An ounce of prevention …
You usually would not think that controlling the trade in diamonds would help prevent armed conflict. Diamonds are generally thought of as things of great beauty. For many people, they are symbols of love and devotion. We do not usually ask where they come from or who mined them. And we usually do not associate them with civil wars. Unfortunately, some diamonds—the so-called "bloody diamonds"—are mined illegally and used to buy small arms.
In Sierra Leone, a brutal struggle has taken thousands of lives. In breach of the peace agreement, rebels are continuing that struggle. These groups control the diamond mining areas of the country, and they use their illegal profits to finance their war. On 5 July 2000, in an effort to control this illicit traffic, the Security Council banned the import of unlicensed diamonds from Sierra Leone.
The ban is part of the Security Council’s growing determination to prevent the illicit use of natural resources to fuel armed conflict. The diamond industry has also begun to play its part to ensure that the trade in "bloody diamonds" stops. The International Diamonds Manufacturers Association and the World Federation of Diamond Bourses have recently announced a system of certificates intended to prove the origin of the diamonds.
… is worth a pound of cure
Conflict occurs normally and continually in human society. It is not always violent, and it may not even be a problem. It is one means through which we express our diversity or bring about change. When conflict in society is properly managed and transformed, it may even help produce growth. On the other hand, when opposing groups do not have the skills to keep the conflict in check, and where other factors such as injustice, inequality or unfilled aspirations are present, conflict can become violent and protracted.
Armed conflict can have terrible consequences. Some of us bear these consequences directly. We lose a family member or we must flee our home. We go through life with a mutilated arm or leg. Others among us witness the suffering of friends or acquaintances who bear these losses. Still others learn about these tragedies in the newspapers or from television.
Statistics tell us a grim story. During the last century, wars between nations took the lives of some 100 million people, and political violence took 170 million more lives. Today, the number of inter-State armed conflicts seems to be on the wane. The main killers today are wars within nations—brought about by insurrection, ethnic cleansing and greed. Five million people have died in armed struggles within national borders in the last ten years. Many of these victims, in some cases as many as 90 per cent, were civilians. Today’s wars have produced some 20 million refugees and another 24 million displaced persons.
These conflicts destroy the lives of their victims and the quality of life for the survivors. Their legacy is widespread social breakdown and lawlessness. They set back economic development by decades. And who can calculate the cost to society of the loss of doctors, teachers and other professionals when schools and infrastructure are destroyed. How does one measure the impact on a nation of a lost generation of its children?
Addressing the root causes
Natural disasters can be explained scientifically, but it is far more difficult to understand the causes of war. Social behaviour is not subject to physical laws in the same way as cyclones or earthquakes. People make their own history, sometimes violently and sometimes inexplicably. The forces at work can be very complex. And yet, if we are to be successful at preventing deadly conflicts, we must have a clearer understanding of what brings them about. We are able to identify some conditions that increase the probability of war.
Prevention is good, but …
Many organizations and individuals are working to prevent the outbreak of armed conflict, or to prevent it from spreading once it does break out, or to ensure that it does not break out again. The United Nations was itself founded for the purpose of "saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war."
This general acknowledgement that prevention is good, however, does not necessarily translate into practical support for preventive measures. States do not always agree on how much "outside interference" they will allow in their internal struggles or if their national interests are served by preventing a conflict in another part of the world. Furthermore, it is easier to react when something happens than to act in order for something not to happen. For this reason, political leaders might find it hard to convince the public at home that prevention policies abroad are worth the investment. These policies might carry heavy costs, and the benefit—a tragic event that does not occur—is a vague concept when weighed against those costs. For this reason, Secretary-General Kofi Annan has noted that "prevention is first and foremost a challenge of political leadership."
