Early Warning and Preventive Diplomacy
Kumar Rupesinghe, International Alert

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There has been growing recognition in recent years that a global early warning capacity to predict potentially violent internal conflicts is an urgently needed tool for conflict prevention or mitigation. With the communications revolution and increasingly broad and sophisticated methods for gathering, processing and disseminating information, informational and analytical systems exist which can provide detailed data on actual conflicts and an opportunity to extrapolate future events with varying degrees of accuracy. In the case of war prevention, first-hand information from zones of potential conflict and background data from information systems - properly analyzed and repackaged - could provide much more usable information on new and emerging conflicts to those directly threatened by conflict, as well as non-governmental organizations, the world public and international policymakers. Such information would allow the people directly affected by emerging conflicts to respond in a timely manner and to work toward the peaceful management of conflict.

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The evolution of early warning

During the Cold War era, early warning evolved within the framework of East-West military competition primarily as a response to the nuclear threat. Sophisticated early warning systems, many of them dependent on satellites, were targeted on ballistic missile launch sites to give the opposing side the time to respond to a nuclear strike by activating its own nuclear forces. Linked to the satellite "eyes in the sky" were extensive and expensive capacities for data processing and interpretation of the information gathered. In the political and technological background to this portion of the "Doomsday" apparatus erected by the superpowers, multi-layered early warning capabilities were also developed to predict major climatic change, drought, famine, earthquakes and disaster-driven refugee movements.

In both the military and non-military cases, early warning was an integral part of highly-sophisticated, technologically advanced and integrated reactive capacities to cope with incipient natural or man-made disasters. A prime example of this is that refugee-related early warnings have most often been used to help develop contingency planning for massive flows of people.

Although the Cold War has come to an end and the threat of nuclear holocaust has receded, early warning concepts and capabilities have yet to be harnessed to meet the increasing challenge of violent internal conflicts, which have emerged as the major threat to millions of human beings within countries at war within themselves or facing the threat of violent conflict, as well as to international peace and security. In the case of conflict resolution or transformation, particularly in internal conflicts, early warning is essential in elaborating preventive responses to avert the horrific consequences of civil war, genocide or ethnocide - in other words, victim prevention.1

In An Agenda for Peace, UN Sectretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali stated that an early warning capability is essential to preventive diplomacy. The Secretary General emphasized that the most desirable and efficient employment of diplomacy is to ease tensions before conflict erupts and "to act swiftly to contain it and resolve its underlying causes". To accomplish this the UN "needs early warning based on information gathering and informal or formal fact-finding ..."2

In recent years the United Nations system has been developing a valuable network of early warning systems concerning environmental threats, the risk of nuclear accident, natural disasters, mass movements of populations, the threat of famine and the spread of disease. There is a need, however, to strengthen arrangements in such a manner that information from these sources can be synthesized with political indicators to assess whether the threat to peace exists and to analyze what action might be taken by the United Nations to alleviate it.3

However, as Iain Levine and Marc Weller have pointed out in regard to humanitarian emergencies, the UN's Ad Hoc Working Group on Early Warning Regarding New Flows of Refugees and Displaced Persons, set up in April 1991 to alert the international community to impending mass movements of people, appears to have had little impact on decisionmakers in cases such as Liberia and Bosnia.

Greater success has been achieved in areas of prolonged conflict, particularly in Eritrea and Tigray where early warning and response systems were run by the humanitarian wings of the liberation movements. The effectiveness of these systems was entirely dependent upon international recognition and the provision of assistance by Western donors.

What is needed now is a similar type of early warning system providing information on impending conflicts that might allow the international relief network to foresee and prepare for potential displacement and loss of control of territory to rebel movements or neighbouring states. Such systems do exist within some university departments but could be more widely used with a more formal and perhaps even obligatory participation by all countries to ensure that the information is of the highest quality.4

As for the UN's Office of Humanitarian Affairs, it held its first consultation on causes and areas af major refugee flows only in February 1993, but the information from this and further consultations are to be circulated only within the UN system.5

While it is evident that the UN itself is in urgent need of effective early warning of a range of natural and man-made disasters - in the latter case including violent conflict leading to massive human rights abuses - attainment of that internal capability will mean overcoming a number of major hurdles. One is the tenuous relevance of much of the information gathered by UN systems to the protracted social conflicts which are the most salient form of armed conflict in the post-Cold War world. Another hurdle is to combine what valid information is available with information gathered by UN field staff and/or fact-finding missions. Failure to develop an in-house capability could impose on the UN reliance on intelligence sources from UN member states - many of which will be unable or unwilling to provide timely and accurate information for early warning, particularly of conflicts within their own borders.6 Even if the UN develops an effective early warning system for internal conflicts, the organization is still likely to remain hampered in many instances in its ability to respond, given the enduring nature of concepts of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs and the lack of political will to risk intervention in intractable internal conflicts.

