from International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The Global Regime for Armed Conflict

February 15, 2013


This page is part of the Global Governance Monitor.

Scope of the Challenge

Preventing armed conflict, keeping peace, and rebuilding war-torn states remain among the most intractable challenges facing the international community. Each year, at least 250,000 people die in armed conflicts, most of which occur within, rather than between, states and in the past three years an especially brutal civil war in Syria has killed upwards of 100,000 people. Armed conflict and its aftermath corrode virtually every aspect of society: law and order, human rights, socioeconomic development, education, basic health services, and the environment. The global economic costs of insecurity generated by conflicts amount to an estimated $400 billion each year. At the same time, conflict prevention, mitigation, and response are global concerns, because instability often spills across borders and triggers piracy, drug trafficking, small-arms sales, environmental exploitation, and terrorism.

Most peacekeeping efforts still have insufficient manpower, money, and equipment to meet their overstretched mandates.

After the shocking mass atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, the United Nations (UN) and several regional organizations mandated new initiatives to address violence. The UN reforms improved its ability to monitor political developments, plan and support peacekeeping operations, and coordinate mechanisms charged with peace-building. Meanwhile, new arrangements within the European Union (EU), African Union (AU), Organization of American States (OAS), and other regional organizations have increased responsiveness to instability and violence within their regions—albeit with varying levels of engagement, capabilities, and effectiveness.

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Wars and Conflict


Security Alliances

But these international instruments have had a mixed record of success. In many cases, international institutions charged with promoting peace and stability lack the political consensus and financial resources to fulfill their mandates. Moreover, these institutions remain disproportionately reactive, and often neglect conflict prevention as a critical tool for managing armed conflicts. Most peacekeeping efforts still have insufficient manpower, money, and equipment to meet their overstretched mandates. And the international community too frequently fails to foster peace and recovery in war-torn countries.

Multilateral action can be an effective response to outbreaks of armed conflict, but international and regional approaches need to be enhanced and coordinated if they are to effectively address the range of conflict management problems facing the global community.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Overall assessment: Unprecedented attention and reform, yet patchy focus and uncertain goals

In recent years, multilateral institutions and governments have devoted increased attention to the challenges of international conflict prevention, peacekeeping, and postconflict peace-building. Over the past two decades, the international community has developed new tools and institutions to prevent and manage conflict. Partly as a result of such efforts, interstate and intrastate conflicts have declined by over 60 percent from 1992. Although high-profile conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan consumed the majority of international attention and resources over the past decade, there have been notable successes involving multilateral conflict prevention, peacekeeping, and peace-building efforts in less prominent conflicts, such as East Timor and Liberia.

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Wars and Conflict


Security Alliances

Yet the international instruments designed to prevent the outbreak of conflict or end fighting remain unwieldy and, at times, ineffective.

Among the actors that exist to end conflict, the UN plays an indispensable role. Created in 1945 to "save future generations from the scourge of war," the UN enjoys universal legitimacy and legal status, thanks to its charter. During the Cold War, however, the UN found its practical role in international peace and security circumscribed. But the end of the bipolar confrontation and the increase in the number of intrastate conflicts in the early 1990s rejuvenated the UN's role in global conflict management. In 1992, UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali released An Agenda for Peace, which outlined how the UN should assess and reform conflict prevention, mediation, and peacekeeping in a post-Cold War context. It also introduced the concept of postconflict peace-building to support conflict resolution and prevent a relapse into violence. Over the ensuing decades, the UN has created or strengthened many of its programs, departments, and agencies charged with anticipating, preventing, and responding to conflict.

Within the UN, the Security Council (UNSC) is charged with the primary responsibility of maintaining international peace and security, including the authority to establish peacekeeping operations, impose international sanctions, and authorize military action. However, due to deep-seated political and ideological differences among its permanent members, the Security Council is often slow to respond to unfolding crises. The UN also manages conflict through its secretariat, which includes the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (created in 1992) and the Department of Field Support (created in 2007). The Department of Political Affairs (established in 1992) is the secretariat's focal point for conflict prevention, mitigation, and response.

Other UN departments, agencies, and programs have also adapted their mandates to operate more effectively in conflict environments. These include the UN Development Program (UNDP) and its Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Response; the Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs; the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; the Office for Disarmament Affairs; and the World Food Program.

In the wake of the genocide and atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, the UN implemented a series of new initiatives and reforms to improve conflict management. These included targeted sanctions to deter or end violence, expert panels to monitor the effectiveness of targeted sanctions on peace spoilers, and an increase in the use of special envoys and special representatives to the secretary-general. These advancements have been assisted by a relatively active [PDF] UN Security Council willing to authorize peacekeeping missions and sanctions to mitigate inter- and intrastate conflict. Most recently, in 2005, the UN created the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) to foster integrated strategies for sustainable peace and recovery in the aftermath of armed conflict by securing resources and coordinating political, security, and development actors. After seven years, however, the PBC only operates in six countries.

Regional organizations such as the African Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization(NATO), European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN,) andOrganization of American States (OAS) have also created and improved mechanisms to better respond to violence within their regions, albeit with mixed results. In recent years, NATO led a mission in Libya to enforce a no-fly zone and protect civilians, and the OAS successfully mediated territorial disputes between Guatemala and Belize, and Costa Rica and Nicaragua . The Arab League also played an unprecedented role in the ongoing Syrian crisis. It suspended Syria from its membership, and initiated and led an observer mission in Syria. In September 2013, following evidence of the regime's use of chemical weapons, it passed a resolution backing international action against the Syrian government. Shortly thereafter, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2118 [PDF] supporting an international initiative to cooperate with the Syrian government to destroy the country's chemical weapons.

Conflict prevention efforts receive scant attention compared with peacekeeping and postconflict interventions.

