Finding Entry Points for Preventive and Mediation Efforts

4 Dec 2017

Finding Entry Points for Preventive and Mediation Efforts

Remarks by Teresa Whitfield at the Inaugural Meeting of the AU Panel of the Wise

4 October 2017, Addis Ababa


Esteemed members of the Panel of the Wise,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the African Union Commission, for inviting me to address you today. It is an honour to join you at this inaugural meeting of the Panel of the Wise, and a very timely moment to be thinking about how we can all do more – and do better – to prevent and respond to violent conflicts.

It might be helpful if I first introduced myself. I am the Director of the Policy and Mediation Division in the UN’s Department of Political Affairs. In that capacity I head the UN’s Mediation Support Unit (MSU) – one of four units within the Division (another is the Gender, Peace and Security Unit with which the MSU works closely).  The MSU was established in 2006 and has grown into a very useful facility.  We provide operational support, guidance, and some training across the various entities of the UN – DPA’s own envoys and engagements, peacekeeping operations and in non-mission settings – and also to other actors.

A hallmark of our engagements is their flexibility and discretion – our role is to be helpful. Our work with the AU includes support provided to the AUHIP by Barney Afako, a member of the Standby Team of Senior Mediation Advisers, and, last year, relatively long running support provided by another SBT colleague, Issake Souare, to former PM Kojo in the DRC.

A brief view of the characteristics of contemporary conflicts and our response brings bad news, some good news – and urgency to the issue of early engagement for conflict prevention.

After years of relative decline, armed conflicts and violence are increasingly complex and protracted. The statistics are familiar. Direct deaths from conflict grew six-fold between 2011 and 2015, and civil wars tripled in the decade before that. The year 2014 was second only to 1994, the year of the Rwandan genocide, as the deadliest since the end of the cold war.

Civilians continue to bear the brunt of this with over 65 million people forced to flee their homes, and a further 20 million people either experiencing or on the brink of devastating famine. Many of those most at risk are on the African continent: in Somalia, South Sudan, Northern Nigeria and elsewhere.

Factors that complicate an effective multilateral response include the internationalisation of conflicts and the fragmentation of armed groups, often with blurred political, economic, criminal and ideological interests. In too many contexts distinct phenomena such as violent extremism, transboundary population movements, climate change or cyclical financial shocks compound state fragility and contribute to a breakdown in trust between populations, governments, and the multilateral actors whose primary purpose is to serve those very populations.

Meanwhile, divisions in the international community, both regionally and amongst global powers, run deep. States approach armed conflicts with different priorities – even if not actively fuelling them. 

Although I think we all recognise the challenging circumstances we face in the field of peace and security, one piece of good news is the strong state of the partnership between the United Nations and the African Union.   Both under dynamic new leadership, both committed to reform – and both are enhancing their efforts and attention to conflict prevention, as well as crisis response, and doing so within the context of the new AU-UN Framework for Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security reached earlier this year.

But the task before us is not easy. If at a rhetorical level all can agree that conflict prevention is a good thing, when it comes to practice, sensitivities related to sovereignty and the contestation of international norms reduce the space for preventive diplomacy and mediation.

I can briefly describe how things look from the UN’s perspective before addressing the need and potential for our early engagement in preventive efforts.

Secretary-General António Guterres has identified the prevention of crises and conflicts as his highest priority. His vision encompasses both profound reform of the UN’s own structures and increased focus on partnerships of all kinds.  Of high priority is partnership with regional and sub-regional organizations in accordance with comparative advantages, as well as increased attention to building the capacities of national and local actors to prevent and respond to conflicts, including through dialogue and the tool of mediation.

The United Nations, like the African Union, has long approached conflict prevention as consisting of both structural prevention – actions taken to build the resilience of states and societies to reduce the likelihood of the outbreak of conflict or violence – and operational prevention – actions taken to address or reduce the immediate risk of violent conflict, when its outbreak or escalation threatens.

The former includes efforts to build strong public institutions, and is rooted in the promotion of good governance, the rule of law and human rights, and open, inclusive and participatory societies.  The latter encompasses many of the activities familiar to those of us who work in the domain of peace and security: good offices, mediation, the dispatch of envoys, the threat or implementation of sanctions, the deployment of peace operations, and so forth.

Over time, the UN, like the AU, has developed tools to inform its response in both spheres of activity. An array of special representatives, advisers and envoys of the Secretary-General work at the country and regional levels to carry out the Secretary-General’s “good offices”, most successfully when in partnership with others.  Meanwhile, at a broader level, the UN System strives to realize the ambitious goals set by Member States in 2015 when they adopted the Agenda for Sustainable Development.   Unsurprisingly, violent conflict is increasingly recognized as one of the biggest obstacles to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, not least by the African Union’s own commitment to silencing the guns by 2020.

To improve local knowledge and build relationships of trust, the UN has worked effectively through the establishment of regional offices, functioning as “forward platforms” for early warning and preventive diplomacy.  This has been most successful, including here in Africa, when forging cooperative and complementary relationships with sub-regional and continental partners, for example in Burkina Faso, Gabon, The Gambia and Guinea. In addition to the development of flexible mediation expertise, country based Peace and Development Advisers have been deployed to strengthen advice on conflict sensitive programming in non-mission settings and identify entry points for activities to strengthen national and local capacities for conflict preventive.

