UN Adopts Preventive Diplomacy

Organization formalizes efforts to intervene before violence breaks out in world hot spots

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CONSIDER them efforts to prevent another Bosnia. Since March, United Nations diplomats and staff members have made 30 mostly unpublicized trips to try to cool down tensions between countries.

All these trips fall under a new formal category of activity at the UN: preventive diplomacy.

The concept was publicly embraced by UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in his June report, "Agenda for Peace."

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One of the UN's aims, said Mr. Boutros-Ghali, is "To seek to identify at the earliest possible stage situations that could produce conflict, and to try through diplomacy to remove the sources of danger before violence results...." He calls preventive diplomacy "most desirable and efficient." Vladimir Petrovsky, the UN's undersecretary general for political affairs, predicts that preventive diplomacy will become "one of the major activities" at the UN.

In March, the UN started to develop a capacity for monitoring potential conflicts by setting up a new department of political affairs in the Secretariat, the UN's administrative arm. The department, divided into geographic divisions, watches for emerging disputes, collects and analyzes information regarding the disputes, and develops possible alternatives for peaceful dispute resolution.

UN officials say the missions have already scored some successes. In July, the UN sent a fact-finding mission to Moldova, which was just beginning an armed conflict with Russia. After the UN team arrived, the two sides began negotiating. Mr. Petrovsky says the mission prevented the dispute from becoming a full-scale war. "I am sure of it," states Petrovsky, who was a high official in the former Soviet Union.

Sometimes, the missions are more informal, simply listed as "goodwill visits." Petrovsky says the UN sent a goodwill team to the Solomon Islands on Oct. 16 at the request of the Solomon Islands government. The aim of the mission is to discuss deteriorating relations between the Solomons and Papua New Guinea over the rebellion on Bougainville Island.

For the UN, the appeal of preventive diplomacy is relatively simple: It is much cheaper to resolve a dispute early than to send in thousands of troops later. The estimated cost of the Cambodia peacekeeping forces for 15 months, for example, is $1.7 billion out of a total peacekeeping budget of $2.6 billion.

"If preventive diplomacy is effective 10 percent of the time, it is still going to be more cost effective in terms of picking up the pieces afterwards and the huge devastation that occurs in armed conflict," says Connie Peck, who is a consultant to the Australian government, one of the nations supporting the UN's new effort.

An example of how the UN is trying to do that today is the attempt by UN officials, including those of the US, to keep the Angola civil war from flaring up again. UN officials, including US Ambassador to the UN Edward Perkins, flew to Angola in mid-October to try to reduce tensions after the elections.

"Typically, the Security Council has waited until after a dispute has boiled over to be involved and what we are suggesting is it would be good to devote more resources to prevention when disputes are still disputes," says Dr. Peck, a senior research fellow at La Trobe University Institute for Peace Research in Melbourne, Australia.

In a way, the UN has done this in the past, although it has not made it part of a strategic blueprint, as it is now doing. "The UN has done it when the parties felt they had climbed out on a limb too far and wanted help getting down," says Enid Schoettle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

THE most famous case of "quiet diplomacy" may have been UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold's eventual success at getting back 11 US servicemen shot down over the People's Republic of China on Jan. 12, 1953. In his own memoirs, President Eisenhower does not mention the UN services. Ms. Schoettle says the UN may often be involved but is not given credit.

Although many diplomats embrace the concept of preventive diplomacy, as they would motherhood or apple pie, actually getting it to work is another matter. Countries involved in quarrels with other countries sometimes don't want third-party intervention.

"One has to be realistic," Schoettle says. "There is not a huge line of governments at early stages in their quarrels asking the UN for help."

As part of the plan, the UN is now trying to raise money to train its staff in negotiation and other aspects of preventive diplomacy and peacemaking.

"Those who want to keep up-to-date in this highly complex and dynamic field are largely left to their own devices and provided with little institutional support," says a training program proposal issued by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).

So far, Australia is the only country to announce financial support for the plan, providing the sum of $50,000. However, Marcel Boisard, acting executive director, says he is confident that they will raise the money. "When the programs are good, we can find the funding," Mr. Boisard says.

UNITAR, based in Geneva and New York, is also planning to build an institutional memory as part of the fellowship program that could help future diplomats. As one UNITAR document notes, the UN has no body of documented case histories on how it successfully or unsuccessfully resolved disputes. "Each situation is unique, but there are lessons to be learned," says Peck.

As part of the preventive diplomacy program, Peck wants UN staff members to make regular trips through their regions, "meeting with leaders and the actors in the capital cities and the hot spots in the region to get an in-depth understanding of what the issues are in the disputes and to offer "quiet diplomacy." Peck notes that disputes are most easily solved before parties become trapped in their own positions, before blood starts flowing and retribution begins.

Australia's Minister for Foreign Relations and Trade Gareth Evans says he believes preventive diplomacy could possibly have prevented two of the world's deadliest conflicts from exploding recently. In a speech in early October before the General Assembly, Mr. Evans argued, "Indeed, if we examine the worst conflicts over the last 12 months - in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Afghanistan - we could plausibly argue that, at least in the first two cases, more attention to preventive diplomacy may have a voided the catastrophes that befell those nations and peoples."

For its part, the United States is generally supportive of certain parts of preventive diplomacy. On Oct. 9, Ambassador Alexander Watson, deputy US permanent representative to the UN, told the General Assembly that the US particularly endorsed the Secretary-General's call for increased use of "confidence-building measures, and closer coordination with regional organizations and parties to potential disputes."

Confidence-building measures include regional risk-reduction centers, the monitoring of arms agreements, and the exchange of military missions.

Petrovsky says a new confidence-building technique the UN plans to use is the establishment of demilitarized zones prior to bloodshed. "We propose to make it part of the solution," he says.

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