The Charter of the United Nations made the prevention as well as the removal of threats against international peace and security one of the priorities of the United Nations and a common responsibility of the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Secretary-General, the International Court of Justice and even the Economic and Social Council. The Security Council, in fact, has recently held a series of meetings specifically devoted to conflict prevention and has reaffirmed its role in taking appropriate steps aimed at the prevention of armed conflicts. Among the tools available to these bodies are negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration and judicial settlement. In terms of preventive action, the United Nations may use:
We generally do not hear much about preventive diplomacy while it is in progress. Very often it is a confidential, behind-the-scenes series of high-level contacts. It might also take the form of mediation or negotiation, and it is most successful when it is applied early. At the end of the day, it is sometimes hard for observers to know if preventive diplomacy actually averted the deterioration of a situation or if the situation simply resolved itself. On the other hand, it is easy to see when preventive diplomacy fails. The Security Council has primary responsibility for preventive diplomacy. The Council can undertake fact-finding and observation, it can impose sanctions, or it can dispatch a peacekeeping mission.
The Secretary-General also engages in preventive diplomacy, often directly through his "good offices" and sometimes through Special Representatives or Special Envoys. These skilled and trusted individuals act as heads of peacekeeping or peace-building missions; they represent the Secretary-General in protracted negotiating processes; they undertake special missions or help track developing situations.
Private individuals and civil society organizations can also play a role in conflict prevention, management and resolution through what is called "citizen diplomacy". In the Middle East peace process, for example, it was a small Norwegian research institute that played the critical initial role in paving the way for the 1993 Oslo Agreement.
Preventive disarmament seeks to reduce the number of small arms and light weapons in conflict-prone regions. In Eastern Slavonia, for example, the United Nations peacekeeping mission undertook a "buy-back" programme among civilians. In Albania, a UN Development Programme initiative called "Arms for Development" provided support for community development projects in exchange for small arms and ammunition.
In El Salvador, Mozambique and elsewhere the United Nations has helped demobilize combat forces and collect and destroy their weapons as part of the implementation of an overall peace agreement. Other United Nations efforts are being directed towards slowing small arms and light weapons trafficking, the only weapons used in most of today's armed conflicts. While these weapons do not cause war, they provide the means to wage war.
Once the fighting stops, action is necessary to prevent it from starting again. In recent years, the United Nations has adopted a more comprehensive approach in creating conditions necessary for a sustainable peace. This process might include traditional peacekeeping, electoral assistance or setting up a peace-building support office to help establish good governance or rebuild respect for human rights and the rule of law. It may involve not only the United Nations, but also a number of United Nations agencies and other participants.
In Guinea-Bissau, for example, the United Nations Peace-building Support Office is working to coordinate an integrated response to the challenges of peace-building. (See Case Studies, below.) In Liberia, the UN is supporting national reconciliation. In Guatemala, it is carrying out a range of post-conflict peace-building activities in addition to verifying the peace agreements, providing good offices and undertaking advisory and public information activities. In Cambodia, the UN is helping the Government in its nation-building efforts, including the strengthening of democratic institutions and assistance in the promotion and protection of human rights.
Can sanctions be smart?
Sanctions offer the Security Council an important instrument to enforce its decisions. They show that the Council means business without using armed force. Sanctions might include a ban on arms sales or trade and financial restrictions. They might involve cutting off air travel or closing overseas missions. In general, the Council imposes sanctions to try to change the behaviour of a government or regime which poses a threat to international peace and security. In a conflict situation, the sanctions are designed to shorten the fight by blocking access to weapons or fuel. In the same way, sanctions can be effective tools to prevent armed conflict or to limit its spread.
While sanctions are supposed to bring about a good result, they can and do hurt large numbers of people who are not their primary targets. In the case of Iraq, for example, a sanctions regime which enjoyed considerable success in its disarmament mission has also been accused of worsening the humanitarian crisis. In other instances, those in power transfer the cost of the sanctions to the less privileged, and actually benefit from the sanctions by controlling distribution of limited resources and profiting from black market activity. The existence of sanctions might transform a society for the worse, as sanctions-evaders, smugglers and the like rise to the top of the economic ladder. In this way, innocent civilians might become victims not only of their own government, but of the actions of the international community as well.
Sanctions might also prove to be ineffective or difficult to enforce, inviting widespread evasion. Or they might not be sufficiently targeted. In the case of the Bosnian war, the arms embargo was seen by many States as favouring the aggressor and effectively denying a Member State its Charter right to self-defence. In some cases, the losses to neighbouring countries, which must bear significant losses due to their compliance, are not compensated.