The independent resource on global security

2. Conflict prevention



I. Introduction

II. The rise of conflict prevention

III. The UN and EU reports on conflict prevention in 2001

IV. Prevention in practice: West Africa and Zimbabwe

V. Prevention after 11 September 2001


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The prevention of violent conflict is a relatively new item on the agenda of multilateral forums. Since the mid-1990s, discussions have focused on the desirability and feasibility of international preventive action. In 2001 the United Nations and the European Union attempted to move conflict prevention from concept to practice. In similar processes both the UN and the EU set out frameworks for the principles of conflict prevention, reviewed existing preventive tools within their organizations, recommended institutional changes to improve and broaden the scope of these instruments, and proposed strategies for intra- and inter-organizational coordination to facilitate the effective implementation of prevention. The comprehensiveness of these reports, the high level at which they were considered and the policies they can potentially lead to mark a coming of age for conflict prevention as a norm in international politics.


Approaches to the threat of terrorism have the potential to incorporate many of the central tenets of conflict prevention. Issues such as the root causes of terrorism, structural and short-term approaches to its prevention, the broad range of state and non-state actors involved, and the multiple tools required to address terrorist threats are precisely the issues with which conflict prevention research and policy making have grappled over the past decade.


Initially, it seemed that international organizations and states might incorporate the preventive framework into their approach to terrorism, but the subsequent global effort has moved away from a preventive focus and has now narrowed to a ‘war against terrorism’. In this narrower approach, the preventive concept is severely circumscribed. Prevention of terrorism, as currently practised, consists of measures taken to stop international terrorism, cut off the financial, political and military sources of terrorist support and, where possible, apprehend terrorists before they commit acts of terror. Although this approach employs a broad range of instruments, it is coercive and short-term in character. It is in origin and practice distinct from the concept of conflict prevention elaborated over the past decade and reflected in the UN and EU documents of 2001. Indeed, the current approach to the prevention of terrorism risks undermining the entire notion of conflict prevention.


There is a risk that the prioritization of military relations between states will undermine the important progress forged in the post-cold war world in broadening international affairs so as to take greater account of non-military issues and the legitimate engagement of non-state actors.


The war against terrorism has led to new relationships between states that were formerly at odds with each other. In many cases, these differences centred on the domestic policies of a state. Improved regional and international cooperation to meet common threats may contribute to stability and peace, but the extent to which states such as Pakistan, Sudan or Tajikistan are called upon to assist in the fight against terrorism may constrain the international community’s willingness to engage with them on such sensitive questions as governance and human rights. The global effort against international terrorism marks the appearance of a new paradigm in international politics. It is important that it does not undermine the conflict prevention norms that have so recently been established.



Dr Renata Dwan (Ireland) is the Leader of the SIPRI Project on Conflict Prevention, Management and Resolution. Previously, she was Deputy Director of the EastWest Institute (EWI) European Security Programme at the EWI Budapest Centre. She was Hedley Bull Junior Research Fellow in International Relations at the University of Oxford. Her most recent publications include the edited volume Building Security in the New States of Eurasia: Subregional Cooperation in the Former Soviet Space (2000) and, for SIPRI, Preventing Violent Conflict: The Search for Political Will, Strategies and Effective Tools (2000) and SIPRI Research Report no. 16, Executive Policing: Enforcing the Law in Peace Operations (2002). She is currently on leave from SIPRI to serve as Special Adviser to the European Union Police Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina planning in the Secretariat of the Council of the European Union.