More Time and Money Should be Spent on Averting Crises Rather Than Responding to Them

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Annette Leijenaar & Gustavo De Carvalho 29th May 2017

29 May is International Day of United Nations (UN) Peacekeepers. It honours the memory of UN peacekeepers who have lost their lives and pays tribute to all peacekeepers who have served UN peacekeeping operations. Since 1948, the year the first UN peacekeeping mission was established in the Middle East, more than 3 500 peacekeepers have died in service.

The UN describes peacekeeping as a global investment that provides a flexible and expanding instrument to help countries transitioning from conflict to peace. In 2016, its budget was over $7.9 billion – a steady increase from the $3.8 billion budget in 2005, but still a fraction of global military spending. In April 2017, the UN had deployed 112 911 personnel (military, police and civilians) from 124 different countries on 16 missions.

Peacekeeping is a cost-effective international tool to address conflicts. However, conflict prevention is the core purpose of the UN. This means the UN must consider how peacekeeping, in conjunction with other available tools, can (or even should) best prevent conflicts.

Conflict prevention should be the UN’s top priority, says Secretary-General António Guterres

Traditional peacekeeping could be considered a conflict-prevention tool, as it was designed to de-escalate conflicts or oversee the implementation of ceasefires to prevent the relapse of countries emerging from conflict.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres says responses to conflicts should consider the entire peace continuum, from prevention through conflict resolution and peacekeeping to peacebuilding and development, avoiding ‘one-size-fits-all’ peace operations.

Part of the challenge of bringing prevention to the forefront of UN initiatives is the fact that peacekeeping is a costly initiative and highly reactive by nature. And, while conflict prevention has been rhetorically sound, it still requires further practical understanding.

In response to these needs, several initiatives have been undertaken by the UN to enhance conflict prevention. A number of reviews of its key tools on peace and security were conducted, including the reports from the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO), the UN peacebuilding review and the global study on women, peace and security.

The imbalance between support for peacekeeping vs conflict prevention is expected to grow

The HIPPO report, in particular, brought back the idea of primacy of politics within peacekeeping responses, saying peace operations must be better aligned with the UN’s key objective of preventing conflicts, mediating peace, protecting civilians and sustaining peace.

Compared to mediation and peacekeeping, where decades of international experience have delivered lessons and principles, the prevention of armed conflicts is approached in an ad hoc manner with many disparate perspectives – diplomatic, political, developmental and economic, among others.

Peacekeepers can provide many lessons and tools to ensure prevention is more effective. In particular, the UN’s Joint Mission Analysis Centre can provide early warning to inform decisions taken by senior mission leaders. And the role of the UN Department of Safety and Security in providing analyses of security situations on mission, country, regional and global levels should as a matter of routine be shared timeously with those responsible for conflict prevention.

Peacekeeping will remain a cost-effective tool to deal with conflicts. But a more balanced approach which uses other available tools would honour not only the important work done by peacekeepers, but all efforts to prevent conflicts and sustain peace.

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