At the same time, other multilateral bodies have strengthened capacities for conflict management. In July 2008, the World Bank established a State and Peacebuilding Fund to support peace-building projects in fragile, conflict-prone, and conflict-affected states. The World Bank also launched the Center on Conflict, Security, and Development in 2012 which adopts a timely and flexible situation-specific approach to fragile and conflict affected situations. The International Monetary Fund has expanded its emergency assistance funding streams to cover postconflict assistance and grants loans that may be used for reforms aimed at preventing future conflict. It has also been more actively involved in building financial and fiscal systems in postconflict countries, including Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Bosnia. Because such international financial institutions are not viewed as as overtly political, states are generally more willing to accept monitoring, training, and assistance. Moreover, innovative partnerships between governments, the private sector, and civil society have established new norms and practices for conflict prevention and stabilization. The Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative and the Kimberley Process, for example, aim to restrict governments and companies that exploit resources that fund and exacerbate armed conflicts.

Finally, a number of leading bilateral donors, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the Netherlands, are investing in their own conflict management capabilities, such as enhanced early-warning systems, rapidly deployable civilian and military personnel, dedicated funding streams to conflict-prone and conflict-affected states, and interagency planning processes aimed at securing "whole of government" effort in conflict-plagued countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan.

Despite the proliferation of multilateral and bilateral instruments, significant challenges remain. First, conflict prevention efforts—including early-warning systems—receive scant attention compared with peacekeeping and postconflict interventions. Second, UN peace operations—which have increased dramatically [PDF] in scope—are constrained by severe financial and personnel shortages. The UN Security Council contributes to this overstretch by authorizing and frequently extending the life of peace operations that lack adequate planning and realistic mandates. Aside from major troop-contributing countries [PDF] like Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and Ethiopia, the majority of UN member states do not commit the requisite number of troops and uniformed personnel. Finally, the international community's efforts to foster peace and recovery in war-torn states leave much to be desired. Despite the creation of the PBC, the international community still struggles to build coherent and coordinated policies. These challenges are exacerbated by poor management, corruption scandals, charges of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers, and loose coordination among the UN, regional organizations, and other players involved in peace operations.

Conflict prevention: Strides in curbing interstate conflicts; major shortcomings in addressing intrastate conflicts

Success in preventing conflicts from emerging or escalating has been mixed. On the one hand, conflicts between countries have declined markedly over the past sixty years, largely as a result of collective security agreements, a balance in nuclear weapons, and increased economic interdependence. In 2012, the Uppsala Conflict [PDF] database reported only one interstate conflict between Sudan and South Sudan.

Beyond the UN Security Council, the UN in general has a poor record of preventing intrastate conflicts.

However, conflicts within states (including those involving nonstate actors) have increased dramatically, and now constitute nearly all high-intensity conflicts. In 2012, Conflict Barometer [PDF] reported that over 80 percent—314 of the 396 conflicts monitored—were intrastate. At the same time, with the relapse of earlier civil wars making up approximately 80 percent of all conflict outbreaks, and the recurrence of violence within ten years in approximately 40 percent of all postconflict societies, the need for more robust conflict prevention is further underscored.

The international community employs a variety of conflict prevention tools that target structural causes of conflict, conduct early warnings and assessments of emerging conflicts, promote cooperative measures such as mediation and dispute resolution, and act coercively. And yet, the multilateral tools currently available to reduce political instability and the likelihood of armed conflict within states are generally underdeveloped, uncoordinated, and deprived of the political authority necessary for effective application. For instance, there is currently no UN mechanism exclusively charged with aggregating, analyzing, prioritizing, and integrating early-warning reports of budding conflicts. In addition, when facing internal political crises, some member states invoke principles of state sovereignty and noninterference to deter international institutions from carrying out any effective role in conflict prevention.

The principal international body dealing with conflict prevention for interstate conflicts is the UN Security Council. However, by virtue of its political dynamics and the dependence on a convergence of political wills among member states, it remains deficient as an instrument for conflict prevention. Beyond the UN Security Council, the UN in general—as well as most regional organizations—has a poor record of preventing intrastate conflicts, such as civil wars, coups d'état, and state-sponsored mass killings. Over the past ten years, though, growing awareness of the costs of delayed intervention has mobilized UN efforts to prevent violence.

The primary UN body providing early warning assessment and mediation support is the Department of Political Affairs (DPA). The DPA produces analytical reports and briefing notes warning of incipient crises, and its specialized Mediation Support Unit (MSU) facilitates training of peacemaking mediators, supports specific mediation processes, and provides a databank of peacemaking experience. The MSU also deploys staff to work in individual crises at short notice through its Standby Team of Mediation Experts. In addition, the DPA manages twelve political missions that cross a range of activities, including preventive diplomacy and peace-building support. These missions vary in terms of mandate and capacity, but they all aim [PDF] to "provide a forward platform for preventive diplomacy and other activities across a range of disciplines, to help prevent and resolve conflict or to build lasting peace in nations emerging from civil wars." Due to a chronic lack of resources, however, DPA has a limited capacity to support missions in the event of unanticipated political crises.

Conflict analysis is still in its infancy and limited early warning is not adequately integrated with policy responses.

Several regional organizations have also developed early-warning systems. The European Union (EU) [PDF] and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have relatively advanced early-warning and crisis response architectures. Adopted by the Council of the European Union in 2001, the EU Program for the Prevention of Violent Conflicts [PDF]—the "Gothenburg Programme"—was formed to "prevent violent conflict, human suffering and social and economic dislocation," and works in coordination with the European External Action Force to strengthen short and long-term early-warning mechanisms in Europe. To enhance early conflict prevention, the OSCE created the Office of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities in 1992, which has a two-fold mission [PDF]: to contain and de-escalate minority-related tensions, and to act as a "tripwire," alerting the OSCE when the situation threatens to develop beyond a "level which he is able to contain with the diplomatic means at his disposal." Recognizing that gender is often ignored in efforts at conflict prevention, the OSCE also takes gender equality into consideration, aiming to enhance women's ability to benefit from or report to Early Warning Systems. The Organization of American States (OAS) has made some important strides toward playing a more active preventive role by promoting democratic principles and leveraging various international dispute settlement mechanisms, such as the secretary-general's "good offices" and use of "special missions." In a 2011 meeting, OAS member states proposed a formal early-warning system to prevent coups, although plans have yet to move forward.

