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August 17, 2022

Prevention: A New Religion at the United Nations

The costs of wars and conflicts today are estimated at 10 trillion USD globally. The international community spent 235 billion USD over the past 10 years on humanitarian responses, peacekeeping and refuges costs, out of which 45 billion USD only last year. More than 1.5 billion people live in countries affected by violent conflicts. Nearly half of all people living in extreme poverty reside in countries affected by conflict and fragility, and unless concerted action is taken by 2030, this figure is expected to rise to 80% by 2035. Using the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “poverty is the worst form of violence”.

The international community too often responded only after a crisis started, and the UN was traditionally known for conflict response, rather than conflict prevention. The General Assembly created in 2005 (resolution 60/180) the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), an intergovernmental advisory body whose main purposes are “to bring together all relevant actors to marshal resources and to advise on and propose integrated strategies for post-conflict peacebuilding and recovery”.

With the number of violent conflicts almost tripled in the last ten years, it was high time for a new approach and in 2016 the paradigm shifted from post-conflict peacebuilding to prevention. The Security Council and the General Assembly adopted twin resolutions on the review of the UN peacebuilding architecture (2282/2016) and 70/262), which introduced the concept of sustaining peace, “broadly understood as a goal and a process to build a common vision of a society, which encompasses activities aimed at preventing the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence of conflict, addressing root causes, ensuring national reconciliation, and moving forward towards recovery, reconstruction and development”.

In the new philosophy, prevention becomes a cross-cutting priority and is seen as the broad set of activities that address root causes of conflict. Classical prevention activities – such as mediation, preventive diplomacy, cooperation and dialogue – intertwines now with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and with the human rights dimension.

The PBC was tasked “to bring international attention to sustaining peace…; to promote an integrated, strategic and coherent approach to peacebuilding, noting that security, development and human rights are closely linked and mutually reinforcing; to serve a bridging role among the principal organs and relevant entities of the United Nations…; to serve as a platform to convene all relevant actors… in order to develop and share good practices in peacebuilding”.

But prevention not only saves lives, it is also cost-effective. An UN-World Bank joint study released in Washington DC on 6 March 2018 (“Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict”) estimates that effective prevention would save from 5 to 70 billion USD per year for the affected countries and the international community combined. The study may become a revolutionary tool for a new collaborative approach, because it connects the development reform proposed by the UN Secretary General with the sustaining peace agenda.

A significant number of conflicts are located in Africa. Contrary to some stereotypes, Africa is not poor. Whilst many people in African countries live in poverty, the continent is rich in terms of human potential and natural resources. According to statistics, in 2015 countries in Africa exported 232 billion USD worth of minerals and oil to the rest of the world. Africa’s potential mineral reserves are estimated to dozens trillion USD. What African countries need is conditions to value this richness for their own development. Peace, stability and democracy are essential ingredients in this respect, but whereas there are many incentives for fueling conflicts, incentives for prevention are too few. Building sustaining peace requires transparency, inclusion, participation and consultation of all political and social actors in the respective countries, but also development incentives. At the same time, peacebuilding activities at all stages must respect national sovereignty and be based on local ownership.

From an economic perspective, on short-term the peacebuilding efforts are mainly focused on humanitarian aid and institutional funding. But on long-term, sustaining peace needs the existence of enterprises and business opportunities, employment and economic growth. Because the main economic challenge of peacebuilding is to generate an environment favorable to sustainable development, engaging more strategically with the private sector is key in shaping and implementing the peacebuilding priorities. Communication also plays a role and it would be wise to invite the media to become a partner in rising awareness on peacebuilding and sustaining peace, whenever possible.

On 5 March 2018, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres briefed the General Assembly on his report on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace, noting that “if the financial cost of conflict is unsustainable, the human cost is unbearable”. His vision is that sustaining peace is becoming a responsibility of the entire UN system and therefore a more integrated approach of activities undertaken under the three main pillars of the UN is necessary.

The report also underlines the PBC’s unique role in advancing intergovernmental coherence thorough its cross-pillar mandate. The PBC platform has already been used for constructive discussions on Burkina Faso, Kyrgyzstan, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Somalia and Sri Lanka. With the support of the international community in Liberia, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants proceeded peacefully because the process included women, youth, civil society and the private sector. In Colombia, assisted by the UN, the government successfully engaged with the private sector and civil society in healing the wounds of a long-term internal conflict and restored the path to recovery and development. The next test case for this holistic approach may be the Sahel region, where there is a clear need to address both the security and the development facets of the crisis.

The work plan of the Peacebuilding Commission, which in 2018 is chaired by Romania, reflects priorities mentioned before: regional approach, partnerships, sustaining peace, synergies, communication. With prevention becoming a new religion at the United Nations, the paradigm shift requires that instead of spending on conflict, we spend on peace. The United Nations is the natural place to do so.


  • Ambassador Ion Jinga is the Permanent Representative of Romania to the United Nations, New York


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