A conceptual shift in our approach to conflict prevention came in April 2016, when the General Assembly and Security Council adopted ground-breaking resolutions on “sustaining peace”, described as encompassing “activities aimed at preventing the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence of conflict”.   This broad vision of prevention underlines both the importance of early engagement and continued attention to prevention across a conflict cycle.

How to achieve this early engagement – if you like how to move from the early warning that both the United Nations and African Union now have the capacity to do quite well to early action – is perhaps the critical question.  Related, is what we mean by “early”.  When violence threatens? Before conflict breaks out? Or in order to prevent its spread and escalation?

Two recent publications present evidence that we need to think more creatively about when and how to engage early.

A study jointly written by the United Nations and the World Bank  and launched just a few weeks ago during the High-level week of the General Assembly -“Pathways to Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict” – provides empirical evidence of the “business case” for conflict prevention and underlines the inextricably intertwined nature of structural and operational prevention. By studying examples of the many countries, including in the African continent, that have successfully prevented the outbreak of armed conflict (the Foreign Ministers of Niger and The Gambia both spoke eloquently to this point at a side event during the High-level week), as well as those in which violence broke out, it reaches some important conclusions.

I shall highlight four of them:

  1. Violence and peace happen over the very long term; this is encouraging news. We can do prevention over a very long period, and entry points are important.  Societies evolve around pathways, and these pathways can lead to peace or violence.   Along the way, decision-makers – governments, leaders of political movements or armed groups - take decisions with have direct implications on pathway towards or away from violence. How to work with and at times influence them is key.


  1. The question of exclusion is absolutely central; the grievances that fuel armed conflict are not just about poverty, but frustrated aspirations. Looking at the elements that mobilize violence, the study unsurprisingly found that the responsibility of the state is central. How it behaves and how we can help it behave responsibly is a central element of prevention.


  1. Prevention that works is always nationally led. The international community has to work and provide support to national actors.  State success is built on broad coalitions with private sector, civil society, others and includes attention to mechanisms to resolve conflict, as well as thinking about development that is inclusive – of gender considerations, of youth, of marginalised communities and populations.


  1. Successful prevention initiatives involve the establishment of coalitions (nation, regional and international, public to private, government to non-governmental). Leadership is decisive, especially when opting against politically expedient short-term security driven approaches in order to prioritise political settlement and compromise.

Some of the findings of this study were echoed in a recent UNDP publication titled “Journeys to Extremism in Africa”, based on interviews with former recruits from multiple violent extremist groups across the continent. The research set out to discover what pushed some individuals to join violent extremist groups, when many others in similar situations did not. One striking finding was that 71 percent of those interviewed pointed to “government action”, including “killing of a family member or friend” or “arrest of a family member or friend”, as the “tipping point”. State security-actor conduct is revealed as a prominent accelerator of recruitment, rather than the reverse – a finding with significant implications for prevention.

These studies, as well as the lived experience of the many seasoned leaders and practitioners in the room today, underline that our problem is not of knowledge.  The problem is political will and incentive.

As part of a drive to strengthen conflict prevention and mediation, the Secretary-General has outlined his vison for a surge in diplomacy, with a hands-on approach to mediation and good offices and a resolute commitment to human rights. To reinforce his efforts, he has also recently established a High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation, comprised of experienced practitioners of mediation and dialogue who will provide targeted advice, complimenting the existing network of envoys and senior officials, andfacilitate both early engagement and effective cooperation with others.

The Secretary-General has placed emphasis on inclusivity. This emphasis has several dimensions. He has made a strong commitment to gender parity within the UN itself, as well as to our work to encourage the effective participation of women in peace processes.

This means not just head counting, but ensuring that the women who are present have influence on issues specific to the gendered dimensions of conflict but others as well. (I will always remember sitting in on negotiations of the security arrangements reached between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in which the government’s very effective lead negotiator and Vice-Minister of Defence was a woman.)  It also means developing partnerships and complementarity, between Member States, regional organizations and the UN, and different levels of engagement, with high level processes linked to broader and more participatory efforts; finally it means acknowledging where we should be heading.  Our goal cannot be just more women in peace processes but more inclusive societies.

In this context, I would like to welcome and express strong support for the bold steps taken at the continental level, including the establishment of Femwise by Panel Member, H.E. Dr. Speciosa, with which I look forward to engaging tomorrow.

Looking forward, there are several steps that we can take, together, to build and capitalise on entry points for conflict prevention and mediation.  These include:

  1. Working to foster consensus among the constellation of organizations and Member States that exert influence over national decision makers when there is a risk of conflict;
  1. Reinforcing anticipatory relationships with key interlocutors in countries vulnerable to conflict, drawing on the extraordinary networks of senior mediators such as the members of the Panel of the Wise;
  1. Building linkages between preventive diplomacy and structural prevention.  These should be grounded not only in joint analysis by our different organizations, but also the joint development and implementation of policy options;
  1. Supporting national and local mediation capacity, including that of civil society actors, where it would increase the responsiveness of mediation and conflict prevention efforts;
  1. Prioritizing addressing exclusion, including but not limited to attention to the effective participation of women and due attention to the gender dimensions of conflict.
  1. Reaching out to engage, when necessary, with armed opposition groups. We shall not silence the guns without confronting them by peaceable means.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen: there is a lot of work to do; we shall do it better if we do it together; and in the meantime, I wish the Panel of the Wise every success in the important work that stands before them.

Thank you.