Despite the limitations on the UN in this area, early warning both for intergovernmental organizations and the other components of the world community, remains absolutely vital. Meaningful forecasting on incipient violent conflicts or the escalation of existing conflicts is a prerequisite for local preventive action, as well as non-governmental action that may be either complementary to UN efforts or the only realistic alternative to human catastrophe. As Adam Curle has pointed out in reference to peacemaking (but which has equal validity for preventive initiatives):

"The value of citizen peacemaking, citizen or non-official diplomacy ... is now being widely recognized. It can provide a very useful supplement to the efforts of international agencies or individual governments, essential though these may be. It must be borne in mind that the UN for example may be unpopular with some governments ... Similarly, individual governments may be suspect - often correctly - of being partisan. And even where not, it is recognized that in the last resort an official diplomat has to follow the polical line of his government even if realizing it is not in the best interests of the people with whom he is working."7

Curle goes on to state that organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Quakers, International Alert and the International Fellowship of Reconciliation "can fill an important gap".

"In general, governments achieve their results because they have the power to influence events including the ability to reward or to punish. Paradoxically, the strength of citizen peacemakers resides specifically in their lack of power. They are neither feared or courted for what they might do. Instead they are trusted, and so may sometimes be enabled to play a part in peacemaking denied to most official diplomats."8

Yet, as the Director of Africa Watch Abdullah Ahmed An-Na'im has suggested, in their seeking to intervene in the South, even international NGOs must overcome local perceptions of being extensions of "the same Western powers who colonized and exploited, and who continue to dominate and manipulate the peoples they are now intervening against."9

These and other obstacles to external intervention, as well as the positive benefits of local empowerment, point to the absolute necessity of developing independent, but internationally linked and supported, local capacities for early warning and preventive diplomacy. In the sensitive areas of information-gathering and information usage, it is obvious that any global early warning system for internal conflicts must not only be neutral but be consistently perceived to be neutral.

To my mind, the most useful interface between the international non-governmental community and local actors is at the level of empowering people to recapture or secure the democratic space necessary to prevent or transform violent internal conflict. As well as facilitating local empowerment, the NGO community can play key roles in a wide variety of other areas related to conflict transformation, particularly in the monitoring of internal conflict processes to identify where, and by who, timely interventions could be made, and in the design and implementation of comprehensive peace processes.

Operationally, what is needed is a sustainable alliance of NGOs to cooperate in advancing strategic goals aimed at preventing war. Despite the size and complexity of the problems faced, there are excellent opportunities for NGOs to participate in global coalitions based on agreed forms of action and an effective global division of labour. Consortia and coalitions will be necessary to adequately address strategic goals. At the country level, one possible approach is the formation of country-specific networks or working groups to analyze an existing or emerging conflict in a particular region, identify the root causes of the conflict and all the relevant local actors, and to develop action steps for the development of comprehensive frameworks for peace based on the concepts of local empowerment and sustainability.

While these and a number of other statistical surveys which track violent conflict and its causes and consequences, provide a portrait of the scope and depth of the problem, they also indicate that there is a great deal of available background information on existing and potentially violent conflicts that could be crucial in preventive diplomacy. What is crucial to the development of an effective early warning and conflict prevention system is the integration of the vast amount of knowledge contained in conflict databases with real-time information on developing trends in any given conflict situation, as well as frameworks for preventive action.

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Phases of conflict escalation

Because of our accumulated knowledge of the root causes and lifespans of conflicts it is apparent that they can be described as evolving through particular phases - from formation, maturation, escalation, endurance to transformation. Some of the more protracted violent conflicts in the world have been in existence for 20 to 30 years. The stages from formation to conflict transformation call for different types of intervention at different junctures in the life of a conflict. Essentially, the problem is not only how to reduce the duration of the conflict, but also how to close the gap between the first indications of conflict escalation and intervention - or to pre-empt escalation altogether. Early warning is, therefore, most important at the formative and escalatory phases of a conflict.

a. Responding to conflict formation and escalation

The conflict formation phase is where there is a perceived disjuncture between actors in a given social system. "Conflict prevention" means that a situation in which conflicting goals exist is controlled to avoid the development of violence. Institution building for conflict regulation is one form of conflict prevention. However, there is not yet enough recognition of the importance of early warning indicators for conflict management or resolution. Globally, there is no agency except for the national intelligence services which monitor many potential conflicts. Internationally, there is no public agency dedicated to conflict prevention. In many societies there are no governmental bodies which may facilitate preventive action.

