Re-thinking Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding

The assessments of sub-state actors play an increasingly important role

 

19 Oct 2016 | Michael Schaefer and Abi Williams | Europe and the Emerging Economies

Since 2015, Europe has struggled to respond effectively to the refugee crisis precipitated by conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the MENA region and Sub-Saharan Africa. Causes for this unprecedented level of forced migration include armed conflict, a lack of economic development, weak governance, poverty, and the effects of climate change.

The staggering humanitarian, economic and social costs of armed conflicts underscore the twin imperatives of conflict prevention and peacebuilding. While normative and political commitments to preventing the initial onset and recurrence of deadly conflict are not lacking, the implementation of these commitments remains a significant, though not insurmountable, challenge. Progress on this front requires careful reassessment of current approaches to conflict prevention and peacebuilding in light of lessons learned and present realities.

About the 6th BMW Foundation Global Table:

In June 2016, the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt and The Hague Institute for Global Justice hosted the 6th BMW Foundation Global Table on “Rethinking Governance in Fragile Societies.” At this event, 26 experts from 17 countries discussed how to improve conflict prevention and peacebuilding. The results were the basis for the 7th BMW Foundation Global Table themed “A New Social Contract – The Responsibility to Prevent Failure,” which took place in Tunisia from September 29 to October 2, 2016. Both events are part of the ongoing second cycle of the BMW Foundation Global Table series addressing various important issues of governance. Results will be discussed at the 2nd Berlin Global Forum in November 2017.


The international intervention in Libya has arguably weakened rather than strengthened international acceptance of the Responsibility to Protect principle. Its acceptance has been weakened, because the intervention – which was the first intervention approved by the UN Security Council based on the R2P principle – ultimately facilitated a regime change in that country. This was one reason why R2P was not subsequently invoked successfully for action by the international community in Syria. Not only has the conflict in Syria reached a new nadir with the suspension of the talks between the United States and Russia; the instability generated by the Syrian quagmire now reaches far beyond the country’s borders.

This development provides a stark example of the chaos that the failure to prevent violent conflict can entail. In Syria and elsewhere, effective conflict prevention has been hampered by a range of factors, including the short time-horizons and self-interest that often condition political decision-making, insufficient institutional capacity and resources, inadequate knowledge (particularly of local contexts), and a dearth of long-term strategies that harness properly the range of preventive tools required to address context-specific needs.


In theatres like Libya, the difficulty of preventing conflict is compounded by conflicts of interest between stakeholders within the country, as well as regional and international stakeholders. Strategic geopolitical and economic interests often trump humanitarian concerns and the protection of fundamental human rights.

What then does successful conflict prevention require? The example of Macedonia is instructive. The UN Preventive Deployment Force was deployed in Macedonia from 1992 to 1999 and succeeded in preventing a spillover of the violence raging in other parts of the former Yugoslavia. Several factors contributed to this success. Chief among them were the informed and timely request for international assistance made by the Macedonian President (early warning), and a prompt and robust response from the United Nations Security Council, which provided a clear mandate, sufficient resources and sound inter-organizational coordination (early and effective action).

As demonstrated by the Macedonian case, the likelihood of success in conflict prevention is enhanced greatly when external assistance is desired and supported by the host state. In circumstances where such support is lacking, it is important to consider how it may be gained through the provision of incentives for cooperation. In the Balkans, the prospects for EU membership were – and are – an important “pull factor,” which is not available in other regions. Additionally, a realistic assessment of internal needs and external capacities, particularly in the long-term, must be factored into the decision of whether and how to engage in conflict-prone or conflict-affected environments. Here, the assessments of local, sub-state actors play an increasingly important role.


Effective early warning and early action require information gathering, analysis and reporting that is timely, precise and accurate. Information must be sought from a multiplicity of sources, including private sector actors, which are often overlooked. Importantly, this information must be funneled into recommendations for action that are clear and practicable.

Many conflict situations are opaque, making accurate analysis difficult. Ruling elites are often part of circles of corruption, which heightens instability, undermines development, and prevents common security and impartial justice. It is, therefore, essential to include trusted local actors like mayors, teachers and religious leaders in conflict prevention efforts. In the digital age, social media plays an increasingly important role. Digital channels provide the civilian population with vital information – and help the people to connect and support each other. Functioning communication also requires trust in the source of information (e.g. UN). Moreover, it is obvious that these channels may also be abused for disinformation and propaganda purposes, as is the case, for example, with the terrorist militia Islamic State.