In Africa, the most developed [PDF] include the Economic Community of West African States Early Warning and Early Response Network, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development Conflict Early Warning Response Mechanism in Africa, and the African Union Continental Early Warning System (CEWS). Despite updates, these systems suffer from budgetary, institutional, personnel, and information management deficiencies, as well as limitations in coverage and response. Increased bilateral support from major donors for early-warning and mediation efforts, including through U.S. Agency for International Development initiatives and the EU African Peace Facility [PDF], have strengthened preventive efforts. However, conflict analysis is still in its infancy and limited early warning is not adequately integrated with policy responses. The CEWS, for instance, is only mandated to collect information, limiting its ability to influence policy-making. This was evident during the crises surrounding the Kenyan elections in 2007 and instability in Guinea-Bissau in late 2008, wherein CEWS was unable to foster early discussions within the African Union that were necessary for preventive action.

The UN and regional organizations rely heavily on special and personal representatives (SRSGs), envoys, and high-profile leaders to inform and oversee negotiations specific to a nation or an issue, such as Kofi Annan and then Lakhdar Brahimi handling the crisis inSyria. The UN has also experimented with establishing regional officers as platforms for SRSGs tasked with regional conflict prevention. The UN has had success using mediation resources, ranging from border disputes between Nigeria and Cameroon to civil conflicts in Tajikistan to high-intensity conflict in East Timor. The UN Standby Team of Mediation Experts have been deployed more than seventy times in over thirty countries, and are currently playing significant roles in mediation between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the M23 movement, Mali and the Maldives, as well as in constitutional processes in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia. The African Union is also working to develop a stand-alone mediation capacity, collaborating with other actors to help broker the Sudanese Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 and deploying mediators to South Sudan after violence erupted in late 2013.

The UN also managed a preventive deployment mission through the UN Preventive Deployment Force to Macedonia from 1995 to 1999. The mission monitored and reported on the security situation along the borders with Albania and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and is widely regarded as a success that led to sustained peace and stability in the region. The lack of a permanent, standing military force at the disposal of the UN, however, has limited the establishment of additional preventive deployment missions.

Strengthening peacekeeping operations: Expanded scope and pace, yet overstretched

Multilateral peacekeeping efforts have become simultaneously more common and complex in recent years. Over the past decade, the UN has been the largest actor in such efforts, having supervised a number of successful peacekeeping operations, including most recently in Mali, the Abyei region, and South Sudan. More recently, the UN Security Council authorized unprecedented aggressive mandates for missions in Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that allow peacekeepers to neutralize rebels and insurgents. Nevertheless, peace operations are inadequately resourced with overstretched mandates. Against a backdrop of growing transnational threats and competing agendas, the global demand for peacekeeping exceeds the global willingness and capacity to provide monetary or operational support for peace operations.

Multilateral peacekeeping has evolved significantly since its origins in the early post-World War II era. Although not mentioned in the UN Charter, peacekeeping was predominantly conceived as a way to keep peace between states by inserting observers or lightly armed military forces to maintain ceasefires between opposing sides. Over time, both the scope of peace operations and the relevant actors involved have expanded dramatically. Most peace operations today occur in the context of intrastate conflicts, including those that may be still ongoing, and have more extensive ambitions—namely, to help countries ravaged by conflict create the necessary conditions for a durable peace. Such multidimensional efforts include humanitarian, military, political, and development actors who work toward intertwined goals of promoting security, advancing good governance and the rule of law, and paving the way for economic development.

Over the past fifteen years, the UN has engaged in peacekeeping efforts in the midst of or in the aftermath of civil wars, genocide, mass atrocities, terrorism, and radical Islamist insurgencies. Ten years ago, twenty-seven thousand UN peacekeepers were deployed in fifteen operations. Today the UN oversees sixteen operations and over 118,000 peacekeepers around the world, managed by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). Recent DPKO missions have been mandated in Mali, South Sudan, the DRC, Haiti, and Afghanistan. Although the UN established a Department of Field Support (DFS) in 2007 to help bridge gaps between headquarters and field staff, coordination remains patchy.

The UN Security Council has the ultimate responsibility for authorizing and (at the highest level) supervising peace operations. The role of the UN Security Council implies that UN peacekeeping missions are—for better or worse—subject to political bias in terms of their mandates. In order to cement political consensus for a mission, the UN Security Council often enlists the support of regional organizations. More recently, the UN Security Council has authorized missions under Chapter VII, "Actions with Respect to the Threats, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression," which allows peacekeeping operations to use force for defense. For instance, it authorized or supported the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Economic Community of West African States to engage in peacekeeping efforts in Libya, Afghanistan, Liberia, the former Yugoslavia, and Sierra Leone.

In recent years, DPKO has led a campaign to enhance the UN's rapid-deployment capability, but received little support.

Several regional organizations like the European Union and the African Union (AU), also authorized peacekeeping missions (usually as a result of an UN-decreed mandate), and developed their own institutional capacity to plan, manage, and deploy peacekeepers. Increasingly, regional organizations are also acting in concert with the UN to form hybrid peacekeeping operations, such as the joint mission with the AU in the Darfur region of Sudan. Similarly, in the past seven years the first wholly military European Security and Defense Policy missions in Macedonia and Chad were all "bridging" missions where European soldiers made security and logistics preparations for the larger UN peacekeeping forces. More recent bridging missions include the European Union Training Mission Mali (EUTM Mali), which was launched in March 2013, and the European Union Training Mission Somalia (EUTM Somalia), which was launched in 2010.