Currently, little is done to effectively intervene when an internal conflict first escalates into bloodshed and violence. Non-governmental organizations, humanitarian organizations and citizen's bodies do play a role in providing relief to victims, and in some instances there are attempts to bring about ceasefires, to provide ceasefire monitoring, observers, and, at times, better policing.

At the formative and escalatory stages in the development of a conflict, monitoring, fact-finding as a tool to bring the protagonists together in dialogue, the advocacy of peaceful solutions and preventive deployments are just a few of the possible means of averting violence which could be brought to bear. Actors at this stage could include:

* the Secretary General of the UN in the exercise of his "good offices" function;

* regional organizations with preventive functions, such as the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe or the High Commissioner on National Minorities;

* intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations capable of carrying out fact-finding missions with constructive mandates such as examining how the parties to a given conflict could be brought together;

* organizations which can provide frameworks for non-confrontational discussions;

* UN or regional peacekeepers deployed to prevent violence;

* civilian "white helmets" or non-violent peace forces to help monitor ceasefires or encourage the peaceful resolution of the conflict in other ways;

* organizations willing to provide support to grassroots, citizen-based peace initiatives.

It should be recognized that the conflict formation and escalation phases often involve internal stages of formation or escalation and that responses should be tailored to the stages within each phase. But before the international community can act in either of these early conflict phases, decisionmakers have to know that a potentially violent conflict is forming. Local and external monitoring is of primary importance, but fact-finding by intergovernmental or non-governmental bodies or individuals can be used as an important instrument of analysis as well as an opportunity to bring parties together and explore possible peacebuilding approaches aimed at averting violence.

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Why has early warning been unsuccessful?

As yet, no comprehensive system for providing early warnings of potentially violent internal conflicts has evolved. This has been largely due to the fact that since the Second World War, the attention of the international community has been focused on the competition between the superpowers and the prospect of a nuclear hohocaust.

With the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, slumbering internal conflicts rooted in ethnicity, religion, governance issues, competition for resources have emerged as the principal threats to international peace and security, not just within the former Soviet Union, but also in the Balkans, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, in South and East Asia and in Latin America. In comparison with the huge investments in designing systems to warn of launches of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, by the end of the Cold War very little had been invested in developing the means of warning when internal conflict could provoke genocide, massive refugee flows, environmental destruction, or the devastation of development projects.

A fundamental problem in addressing internal wars has been the restricted mandate of the United Nations. Not only does the Security Council feel unable to act in many instances of internal wars, but these conflicts do not even come up for discussion. Only when the Security Council becomes persuaded that primarily internal conflicts have become "a threat to international peace and security" is any action taken. Often, however, Security Council-endorsed action is reactive and too late to avert widespread violence and consequential refugee flows, economic and social destruction and massive violations of human rights.

In its Memorandum on An Agenda for Peace, the United Nations Association (UK), underlines the inaction of the Security Council in many of the 30 major armed conflict locations of 1991. In fact, a total of 18 (all of them internal), of the 30 major armed conflicts listed, were not subject to any UN involvement, whether in the form of Security Council Resolutions, offers of mediation, the use of the good offices of the Secretary General, UN monitoring or observers, or peacekeeping.10

As mentioned at the outset of this paper, there are signs in Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's An Agenda for Peace that the international community is coming to grips with the need to elaborate means for intervening in internal conflicts, particularly through the timely exercise of preventive diplomacy, while balancing member states' concerns over sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in domestic matters. This shift is being partially driven by the erosion of absolute sovereignty of states, the continuing horrors of war, the information revolution and the felt need of a growing segment of the international community that much more needs to be done to enforce humanitarian law and customs in internal conflicts, to prevent massive abuses of human rights, to avert huge refugee flows and the other effects of man-made disasters.

However, the intenational community has a long way to go, judging by failures of ad hoc early warning in the Horn of Africa and the former Yugoslavia. Greg Beyer, in documenting the case of the Isaaks of Somalia in the late 1980s, called it "as close as one could come to a textbook case of human rights monitoring and the failure of early warning" when the relationship between the Isaaks and Ogadeni refugees from Ethiopia slid from accomodation to open civil war because of competition for scarce resources. Ultimately, about one million Isaaks were internally displaced or forced to become refugees while thousands more civilians died in attacks by the Somali Armed Forces.11 Throughout this tragic episode, UN officials and non-governmental humanitarian organizations operating in the area were aware of the rising tide of human rights abuses and violence, but no effective response was developed or acted upon. In the former Yugoslavia, the death of Josip Tito in 1980, subsequent economic stagnation, the rise of Serbian and Croat nationalism, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union could all be seen as broad indicatios of incipient armed conflict. But even the prospect of a civil war on the doorstep of Western Europe failed to prompt a concerted international effort to prevent that occurring.

