The United Nations is committed to moving from a culture of "reaction" to one of "prevention".
In plain language, preventive diplomacy refers to diplomatic action taken to prevent disputes from escalating into conflicts and to limit the spread of conflicts when they occur. While it is conducted in different forms and fora, both public and private, the most common expression of preventive diplomacy is found in the work of envoys dispatched to crisis areas to encourage dialogue, compromise and the peaceful resolution of tensions. Preventive diplomacy can also encompass the involvement of the Security Council, the Secretary-General and other actors to discourage the use of violence at critical moments.
The Secretary-General provides his "good offices" to parties in conflict both personally and through the diplomatic envoys he dispatches to areas of tension around the world. The Department of Political Affairs (DPA) is the principal support structure for those efforts, providing conflict analysis, planning and supporting the work of peace envoys and overseeing more than a dozen field-based political missions that serve as key platforms for preventive diplomacy. Of these missions, regional offices covering Central Africa, West Africa and Central Asia have explicit mandates for preventive diplomacy and strengthening the capacity of states and regional actors to manage sources of tension peacefully. Preventive diplomacy is also carried out frequently within the context of peacekeeping missions.
The Security Council, as the UN organ with the primary responsibility for peace and security, also has a critical role to play in supporting preventive action. Recent years have seen increased Council engagement and flexibility in addressing emerging threats before they come on the Council’s formal agenda. Through its actions, the Council can send important signals that help discourage violence and open space for preventive action including by the Secretary-General.
The work of the United Nations in conflict prevention extends well beyond traditional preventive diplomacy to involve a broad constellation of United Nations entities operating across a wide range of relevant disciplines — poverty-eradication and development, human rights and the rule of law, elections and the building of democratic institutions, the control of small arms, to name just a few.
Since its inception, the United Nations has played a crucial role in helping to mediate inter- and intra-State conflicts at all stages: before they escalate into armed conflict, after the outbreak of violence, and during implementation of peace agreements. The Secretary-General and his representatives carry out good offices and mediation efforts at the request of parties to disputes, on the Secretary General’s initiative, or in response to a request from the Security Council or the General Assembly. DPA was established in 1992 to assist in this work.
Successful conflict mediation requires an adequate support system to provide envoys with the proper staff assistance and advice, and ensure that talks have the needed logistical and financial resources. The United Nations, led by the Department of Political Affairs, has moved over the past several years to sharpen its ability to provide such support to its own mediation efforts as well as to those of partner organizations.
DPA's Mediation Support Unit (MSU), established in 2006, works closely with the Department's regional divisions to plan and support mediation efforts in the field. Among its functions, MSU provides advisory, financial and logistical support to peace processes; works to strengthen the mediation capacity of regional and sub-regional organizations; and serves as a repository of mediation knowledge, policy and guidance, lessons learned and best practices.
The Department manages the United Nations Standby Team of Mediation Experts – an "on call" group of experts established in 2008 that can be deployed to assist mediators in the field. Team members have provided support in dozens of negotiations, and hold expertise on issues including power-sharing, natural resources and conflict, constitution-making, cease-fires and other security arrangements, and gender issues as they relate to conflict. Standby team members have the flexibility to deploy on short notice to assist UN or non-UN mediators globally, or to provide analysis and advice remotely. With support from donors, the Department has also established a rapid response fund to start up mediation processes at short notice. Advance planning and ready resources are a key to effective early mediation when crises are brewing.
DPA also developed and maintains the online mediation support tool UN Peacemaker. Intended for peacemaking professionals, it includes an extensive database of more than 750 peace agreements, guidance material and information on the UN’s mediation support services.
UN peacemaking flourished in the decade following the end of the Cold War, as many longstanding armed conflicts were brought to an end through political negotiated settlements.
The organization continues to play a preeminent role in peacemaking, working increasingly in partnership with regional organizations in order to bring ongoing conflicts to an end, and to prevent new crises from emerging or escalating.
DPA anchors the UN's peacemaking efforts, monitoring global political developments and advising the Secretary-General on the prevention and management of crises, including through the use of his diplomatic "good offices" to help parties in conflict settle disputes peacefully. The Department provides support to numerous envoys of the Secretary-General engaged in peace talks or crisis diplomacy, while overseeing field-based United Nations "political missions" with mandates to help nations and regions resolve conflicts and tensions peacefully.