Despite notable successes, the UN and other multilateral and regional peacekeeping operations have suffered several major setbacks. The decade following the Cold War revealed serious shortcomings in Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda. In response to these failures, the UN initiated a series of restructures and reforms under the auspices of the Report of the Panel on UN Peacekeeping Operations—otherwise known as the Brahimi Report—released in 2000. The report highlighted UN deficiencies in its conflict management capabilities and called for a robust doctrine with realistic mandates and the strengthening of information-collection and peacekeeping capabilities across UN agencies. In part because of these efforts, the UN improved its peacekeeping operations, leading to successes in East Timor, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. However, a number of problems remain that hamper the success of peacekeeping operations.

First, UN Security Council mandates continue to be exceedingly difficult to implement with the forces and capabilities marshaled by troop-contributing countries, raising concerns that the mandates are unrealistic and suffer from mission creep. Given that the field commanders have too few forces, they are required to constantly prioritize which mandated tasks to attempt to implement within their area of operations. Correcting this problem will require the UN Security Council to rein in its ambitions and define clearly achievable peacekeeping goals.

Second, because the UN does not maintain its own standing army, it must rely on prospective troop-contributing countries to supply forces and equipment. Generating a full-fledged peacekeeping force takes nine to twelve months on average, although deployment times vary substantially based on political will. For example, upon receiving an expanded mandate, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon grew fourfold in two months, whereas the UN/AU Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) took more than three years to reach full deployment. In recent years, DPKO has led a campaign to enhance the UN's rapid-deployment capability, but it has received little support even among member states with the most relevant capabilities.

Third, in addition to delays in deployment, member states—including the United States—have often proven reluctant or unwilling to provide the military hardware and equipment (referred to as high-demand enablers and force multipliers) needed for mission success. One notable example of this gap is the unfulfilled request for eighteen medium-utility helicopters [PDF] to provide tactical mobility for UNAMID troops, some of whom died because they were not quickly transported to field hospitals.

Finally, the quality of peacekeepers has been mixed, with uneven training standards among countries. Lack of common and professional training standards impedes progress and, in several cases, damages the reputation of UN peacekeeping. In 2010, reports emerged that UN peacekeepers from Nepal were the source of a deadly outbreak of cholera in Haiti, which has killed more than seven thousand civilians throughout the country. Equally disturbing have been instances of gross misconduct by UN peacekeepers in the field. The most alarming incidents pertain to sexual abuse cases in the DRC, Burundi, Haiti, and Liberia, where scores of men, women, and children were allegedly raped by UN troops. Although the UN has adopted a policy of zero tolerance for such conduct, aside from dismissing the peacekeeper, the organization is powerless in pursuing further disciplinary action and relies on troop-contributing countries to hold aggressors accountable for crimes committed by their nationals. Further, the lower Tribunal of the UN, the UN Dispute Tribunal, has cleared the charges of 68 percent of those accused of wrongdoing during peacekeeping missions.

Preventing mass atrocities: Deadlocked despite more awareness

International efforts to stop mass atrocities—genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes—have gained momentum in the last two decades, but remain inadequate. Although international treaties, legal innovations, and advances in transitional justice have provided the norms and tools to tackle mass atrocities, political principles of national sovereignty and noninterference often thwart action in this area. Despite George W. Bush and Barack Obama's pledges to "never again" stand by as atrocities are committed, they in fact continue in Syria and elsewhere. The International Criminal Court's [PDF] (ICC) lengthy indictment of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide serves as a stark reminder both of the stakes involved in the pursuit of international justice and the diplomatic and political obstacles to holding perpetrators accountable.

In the wake of the Holocaust, UN member states negotiated the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention), which officially defined genocide and listed its five specific crimes: killing; causing serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting conditions on a group to bring about—in whole or in part—its physical destruction; imposing measures intended to prevent births; and forcibly transferring children from one group to another. The convention, however, contained no triggers for international response to genocide, and instead invited signatories to "call upon the competent organs of the United Nations" to take action.

The war on the ground in Syria continues to rage on without a concerted international response.

Although 142 countries have ratified the Genocide Convention, the world has witnessed repeated instances of genocide and other mass atrocities. These include the mass slaughter committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979; the Rwandan genocide of 1994; the July 1995 massacre of unarmed Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina; ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999; and the slow motion mass killings and starvation in Darfur between 2003 and late 2009. In each case, the international community failed to unite behind a collective response.

Recent reports of atrocities and war crimes in Syria point to continued prevalence of these crimes. Since the outbreak of antiregime protests in March 2011, more than one-hundred thousand people have been killed and around two million (registered) Syrian refugees, approximately one-third of the population, have fled to neighboring countries like Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. But despite the rising death tolls and displaced refugees, diverging political interests and entrenched views on sovereignty continue to inhibit the UN Security Council's willingness to take early, decisive steps in order to mitigate the violence. Granted, the international body—through Russian and U.S. agreement—eventually responded to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by authorizing their removal. Furthermore, by January 2014, a UN-backed peace conference (Geneva II) brought the Syrian opposition and government to the negotiating table to begin negotiations for a transitional government, but the prospects remain limited and the war on the ground continues to rage on without a concerted international response.

There have been a number of efforts to set up tribunals—including the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda—and hybrid criminal bodies—such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Crimes Panels of the District Court of Dili (East Timor Tribunal), and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia—that hold individuals responsible for atrocities in particular conflicts. While notwithstanding criticism for issues like bias against non-Western states, prolonged prosecutions decades after the conflict has ended, and failure to prosecute more than a small fraction of the individuals actually involved in the killings, these initiatives have expanded the legal and judicial instruments available to hold perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable.

