  • taking note of the recommendations of the Secretary-General’s “Our Common Agenda” report regarding the need to strengthen system-wide cooperation within the UN system;
  • encouraging briefings to the Security Council by the Presidents of the General Assembly and Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on emerging country crises;
  • making use of the advisory role of the UN Peacebuilding Commission when drafting mandates for peace operations; and
  • requesting a report from the Secretary-General on how the Council can work with different UN organs to most effectively prevent conflict.

In the future, Council members could also consider holding closed consultations with officials from other UN organs to strategise on how synergies can be created among the various parts of the UN system on preventive diplomacy.

Council Dynamics

Despite the seemingly strong rhetorical support for prevention, the Council struggles to translate its words into concrete action. Concerns that conflict prevention in practice could be used as a pretext to impinge on the sovereignty of independent states has been a key impediment to broader preventive actions by the Council.

Sign up for SCR emails
Security Council Resolutions
27 April 2016S/RES/2282 This was a concurrent resolution with the General Assembly on the review of the UN peacebuilding architecture.
25 November 1998S/RES/1212 This was a resolution on Haiti that invited ECOSOC’s contributions.
Security Council Presidential Statements
30 November 1999S/PRST/1999/34 This statement recognised the importance of building a culture of armed conflict prevention and the need for a contribution from all principal UN organs to achieve this goal. The Council stated that it would consider preventive measures such as establishing demilitarised zones and preventive disarmament as well as arms embargoes.
Secretary-General’s Reports
26 August 2011S/2011/552 This was the first-ever report on the use of preventive diplomacy.
7 June 2001S/2001/574 This was the Secretary-General’s first comprehensive report on conflict prevention.
17 June 1992S/24111 This was the report An Agenda for Peace in which Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali noted that peace-building after civil or international strife must address the serious problem of landmines.

Subscribe to receive SCR publications