Meeting the Prevention Challenge

Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the Security Council ministerial-level open debate on conflict prevention and sustaining peace. 10 January 2017, United Nations, New York.

Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the Security Council ministerial-level open debate on conflict prevention and sustaining peace. 
10 January 2017, United Nations, New York. ©UN Photo/Rick Bajornas


This is a time of great challenge. We have pledged to “leave no one behind” but the goals of peaceful coexistence and inclusive development are at risk in many countries. The norms and values of the United Nations are being disregarded. Millions flee in search of safer, better lives, even as doors are closing. Brutal conflicts rage, taking countless lives and displacing millions. Terrorism and violent extremism are affecting all regions. Climate-related natural disasters are becoming more frequent, and their destructive powers more intense.

How can the United Nations better help countries to avoid such crises and build resilient societies that can deliver on the promise of a life of dignity for all? How can we preserve the norms that safeguard humanity? How can we win back the trust of “we the peoples”? Above all, how can we prevent this unsustainable suffering?

By prevention, I mean doing everything we can to help countries to avert the outbreak of crises that take a high toll in human lives and undermine the institutions and capacities needed to achieve peace and development. I mean rededicating ourselves to the UN Charter and ensuring that UN activities and assistance go to those who need it most. Prevention should permeate every thing we do. It should cut across all pillars of the UN’s work, and unite us for more effective delivery.

Preventing human suffering and ensuring progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are primarily the responsibility of Member States. But the United Nations has a vital supporting role. We need to become much better at it, building trust with Member States and all stakeholders. I see us doing this in four ways: a surge in preventive diplomacy; bold efforts to implement the Agenda 2030 and Sustaining Peace; strengthened partnerships; and comprehensive reforms to overcome fragmentation and consolidate our capacities to deliver.

I.      A Surge in Preventive Diplomacy

Nobody is winning today’s wars. I appeal to all those with influence to bring these burning conflicts to an end. I and my peace envoys are fully engaged in support of the relevant national and regional actors. But wars can only be ended by the actions of the direct parties and their supporters to forge political solutions and tackle the root causes. Meanwhile, we must make concerted efforts to prevent new conflicts from flaring up. This means promptly identifying and responding to early signs of tension, using all tools available.

As part of our surge in preventive diplomacy, I am strengthening the UN’s mediation and facilitation capacity, and enhancing leadership, resources and partnerships. To make prevention effective, dialogue towards peace needs to be comprehensive. We thus need to pay attention to the local, national, regional and international dimensions of any given crisis or challenge. Accountability is a further critical element in resolving conflict, addressing underlying grievances and promoting reconciliation and healing. I am ready to make greater use of my powers under the Charter, including with respect to early warning and good offices.

Integral to my view of prevention is inclusion and women’s empowerment in the fullest sense. We need more women at the table at all levels. This effort starts at home, and I have taken steps to advance gender parity at the United Nations and in all our activities. We will further strengthen our support to integrate gender perspectives in mediation efforts, and we will expand the pool of qualified women leaders to serve as my envoys or as mediation specialists. I will also appoint a High-level Advisory Group to further enhance our mediation work.

II.    Agenda 2030 and sustaining peace: Essential to long-term prevention

The best way to prevent societies from descending into crisis is to ensure they are resilient through investment in inclusive and sustainable development, including concerted climate action and management of mass migration. Agenda 2030 and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change are Essential parts of humanity’s universal blueprint for the future.

For all countries, preventing the fraying of the social fabric depends crucially on addressing inequalities, strengthening institutions and ensuring that development strategies take account of the risk factors that could lead to a crisis. Development is the key to prevention. Far from diverting resources or attention away from development, an effective and broad focus on prevention will generate more investment and concerted efforts to achieve the SDGs. In this regard, our partnership with the World Bank and regional development banks will be critical. The UN and the World Bank will soon publish a landmark joint report on how inclusive approaches to development can keep countries on the path to peace and prosperity.