In addition, the creation of the International Criminal Court in 1998 provided another legal tool to hold perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable for their actions. On March 14, 2012, the ICC issued its first verdict in the case of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, leader of the rebel group Congolese Patriotic Union, who was found guilty and sentenced to fourteen years in prison for war crimes and using child soldiers. The ICC has also been aggressive in investigating and indicting high-profile criminals, such as Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

However, the ICC has been criticized on several grounds for its disproportionate focus on Africa. To date, the court has examined crimes inthe DRC, Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali, Libya, Kenya, the Ivory Coast, and Uganda).The African Union (AU) has reacted adversely by issuing a resolution [PDF] against the ICC indictment of al-Bashir, and in September 2013, the Kenyan parliament voted to leave the ICC in response to the indictments of Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyata and deputy president William Ruto. That said, the ICC only launches cases either at the request of member states or of the UN Security Council and of the eighteen cases that the Court has at hand, twelve were opened at the request of African states themselves. It is a point of contention that the remaining six cases came as referrals from the Security Council, which includes powerful states like China, Russia, and the United States that have not ratified the Rome statue­. This has caused concerns over the impartiality, fairness, and indeed legitimacy of the court. Other countries have demonstrated concerns with the court, including the United States regarding the ICC investigation of Israeli actions in Gaza. The ICC is also faulted for the purported trade-off between peace and justice caused by its legal decisions. For instance, when the ICC first indicted President al-Bashir, he responded by expelling international aid agencies from the country, causing an even greater humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

The UN also strengthened its capabilities to fight mass atrocities through more diplomatic channels. In 2004, it created the Office of the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG) to collect information, and provide recommendations to the UN Security Council. To date, the effectiveness of the OSAPG has been mixed. While the OSAPG has called for countries to fulfill their responsibility to protect in Syria, on the grounds that the situation and the purported use of chemical weapons constitute a case of crimes against humanity, it has failed to influence states to act. The OSAPG receives strong support from many UN member states for acting proactively to detect instances of genocide and to release statements of concern in situations characterized by massive human rights violations, although it is limited by a lack of resources.

Civil activism in developed countries has also helped raise awareness and galvanize support among key policymakers.

The evolving norm of the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) could provide a normative framework for redoubling international efforts to prevent genocide and other mass atrocities. The concept of R2P is based on three pillars: (1) states bear the primary responsibility of protecting its citizens; (2) the international community is encouraged to support states in this endeavor; and (3) in instances when states fail to meet their obligations, the international community should use diplomatic, humanitarian, and coercive pressures to intervene. In 2011, the multilateral response to the unfolding Libyan crisis proved to be an important step in implementing R2P, but it also instigated strong skepticism from non-Western countries that viewed the principle as a façade for facilitating regime change. It has also failed to set precedent for other similar interventions, including Syria. In the context of the civil war in Syria, R2P has not yet compelled a concerted international effort to prevent ongoing atrocities, casting doubt over the future of R2P as a mainstream operational tool and prescription for coercive action.

Several regional organizations have also made the prevention of mass atrocities a rhetorical priority. The AU Constitutive Act of 2000 includes "the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity." Still, the AU is hampered by the participation of members who have been the very perpetrators of mass atrocities. The EU, despite a strong commitment to human rights and support of R2P, falls short of explicitly stating a commitment or dedicating resources specifically to preventing mass atrocities.

Civil activism in developed countries has also helped raise awareness and galvanize support among key policymakers. For instance, efforts by faith-based organizations (FBOs), humanitarian agencies, and groups such as the Save Darfur Coalition (which consists of nearly two hundred organizations) have been highly effective in mobilizing support and urging governments to stop the "ongoing genocide" in Sudan. The Enough Project—a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, FBOs, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—has similarly focused attention on genocide and crimes against humanity in Africa. However, support of the civil-society groups has also been selective and numerous high-intensity conflicts—such as in the DRC and Sri Lanka—have suffered from disengagement.

State-building and peace-building: Stagnant resources, unrealistic mandates

When the killing ends or is reduced, efforts to rebuild war-torn states and societies begin. Effective and comprehensive strategies are required to ensure that peace is sustainable (peace-building) and that capacity and legitimacy of institutions is enhanced (state-building). Strong government institutions help prevent the recurrence of violence by providing public goods and enhancing the perceived legitimacy of institutional arrangements. However, both state-building and peace-building efforts suffer from similar shortcomings: complex mandates for international missions, financial and resource constraints, a lack of national ownership in the design and implementation of reconstruction and peace-building efforts, and short-term commitments from donors that limit opportunities to stabilize and promote long-term economic development.

Despite the creation of new institutions and processes, the international community's record on this front has been inadequate. According to the Center for International Development and Conflict Management's Peace and Conflict 2012 report [PDF], most conflicts over the past decade occurred in relapsed countries. Iraq, Sudan and South Sudan, and Afghanistan serve as somber reminders of how complex the task of postconflict peace-building and state-building can be, particularly in cases of ongoing insurgency and entrenched political division.

Despite concerted efforts to achieve peace-building objectives, progress is sluggish in many postconflict countries. In Afghanistan, some success has been achieved. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) shifted from focusing on combat to training the Afghan National Security Forces and in June 2013, NATO handed full responsibility for security in the country to Afghan forces. Drawdown strategies are currently taking shape to withdraw the vast majority of both NATO and U.S. troops by December 2014, with plans for only 10,000 to 20,000 troops to remain in the country to assist the Afghan forces with training and counterterrorism. Yet, peace-building and state-building objectives have been hampered by continued insurgent attacks and lack of institutional capacity in the Afghan government.

