The upsurge in violent conflict since 2010 has led to renewed calls for more preventive diplomacy. As part of this, EIP was asked to provide input to a joint World Bank and United Nations report on Prevention and in particular preventive diplomacy. But what do we mean by preventive diplomacy? Who can do it? And what methods are effective?

By: Ingrid Magnusson and Guy Banim


As a contribution to the joint World Bank/UN study on Preventing Violent Conflict, the European Institute of Peace looked further into these questions. As a first step we undertook a ‘rough and ready’ review of available academic literature to see what the data sets used by social scientists might have to tell us about the issue. The picture is far from clear. Statistical inquiry seems to struggle with a few epistemological and ontological challenges in relation to our field, including:

·         lack of sufficient distinction between the different types of mandates underpinning preventive mediation efforts, the overall institutional context and the types of resources that diplomats bring. Outmoded assumptions about the nature of conflict are imported into the basic categories of what is being counted;  

·         inability to disaggregate variables within a complex conflict settlement context where there are a range of actors and numerous parallel policy instruments such as sanctions, peacebuilding, military threat, peacekeeping at play;

·         research data sets that typically rely on long-term indicators measured in years whereas there could be a lot of valuable effects of a mediation process when measured in periods of weeks or even days.

Our discomfort at deriving operational conclusions from quantitative research data is perhaps unsurprising: we are not a research institute and adopt a different approach from our friends in academia. As an alternative, we brought field perspectives from EIP’s preventive work to a workshop held in Berlin in May 2017 as an input to the World Bank/UN study. Here our main message was the need to look beyond the typical suspects, and more fully understand the complementary roles local, regional, independent, multilateral and national actors play in prevention. In parallel, for an EIP project on preventive diplomacy sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office, we continued this investigation through seven field observations and in-depth interviews of preventive engagements around the globe during 2017 – in places like the Gambia, Georgia and Israel/Palestine. We did this to apply a microscope rather than a telescope on prevention, to develop concrete operational recommendations for undertaking more, and better preventive diplomacy.

These impressions will be analysed together with senior mediation practitioners and diplomats throughout 2018, to develop recommendations on prevention that are created by mediators rather than researchers. But from our initial impressions, we can already make the following observations regarding policy:

·         Preventive action is a delicate matter, and requires external actors to work together in ensuring the best available remedy is provided. For example, in low-pressure scenarios, a facilitative, independent mediator with a minimum footprint may be well-placed to initiate mediation. This may at a later stage change, as the parties request more structural support. Given the dynamic and complex nature of today’s conflicts, mediation approaches pursued in a mechanical and linear manner are unlikely to succeed.

·         Different access levels and channels should be used intelligently: the international community can be effective through reacting via discreet channels, but for this to have strong enough impact the same message often needs to come through many times, from different actors at various levels. 

·         Different dialogue tracks need to be linked up: effective preventive action requires more cooperation between the local level and international actors and a shift away from a purely elite mode of mediation led by diplomats. Local actors are particularly well-suited to flag and address low-intensity conflict; this includes taking opportunities to mediate. It is important that the international actors understand their role in relation to local initiatives, put themselves at the service of existing structures and networks and create spaces for local capacities.  

·         Diplomats should be provided with an overview of the preventive diplomacy options available: EIP’s consultations and field observations confirm the appetite for this, as it is not always immediately clear how comparative cases can be applied elsewhere. Brief, concise examples and cases of prevention, coupled with information about what tools and mechanisms have been used in the particular institutional context of the different actors, can be used to inspire action elsewhere.

·         Long-term diplomatic presence on the ground is a prerequisite for most of the kinds of preventive engagements observed by EIP. Permanent diplomatic presence and political engagement is needed in at-risk regions to ensure the international community has the network and credibility to act when needed, and have a clear understanding of their added value.