Knotted gun statue in front of greenery.

Prevention at the United Nations

Can National Strategies Prevent International Conflicts?


An interview with Pablo De Greiff, independent expert for the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the United Nations (UN)-World Bank’s Pathways for Peace report, which has been a milestone in re-thinking the multilateral prevention agenda with a focus on nationally led approaches. With the war in Ukraine and the return to international conflicts, a main question is whether this knowledge is still relevant. This blog post is a discussion between Céline Monnier, senior program officer at CIC, and Pablo de Greiff, a member of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine. Pablo is also developing a framework for national approaches to the prevention of mass human rights violations and in this conversation, he explains how national prevention strategies can be used to think about international conflict, and presents recommendations to strengthen the prevention agenda at the UN in the context of the secretary-general’s New Agenda for Peace.

You have been developing a framework for the upstream prevention of mass human rights violations for some time now. Can you describe it in a few words?

The framework I have been developing is designed to overcome the over-emphasis on crisis prevention within the UN system and international cooperation agencies. For more than ten years, the UN has been advised—including by commissions it has established itself such as the 2015 High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO)—to broaden and upstream its prevention agenda. While crisis prevention has its merits, a sole focus on crisis has pernicious consequences. First, it concentrates on the role of the international community rather than on nationally led initiatives, which in turn creates concerns among some member states that the prevention agenda will be used as a backdoor for international intervention. Second, thinking of prevention only when crises hit leaves out considerations the bulk of what we have learned about prevention, which takes place day-to-day (preemptively before a crisis has emerged) at the national level and with participation of a broad range of stakeholders.

Those everyday prevention initiatives are the focus of the Prevention Project at the NYU Law School Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. Plenty of national institutions—such as constitutional courts and security institutions—and country-level initiatives play an important preventive role but are rarely or ever mentioned in prevention discussions at the UN. Because I remain deeply convinced that sustainable social change is not simply a question of institutional engineering (i.e., designing the right structures), the project also focuses on other areas that are critical for prevention such as changes in the domains of economic opportunities, societal relations, and even of personal and cultural dispositions and convictions. It seems clear to me that societies with more robust senses of mutual solidarity and tolerance are societies where certain types of abuses are less likely to take place.

The project therefore also looks at civil society. Despite the fact that we have empirical evidence that a robust and inclusive civil society is itself a prevention mechanism, the role of civil society has been systematically underestimated in prevention and its preventive functions being reduced to specific activities such as monitoring, advocacy, and reporting.

The Prevention Project is also anchored in the belief that human rights are not mainly a redress mechanism imposed as an obligation by the international community, but they are also an anti-grievance mechanism and, as such, sovereignty enhancing. On the eve of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one should recall that countries adopted the Declaration in the years immediately after the Second World War with a preventive rationale in mind. Human rights were originally conceived as preventive—as opposed to shaming—mechanisms. This is still true today, if we think that national efforts to implement human rights strategies can help countries stay off the UN Security Council agenda.

Over the past decade, multilateral systems have dedicated a lot of efforts to better understand and prevent internal conflict and violence, as illustrated for instance by the publication of the United Nations-World Bank Pathways for Peace report. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine representing a return to international conflict, are those lessons learned obsolete?

I don’t think that they are obsolete. Ukraine of course is a very important international conflict but that does not mean that there will be no more national conflicts. In addition, an absolute distinction between national and international policies is always somewhat artificial; there are very important lessons learned that can be applied in both instances.

For instance, over-concentration of power in executive branches, particularly in populist governments across the world, makes it more likely for military force to be used both internally and externally, because of the erosion of checks and balances and sidelining of oversight institutions. The weakening of civil society as a potential informal oversight mechanism also crosses the artificial division between national and international policies.

Despite the fact that the Prevention Project, as I mentioned before, was designed with national initiatives in mind, it has actually been quite useful in my role as Commissioner in Ukraine to understand some of the enabling factors that led to the conflict in the first place. Understanding some of the so-called root causes of the conflict has helped the Commission to frame recommendations on how to address them.

Based on your research and in the context of the New Agenda for Peace, what recommendations would you have to strengthen prevention approach at the UN?

I think that those of us that are interested in prevention will be pleased to see that prevention is a major focus of the New Agenda for Peace. My interest lies in the development of policies that transfer this rhetoric into practice in the UN system, and I hope that member states use the occasion to implement more effective national strategies at the country level.

The task for the UN seems to be twofold: first, to develop a framework and policy, and not just a fragmented collection of initiatives. As we mark the fifth anniversary of the United Nations-World Bank Pathways for Peace report, I don’t think the UN can sincerely say that it has implemented the recommendations that are contained in that report fully. Although it must be acknowledged that progress has been made on the creation of forums where prevention can be discussed and also on the information it seeks from country teams, I do not think that there is still an official policy on prevention other than a dispersed set of practices concerning crisis prevention that tend to overemphasize the role of international good offices.

The Prevention Project seeks to contribute to the development of a framework to help bring coherence to the policy landscape and reflect the findings of research. Second, the UN should cultivate and acquire expertise over the many issues that pertain to nationally led preventive agendas so the UN is in a position to provide support—not direction—to those programs. And in many instances, I don’t think that the institution currently has the proper competencies.

The task is large, but I think that we need to celebrate that this is part of the agenda now and the opportunity it provides for the rest of us to collaborate in the formulation of that policy.

“Non-violence – the Knotted Gun – United Nations,” Photo Credit: Flickr/Al_HikesAZ (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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