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The information revolution and early warning

Although there has been an information revolution, the information which could be used in alerting the international community to new and emerging conflicts remains poorly coordinated, disjointed and only available to very specific users. Hans Thoolen has pointed out that the amount of written information available in the world has doubled in every generation since the Second World War. In referring to the abundance of information on human rights violations, Thoolen has written, "... today's information overkill is almost as problematic as the previous paucity. In order to make use of the more generous availability of information, we will have to develop reliable indicators on the one hand, and learn to master the universe of available information on the other."12

Decisionmakers and analysts concerned with internal conflicts are now awash with raw, unfocused information of relevance to conflict prevention from a multitude of sources. Some of these sources are:

* The media

* Researchers

* Governmental organizations

* Non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International, the Watch Committees, Huridocs, humanitarian and development agencies

* The United Nations and its specialized agencies

* Commercial risk analysis reporting

* Independent databases

* Regional networks

In general, primary gatherers of information such as Amnesty International, SOS Torture, the Watch committees, trade union associations, etcetera, use information in the exercise of their specific mandates, which, at present, do not involve prevention of internal conflicts, but rather the monitoring and prevention of specific human rights abuses. As for front-line development and humanitarian relief organizations, they amass detailed, first-hand knowledge of conflict situations from their field workers and a variety of other sources. However, they do not necessarily communicate that information to others, partly because of constraining protocols or mandates. In this area, work needs to be done on developing protocols which respect mandates, and wherever necessary, fully guarantee confidentiality, so that these organizations can make what could be an enormous contribution to preventing violent conflicts. Improvements are also needed in information gathering and handling in the field, between fieldworkers and headquarters staff, and where possible, between organizations.

One possible model for improving data handling related to internal conflicts is that of Huridocs, the Human Rights Information an Documentation Exchange, which has developed standard formats for the exchange of information within the human rights community. There are currently more than 200 organizations using Huridocs formats, protocols are being developed for increased information exchange and a cumulative database is on the horizon based on a decentralized system of data handlers working with a cooperative of data holders. Huridocs has also developed event standard formats for the recording of specific human rights abuses. The Huridocs model could be useful for the accumulation and handling of basic information on conflict indicators as part of a comprehensive early warning system incorporating information from databases, field reports, fact-finding missions and publicly available information. However, what is needed is a cooperative network which facilitates the collection, standardization and exchange of information. Such a cooperative could act as a data clearing house, which would also be able to develop standard formatting procedures, as well as the analytic and interpretive skills applicable to the dynamics of current and emerging conflicts.

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Connecting with users

Humanitarian agencies involved in disaster relief and conflict situations, other non-governmental agencies, conflict resolution, human rights, developmental and peace organizations all have a need for meaningful early warning of conflict. But despite the multiplicity of sources of potential early warning information, there is currently no coordinated gathering and analysis of all the relevant data. Nor is there an opportunity to develop coordinated strategies for war prevention or peacebuilding because of the disparateness of the existing information.

One of the crucial problems for any early warning system is how to get the right information to the right people at the right time. Currently within the international system there are severe constraints on the useful communication of information. For example, at the UN, there are a number of problem areas, including the inaccessibility of UN databanks to many potential users inside and outside the UN and the lack of storage computers able to "talk" to each other, so that information tends to remain discreet rather than becoming cumulative. In cases where information is accessible - and this particularly applies to the peace and security field - the technical capacity often does not exist to find the relevant pieces of informaion, whether these are in the form of news reports, field-level reporting from NGOs, scholarly publications, or confidential data passed through the diplomatic network. A recent roundtable discussion co-sponsored by International Alert was informed that:

Analysis in the UN remains at the level of conventional diplomacy of some decades ago and does not make use of anything like the capacity, skills or scope of a modern foreign office in a developed or large developing country. Efforts have been made to improve information-gathering and analytical capacities in the humanitarian field, but this only draws attention to what remains to be done elsewhere.13

The capability to provide local NGOs with analysis of root causes and external developments of relevance to an internal conflict situation, as well as indigenous capabilities to gather, process and share information are even less developed.

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Designing a global system for early warning and conflict prevention

To advance the concept of preventive diplomacy and foster the development of local, regional and international mechanisms for early warning and war prevention a global, multi-sectoral approach is needed that brings together information gatherers and decisionmakers at the local, regional and international levels. This global consortium would aim to provide accurate, timely and usable information on new and emerging conflicts to those actively involved in building peace in areas of potential or actual conflict, as well as bodies such as the United Nations and its agencies. The basic tool for accomplishing this would be through effective networking among organizations and individuals to gather, process and share information and to develop multidimensional preventive action strategies.

