Press Releases

    SG/SM/7747
    22 March 2001

    CULTIVATION OF SENSE OF NEIGHBOURHOOD, ATTENTION TO ROOT CAUSES AND POLITICAL WILL NEEDED FOR EFFECTIVE CONFLICT PREVENTION, SECRETARY-GENERAL SAYS

    NEW YORK, 22 March (UN Headquarters) – Following is the text of an address by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the Foreign Policy Association in New York on 21 March:

    Let me start by congratulating Noel Lateef and the Foreign Policy Association on organizing this series of lectures on preventing deadly conflict in honour of Cyrus Vance. I can think of no more important subject, and no one more fittingly associated with it than Cy. He is a very dear friend of mine -- and of many others here, I know. He has been a great servant of his country, of the United Nations, and of humanity. No cause has been dearer to his heart than the prevention of conflict, and no one has laboured more tirelessly in that often unrewarding vineyard than he has. No one, I'm sure, would be happier than he if we could succeed in the task which is the subject of my talk this evening: strengthening the United Nations for preventing deadly conflict.

    Incidentally, I am glad you added the adjective, "deadly". Usually we talk about preventing conflict. But conflict in itself is a normal feature of human behaviour, and often a useful one. It is through conflict that societies grow and transform themselves. The true challenge is to manage conflict peacefully, through appropriate institutions, so that it does not become destructive and deadly.

    To this audience, I need hardly spend time making the case for prevention. We all know that preventing war, when you can do it, is far less costly than dealing with its aftermath. That is true in material terms, but what is far more important is that we can save millions of human lives which would otherwise be wastefully and prematurely destroyed. If only we could have prevented the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, tens of thousands of young men and women would now be alive, starting families and contributing to the development of their country, instead of being buried where they fell on the battlefield, or facing a life blighted by hideous wounds.

    And that war was relatively benign by the standard of recent times, in so far as its victims were mainly soldiers. The typical victims of today's wars are even more innocent and vulnerable than those young men and women were. They are unarmed civilians, with a high proportion of women and children.

    The very first purpose of the United Nations, listed in the first article of our Charter is "to maintain international peace and security". And under that heading the first specific thing we are required to do is "take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace".

    In all my work at the United Nations, as I have struggled with one humanitarian crisis after another, I have become more and more aware of this responsibility, and of our failure -- in too many cases -- to live up to it.

    Since I became Secretary-General, I have done my best to bring this issue to the attention of Member States. In 1999 I chose it as the theme for my annual report, and called for the Organization to move "from a culture of reaction to a culture of prevention".

    Recent debates in the General Assembly and the Security Council have shown wide agreement on that point. And in speeches at both the Millennium Summit and the Security Council Summit, world leaders confirmed that they wanted to make prevention a priority. Why, then, is it so seldom practised?

    The first thing to say is that it is practised a great deal more than people realize. I was very pleased to see that Brian Urquhart made this point in the previous lecture in this series. As he put it, in his usual inimitable style, "like all preventive action, private diplomacy has a major public relations problem, because if it is successful nobody will ever hear about it. Put simply, a resolved conflict is not news. Only conflicts that you fail to resolve are news".

    Brian also estimated that I spend more than 50 per cent of my time on one type of preventive diplomacy or another. I'm afraid I don't clock in my hours of work and bill them to different clients, as a modern manager should. But you can take it from me that Brian knows what he's talking about.

    The trouble is, preventive diplomacy tends to come late in the day, when violence is already close to erupting. By then, people have taken up entrenched positions or strategies and are often too angry or proud to retreat. We need to start sooner.

    The second thing to say is that the biggest obstacles to prevention lie in the attitudes of Member States. States threatened by conflict frequently refuse to admit that they have a problem, or to accept external assistance. And many States who would be well placed to assist are reluctant to intervene.

    The first group, like patients in denial, fail to see the problem and are offended by offers of help. The second either do not see the danger that problems afflicting their neighbour might also spread to them, or are unwilling to confront their neighbour with unwelcome but necessary pressure and advice.

    If we are to establish a true culture of prevention we need to cultivate a sense of neighbourhood that would overcome both these sources of reluctance. So undoubtedly the primary responsibility for preventing conflict lies with States themselves. If governments do not want help, or are unwilling to give priority to their citizens' well-being, there is little the United Nations can do.

    Unfortunately, governments have few political incentives to put resources into conflict prevention. We are asking them to spend precious resources today for something that may or may not bring results tomorrow.

    Yet I must say I am not satisfied with this argument. If peace requires long-term preparation and expenditure that may not be popular, so surely does war. States somehow find the 800 billion dollars they spend each year on their defence forces, which in most cases they hope they will not have to use. Surely they could spend at least a fraction of this on policies designed to make war less likely? Surely they could do more to get at the root causes, if they really wanted to.