The international community has undertaken efforts to fill such gaps. In 2005 the UN created the Peace-building Commission (PBC), the Peace-building Support Office, and the Peace-building Fund (PBF) to coordinate activities and mobilize resources for postconflict countries. Since 2007, the PBF has coordinated country-assistance strategies and allocated $356.4 million [PDF], in twenty-four countries, including aid for the postconflict states of Burundi, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, and the Central African Republic. Of this, 62 percent ($217.8 million) of the PBF allocation has been used support the critical peace-building priorities on the PBC agenda. It remains modest in scope and mandate, however, and operates only as an advisory body. In addition, the PBC does not have the political support to add complex postconflict cases to its agenda—such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

Several international financial institutions have undertaken steps to mainstream peace-building and state-building support. The contribution of the International Monetary Fund(IMF) on this front has been mixed. Some IMF critics contend that IMF loans that come with strict austerity programs can cause economic hardship that could trigger armed violence to break out along socioeconomic fractures. Additionally, although peace-building and state-building activities are not formally included within the IMF mandate, the institution is capable of influencing activities indirectly. Others view the IMF more charitably, as an organization that can help nations address structural precipitators of conflict by making loans conditional upon much-needed political and economic reform. More recently, the World Bank has supported reconstruction efforts by creating a group working on states prone to or affected by conflict and establishing the State and Peacebuilding Fund. Created in 2007, the Fragile and Conflict-Affected States Group coordinates the World Bank's work in such states or zones. The State and Peacebuilding Fund has the twin objectives of improving governance and institutional performance, and supporting the reconstruction and development of countries prone to, in, or emerging from conflict. The UN Development Program's (UNDP's) Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery also established a trust fund to mobilize resources for recovery needs.

Moreover, regional organizations have established their own development banks. The African Development Bank (AfDB) places importance on assisting states as they transition out of fragility through the Fragile States Facility enhanced engagement plan, which aims to "strengthen capacity and accountability in economic and financial governance." A recent example of AfDB intervention was in Tunisia [PDF] where the AfDB is focusing on economic transformation, access to infrastructure, and job creation. Also recently, in 2012, the AfDB intervened in Morocco, and is now focused on achieving economic development through two main pillars: strengthening of governance and social inclusion, and support for the development of 'green' infrastructure.

Within the United States, the whole of government strategy during the Bush and Obama administrations has sought to bring together civilian and military resources to better address postconflict reconstruction. A proposed Mobile Development Team [PDF] would draw individuals from the military, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the United States Agency for International Development in order to address issues of state building and peace-building in postconflict situations.

Greater involvement would allow the United States to ensure that UN missions are employed responsibly.

U.S. and International Armed Conflict Issues

Should the United States provide greater financial and other support for peacekeeping operations?

Yes: Proponents note that the entire budget for peacekeeping operations led by the United Nations is $7.33 billion, or less than 1 percent of global military expenditures [PDF] in 2012. In addition, only twenty-three U.S. troops served in peacekeeping operations in 2013[PDF], with an additional eighty-nine in police training and six as military observers.

Appropriating the $2.1 billion in international peacekeeping requested in the FY2014 budget, and having the Pentagon provide the UN and regional organizations with military support would be a cost-effective way to address U.S. international security interests for only a small fraction of the overall defense budget. By proving greater financial support, the United States would also show positive leadership [PDF], demonstrating ability and reliability. Finally, greater involvement would allow the United States to ensure that UN missions are employed responsibly.

No: Critics point out that the United States already provides 28 percent of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations' annual budget—$2.1 billion [PDF]—as well as $50 million annually for the African Union-led peacekeeping mission in Somalia, and the Multinational Force and Observers mission in the Sinai Desert between Egypt and Israel. And while U.S. troops largely do not take part in UN-commanded deployments, large numbers are involved in UN-mandated operations, particularly in Afghanistan. In addition, the United States continues its Global Peace Operations Initiative, which trains foreign military and police forces. These contributions demonstrate that the United States has accepted more than its fair share of the international peacekeeping burden. In addition, peacekeeping operations mandated by the UN Security Council may be inefficient or prove unsuccessful, wasting American taxpayer dollars.

Should the United States be engaged in state-building missions?

Yes: Poor governance structures in weak and conflict-ridden states allow terrorism and other transnational issues, like crime and disease, to prosper and spread regionally and internationally. Legitimate and effective institutions are necessary for sustained peace, and proponents argue that, as such, they are an appropriate target for U.S. foreign policy efforts. State-building provides both a cost-effective measure to ensure the future security and stability of failed and weak states, and an unparalleled opportunity for advancing U.S. national interests with regard to security, diplomacy, and cultural and humanitarian concerns. Moreover, rather than directly confronting extremism through force, state-building offers an alternative to military action and the nurturing of democratic institutions helps develop permanent bastions of cooperative states with like-minded agendas, essentially acting as a conflict-prevention tool. Finally, the U.S. approach to state- building advocates the creation of a national identity based on a set of shared values, rather than race or ethnicity, which, in turn, can become the basis for long-term stability.

No: Critics contend that state-building, rather than fostering stability, has the potential to exacerbate conflict and endanger U.S. national interests. Effective methods of state-building are not well established, and the practice depends heavily on potentially uncontrollable aspects of the local political and security environment. Exercises in state-building often prove detrimental to U.S. long-term interests, and may cause regional destabilization, provoke insurgency, and disquiet the international community. State-building is not a quick fix: patience and long-term resources are required that may not be politically palatable with regard to domestic opinion.

At the same time, state-building cannot be achieved without security, and in most cases requires a prolonged and expensive military action—exactly what advocates seek to avoid. Legitimacy in state-building operations requires multilateral support and consensus, vital factors that have been unachievable with regard to the most recent U.S. endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, critics argue that not all weak or failed states present security risks to the United States, and forays into such countries would exhaust national resources at a time of severe strains on the U.S. budget. Further, other nations may back away [PDF] from engagement in state-building efforts if the United States is involved.

Should the United States become party to the International Criminal Court?

Yes: Proponents contend that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is the only permanent international body that provides global jurisdiction over mass atrocities when other means of prosecution fail or do not exist. To ensure the continued respect for the rule of law, and solidify its moral position as a global leader in human rights and international justice efforts, the United States should sign and ratify the Rome Statute of the ICC. The United States already actively cooperates with the ICC—it attended the Kampala review conference and continues to support the referral of the Darfur and Libya cases to the court. Moreover, participation in an institution that shares the values of international law and order fits with the broader U.S. foreign policy of engagement with international institutions and could help the United States emerge out of a foreign policy approach focused on the "war on terror." Finally, resistance to crimes of aggression is unwarranted because the United States signed an amendment that does not allow prosecution of U.S. citizens without UN Security Council referral.