Finally, conflict prevention efforts in a given situation must be guided by an overarching strategy that delineates the roles of key local, national, regional and international actors and articulates specifically which political, military, legal and socioeconomic tools should be deployed and how.


The failure to prevent violent conflict or build peace not only wreaks havoc on human lives and societies, but also places tremendous political and economic burdens on the international community. The challenges of building sustainable peace in fragile states with long histories of deadly conflict are evidenced amply by countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Colombia. While each conflict-affected situation is unique and requires a tailored response, it is possible to identify several principles that can help improve the effectiveness of current peacebuilding efforts.

The Hague Institute’s 2013 publication The Hague Approach details six principles for achieving sustainable peace in post-conflict situations. These principles emphasize:

  • the importance of engaging in secondary prevention to avoid a relapse into violence;
  • fostering a rule of law culture to buttress the institutions and procedures integral to the rule of law;
  • adopting a network response to peacebuilding that encourages cooperation between a shifting constellation of actors relevant to the specific tasks at hand;
  • engaging the private sector by creating a business enabling environment;
  • utilizing strategic communication to manage expectations and build rapport between local and international stakeholders;
  • and ensuring an adequate base of knowledge by engaging in continuous learning that draws on both local and international expertise.

Operationalizing these principles is complex and often requires reconciling competing imperatives. Secondary prevention must account for the fact that external interventions can alter conflict dynamics, and the resurgence of violence may be triggered by factors other than those which caused its initial onset. Efforts to establish the rule of law must strike a delicate balance between upholding international standards and showing sensitivity to local practices. Engaging local stakeholders frequently entails working with “spoilers” and corrupt elites. The private sector is critical for economic development, but can ignite or exacerbate conflict. Strategic communication requires clear and consistent messaging, which is difficult to achieve given the plurality of voices in the local and international communities.

As with conflict prevention, social media is an important element of strategic communication in peacebuilding. Global Table participants suggested creating a “Guidebook for Peacemakers on Strategic Communication,” which can help to connect key stakeholders, engage youth, and empower local actors.

Women should play a much greater role in peacebuilding processes. Many women who wish to become entrepreneurs are not capable of starting a business due to a lack of finances. Others need training to prepare them for public office. The private sector and civil society have a significant role to play alongside governments in ensuring that women are able to participate meaningfully in peacebuilding efforts.

Justice and the rule of law are prime requirements for sustainable stability. While the reconciliation of warring factions is a high priority, accountability for perpetrators of crimes is equally important. International, regional and hybrid criminal justice institutions have significant expertise and resources to offer countries seeking to provide accountability and redress at the national and local levels.

In the past, enormous investments have been part of development aid, much of which has failed to reach grassroots institutions because of corrupt regimes. Empowering local actors and institutions will require a fundamental rethinking of development cooperation and developing other forms of supporting local actors.

Finally, peacebuilders must walk a fine line between relying on what has worked in the past and improvising in light of context-specific factors. Peacebuilding is, inevitably, as much art as it is science. Generating the requisite political will on all levels remains an enduring challenge. Sustained political support at the international level is difficult to ensure, since government’s foreign-policy decisions are often guided by domestic concerns. Both conflict prevention and peacebuilding, however, typically involve long time-horizons that are ineluctably out of sync with domestic electoral cycles, and require significant attention and resources that must be diverted from pressing national concerns. It is critical, therefore, to focus on creating the necessary conditions to elicit strong and consistent political support at the international level. Crystallizing broad political commitments into clear and binding obligations and creating broad-based consensus both at the national and international level are essential if we are to achieve tangible progress on these most consequential matters.

The refugee crisis in Europe will continue to be a significant challenge for years, possibly decades, to come. It is therefore essential that the EU develops a coherent strategy for tackling the root causes of instability and conflict in its neighborhood. There is no lack of instruments and resources within the EU, but there is an appalling lack of coherence between foreign and security policies, economic and development policies, and other strategic policy areas of the EU and its member States. This lack of coherence must be addressed and reversed, if the EU wants to respond effectively to the concerns, anxiety, and frustrations of its citizens.