UN Early Warning System Needed


Originally published in SGI Quarterly, Number 8, April 1997, pp.24-25.

Preventing war, saving lives, strengthening peace: these are the noble objectives of the United Nations. But the UN itself admits that rather than acting to prevent conflicts, all too often it becomes involved only after they have erupted and many lives have been lost. Then the UN must then try to "manage" and resolve the crisis as best as it can, and to assist the many innocent victims.

The dictum that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is nowhere more applicable than here. At an early stage, the UN should try to show potential adversaries that their goals can be reached peacefully, through negotiations based on a sense of fairness and justice. Once war has erupted, when blood has been spilled and extreme passions unleashed, it is almost impossible for the voices of reason to be heard. Often the UN has to wait awkwardly, even helplessly, until the fighting has run its course, and the parties, exhausted, depleted and with no other alternatives, finally turn the UN for help in negotiating a cease-fire.

Needless to say, it would be far more effective to stop an armed conflict while it is a small spark rather than once it has become a raging conflagration. The recent tragedies of Rwanda, Somalia and Bosnia are painful reminders of how quickly deadly conflicts can erupt and how hard they are to stop once started. The lesson is clear: more should be done earlier.

What does the UN need to be able to take early action? The first component of conflict prevention is an early warning system. Lacking such a system, secretaries-general have rarely been able to sound the early warning bell: in less than one percent of the hundreds of cases in which the UN eventually became involved was there early warning. In 1945, the founders of the UN had conferred upon the secretary-general an early warning role through Article 99 of the Charter, which permits him/her to call urgent meetings of the Security Council in order to announce potential or actual threats to peace. But Article 99 has been formally invoked only three times: regarding the Congo in 1960, Iran in 1979, and Lebanon in 1989. The lack of an effective early warning system has hamstrung successive secretaries-general in their efforts to alert the world community to impending danger before it was too late.

An effective early warning system requires that the UN secretariat have adequate access to information and the necessary resources to analyze that information. There must also be channels through which this information is disseminated to government and the public at large. At present, none of these are in place.

Access involves, first of all, the ability to observe and inspect areas where there is a potential for conflict and to confer with all parties. Currently, respect for the principle of national sovereignty requires that UN fact-finding missions gain the consent of the host state before they can enter its territory. Often this not forthcoming; states have been quick to deny the UN inspection rights, even when conflict seems inevitable. While some member states have reconnaissance satellites, which can gather remarkably detailed information (they can count, for example, the number of people in a market) unhindered by national boundaries, the UN has no such system. It must, for the most part, rely on information provided voluntarily by member states.

Creating more openness is the key to successful early warning. The arrangements by which member states provide information to the UN should be formalized to assure that the UN has consistent access to the information it needs to predict conflict. A great step forward would be for member states to develop a treaty permitting the UN to conduct inspections on an "any time, any where" basis. Another would be to establish a "global open skies" system, which would allow the UN to overfly any site on short notice in order to gather information about potential threats to peace, such as troops massing at a border. While this is not a guarantee of conflict prevention, exposure, publicity and world opinion can have an important deterrent effect on potential aggressors.

Once gathered, information must be carefully analyzed to spot trends, to corroborate alarming reports and to identify areas where more needs to be known. Analysis is needed to look for both the positive developments so that they can be reinforced as well as negative ones so that they can be countered.

The practice of peace-keeping was developed by courageous and creative secretaries-general, such as Dag Hammarskjold and U Thant. These men of vision saw peace-keeping as a way to make the UN's presence felt in the field, generally to ensure that cease-fires, once negotiated, were actually observed. Preventive peace-keeping extends the peace-keeping concept to deployment before conflict arises. The first such force, established in Macedonia in 1992, proved successful in helping prevent the conflict in former Yugoslavia from spreading to the potentially volatile Macedonia. In order to achieve similar successes in the future, UN staff will need to continually develop scenarios upon which early warning and contingency planning, and preventive deployment can be based. This assures that peace-keeping operations are maximally effective and that resolutions are reached at the lowest possible level of conflict. Most armies have contingency plans for all kinds of threats, from conventional wars to nuclear holocaust. Why cannot the UN develop contingency plans for something as real and as frequent as peace-keeping operations?

Lack of adequate staffing and resources hampers the efforts to the UN Secretariat. For the volatile region of West Africa, for example, one desk officer is alone responsible for seven countries. Keeping abreast of current developments is as much as he can manage. Developing future scenarios and contingency plans is obviously impossible. Yet it is precisely these scenarios that could help stave off the kind of conflict that would require massive UN involvement at a later stage.

At present, the member states are approximately 3 billion dollars behind in their UN dues. Much of these arrears are concentrated in the permanent members of the Security Council, the countries that have taken on the greatest responsibility for world peace. The simplest and most self-interested calculations would lead to the conclusion that these countries are better off paying their assessed dues and enabling the UN to invest in the kinds of preventive action that will forestall the need for future (and infinitely more expensive) peace-keeping operations. This is, of course, to make no mention of the enormous toll of human suffering that could be averted.

Finally, early warning requires dissemination. The UN Security Council, regional groupings such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or the Organization of Africa Unity (OAU), as well as neighboring countries need to be informed of potential danger. This could be a step toward enhancing two-way communication and cooperation between the UN and regional organizations for conflict prevention and resolution.

Beyond that, however, the world public needs to be informed. This is a challenge to the world's news media: to deal with future hot spots before they break out in genocide, war or the nightmare of "failed states" where all order collapses and people are left to fend for themselves. It is also a challenge to each of us: to maintain an active interest in the welfare of people in distant places; to remember the human faces behind the mind-numbing numbers; to stay emotionally and intellectually invested in the future.

The UN currently functions as a reactive body and not a proactive one. Its limited capability is used to follow current events, not anticipate future ones. The UN practice has been to wait for conflicts to escalate before reacting. Instead, the world community, centred on and working through a strengthened UN, should get involved earlier. Peace is too precious to do otherwise.

(9 March 1997)