Preventive Diplomacy


René Wadlow*



                                   The idea of preventive diplomacy – acting at the first sign of conflict before a pattern of violence sets in – has been made popular by the then UN Secretary General Dr Boutros Boutros Ghali’s report Agenda for Peace (United Nations, 1992).  An earlier Secretary General U Thant has summed up preventive diplomacy as “one which is not heard of until it is successfully concluded or even never heard of at all.”  Preventive diplomacy is normally non-coercive, low-key, and confidential in its approach. 


                                   Preventive diplomacy is an aspect of the multi-layered relations between security, conflict resolution, respect for human rights, the development of democratic institutions, and the rule of law.  Preventive diplomacy works only if there is trust in the wisdom and impartiality of those taking the first steps.  This presupposes a strong, efficient, and independent international civil service whose integrity is beyond question and which has the financial base with which to act.


                                   A main component of preventive diplomacy is the creation of an effective early warning system.  At the first signs of conflict, such as persistent violations of human rights or refugee flows and the internal displacement of populations, a crisis team should be set up to monitor events.  There should follow increased analysis of the situation and fact finding.  Such efforts should be coupled with increased international pressure for negotiations and help to set up local-level activities to reduce tensions.  At some point in the process of preventive diplomacy, the leaders of the countries in crisis need to be informed that the process cannot remain confidential.  Even the most repressive leaders watch to see how much they can get away with before triggering an outraged external response.


                                   Basically, preventive diplomacy is predicated on the assumption of good faith on the part of governments and armed opposition groups.  There is a hope that governments and opposition will place the welfare of people as a whole over narrow interests.  Sadly, we know that easy optimism about the disinterestedness of political leaders would be misplaced.  A close analysis of power considerations in a crisis is an important part of successful diplomacy.


                                   Thus, preventive diplomacy is not restricted to United Nations or national government officials.  Non-governmental organizations, academic institutions and the media can all play a role.  It is important to find balanced and harmonious ways in which many different actors can play a positive role to prevent dangerous increases of violence.  A particularly effective example of non-governmental preventive diplomacy is the Pugwash Movement.  The Pugwash Movement was born from a Manifesto issued by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein in London in 1955 when there was little communication between the Soviets and the Americans.  The non-aligned nations were not yet playing a major role and only scientists, especially those dealing with atomic physics, had the prestige that would make governments listen to what non-scientists had been saying since at least 10 years before.  “We are speaking” says the Manifesto “on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt.  Here, then, is the problem which we present to you, stark and dreadful and inescapable:  Shall we put an end to the human race or shall mankind renounce war?  People will not face this alternative because it is so difficult to abolish war.


                                   It is this task of active reconciliation which must be undertaken by people acting outside of government structures.  Reconciliation must be the aim, compassion the spirit, non-violence the means.  The first step is to call upon all those with creative powers, with spiritual insight, and with true courage to make themselves known.  Each will have to act, alone and collectively, to overcome the trends toward violence in his own area.  But just as violence today is world wide and inter-related, so must non-violence have a world-wide vision and capacity for action.


                                   Thus, the second step is to organize so that the spirit of compassion may manifest itself across State frontiers.  Violence which crosses frontiers must be met with non-violence which crosses frontiers.  Each success of the work of reconciliation will bring new requests for help in mediation.  Thus, we must help prepare mediators who can work in different cultural settings.  These tasks of reconciliation will require persons from all cultures and all spiritual backgrounds.  Many of these “seed groups” of reconciliation and non-violent action already exist, but the seriousness of the political crisis requires new energies and additional people to express compassion in action.  We must all help to build trans-national networks of non-violent agents for reconciliation.


*Rene Wadlow, Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens

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