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UN Early Warning for Preventing Conflict

Authors: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow, and Rebecca R. Friedman
February 2011
International Peacekeeping


Since Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali released An Agenda for Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peace-keeping (1992), every significant internal review of the UN's role in the maintenance of peace and security has called for the urgent need to develop a comprehensive and coordinated conflict early warning system.1 Despite the repeated efforts by the Secretariat to promote and implement the findings of these reports, member-state obstructionism has precluded development of a UN-wide early warning system of sociopolitical crises that could lead to political instability or armed conflict. Indeed, there is presently no UN-wide coordinating mechanism to collect, assess, prioritize and integrate all of the early warning reporting from the sources noted below; nor are there plans for a debate on the creation of one. What Secretary General Kofi Annan noted in 2006 remains as true today as it was then: ‘I regret to report that no significant progress has been made in this area. In fact, unlike some regional organizations, the United Nations still lacks the capability to analyze and integrate data from different parts of the system into comprehensive early warning reports and strategies on conflict prevention'.

However, the current capability deficit resulting from piecemeal early warning and assessment is less significant than it would appear.Most UN staff and officials interviewed for this article believe that the information required for effective early warning already exists within the UN system, can be provided by NGO or private sector sources or is freely available over the internet. Early warning and assessment already drive country-based programmes and contingency planning in the seven UN bodies and one ad hoc initiative that either have, or are making progress toward developing, early warning systems: Department of Political Affairs, UN Development Programme (UNDP), Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), World Food Programme (WFP), Office for the High Commissioner for Refugees (OHCHR), Office of the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG) and the Global Pulse (formerly known as the Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System, or GIVAS). While capability gaps exist in each, these shortcomings must be addressed specifically and not through a UN-wide effort. Hence the UN's challenge lies primarily in building a robust capacity to analyse multiple streams of information from both inside and outside the organization. Indeed, theUNdoes not and could not have a system-wide earlywarning and assessment function; instead, the UN could improve mechanisms to effectively transmit information from field offices to headquarters, among early warning units, and from subsidiary bodies to decision makers at UN Headquarters.

Author Posting. (c) Taylor & Francis, 2011.
This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of Taylor & Francis for personal use, not for redistribution.
The definitive version was published in
International Peacekeeping, Volume 18 Issue 1, February 2011.


This article appears in full on by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here (Subscription required).

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