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Preventing wars PART 2

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prevention dilemmas
In the aftermath of Rwanda, international actors – from the UN, NGOs, governments – came together in an effort to prevent a similar outbreak of violence in Burundi. There was greater co-operation and information sharing amongst observers and agencies working in the region. In the USA, the State Department held monthly briefings with NGOs and media representatives to air concerns about the region.

From the beginning, however, it was common knowledge amongst UN staff, aid workers, the media, and governments, that a fair number of ‘genocidaires’, and extremist Hutu militias who mounted the 1994 genocide, were living amongst the 1.2 million Rwandan Hutus in refugee camps of Eastern Zaire. The vast majority of these people were, of course, innocent. Yet for two years as they tried to bring a semblance of normality to their lives, they lived under the rule of the militias and in fear of returning home.

Events in Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – revealed the complexity and difficulty of mounting effective early warning. The international community did make a concerted effort to give protection and security to the refugees. The events in the region were monitored and followed closely. But a combination of local political issues, significant practical problems -the terrain, access to the region, open borders – and a lack of international political will to take early and concerted action hampered their efforts.

For example, for 6-8 months prior to the collapse of Zaire, NGOs such as International Alert were calling for tighter border controls between Zaire, Burundi and Rwanda to stem the rebel attacks. Insufficient resources were put into securing the camps and protecting the innocent from falling prey to the threats and coercion of the militias. Little international pressure was placed on the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan military, elements of which were known to be seeking revenge.

By the time Laurent Kabila and his alliance advanced, it was already too late to take action. Limited international military intervention into thick jungle terrain the size of Western Europe would have been hopeless. So the lesson learnt was that no matter how much information gathering, analysis, and warning there is, without feasible and timely response options, the system is still failing.

a different tack
With these issues in mind, in 1996, a group of NGOs, academics, lobbyists, UN agencies and governments interested and involved in conflict research, campaigning and policy development joined together to attempt to address the gaps in existing conflict early warning systems. The Forum on Early Warning and Early Response (FEWER) comprises over 30 multi-disciplinary institutions world-wide. Its goal is to develop a coherent system of conflict indicators (with regional variations), and early warning reports, analyses, and policy recommendations which could assist and influence policy makers into taking action to contain and mitigate conflicts.

Of course there are other initiatives that are emerging and improving, including the European Commission’s Conflict Prevention Network (CPN), the UN’s Humanitarian Early Warning System (HEWS), and the OSCE’s Conflict Prevention Centre, but FEWER’s approach and structure is distinctive. Firstly, the aim is to add value and complement existing projects, and to provide a framework for disseminating lessons learnt in conflict early warning. By bringing together a spectrum of organisations under the same umbrella, it enables greater communication, co-operation on policy planning and development, a cross-fertilisation of ideas and approaches, and better understanding of each other’s capacities, priorities, motivations and interests.

It enables academics and practitioners jointly to test the validity of current conflict early warning theories through actual practice and application in different regions. It can introduce new themes into early warning theory, including gender-sensitive indicators and monitoring indicators and opportunities for peace rather than just conflict warning. And it can help to ensure that the research work being undertaken has policy and practical relevance for local actors, ensuring that the information gathered and issues monitored actually inform policy options.

Secondly, FEWER supports the programmes and efforts of regional and local organisations by providing them with access to the wider international arena, and the space to present their policy options to high level international actors. Finally, as the only multi-disciplinary international organisation involved in conflict early warning, FEWER is respected and recognised as an independent entity with the sole agenda of promoting peace.

The involvement of governments and UN agencies in the consortium, and FEWER’s growing links with key decision makers has two effects; on the one hand there is better understanding of state capacities to react to each conflict situation, and their priorities vis-a-vis the regions in question; on the other hand, increased cross-sectoral ties and dialogue is helping to generate greater political will, interest and practical support for conflict prevention measures.

In the last year, FEWER has initiated two pilot programmes, one in Central Africa, the other in the Northern Caucasus. The aim is two-fold. First, local and regional capacities to monitor and analyse events are being developed and supported. They will be producing situation reports, complete with response options and scenario settings. Second, through the London-based Secretariat, links and relations with policy makers are being developed. But FEWER is still a young initiative, and recent events in the DRC have revealed new dilemmas.

what is ‘early enough’?
Beyond the frustration of knowing that a conflict was on the verge of erupting, and being powerless to prevent it, came a more profound realisation. The fact was, that in the DRC, the entire government intelligence system had been mobilising for this conflict up to five months previously. No doubt, the rebel units and their regional backers were doing the same. In other words, for up to five months the ‘inevitability’ of this new conflict was understood by all sides. Local observers and FEWER’s members were paralysed by knowing what would occur, but not having a strong and influential enough structure through which to reach the international arena.

A number of lessons emerged:

- Providing early warning is not in itself a problem.
- Locals do have the knowledge and capacity to give objective and accurate analysis.
- They also have the ability to develop response strategies, especially action to be undertaken by local and regional groups.
- But, recommendations for international responses are still weak. There is too much reliance on attaining media visibility.
- Local networks still do not have strong connections to regional and international policy structures and decision makers.
- There is still a gap in linking short-term action with longer-term preventive structures.
- The motivations of international or regional actors (who could take preventive action but choose not to) needs to be understood.

It could be argued that since 1994, conflict early warning systems have come a long way. There is greater co-operation between sectors, there is more collaboration on reporting formats and dissemination. Local and regional organisations are becoming more integrated into international structures, and their capacity to monitor and assess situations is increasing. But although we are moving in the right direction, there is still some way to go.

In the future, FEWER’s aims are to continue giving support to its regional members through pilot projects in African and the North Caucasus. It is important that they can operate independently and with transparency. It is important also, that they not only develop strategies aimed at tacking conflict situations in the short, medium and long term, but also take into account wider geo-political factors. FEWER itself will put more emphasis on strengthening ties with policy makers. There is a need to understand the capabilities and willingness of decision makers and takers at the local, regional and international levels, to take into account the motivations of all involved, and the way in which issues and regions are prioritised or ignored.

difficult issues
Conflict early warning is a complex and sensitive issue. But it is also immensely important. When it fails – as in Rwanda, the DRC, Chechnya or Kosovo – the effects are long lasting. If it works, the world will rarely hear about it. In any ways it goes against basic human optimism. No one genuinely believes or wants to believe that their community, their society or nation can erupt into ugly warfare. It is always easier to say that ‘we are different’. The facts, however, tell a different story. Truly to hope to avoid warfare in regions prone to instability, warning alone is not enough. An effective early warning system is one that also provides effective prevention and response options, to decision makers who are willing and committed to taking action.

This could be construed as being too interventionist by some: by definition, however, early warning is intervention. The challenge, therefore, is to make it effective intervention. That requires, firstly, collaboration and trust amongst state and non-state organisations at the international, regional and local levels. This is slowly beginning to happen. Secondly it requires international actors and influential governments to prioritise war prevention and peace building everywhere. Is this happening yet? The answer from Kosovo and the DRC seems to be ‘no’.

This article first appeared in New Routes, PO Box 1520, SE-751 45 Uppsala, Sweden.


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