    What are those root causes?

    Clearly poverty is one of them. It cannot be a coincidence that almost all the wars being fought today are happening in poor countries. If war is the worst enemy of development, it is also true that peace has few worse enemies than underdevelopment, or mismanaged development.

    I say "mismanaged", because we have learnt by now that true development is not just a matter of macroeconomic indicators. There is abundant evidence that war is less likely to happen in a country -- even a poor country -- which is well governed and has transparent, accountable institutions.

    By contrast, research for the United Nations University has shown that war is much more likely to happen -- even in a rich country -- when large groups of people feel they are marginalized or excluded from wealth and power because of their religious or ethnic identity. The researchers call this "horizontal inequality".

    A Russian revolutionary journal once wrote that "no village ever revolted merely because it was hungry". But when hungry people can see that they are victims of injustice, and when their attempts at peaceful protest are put down with violent repression, then indeed they are ready recruits for armed rebellion.

    But I must beware of falling into the trap of talking as if violent conflict were a uniform phenomenon, or as if I knew the best ways to prevent it anywhere and everywhere. The truth is that the causes differ widely, and policies or programmes to prevent it must be sensitive to the particulars of specific conflicts in specific places. There are many things about conflict and its causes that we still do not understand.

    We also need to remember that we at the United Nations are not always best placed to take the lead. Sometimes other actors at the local, national, regional or international levels are in a better position to do so.

    That is one reason why I have tried hard to strengthen cooperation between the United Nations and the Bretton Woods Institutions and with regional and subregional organizations. As you know, we work closely with the Economic Community of West African States in West Africa; with the Organization of African Unity in the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa; and in the Balkans with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union.

    But sometimes one can be too modest. In the winter of 1998-99, for instance, I avoided intervening in the Kosovo crisis because I did not want to get in the way of the work being done by the Contact Group of major interested powers. With hindsight, I wonder if I should have been more active.

    What I cannot do, in any case, is to offload one of the prime responsibilities of the United Nations. Nor can I let the fact that we do not know or understand everything about preventing violent conflict become an excuse for not trying.

    So what can we do to improve the chances of preventing conflict? I shall submit a further report on the subject to the Security Council in about two months time. Let me give you a foretaste of the general conclusions we are coming to.

    We start from the observation that our prevention efforts can only be effective if they are undertaken with the cooperation of Member States. In each case, we need to start by looking at the society we are trying to help. We cannot impose models or behaviours on the people we are working to support, but instead should look to them to guide what we do, and how we should do it. Conflict prevention must be a home-grown process.

    Secondly, it follows from this that the tools of prevention are to be found in Chapter VI of the United Nations Charter, which deals with the Pacific Settlement of Disputes. Article 33 lists a number of appropriate tools: "negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements".

    Only in extreme cases, where conflict is clearly imminent or has already broken out, will the Security Council resort to the more coercive measures listed in Chapter VII. Most such actions would come under the heading of enforcement rather than prevention.

    But robust enforcement action by the Council, even if it comes too late to prevent the specific conflict to which it is addressed, can help to prevent other conflicts, by showing potential aggressors or egregious human rights violators what lies in store for them if they persist in flouting internationally accepted laws and norms of behaviour.

    A third observation is that the aim of conflict prevention must be not merely to postpone disaster for a few weeks or months, but to build the foundations of a sustainable peace.

    This means that we need to help the State or States concerned form a coherent and comprehensive prevention strategy, into which the various kinds of assistance given by the international community -- political, diplomatic, humanitarian, developmental, institutional, etc. -- should all fit.

    Much of what we are already doing under other headings -- in particular, our development work -- is, or should be, helping to prevent conflicts. But it will surely do so more effectively if we bear that in mind when planning our programmes, and design them as parts of a coherent strategy.

    Fourth, international support should be offered at the earliest stage possible.

    Fifth, it must address the root causes of conflict, in all their dimensions.

    And lastly, effective prevention requires sustained political will on the part of Member States. Our offers of assistance will cut little ice if States do not provide the resources to back them up; and our advice will carry little weight if States do not give us strong political support. That applies particularly to States which have influence with the parties to a conflict, or potential conflict. Often those will be the neighbours of the country concerned.

    My aim is to see the whole of the United Nations system thinking and practising prevention -- just as I have tried to get the whole of it to think and practise human rights. And indeed, human rights have to be at the centre of every prevention strategy.

    The United Nations is not going to do all this by itself. We need good working partnerships, so we will continue reaching out to other international bodies, to the private sector, and to non-governmental organizations like yours. With your help, and with the example of Cy Vance to inspire us, I believe we may yet succeed in fulfilling the determination of our founders, to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war".

    Thank you very much.

    * *** *