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ISSUE 24
Winter 1998

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Defence-no thank you
Sanctions
Unnatural disasters
Preventing wars

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preventing future wars


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.

 

Map of armed conflicts and flashpoints 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.

prevention dilemmas
In the aftermath of Rwanda, international actors – from the UN, NGOs, governments – came together in an effort to prevent a similar outbreak of violence in Burundi. There was greater co-operation and information sharing amongst observers and agencies working in the region. In the USA, the State Department held monthly briefings with NGOs and media representatives to air concerns about the region.
From the beginning, however, it was common knowledge amongst UN staff, aid workers, the media, and governments, that a fair number of ‘genocidaires’, and extremist Hutu militias who mounted the 1994 genocide, were living amongst the 1.2 million Rwandan Hutus in refugee camps of Eastern Zaire. The vast majority of these people were, of course, innocent. Yet for two years as they tried to bring a semblance of normality to their lives, they lived under the rule of the militias and in fear of returning home.
Events in Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – revealed the complexity and difficulty of mounting effective early warning. The international community did make a concerted effort to give protection and security to the refugees. The events in the region were monitored and followed closely. But a combination of local political issues, significant practical problems -the terrain, access to the region, open borders – and a lack of international political will to take early and concerted action hampered their efforts.
For example, for 6-8 months prior to the collapse of Zaire, NGOs such as International Alert were calling for tighter border controls between Zaire, Burundi and Rwanda to stem the rebel attacks. Insufficient resources were put into securing the camps and protecting the innocent from falling prey to the threats and coercion of the militias. Little international pressure was placed on the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan military, elements of which were known to be seeking revenge.
By the time Laurent Kabila and his alliance advanced, it was already too late to take action. Limited international military intervention into thick jungle terrain the size of Western Europe would have been hopeless. So the lesson learnt was that no matter how much information gathering, analysis, and warning there is, without feasible and timely response options, the system is still failing.

a different tack
With these issues in mind, in 1996, a group of NGOs, academics, lobbyists, UN agencies and governments interested and involved in conflict research, campaigning and policy development joined together to attempt to address the gaps in existing conflict early warning systems. The Forum on Early Warning and Early Response (FEWER) comprises over 30 multi-disciplinary institutions world-wide. Its goal is to develop a coherent system of conflict indicators (with regional variations), and early warning reports, analyses, and policy recommendations which could assist and influence policy makers into taking action to contain and mitigate conflicts.
Of course there are other initiatives that are emerging and improving, including the European Commission’s Conflict Prevention Network (CPN), the UN’s Humanitarian Early Warning System (HEWS), and the OSCE’s Conflict Prevention Centre, but FEWER’s approach and structure is distinctive. Firstly, the aim is to add value and complement existing projects, and to provide a framework for disseminating lessons learnt in conflict early warning. By bringing together a spectrum of organisations under the same umbrella, it enables greater communication, co-operation on policy planning and development, a cross-fertilisation of ideas and approaches, and better understanding of each other’s capacities, priorities, motivations and interests.
It enables academics and practitioners jointly to test the validity of current conflict early warning theories through actual practice and application in different regions. It can introduce new themes into early warning theory, including gender-sensitive indicators and monitoring indicators and opportunities for peace rather than just conflict warning. And it can help to ensure that the research work being undertaken has policy and practical relevance for local actors, ensuring that the information gathered and issues monitored actually inform policy options.
Secondly, FEWER supports the programmes and efforts of regional and local organisations by providing them with access to the wider international arena, and the space to present their policy options to high level international actors. Finally, as the only multi-disciplinary international organisation involved in conflict early warning, FEWER is respected and recognised as an independent entity with the sole agenda of promoting peace.
The involvement of governments and UN agencies in the consortium, and FEWER’s growing links with key decision makers has two effects; on the one hand there is better understanding of state capacities to react to each conflict situation, and their priorities vis-a-vis the regions in question; on the other hand, increased cross-sectoral ties and dialogue is helping to generate greater political will, interest and practical support for conflict prevention measures.
In the last year, FEWER has initiated two pilot programmes, one in Central Africa, the other in the Northern Caucasus. The aim is two-fold. First, local and regional capacities to monitor and analyse events are being developed and supported. They will be producing situation reports, complete with response options and scenario settings. Second, through the London-based Secretariat, links and relations with policy makers are being developed. But FEWER is still a young initiative, and recent events in the DRC have revealed new dilemmas.

what is ‘early enough’?
Beyond the frustration of knowing that a conflict was on the verge of erupting, and being powerless to prevent it, came a more profound realisation. The fact was, that in the DRC, the entire government intelligence system had been mobilising for this conflict up to five months previously. No doubt, the rebel units and their regional backers were doing the same. In other words, for up to five months the ‘inevitability’ of this new conflict was understood by all sides. Local observers and FEWER’s members were paralysed by knowing what would occur, but not having a strong and influential enough structure through which to reach the international arena.
A number of lessons emerged:

    Providing early warning is not in itself a problem.
    Locals do have the knowledge and capacity to give objective and accurate analysis.
    They also have the ability to develop response strategies, especially action to be undertaken by local and regional groups.
    But, recommendations for international responses are still weak. There is too much reliance on attaining media visibility.
    Local networks still do not have strong connections to regional and international policy structures and decision makers.
    There is still a gap in linking short-term action with longer-term preventive structures.
    The motivations of international or regional actors (who could take preventive action but choose not to) needs to be understood.

It could be argued that since 1994, conflict early warning systems have come a long way. There is greater co-operation between sectors, there is more collaboration on reporting formats and dissemination. Local and regional organisations are becoming more integrated into international structures, and their capacity to monitor and assess situations is increasing. But although we are moving in the right direction, there is still some way to go.
In the next year, FEWER’s aims are to continue giving support to its regional members through pilot projects in African and the North Caucasus. It is important that they can operate independently and with transparency. It is important also, that they not only develop strategies aimed at tacking conflict situations in the short, medium and long term, but also take into account wider geo-political factors. FEWER itself will put more emphasis on strengthening ties with policy makers. There is a need to understand the capabilities and willingness of decision makers and takers at the local, regional and international levels, to take into account the motivations of all involved, and the way in which issues and regions are prioritised or ignored.

difficult issues
Conflict early warning is a complex and sensitive issue. But it is also immensely important. When it fails – as in Rwanda, the DRC, Chechnya or Kosovo – the effects are long lasting. If it works, the world will rarely hear about it. In any ways it goes against basic human optimism. No one genuinely believes or wants to believe that their community, their society or nation can erupt into ugly warfare. It is always easier to say that ‘we are different’. The facts, however, tell a different story. Truly to hope to avoid warfare in regions prone to instability, warning alone is not enough. An effective early warning system is one that also provides effective prevention and response options, to decision makers who are willing and committed to taking action.
This could be construed as being too interventionist by some: by definition, however, early warning is intervention. The challenge, therefore, is to make it effective intervention. That requires, firstly, collaboration and trust amongst state and non-state organisations at the international, regional and local levels. This is slowly beginning to happen. Secondly it requires international actors and influential governments to prioritise war prevention and peace building everywhere. Is this happening yet? The answer from Kosovo and the DRC seems to be ‘no’.

This article first appeared in New Routes, PO Box 1520, SE-751 45 Uppsala, Sweden. www.life-peace.org

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