No: Although the U.S.-ICC relationship has evolved from hostile to positive engagement in recent years—for instance, in March 2013, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry came out in favor of Bosco Ntaganda's recent transfer from Rwanda to the ICC—critics believe that granting an international court the legal authority to try U.S. citizens for crimes committed in the United States would infringe on the established purview of U.S. national courts and significantly undermine the U.S. Constitution. As such, ratification of the Rome Statute would require a constitutional amendment to ensure concordance with U.S. law. Moreover, the ICC would grossly interfere with U.S. sovereignty, inherently limit power to choose judges, influence the direction of trial proceedings, and thus further undermine U.S. national interests.

Can management of peace operations be shared among traditional and emerging powers?

Yes: UN peacekeeping operations already consider the input of emerging powers, including China—a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Other emerging countries, such as India and Brazil, also provide invaluable support as major troop-contributing partners. As emerging countries grow wealthier, they should continue to increase their engagement—even financially—to meet their (informal) obligations as responsible stakeholders in the global security space. A larger group of members with capability would enlarge and diversify the resources available for conflict-management efforts, especially as wealthier countries' budgets have come under strain [PDF] in recent years, while the number of peacekeeping operations has increased.

In addition, sharing responsibilities will enhance the UN Security Council's credibility and legitimacy for conflict prevention and response. Armed conflict more often directly affects developing nations than it does the permanent members of the UN Security Council, and a more proportional participation scheme would better address the problems of countries in need of intervention. Likewise, a wider representation will allow the UN Security Council to make decisions on budgets and mandates that consider regional dynamics and shed a more analytical lens on the effectiveness of peace operations.

No: Managing UN peace operations is complex and incorporating more actors might lead to more gridlock and red tape, diminishing the effectiveness and response time for conflict management. The current format gives priority to the world's most capable and responsible actors, and adding less-capable states may confuse the UN Security Council's agenda and process. Additionally, more participants do not necessarily mean a proportionate expansion of the resource pool or heightened capabilities. Finally, emerging powers have security interests (for example, Brazil on Iran, and South Africa on Zimbabwe) distinct from those of the United States and its Western allies, and incorporating their position would undermine U.S. national interests.

Does the R2P doctrine offer a promising normative foundation for curtailing mass atrocities?

Yes: Proponents believe that the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine is a valuable tool for humanitarian intervention, enhancing both the international community's motivation and prospects for successful operations geared toward ending mass atrocities. Foremost, the doctrine affirms that sovereignty involves the obligation to protect a country's civilians—further asserting that a failure to protect transfers the responsibility to intervene from a national government to the international community. Without the cloak of sovereignty to hide behind, state leaders will be less likely to commit or allow atrocities within their borders. Likewise, with such a normative mandate, the international community, led by the United Nations, will have a broadly recognized basis to take action. Furthermore, the R2P concept has already been engaged, with the international community responding to protect civilians during the outbreak of violence in Kenya after elections in 2008 and during civil war in Libya in 2011.

No: Staunch opponents of R2P argue that it is not the job of the United States to intervene in the problems of another sovereign nation, or to coordinate a group of states to do so. The R2P doctrine does not establish new concrete obligations under international law and therefore will not create an environment that motivates outside actors or compels national leaders to protect populations. The primary mechanism for leveraging collective action in protection under R2P continues to be the UN Security Council, limiting a supposed global responsibility to the purview of a few nations. The Security Council gridlock over Syria underscores the inefficacy of such an approach to international intervention. Without an explicit mandate from the UN Security Council, individual countries may still be unwilling to intervene unilaterally. The doctrine also advocates swift action to prevent mass atrocities but does not expand existing mechanisms for monitoring, evaluating, or facilitating action. Furthermore, critics point out that the instances of R2P's implementation in Kenya and Libya have proven to be anomalies among the many other recent cases that have warranted R2P, but they have both also failed to achieve anything in the way of establishing benchmarks for future implementation.

Recent Developments

December 2013: African intervention in CAR

On December 5, nearly one year after the Seleka ("Alliance") group of militias launched a campaign to overthrow the Central African Republican (CAR) Government, the UN Security Council authorized MISCA, the African-led International Support Mission in the CAR. Shortly thereafter, France bolstered African peacekeeping efforts with 1600 troops. However, by January 2014, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warned that escalating violence might result in genocide.

Syrian violence has led to over two million refugees, four million internally displaced persons, and 100,000 deaths.

December 2013: Chemical weapons in Syria

Nearly six months after allegations of a major chemical attack in Syria prompted international attention, the United Nations released a report confirming that sarin gas was used in five incidents during fighting. Though the report did not disclose whether government or opposition forces used the gas, earlier reports from French and U.S. intelligence sources implicate Bashar al-Assad's regime. Furthermore, Syria missed its December 31 for removing its chemical weapons stockpile. Weather and security concerns were cited as factors in the delay. Meanwhile, violence raged on in the war-torn country, which has resulted in over two million refugees, four million internally displaced persons, and 100,000 deaths.

December 2013: UN uses drones in Congo

The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations launched its fist two unmanned aerial vehical (UAVs) for surveillance purposes over the Democractic Republic of the Congo on December 3. UAVs promise to provide information on the movements of armed groups without endangering the lives of peacekeepers. More UAVs are expected to be launched in April 2014.

July 2013: China commits troops to UN

China pledged to commit four hundred peacekeepers to the current UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA), including 170 combat troops. While China has supplied peacekeepers in the past, contributions have been limited to non-combat personnel such as engineers and medical assistants. China's pledge to provide infantry is the first of its kind [PDF] and marks a clear policy shift away from China's traditional non-interventionist position.

