March 2024 Monthly Forecast

Posted 29 February 2024
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In Hindsight: The Security Council and Conflict Prevention


Conflict prevention is at the core of the UN Charter. As Secretary-General António Guterres remarked during his swearing-in ceremony on 12 December 2016, “prevention is not a novel concept—it is what the founders of the UN asked us to do”. Indeed, the charter’s first article says that a primary purpose of the UN is “to maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace…” and calls on all members to settle their international disputes by peaceful means. Chapter VI on the peaceful settlement of disputes provides the framework for the Council’s prevention work.

This month, Japan will make conflict prevention a focus of its presidency, with an open debate on promoting conflict prevention as one of its signature events. (For more information, see the conflict prevention brief in our March Monthly Forecast.) Members will continue to consider conflict prevention as they negotiate the Pact of the Future, ahead of the Summit of the Future in September 2024.

The draft Pact of the Future document under negotiation includes a section on international peace and security that incorporates ideas from the Secretary-General’s A New Agenda for Peace (NAfP). The NAfP calls for boosting preventive diplomacy by making greater use of the UN and its good offices capacities and building or repairing regional security architectures. It underscores that preventive tools, outlined in Article 33 of the Charter, have been underused. (Article 33 directs the parties to a serious dispute to settle it using peaceful means, including negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, and judicial settlement, among others. It further asserts that the Security Council “shall, when it deems necessary, call upon the parties to settle their dispute by such means”.) The NAfP also distinguishes between prevention at the global level and prevention at the national level.

As reflected in the NAfP, conflict prevention activities range from operational measures like the use of early warning and preventive diplomacy, to longer term structural interventions and peacebuilding that address underlying causes of conflict such as socio-economic inequality, ethnic discrimination and fragile state institutions.

Members agree that prevention saves lives and is more cost-effective than managing conflicts, addressing their attendant humanitarian effects, and rebuilding post-conflict countries. But geopolitical dynamics in a fragmented, multipolar world have made prevention even more complicated for the Council. The past decade or so has been particularly difficult: since 2011, the Security Council and the broader international community have been unable to prevent intractable conflicts or conflict escalation in the Central African Republic, Haiti, Israel-Palestine, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen, among others

Although the Council has adopted several formal outcomes focused on different aspects of conflict prevention, including the importance of early warning mechanisms, these have, by and large, not gained traction. Members have often pushed back against upstream prevention, which tends to focus on situations not on the agenda, often sparking accusations of interference in states’ internal affairs, a particular impediment towards addressing intra-state conflict. Even after conflict erupts, states frequently try to block Council engagement.

Examples of Council Prevention Tools

Secretariat Briefings

The Security Council’s focus on conflict prevention is often through thematic debates rather than country-specific discussions. In the recent past, however, members sought more country-specific discussions through a prevention lens, including by “horizon-scanning” and “situational awareness” briefings.

Monthly, between November 2010 and March 2012, the head of the Department of Political Affairs (now DPPA) “scanned the horizon” for the Council with the aim of providing information that might allow for better conflict prevention, including preventive diplomacy. The initiative had come from the UK. But by late 2012, these briefings dwindled. Some members felt that they added little to what was in the public domain, while others took issue with the countries being discussed, at times attempting to limit the agenda.

In 2016, New Zealand initiated situational awareness briefings at a less formal level. These took place in the Secretariat and were chaired by a member of the Secretary-General’s Executive Office, which also set the agenda. They focused largely on situations on the Council’s agenda in the hope that this would be less controversial than discussing matters not on the agenda. These meetings presented a holistic picture of country-specific threats through briefings by senior representatives of UN entities, including DPA, DPKO, OCHA, and OHCHR. Reluctance grew on the part of the Secretariat, and the meetings became less frequent.

In November 2018 the ten elected members and the incoming five members carried out a démarche to the Secretary-General to request early warning briefings by the Secretariat. This led to a few such briefings in 2019 before they stopped altogether during the COVID-19 pandemic. A subsequent attempt by elected members led to two informal early warning briefings for E10 members, one at the end of 2022 and another in January 2023.

Other Council initiatives for informal and candid discussion of this nature include the Informal Interactive Dialogue format, which is a closed, informal meeting of Council members for which there is no record, and the Secretary-General’s monthly lunches with members are possible venues for quiet discussions. The so-called “sofa talks” created in 2019 (at a time of Council cleavages over a number of issues) to bring together Council permanent representatives for an informal discussion, lapsed with COVID-19 and have shown only limited signs of revival. The Secretary-General’s lunches have provided a discreet space for the Secretary-General to speak to the 15 members on issues that he sees as potential international peace and security concerns. These lunches can be seen as an indirect use of Article 99 of the UN Charter, which provides that the Secretary-General “may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security”. In the current geopolitical environment, more robust use of this article may be necessary.

UN Regional Offices

The Council receives biannual reports and briefings from the heads of the UN regional offices in West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), Central Africa (UNOCA) and Central Asia (UNRCCA), which may flag the risk of crises, as they have done in Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Guinea and Nigeria. In such cases, the Council receives information on potential conflict situations not on the Council’s agenda, including diplomatic efforts and responses to structural conflict drivers. UNOWAS briefings are also one way of keeping the Council informed of concerns pertaining to Mali, following the closure of MINUSMA and the termination of the Mali sanctions regime.

Visiting Missions

Since the Council dispatched a visiting mission, consisting of three Council members, to Cambodia and Viet Nam from 26 June to 14 ­July 1964, it has used this tool for a number of purposes, including preventive diplomacy, gathering first-hand information, supporting peace processes, and mediation. (Under Article 34 of the Charter, “The Security Council may investigate any dispute, or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute, in order to determine whether the continuance of the dispute or situation is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security.”) 

Following the Cold War, Council members began making regular visiting missions, with three to five such trips the norm in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Pandemic restrictions affected the Council’s ability to travel; visiting missions resumed in late 2021, but at a much lower rate, with one in 2021, none in 2022 and two in 2023. Difficulty agreeing on the destination and a heavy workload may have contributed to fewer visiting missions.

The Future of Conflict Prevention

The difficulties for the Security Council to delve into, and support, conflict prevention and resolution in country-specific settings has helped drive attention to structural prevention and the need to address the drivers of conflict and violence at the national and local levels, as evident in its recent conflict prevention thematic debates. The NafP proposes that all UN member states develop national prevention strategies that are grounded in “sustainable development” and are “multidimensional, people-centred and inclusive of all the different components of society”. It also recommends a role for the PBC in supporting these national strategies, to which member states may be amenable as the PBC will only discuss countries with the consent of the government concerned.

Several Council thematic resolutions emphasise structural prevention, including resolution 2282 (2016) on the ten-year review of the UN peacebuilding architecture, which points out that a comprehensive approach to sustaining peace involves preventing conflict and addressing its root causes. Among other issues, it underlines the importance of strengthening the rule of law at the international and national levels, and encourages sustainable development, national reconciliation and unity, including through inclusive dialogue and mediation, good governance, accountable institutions and the protection of human rights. A critical Council role in prevention, including structural prevention, comes through its mandating of special political missions as well as peacekeeping operations that prioritise support to some of these measures. The Council has also, in recent years, paid more attention to root causes in its country-specific and thematic resolutions and presidential statements.

Council members may wish to bring greater attention to bear on structural prevention efforts, on planning visiting missions strategically around situations where it has the potential to encourage and support Article 33 activities (including enquiry and mediation), and on how best to use the Secretary-General’s good offices role, including the efforts of special political missions.


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