An ounce of prevention in Venezuela

The UN’s new focus on preventive diplomacy is sorely needed in a country facing an acute political crisis, a fallen economy, and too many armed groups that could trigger violence.

People shout during a protest over food shortage and against Venezuela's government in Caracas June 14.

Many figures in history are known for starting a war or ending one. But it is difficult to point to many who prevented war by their diplomacy. John Kennedy probably avoided a nuclear conflict by his statecraft during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In 2014, Adama Dieng, a United Nations special adviser, helped prevent genocide in the Central African Republic. John Kerry, the US secretary of State, may have averted an Iran-Israel war by negotiating last year’s nuclear pact with Iran.

Remembering such heroes in preventive diplomacy is important now because someone on the international stage must prevent Venezuela from descending into armed conflict.

That South American country, home to some 30 million people and the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is in a tense standoff for power. The elected opposition in the National Assembly seeks a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro. He is very unpopular as the economy has tanked, leaving triple-digit inflation and shortages of basic goods. Large protests are expected. The military is leaning against Mr. Maduro; yet, if cornered, he could rely on some 15,000 neighborhood groups organized into militias on behalf of his leftist regime.

With this potential for mass violence, three former presidents from the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Spain attempted indirect mediation between the two sides last month, but with no results. The United Nations, the European Parliament, and the Organization of American States have all called for urgent talks. And Tuesday, Venezuela’s government finally agreed to allow the United States to intervene by agreeing to meet with a high-level US envoy.

This flurry of meetings reflects a new worldwide emphasis on preventive diplomacy. In 2014, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution to better utilize all of the UN system for “concrete preventative action” against impending bloodshed. The tools range from negotiations to sanctions to special political missions in troubled nations. With the world gripped by multiple violent conflicts, said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “this highlights the enormity of the challenge of prevention.”

Venezuela is a test case of this new global effort, one based on an assumption that war is not an inevitable condition of humanity. The diplomatic tools for peacekeeping are well known. The UN and other bodies are primed to use them. The situation just needs a courageous moral figure to ensure peace for all Venezuelans.

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