Reviving conflict prevention

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

From the start of its engagement in internal conflicts in the early 90's, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) focused on conflict prevention. This was based on the assumption that prevention is better than a cure and that the United Nations (UN) was better equipped to deal with costly peacekeeping operations.

On the international stage, there was also rising consensus on the need to prioritize conflict prevention and address the root causes of conflicts as highlighted in the 1992 Agenda for Peace report of UN Secretary-General Boutros Ghali.  One of the most important challenges facing the cause of conflict prevention continues to be the respect of the sacrosanct principle of non-interference in internal affairs of Member States. In his report on the fundamental changes taking place in the world and Africa’s response, the late OAU Secretary-General Salim Ahmed Salim noted that “while the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of Member States should continue to be observed, it should however not be construed to mean or used to justify indifference on the part of the OAU ”. Drawing lessons from the human tragedies in Somalia, Rwanda and West Africa, the OAU gradually promoted the concept of ‘non indifference’ which was later reflected in Article 4h & 4j of the Constitutive Act of the African Union.

My long experience strengthened my conviction that there is hardly a problem without solution and that everything should be done to create the conditions fordialogue @djinnitsaid

For years, the OAU and regional organisations had been involved in addressing internal conflicts, including in Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi. However, the involvement of the African Union in Darfur in 2004 – decided despite the resistance of the Sudanese government – was probably the most visible case for the implementation of the principle of non-indifference.With time, prioritizing prevention and accepting the principle of non-indifference have been decreasing as the defense of sovereignty prevails. This was the case during the AU-UN efforts in Burundi in 2015-2016 when both organizations failed to implement their respective decisions to deploy international troops in the country. The ongoing tensions in the Horn of Africa also came as a powerful reminder of the limits of prevention. In the report I submitted to the UN Secretary-General in 2020, following my independent assessment of the AU-UN cooperation, I recommended that both organizations commission a joint report on conflict prevention with a view to reviving the primacy of prevention.

The centrality of dialogue

When starting my work in the field of conflict prevention and resolution, I was impressed by the dialogue deficit which prevailed within communities and countries. Conflicts tend to develop and proliferate when mistrust prevails, and channels of communication are closed. Critical time was often lost and great suffering afflicted to people before dialogue prevailed over the logic of confrontation.

In accepting to start a dialogue, parties to a conflict should realize that they cannot succeed through the use of force only and that they need to reach a compromise to find a lasting solution. Compromise is part of these miracles that happen from time to time and change the peoples lives for the better. My long experience has strengthened my conviction that there is hardly a problem without solution and that everything should be done to create the conditions for dialogue.

As an international facilitator in Guinea in 2013, it took me months to convince the opposition to join a dialogue with the presidential camp. Once I have created conditions for dialogue it is like a candle that has been lit and that you have to protect from the wind. I had to request regional and international stakeholders to put pressure on the parties. After entering into an actual dialogue, it only took a few days for both sides to agree on the issues at stake. I am finalizing a book entitled “Dialogue at all cost” in which I will share my modest facilitation experience in Guinea and advocate for the centrality of dialogue. 

While dialogue should be key to seeking peaceful solutions to conflicts, there may be some situations when entering into dialogue with violent groups or terrorists could prove controversial and problematic. Yet, there have been instances where Governments and mediators devised ways and means to enter into dialogue with such groups. I personally believe that due to its controversial nature, dialogue with violent and terrorist groups should be initiated by security services with a view to identifying moderate elements.

From my experience, mediation is a combination of professional competencies and techniques. In a way, it is an art @djinnitsaid

The potential of mediation and the pivotal role of the mediator

In my experience, mediation is a combination of professional competencies and techniques. In a way, it is an art. Given the complex regional and international ramifications of conflicts, mediation has become a collective exercise with the chief mediator acting as a conductor of the process. He or she should ensure that efforts of the international community work in concert. Over the years, several formulas have been promoted including through international contact groups which proved quite effective in ensuring coordination and harmonization of efforts. They also limited the damage of competition and sometimes clashes of personalities.

The mediator’s selection is therefore a critical decision to give a process a chance to succeed. The mediator should remain impartial throughout the process and equidistant from national interests. In addition to competency, the personality of the mediator and his/her integrity are of great importance. The mediator should be able to instill confidence in the parties and understand their concerns. Sometimes, this requires understanding the background of the conflict and relying on expertise. He or she should also be able to bring together national, regional and international stakeholders and their different perspectives.

As a good peace attendant, the mediator should tirelessly work to keep the dialogue going. He or she should be guided by the sense of justice and fairness and also display imagination in exploring all avenues and formulas to find a compromise on all contentious issues. Therefore, mediation is a unique tool to preserve peace among and between communities which should be more popularized among grass root communities where grievances emerge.

Ambassador Said Djinnit joined ACCORD in June 2019 as a Special Advisor based in Brussels, Belgium. He has served as the Special Envoy of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General for the Great Lakes Region of Africa from September 2014 to March 2019, and as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa from April 2008 to September 2014. Before joining the UN Ambassador Djinnit served as the first Commissioner for Peace and Security at the African Union (AU) from 2003 to 2008.

Article by:

Said Djinnit
Ambassador Said Djinnit
Special Advisor

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