April 2013: More robust mission in Mali

Three months after the unilateral French attack on Islamist rebel groups in northern Mali, the UN Security Council unanimously voted to establish the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). MINUSMA's mandate allows for the use of "all force necessary" to "stabilize the key population centres, especially in the north of Mali… to deter threats and take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements to those areas."

Though the mandate was authorized under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, Russia expressed concerns that UN peacekeepers are assuming a more assertive role than their traditional monitoring of cease-fires. Like the new rapid-reaction force approved to "neutralize armed troops" in the Democratic Republic of Congo, MINUSMA has far-reaching authority under the purview of security enforcement, including anti-terrorist operations. These types of less constrained mandates could create a new norm for peacekeeping missions and have "unpredictable and unclear consequences" for the perceived impartiality and safety of UN personnel.

September 2013: Kenya leaves ICC

On September 5, 2013 Kenya's parliament approved a motion to withdraw its membership from the International Criminal Court following the indictment of Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and deputy president William Ruto on charges of crimes against humanity. Kenya's withdrawal marks the first time a country has left the ICC and carries with it strong implications for other African countries to follow suit. Still, the ICC plans to continue investigating the cases.

Options for Strengthening the Global Regime to Prevent Armed Conflict

The United States should work with the UN and regional organizations to strengthen crisis prevention capabilities.

U.S. and international action are needed to ensure that conflict-prevention, conflict-response, peace-building, and state-building efforts are supported and provided with ample resources. These recommendations reflect the views of Stewart Patrick, senior fellow and director of the International Institutions and Gobal Governance (IIGG) program, and Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon fellow in the Center for Preventive Action.

  • Redefine impartiality to emphasize the pursuit of peace, while deploying assertive mandates
    The UN's growing willingness to deploy combat-ready troops for peace enforcement is a welcome shift and has proven more successful in quelling violence and instability. At the same time, it carries inherent risks. The use of force can have unpredictable consequences, threatening the safety of UN personnel. In addition, more assertive mandates, such as those adopted in Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, may involve the UN directly in the conflict, jeopardizing its reputation as an impartial, honest broker. To mitigate the potential harm to its reputation and to avoid undermining its objectives, the UN should reframe the concept of "impartiality" to mean equal treatment to all parties working for peace, combined with resolute opposition to spoilers bent on violence. At the same time, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) should prioritize inclusive dialogue and seek to reach out to representatives from all sides of the conflict.

  • Enhance the global and regional architecture for conflict prevention
    The United States should work with the United Nations and regional organizations to strengthen global crisis prevention capabilities. An immediate objective should be to build systems that better integrate conflict analysis and early warning with organizational decision-making processes. The United Nations and regional organizations must also improve information-sharing among themselves, particularly given the rise of "hybrid" missions involving both sets of actors.

  • Shift budgets toward prevention within the UN and regional organizations
    Lack of funding and personnel remain critical concerns for international institutions. Funding shortfalls often lead officials to disproportionately allocate resources toward countries and regions demanding immediate support and neglect emerging crises. Although some institutions are expanding their capacity—the European Union dedicated funds for mediation for the first time in 2013—organizations without this luxury should reallocate a portion of their existing budgets to support greater conflict prevention efforts.

  • Improve planning of UN peacekeeping and peace-building missions
    The UN DPKO should seek to improve strategic planning and coordination between UN peace operations and broader peace-building efforts undertaken by the UN and other international actors. DPKO should initiate peace-building activities and discussions with host-countries from the beginning of each mission, and the UN Security Council should also provide clearer and more realistic mandates linking these efforts. The successful transition process in Timor-Leste provides a useful example for other states including the Ivory Coast, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti.

  • Enhance early-warning and -action efforts
    Although several regional organizations have mandates and some capacity for early-warning systems and assessment, there is no formal information-sharing even for joint political or peacekeeping missions, and only a vague idea among them of what each is doing through informal meetings. Work plans are needed to promote broader cooperation between the United Nations and regional organizations that goes beyond simply building capacity and includes formally sharing timely and relevant early-warning information, analytical reporting, and best practices. Early warning must also be better integrated into the decision-making processes of states and international organizations that are committed to preventive action.

  • Develop rapidly deployable U.S. military forces to prevent mass atrocities
    The U.S. military maintains the world's preeminent rapidly deployable power-projection capabilities. As one notable example, the Army's 82nd Airborne-Ready Brigade can deploy as many as 3,600 troops anywhere in the world within eighteen hours' notice. However, U.S. military officials demonstrate little enthusiasm for mobilizing this impressive capability to prevent or curtail ongoing mass atrocities. The U.S. military has the capabilities to intervene quickly to prevent genocide when directed by the appropriate civilian authorities, but does not undertake the contingency planning or realistic training to make that mission a Pentagon-wide priority. The Obama administration must provide specific guidance to the military in its National Security Strategy to plan and train its rapidly deployable forces for genocide- and mass-atrocity-prevention missions.

  • Create a dedicated U.S. mediation support team
    American diplomatic officials called on to mediate between parties in conflict have long complained that their efforts are hampered by having little support in the way of political analyses, regional and issue-area expertise, logistics, and communications. Within the State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, the Obama administration should develop a strategic vision that includes funding and staffing a permanent Mediation Support Unit that could be rapidly deployed to bolster U.S.-sponsored mediation.


    Useful lessons can be drawn from the United Nations Department of Political Affairs' Mediation Standby Team, created in 2008. Consisting of a team leader, as well as experts in constitutional arrangements, human rights and transitional justice, power sharing, and security arrangements, the team was ready to be deployed within three days for a period of up to one month to support the mediation efforts by the United Nations, regional organizations, and nongovernmental organizations. In its first year, the team was deployed twenty-six times to ten countries to support ongoing mediation efforts, and conducted capacity-building seminars in thirteen countries.

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