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Preventing wars Part 1

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In war as in health, the old adage that prevention is better than cure is gaining in credence. Sanam Naraghi Anderlini and David Nyheim consider an innovative effort to enhance the international community’s ability to anticipate and prevent the outbreak of violent conflict.

WHERE will the next war erupt? Can we do anything to prevent it? We know that wars don’t happen overnight. No matter how poor or oppressed a society is, or how provocative and manipulative political leaders may be, communal violence does not erupt suddenly. Inevitably, it is the manifestation of accumulated aggression and hostility. But why does aggression accumulate, and how does benign ethnic rivalry or competition between two communities turn into hostile mistrust, and violence? What, if anything, can be done, by whom, at what stage – to prevent the outbreak of violence and to resolve the conflict peacefully?

These questions have given rise to the field of conflict early warning, which can be defined as the systematic collection and analysis of information coming from areas of crises for the purpose of:

- anticipating the escalation of violent conflict.
- the development of strategic responses to these crises.
- the presentation of options to critical actors for the purposes of decision-making.

Early warning systems have long been in use for floods, hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes. Systems also exist to assess potential refugee flows. These systems come into play once a crisis has broken out. But conflict early warning is about forecasting the potential for a crisis; namely the escalation or eruption of inter-state and intra-state conflicts. The aim is to avert violence, and the primary focus is ‘victim prevention’.

However, whereas other early warning systems can monitor and measure quite specific elements – level of rainfall, seismic changes etc – conflict early warning systems need information about a wide range of social, economic and political factors that can contribute to communal hostilities. Secondly, there has to be objective and thorough analysis. There is always a risk, however, that those involved in collating the information give biased interpretations favouring their own agendas and interests.

Thirdly, even if the information is objectively analysed and disseminated, without an appropriate strategy for response, and a willingness on the part of the influential actors, the conflict will not be averted. Finally, therefore, there has to be commitment to act on the part of powerful international players. In practice, however, each of these four criteria presents often insurmountable difficulties.

the failure in Rwanda
In 1994, Rwanda flared up in a three-month orgy of violence and massacre. An estimated one million people – Tutsis and moderate Hutus – were killed, many of them on camera in front of the whole world. But the killings in Rwanda were anything but spontaneous. In the aftermath of the massacres, a multi-national commission set out to find out what happened, and why the international community and the UN had failed to respond.

The results were stark. It appeared that long before the tragedy, NGOs, UN agencies and other observers in the country were aware of and concerned about impending violence. They had watched and reported on the heightening tension and extremist rhetoric. Grave warnings of a planned coup, an assault on UN forces, provocation to resume the civil war, and even detailed plans of genocidal killings in the capital, reached the UN Secretariat in January 1994. The cable, documenting this information was placed in a separate ‘black file’ designed to draw attention to its content and be circulated throughout the UN Secretariat. But senior officials questioned its validity, and made no contingency plans to avert the crisis. Similar reports to the governments of France and Belgium were also ignored.

It became evident that within the UN, those who analysed the dynamics of social conflicts did not co-ordinate or share their findings with those who monitored human rights violations. At the time there were no links between information collection, analysis and the development of strategic policy options. One of the most significant sources of early warning, the UN human rights monitoring system, was outside the Secretariat’s information gathering network, and effectively became isolated from the decision-making process.

In the field, neither the UN nor the OAU (of which Rwanda is a member) had a comprehensive or structured capacity for information collection and analysis. The UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, UNAMIR, ran an irregular intelligence operation. In New York, it was believed that the situation could be resolved diplomatically within the confines of the UN, and without recourse to the media or public spotlight. Even as the killings took place, the General Assembly was debating the accuracy of the term ‘genocide’ to describe the situation. The international media arrived too late – for they were gathered in South Africa, celebrating Nelson Mandela’s election victory.

Rwanda proved that it was not necessarily the lack of information that hinders early action, but a combination of more complex factors:

  • We cannot rely on one system or organisation to generate warnings and take action. If there is more than one region in crisis, speculation and ‘noise’ may lead to more attention and resources being diverted in one direction, ignoring other regions. But if there are a series of different regional networks, every potential conflict could be monitored and addressed.

  • We must develop calibrated early warning systems – different levels of warning, over different periods of time. Ideally the aim is to warn, first against the build-up of mass violence, and second against its outbreak and ‘inevitability’. Deciding the optimal timing for such a warning – 1 year, 6 months, or 6 weeks – can, however, have significant implications for the governments and inter-governmental organisations involved.

  • There is a major co-ordination problem between information gatherers, analysts, decision makers and field workers. Among international organisations, including the UN and NGOs, there is still some reluctance to share their own, or act on the information gathered by others. Governments and NGOs cannot automatically trust every source, so unless the information comes from their own workers, or from recognised, reliable sources, little action will be taken. Inevitably also, priorities differ. While one is warning about an impending crisis in one region, another organisation is active in a different area, and will not or cannot respond immediately to the warnings.

  • Even when there is a response, there may be conflicts of interest and little co-operation with field-based workers and community groups. Decision-makers and information analysts aim to maintain objectivity and cannot in most circumstances know what the most appropriate responses are. While their counterparts in the region and the local population are best placed to identify the necessary responses, their perspective is not entirely objective or even-handed. Consequently the action taken is often inadequate, of no benefit, or in the worst cases, actually serves to accentuate a crisis.

  • There is still too much reliance on the international agencies and NGOs, and not enough support for local coping strategies. Early warning information disseminated amongst external actors and governments will not quell the tensions and conflict which exist within a country. In other words, the sources of conflict, the perpetrators of violence, and their potential victims (ie citizens) have to be addressed and involved in peacemaking efforts. Without communication and the partnering of external and internal capabilities, an early warning system is of little consequence.

part two


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