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Department of Political Affairs

Preventive Diplomacy Report: Q&A


What is preventive diplomacy?

Why is preventive diplomacy coming increasingly to the fore as an option?

How exactly does the United Nations practice preventive diplomacy?

What are some recent cases in which the United Nations used preventive diplomacy to
ease tensions?

What are new areas of focus for preventive diplomacy?

What are the keys to increasingly successful use of preventive diplomacy over the
coming five years?

From Guinea to Sudan: Learn more about the UN's efforts in preventive diplomacy
What is preventive diplomacy?
In plain language, preventive diplomacy refers to diplomatic action taken to prevent disputesSecretary-General Ban Ki-moon 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 diplomatic 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. At the United Nations, former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld first articulated the concept of preventive diplomacy half a century ago. It has since evolved in response to new challenges and is increasingly applied by the United Nations, its Member States and partner organizations around the globe.


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Why is preventive diplomacy coming increasingly to the fore as an option?
First, because conflicts today are placing a heavy strain on war-torn societies and the
international community, claiming countless lives and often requiring costly security and
humanitarian engagements. According to the World Bank, the cost of civil war can be equivalent
to more than 30 years of economic growth. In the face of political tensions or
escalating crisis, preventive diplomacy is often one of the few options available, short of
coercive measures, to preserve peace. Successful engagements can stop crises before they
spread, reducing the impacts and burdens of conflict.

Secondly, because there is a greater openness today to preventive action and an increase in
national, regional and international capacities for preventive diplomacy. The past decade has
seen a strengthening of preventive diplomacy both at the policy level and on the ground.
Regional organizations such as the African Union (AU), among others, have updated their
doctrines so as to support more proactive diplomacy to protect democratic institutions and to
resolve political and security crises affecting member countries. At the United Nations, the 2005
World Summit expressed a renewed commitment to promoting a culture of prevention. As part
of that broader undertaking, the General Assembly adopted in June 2011 a consensus
resolution on strengthening mediation in the peaceful settlement of disputes.

Map of UN political missions Third, because these normative developments have paved the way for the creation of new preventive capacities around the world, including systems for crisis monitoring and early warning as well as flexible funding mechanisms for rapid reaction. Within the United Nations, a key development has been the strengthening of the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) and the establishment within this Department of a Mediation Support Unit that provides expertise to envoys and other mediators engaging in negotiations. The increased deployment of political missions by the United Nations and other organizations also provides a stronger platform for preventive diplomacy.


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How exactly does the United Nations practice preventive diplomacy?
Conflict prevention is a broad field, involving a wide range of UN entities focusing on political,
development and human rights concerns, among others. UN country teams often support
national dialogue processes and longer term programs that help to build national capacities to
prevent conflict. The UN’s peace-building architecture works to prevent relapse into conflict in
countries that have recently emerged from wars.

Preventive diplomacy, however, represents a narrower set of activities specifically involving the
timely use of diplomatic action to prevent the outbreak and spread of hostilities. 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-

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What are some recent cases in which the United Nations used preventive diplomacy to
ease tensions?

There are a number of cases noted in the report in which concerted preventive action by the
United Nations and its partners helped to avert or contain conflict. For example:

(Click on the country names to get further information on the specific cases, including video
interviews with senior UN officials.)
· In Sudan, preventive diplomacy was a major focus of international efforts -- led for the
United Nations by its peacekeeping mission -- to ensure the successful holding of the
January 2011 independence referendum for Southern Sudan. The Security Council was
actively engaged, including through its statements and visits to the country. The
Secretary-General appointed a high-level panel that also encouraged actions and
agreements to permit the smooth holding of the referendum.

· In Guinea, from 2009-2010 the United Nations Office for West Africa (UNOWA) worked
energetically to keep on track a political transition from a military coup to the country’s
first democratic elections since independence.

· In Sierra Leone, the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office (UNIPSIL) helped
prevent the potential escalation of violence following tensions between the governing
and opposition parties in 2009.

· In Iraq, the United Nations political mission (UNAMI) has facilitated peaceful dialogue
over Kirkuk and other disputed internal territories, and assisted in smoothing the path to
elections in 2009 and 2010.

· In Kenya, following the outbreak of post-electoral violence in 2008, the United Nations
quietly provided strong support to the African Union-led mediation efforts that succeeded
in stopping the violence and resolving the political-electoral conflict through negotiations.

· In Kyrgyzstan, the United Nations Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia
(UNRCCA) worked closely with key governments and regional organizations such as the
OSCE to encourage an end to the 2010 inter-ethnic violence and a return to
constitutional order. The office is also encouraging agreements on the peaceful sharing
of water resources in the region.

· In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the timely dispatch of an envoy of the
Secretary-General in autumn 2008 helped to quell unrest and ease tensions between
Rwanda and the DRC that might have deteriorated into renewed regional war.

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What are new areas of focus for preventive diplomacy?

In recent years, the United Nations has increasingly been called upon to respond to violent or
potentially violent crises stemming from unconstitutional changes of government and electoral

· Coup d’états and coup attempts frequently serve as a trigger to conflict. In the past three
years, the UN deployed diplomats in the aftermath of military coups and revolts in
Guinea, Mauritania, Niger and other places. These efforts, in close cooperation with
regional organizations, have helped to pave the way to a return to constitutional order

· While elections can be an important step forward in fragile situations, they also have the
potential to set off violence, as recently in Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and
Zimbabwe. Consequently, the UN is working with its partners to develop a broader
approach to tackling election-related violence that combines preventive diplomacy and
electoral assistance expertise.

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What are the keys to increasingly successful use of preventive diplomacy over the
coming five years?

First, while early warning on emerging crises has improved, we need to better anticipate
“threshold” moments when latent conflicts may erupt and reduce the time lapsed between
warning and action. Even seemingly small actions and signals sent by the international
community such as statements and the dispatch of a fact-finding mission to the field can have
an important effect on the calculations of key actors in conflict.

Second, by strengthening partnerships particularly with regional organizations, civil society and
independent groups active in preventive diplomacy. Deepening these relationships will allow for
greater coordination and rapid reaction as crisis breaks.

Third, by ensuring sustainability. Timely diplomatic interventions may succeed in forestalling
crises for the moment, but ensuring that political agreements last requires follow-through and
the building of national mechanisms to sustain them.

Fourth, by better equipping and resourcing our mediation efforts. More progress is required in
expanding and training our pool of skilled envoys and support staff, and in proving them with
top-notch expertise such as that made available through the DPA-managed Standby Team of
Mediation Experts
. Modest financial investments are also required, particularly to allow for rapid
deployments when crises break. Preventive diplomacy is a cost-effective option, but it still
requires adequate and flexible funding.

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From Guinea to Sudan: Learn more about the UN's efforts in preventive diplomacy