Because of the wide range of information providers and systems and a variety of needs at the receiving end, the groundwork for any comprehensive early warning system must include the identification of the relevant actors, their activities and their areas of specialization. To avoid duplication of effort and cost, a careful analysis must be carried out of the potential participants' comparative advantages. The subsequent step would be to determine how each component of the system - for example, regional scholars - could best coordinate their early warning activities. A global system necessarily implies a decentralized effort by specialized segments operating within frameworks which provide for the appropriate divisions of labour. It also implies the establishment of coalitions of different types of actors through which they can develop standards for the exchange of information. For this type of structure to be viable, protocols must be developed and respected which provide for autonomy and which do not impinge on the mandates of particular organizations and institutions.

a. Regional workshops and studies

An essential element in coming to grips with regional conflict dynamics and possible avenues to avert violent conflict would be regional workshops. These would provide a forum for regional and international experts to exchange information and ideas by examining issues of clear relevance to parties to specific conflicts and international policymakers.

b. An Early Warning Information Service

The pooling of early warning information from the highest quality sources is behind the concept of an Early Warning Information Service. Once the information has been obtained from database sources, regional scholars and the field, it would be packaged in states such a way that it reaches the relevant constituencies or targets in a form which is readily usable to those who can make a difference. The Early Warning Information Service would be structured around a core group of professional information handling organizations that would be able to draw on existing networks of information suppliers.

c. Annual Global Conflict Analysis Meeting

Regional activities would be supplemented by an annual meeting, which would help forecast future wars and violence within a global framework, and, over the years, develop as a consultative mechanism for war prevention. These annual meetings would bring together:

1. Regional experts able to provide the most credible scenarios of future developments based on their field experience and knowledge;

2. Respected experts on regional conflict indicators and those operating databases on civil wars;

3. Senior officials of relevant UN bodies, such as the Office for Preventive Diplomacy and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees;

4. Relevant inter-governmental and non-governmental agencies in preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution.

The meetings would be significant international events planned not only to bring together leading experts with United Nations decisionmakers to build confidence and sustainable consultative mechanism, but also to attract public and political attention through international media coverage of their outcomes, as well as publication and wide dissemination of reports based on the proceedings.

Generating the political will for action

Fashioning the elements of a global, cohesive, sustainable and multi-faceted early warning system which draws on all levels of the international community as well as local scholars, NGOs and citizens' groups, will only be of use if it also incorporates actors, mechanisms and the means of generating the political will to take action. Here, the key components would be those individuals and organizations which have a demonstrated capacity to provide political decisionmakers with sufficient warning of impending disasters and to effectively encourage them to act to avert such disasters.

Lobbying would be a specialized component of an early warning system, which could be structured around a core group of organizations with global reach and credibility. Other elements of a strategy to generate political will for action would be the parliamentary fora within individual countries, groups of eminent supporters of the concept of preventive diplomacy and the media. In the latter case, local media have too often fed the hatreds that fan internal conflicts by promoting stereotyping and demonization of others. Meanwhile, the international media has done little to examine the roots of conflict and to give prominence to initiatives and attitudes which promote tolerance or reconciliation.

The role of International Alert

International Alert, as the name suggests, has had a long history of working on early warning. Principal aspects of Alert's approach are to help identify impending internal conflicts and to work to help prevent the gross violations of human rights or genocide they result in. The International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, has also been a pioneer in the conceptualization of early warning, producing a number of publications on the subject and collaborating with Alert on a series of meetings of international experts. IA is also part of the Commission on Internal Conflict and Conflict Resolution (ICON), and, as such, is interconnected with a number of regional networks of scholars active in the field of early warning.14 As part of its ongoing programme to advance the concept of preventive diplomacy and early warning, International Alert, the United Nations University and National Institute for Research Advancement held a seminal experts' roundtable in New York focusing on the issue.

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No single organization, inter-governmental or non-governmental, has the resources to establish a worldwide early warning structure on its own. But, in concert, the international community has ample resources, not only to gather accurate and timely information on emerging conflicts, but to assist local actors in designing and implementing workable strategies for sustainable peace in areas of emerging or existing conflicts. Making mor effective use of timely words and images, instead of abandoning the terrain to those whose only solution is at the end of an assault rifle's barrel, must be central to the evolution of a new world order in which war as a means of resolving conflict has been eradicated.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-bibliothek

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