For countries at particular risk of conflict or recovering from it, the resolutions on sustaining peace and on women, peace and security provide additional tools. The SDGs and Sustaining Peace are complementary and mutually reinforcing. Sustainable development underpins peace, a and peace sustained enables sustainable development. Implementation of both agendas will ensure that stable societies prosper and fragile societies can manage risks and shocks effectively. Societies are more resilient when they uphold the full breadth of human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment, the rule of law, inclusion and diversity, and when they nurture their youth and children. These norms make for tolerant and vibrant societies where diversity is seen as an asset, not a threat. Conversely, it is often the systematic undermining of these norms that leads to the risk of crisis. Sovereignty is strengthened when dignity and rights are fully protected and respected. Working in support of Member States, our prevention work seeks to shore up national and local institutions and capacities to detect and avert looming crises, sustain peace and achieve sustainable development.

III.  Strengthening Partnerships

We must recognize that the United Nations is not the only actor, and in many cases not even the most important actor. The ultimate goal is not to expand our remit but—with humility—to make a real difference for people, especially the most vulnerable. As the anchor of multilateralism with universal membership, the United Nations has unparalleled capacity to convene and mobilize. The UN system is most impactful when enabling others. This means building meaningful partnerships with the widest array of Governments, regional organizations, international financial institutions, civil society organizations, academia and the private sector, always being truthful to our mission as the guardian of the international norms that the Organization has generated over the past seven decades. One notable recent example is the Joint United Nations-African Union Framework for Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security.

IV.   Comprehensive Reform

We cannot meet the prevention challenge with the status quo. The United Nations needs to be much more unified in its thinking and in its action, and put people at the centre of its work. People do not experience problems and crises in silos. They question why our support comes from so many different actors with different plans and messages, burdening their already limited systems and capacities. We need to bring together the capacities of diverse actors in the Organization in support of people and countries in managing risks, building resilience against shocks and averting outbreaks of crisis. This means the horizontal joining-up of all pillars of the UN’s work—peace and security, development, human rights—as well as vertical integration in each from prevention to conflict resolution, from peacekeeping to peacebuilding and sustainable development.

I have commissioned a mapping of the most relevant UN capacities for prevention, with a view to determining how to harness them most effectively for impact on the ground. An Internal Review Team has developed options for improving the peace and security architecture. My report on Sustaining Peace will be an opportunity to further elaborate the steps I have taken or proposed. The architecture is already being strengthened with the addition of the Office of Counter-Terrorism, as approved by the General Assembly.

In July, I presented my initial proposals for repositioning the UN development system, further to the guidance provided by Member States in the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review resolution. Under the leadership of the Deputy Secretary-General, we have put forward a road map for a twenty-first-century UN development system that is focused more on people and less on process, more on results for the most poor and excluded and less on bureaucracy, more on integrated support to the 2030 Agenda and less on “business as usual”. A more detailed report will be submitted to the membership in December.

To underpin our ability to implement these reforms, I have also launched a process for significant management reform to streamline our processes and rules, especially with respect to the budget, human resources and procurement. The reforms require the system to become much more transparent, accountable, nimble, efficient and cost-effective. Further crucial parts of the reform picture include my gender parity initiative, a new whistle-blower policy and a new approach to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse committed under the UN flag.

The outcome of these reforms will enable an integrated prevention platform. This is not a new entity or structure but an integrated way of thinking and acting, harnessing the diverse prevention tools and capacities across the system, at Headquarters and in the field, in support of Member States. It will build upon the Human Rights Up Front initiative, enhance our work on the ground and strengthen the accountability of each actor for collective results. It will be underpinned by a consolidated arrangement for financing prevention so that existing and new funding streams are most effectively utilized. In all of these endeavours, building trust with Member States, our staff and all stakeholders is crucial to success. This means I and other leaders in the system will actively reach out to consult, listen and bring in fresh ideas.

I have been humbled by the confidence placed in me by all Member States. I will rely on the same confidence, and the same trust, to work together to steer our Organization through the reforms and place prevention at the core of our efforts to better serve the world’s people.