Preventive medicine: can conflicts be prevented?

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.319.7207.396 (Published 14 August 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:396

The evidence suggests that conflict prevention can work

  1. Tom Woodhouse, professor
  1. Centre for Conflict Resolution, Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, Bradford BD7 1DP

    Now that the war in Kosovo is over (at least in its current phase) post war reconstruction costs for the Balkans are estimated at £12bn to £60bn ($19-96bn). The international peacekeeping force now in Kosovo will find it difficult to complete its tasks either quickly or cheaply, and the transition to peace is likely to be far harder than winning the air war. The US and the European Union are expecting to incur costs of at least £625m ($1000m) a year for reconstructing Kosovo over the next five years. Thousands have been killed, most of them civilians, communities have been destroyed, and the full environmental consequences of the bombing have yet to be realised Political leaders, it seems, too often underestimate the costs of entering a course of action which seeks to resolve conflicts by violence.1

    The Kosovo war is only the latest in a series of conflicts that have dashed the hopes for a peaceful world that existed for a short time after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. They were expressed most positively by United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1992 when he called for the world community to address the root causes of conflict through a strategy which depended in part on new initiatives to prevent violent conflict.

    Preventive diplomacy

    Conflict prevention, or preventive diplomacy, is the idea that the international community should be able to prevent violent conflicts rather than responding once violence has broken out (when a conflict is much harder to control). Boutros-Ghali defined preventive diplomacy as “action to prevent disputes from arising between parties, to prevent existing disputes from escalating into conflicts and to limit the spread of the latter when they occur.”2 It encompasses a variety of strategies including measures to build confidence; fact finding missions; early warning mechanisms to detect potential conflicts; conflict impact assessment systems; measures to promote democracy and human rights; the preventive deployment of peacekeeping forces; the establishment of demilitarised zones; and the development of measures to monitor and restrain the trade in small arms.

    However, the aspiration has fallen tragically short of reality and effective implementation. During the 1990s over four million people have been killed in violent conflicts and by the late 1990s there were over 35 million refugees and internally displaced persons around the world. In Rwanda 500 000-800 000 people were killed in a genocide which took place under the eyes of the international community over three months. In addition to the deaths and the trauma of the people, international relief and reconstruction projects cost the international community more than $2bn ($3.2bn) between 1994 and 1997.

    At the time the UN peacekeeping commander in Rwanda claimed that a force of 5000 troops operating under an appropriate UN mandate could have prevented most of the killing and others have since supported that estimate. The poor performance of peacekeeping in Rwanda (and Somalia and Bosnia) has led to the development of new doctrine to define the use of more robust and aggressive forms of peacekeeping. This provides troops with a war fighting capacity but retains principles of impartiality and also links military action to long term peacebuilding.3 In Rwanda, sadly, there was neither a credible peacekeeping force ready to be deployed nor the will or capacity in the international community to undertake the risks or costs of intervention. The adage that prevention is better than cure is not uniformly applied when it comes to managing armed conflict.

    Many governments remain sceptical about acting on early warning indicators to engage in conflict prevention, seeing it as hazardous, costly, and possibly ineffective. However, there is evidence that preventive diplomacy is effective. The first ever preventive deployment of peacekeeping forces, the UN Preventive Deployment (UNPREDEP) force in Macedonia, has been a factor in stopping the spilling over of the Yugoslavia conflict into that country. Other examples include the management of ethnic tensions in Estonia and in Hungary, the amicable “divorce” between Czechs and Slovaks, and the democratic transition to majority rule in South Africa.4

    Miall studied 81 international conflicts and major civil disputes between 1945 and 1985 to identify factors that influenced whether conflicts were settled peacefully. His findings give some empirically validated and historical support to the premise of conflict prevention that early third party intervention is positively correlated with peaceful resolution. He recommended the need to develop new dispute settlement regimes which were designed to react to disputes before they became embittered and violent.5 Similar findings have been reported by others.6 7

    The main problem is that dispute settlement regimes which would provide the capacity for conflict prevention are still in their infancy, but that capacity is developing. Many regional organisations are now involved in conflict prevention activities. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, for example, has deployed missions to potential conflict areas in Europe and the former Soviet Union and established a High Commissioner on National Minorities to prevent violent interethnic conflict. The Organisation for African Unity established a mechanism for conflict prevention, management and resolution in 1993. The European Union has agreed to establish a policy planning and early warning unit within its emerging common foreign and security policy, and it supports a conflict prevention network of academic researchers and policymakers. Non-governmental organisations such as International Alert based in London and the European Centre for Conflict Prevention based in Holland have also been involved in conflict prevention activities, often supporting “grass roots” peace organisations and conflict resolution processes.8 9

    It is in the further development of these kinds of institutions and networks that the best prospect for effective conflict prevention lies. In 1997 the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict likened the advances made in preventive health care over the past 30 years to the challenge facing efforts to prevent deadly conflict today.10 While we do not know enough about all the factors that trigger the outbreak of mass violence, we do know enough about the factors that can help prevent mass violence. Such factors include promoting protection for human rights; economic development and security sector reform; education in skills and processes that promote cross cultural understanding; and the integration of peacekeeping doctrine with strategies designed to promote long term “peacebuilding from below processes.”

    Peacebuilding from below

    The idea of peacebuilding from below is that sustainable conflict prevention is best achieved by reinforcing local and indigenous resources and capacities. There is increasing “case law” indicating the potency of this approach, from the Zones of Peace in Colombia to the work of the Centre for Peace, Non-violence and Human Rights in Osijek, Croatia, while in Somalia the Life and Peace Institute has established a capacity building programme to cultivate and support indigenous peacemaking traditions and processes. Since 1996 the institute has run a civic education progamme providing training for teachers, media personnel, police, and community leaders in principles of reconciliation and peace studies.

    In Colombia Unicef has been closely involved with the Children's Movement for Peace, which mobilised about three million children around the Children's Mandate for Peace and Rights. As a result peace became the main issue of the 1998 presidential elections. The Colombian children's movement is now active in the most violent communities, laying the foundations for long term peace through a variety of education projects. This kind of approach is vital if the peacekeeping force now in Kosovo is to have any chance of success in the long term.11

    Once war has broken out the costs of violence soar. The members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development collectively provide about $10bn annually in emergency assistance to victims of conflict and $59bn on overseas development assistance, much of it to war ravaged areas. The costs of conflict prevention are likely to be small compared with the costs of deadly conflict.10 But it is only partly a matter of resources. Most of all a change in attitude is required where people are willing to see themselves as belonging to an international community which has the legitimacy, political will, and resources to take preventive action in conflict prone areas.


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