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Can the Security Council Prevent Conflict?

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One of the Security Council’s most important tasks—and one of the things it does least well—is to prevent conflict. In recent years, the Council, among other international actors, has struggled to prevent the outbreak and escalation of conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine and Yemen, among other situations. Yet the Council does possess several tools to prevent conflict, which is one of its core responsibilities under the UN Charter.

Can the Security Council Prevent Conflict? is our first research report on conflict prevention. The report addresses the factors that inhibit the Council’s ability to prevent or mitigate conflict, gives a brief historical background of its debates and efforts regarding conflict prevention in the post-Cold War period and discusses some of the ways in which it can improve its preventive work.

The report argues that the Security Council needs to spend more time addressing country situations in a preventive mode, rather than debating conflict prevention mainly at the thematic level. It suggests that the Council could make better use of the tools at its disposal in accordance with Chapter VI of the UN Charter, giving political backing to the good offices of the Secretary-General or other mediators, engaging in more interactive discussions among senior diplomats on emerging and evolving crises, making more strategic use of visiting missions and encouraging increased involvement of the elected members in proposing initiatives.

Few issues at the UN receive more discussion and attention than how the world body can improve its conflict prevention work. Every few years, there appears to be a surge of interest in this issue, brought on by the conviction that the UN system must do a better job of preventing conflict. Renewed interest today is with good reason. New wars have erupted in Mali, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, among other cases, while political solutions to longstanding conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Darfur, for example, have proved elusive, with civilians suffering the brunt of the fighting. Humanitarian crises have become more pronounced, and there are now approximately 65 million people displaced by conflict worldwide, the highest number since the establishment of the UN in the wake of World War II.

As the body responsible for maintaining international peace and security, the UN Security Council’s conflict prevention role is perhaps more pertinent now than at any other time in the post-Cold War era. And yet, despite strong rhetorical support for prevention, the Council struggles to translate its words into deeds, as concrete, meaningful preventive action is too often lacking. Instead, the Council sags under the weight of managing multiple crises, heavily burdened by its conflict management agenda and expending significant time pursuing thematic discussions that could be better spent focusing on specific situations.

This report seeks to address one basic issue: can the Security Council prevent conflict? It is clear that the Council faces significant political and operational obstacles in discharging its prevention responsibilities. Nonetheless, preventing conflict is one of its most significant responsibilities under the UN Charter, and there are opportunities for this organ to sharpen and expand its preventive capacities.

In exploring this issue, the report is divided into five sections:

  • First, the report explores what the UN Charter has to say about conflict prevention and why this is central to the Council.
  • Second, the report explores the current political and operational hindrances that make it so difficult for this organ to play a more effective preventive role.
  • Third, it provides an overview of the Council’s conflict prevention efforts since the end of the Cold War. Understanding how the Council has addressed this issue in the past provides the contextual background for its current preventive efforts.
  • Fourth, the report analyses the preventive tools available to the Council.
  • A fifth and final section offers some observations and options for how the preventive work of the Council can be strengthened.
Security Council Report
For more information, please visit the Security Council Report website https://www.securitycouncilreport.org