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Dialogue must be routine, not reward, in the fight against conflict

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UN Security Council debate on women, peace and security in 2014. (Photo: UN Women / Ryan Brown)

A multilateral approach to conflict prevention is needed, yet governments appear unable to agree on how it should work.


As the new chair of the UN Security Council takes the seat, The Elders’ Head of Programmes, Jane Kinninmont, reflects on the need for states to institutionalise dialogue to avoid conflict.

In principle, everyone seems to agree that conflicts should be prevented at an early stage. In practice, however, conflict prevention rarely gets as much attention as addressing the conflicts that have already flared into violence. That’s partly because successful conflict prevention can go almost unnoticed. It is harder to cheer for something not happening than it is to applaud a peace deal.

At present, the UN Security Council seems to have its own internal conflicts over almost every conflict that comes to its attention. In this dysfunctional setting, some hope that conflict prevention could be an area where the divided Security Council could find more common ground.

When The Elders briefed the Security Council on conflict prevention in June, at a meeting hosted by Kuwait, they spoke to some of these areas of common ground and reminded the member states of their responsibilities.

One of the Security Council’s founding principles is to help prevent conflict. Several member states flagged the tools that the UN can work with to prevent conflict, such as better early warning systems, preventive diplomacy and regular dialogue. One of the issues that was repeatedly emphasised was the need for a more inclusive range of mediators, especially female mediators. A recurring theme was the need for effective regional organisations to ensure that countries are in regular dialogue, in order to negotiate their interests with one other, understand each other and form key relationships.

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Mary Robinson addresses the UN Security Council in New York, on 12 June 2019. (Photo: UN Photo / Loey Felipe)


Despite case studies being cited from all over the world, it was striking that the Middle East was rarely mentioned. The region is home to several of the world’s deadliest conflicts, in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Further conflicts could arise there from a dangerous combination of local unrest and international geopolitical competition. Yet the tools that the multilateral system has developed to help prevent conflicts are rarely being deployed in this part of the world. Worse, international powers are frequently involved as contributors to conflict.

In particular, regional organisations tend to be absent or hamstrung. The Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council are deeply divided. Even if they functioned more effectively, there is no platform or forum to bring together the Arab and non-Arab powers of the region, especially Iran, Israel and Turkey. Instead, there are a whole variety of conflicts and tensions over their roles and relationships.

There is some interest among diplomats and scholars in whether a Middle-East-wide version of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe might be achievable. That seems more realistic than the “Arab NATO” mooted by some in the US, because there is a need to bring together countries that will undoubtedly continue to disagree, differ and remain divided, but which nonetheless have shared needs, and could gradually develop more common ground.

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UN Security Council Adopts Resolution on Threats to International Peace and Security (Photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)


The UN tends to deal with each Middle Eastern country on a case-by-case basis, but the causes of conflict are often transnational. There is a clear and urgent need to de-escalate the political and security tensions afflicting the region, and to address a wider set of issues that can only be addressed multilaterally – like climate change, air pollution, water management, or pandemics.

Instead, as we see with the current brinkmanship between the US and Iran, talks have somehow become a subject of argument, rather than a means to resolve arguments. Once dialogue becomes perceived as a reward, or as a concession in itself, it is likely to take much longer, and be much more painful, to get there. Instead, if dialogue is routine and institutionalised, the politics around it can be massively reduced and it can be used as a tool to resolve conflict, not something to be fought over itself.

As the Security Council prepares to discuss the Middle East region under this month’s Polish presidency, it should consider how the UN, which brings all countries together for dialogue, can and should do more to provide platforms and spaces for dialogue between the countries of the Middle East.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

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