Friday, February 8, 2008

Pretending to Prevent Conflict

The ringing preamble of the United Nations Charter committed the organization to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war," but so far, it's been a worthless pledge. About a hundred million people, most of them black, brown and yellow, were killed by the proxy conflicts of the "Cold War" (a term utterly racist in its premise but one that continues to be used without embarrassment or explanation). The killing has continued after the end of East-West confrontation under the rubric of "ancient ethnic hatreds" (the Balkans), tribalism (which seems to affect only resource-rich regions in Africa), and "jihadist Islam" (rooted in Muslim countries but justifying the global "war on terror"). The death toll has been horrific. In just the last decade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo some four million people have been killed in a proxy war over resources.

The United Nations has been a bystander to this continuing carnage, its peacekeeping and humanitarian roles underlining its core failure to prevent war. In the late 1990s, when that failure became uncomfortably salient amidst the dashed hopes of post-Cold War peace, there was a great beating about in the diplomatic bush and a resolution was procured in 1998 on "conflict prevention." There was much talk of "early warning" mechanisms -- as if the suddenness of developments was a major reason for lack of preventive action -- and of "rapid response." A number of the middle Powers began to train troops ready for assembly into formed units for deployment at short notice.

Ever since the 1998 resolution, the Secretary-General has submitted periodic reports apprising the Security Council of developments. I have just finished reading the latest of these, and can report that we stand in no danger of seeing the UN become suddenly effective in preventing conflict. The 17-page document begins with an upbeat statement:

"A culture of prevention is taking hold at the United Nations; awareness of the importance of prevention has spread, and the commitment to building and mainstreaming its tools has taken root. Progress is being made in strengthening the Organization’s ability to respond to disputes or situations that might lead to violence and to address the root causes of conflict. Efforts are under way to strengthen the Organization’s conflict-prevention mechanisms and instruments, with a view to making them a core component of the collective security architecture of the United Nations."

After that obligatory feel-good statement, the report does a slow jig towards reality (or what passes for it at the UN), and winds up with: "However, despite the increased recognition of the utility and effectiveness of preventive measures, a considerable gap remains between rhetoric and reality." It explains why: "Conflict prevention is a multidimensional task involving political, humanitarian, development and other measures tailored to each specific context."

To address that complex undertaking the United Nations is "developing increasingly multifaceted approaches to the prevention of conflicts, drawing on the cooperation of many different actors, including Member States; international, regional and subregional organizations; the private sector; non-governmental organizations; and other civil society actors." There are no specifics about what is being done, but we are assured that:

"This comprehensive approach includes structural prevention efforts to address the root causes of conflict; operational prevention to ensure the effectiveness of early warning mechanisms, mediation, humanitarian access and response, the protection of civilians, and targeted sanctions in the face of immediate crises; and systemic prevention to prevent existing conflicts from spilling over into other States."

There is not a word about who supplies the arms that make African conflicts possible, or who profits from them. Most of the weaponry comes from other regions, especially Europe; the resources looted under cover of war also flow to other regions. Africa is being subjected to colonialism by other means.

While addressing "situations of hardship, deprivation, difficulty and inequality, which breed war, is not new to the United Nations," the report says, the Organization has recognized "that these different approaches must be linked so as to create a comprehensive conflict-prevention strategy." That "has allowed for a more holistic and systemized approach to the maintenance of international peace and security and international collective security mechanisms."

The actions envisaged in the report are all of that nebulous variety, with one exception: the Department of Political Affairs is being "strengthened" to cope with the manifold and multidimensional tasks of prevention. In short, more jobs for the boys.

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