The Use of Conference Diplomacy in Conflict Prevention

For those seized with the imperative of preventing deadly conflict, the “peace conference” has many assets as part of the diplomatic toolbox. It allows focused attention to the issue at hand, brings together all relevant actors—ideally in a neutral setting and by a trusted convener—and fosters both momentum as well as a clear deadline for action.

“Conference diplomacy” may strike us as a relatively recent innovation, coterminous with the development of modern multilateralism and the growing recognition of global interconnectedness. Yet as we mark the bicentennial of the Congress of Vienna, we are reminded of previous attempts to maintain order (if not to promote justice) by an “international community”. Moreover, a lack of historical perspective would be reminiscent of Prince Klemens von Metternich’s right-hand man, Friedrich von Gentz, who in proclaiming that the 1815 Congress was “a phenomenon without precedent in the history of the world”,1 ignored the many peace conferences convened by the city-states of Renaissance Italy, and in the intervening centuries.2

Three Types of Conference Diplomacy

There are three types of conferences that contribute to conflict prevention. The first is the peace conference that either follows a major conflict, or is held to negotiate an end to one. Examples include the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, and the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, and more recently, the Geneva I Conference and the Geneva II Conference, which have sought to bring an end to the Syrian civil war. Such conferences can contribute to conflict prevention by providing a forum for negotiation over the terms of a conflict’s conclusion, as well as laying the ground for the development of sustainable peace.

Another type of conference focuses on promoting general peace throughout the world, or at least efforts to mitigate and regulate the occurrence of conflict. The First Hague Conference of 1899 and the Second Hague Conference of 1907 are emblematic of such initiatives. These conferences sought to contribute to conflict prevention by clarifying the jus ad bellum (and also the jus in bello), and promoting procedures for the peaceful arbitration of conflict. A modern analogy is found in the Rome Conference that presaged the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which has a mandate to investigate, charge and try those suspected of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes worldwide.

Lastly, conference diplomacy is conducted at the so-called “global conferences”, which took root in the 1960s and henceforth spread in quantity, although not necessarily in quality.3 Such conferences have a more indirect effect on conflict prevention. Even while pursuing specific aims in and of themselves, they serve an underlying or supplementary purpose of tackling the root causes of conflict, such as environmental degradation, poverty and cultural misunderstandings.

Development and Practice of Peace Conferences

The roots of peace conferences can be traced to fifteenth century efforts to end the wars that had ravaged the Italian peninsula, and through subsequent centuries the mechanism was intermittently used to put an end to protracted and widespread war, as at Westphalia. It was not, however, until the Congress of Vienna that conference diplomacy was employed self-consciously as a new instrument of international organization. The Congress—and Concert of Europe that emerged from it—was a prototypical example of a conference designed to manage the end of a war and to facilitate a general peace in its wake. Informed, as it was, by the political presumptions of its time, namely the salience of great power politics and the conspicuous rejection of universality or sovereign equality,4 its rationale was nevertheless informed by assumptions similar to those which lead modern conferences to be convened.

While other nineteenth century conferences followed the lead of Vienna, particularly the Congress of Berlin of 1878, which aimed to prevent conflict between the European powers, and in so doing partitioned the wider world without regard for self-determination of colonized territories, a trend towards greater inclusivity was in evidence at The Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907. Inspired by conferences in the Americas that were held after the first Congress of Panama organized in 1826 by Simón Bolívar, The Hague conferences featured procedural innovations, which included more inclusive membership.5 During this period, there was a call among participants for an institutionalization of the process. The League of Nations, following the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, made a serious attempt to do so.6 It made permanent diplomatic consultation to mediate conflict one of its primary goals and as such, informed by the practice of the preceding decades, took over much of the work of peace conferences and absorbed it into its model of parliamentary diplomacy.7

The development of an international norm around conference diplomacy is illustrated by the presumption, following the failure of the League and the conclusion of the Second World War, that a new conference ought to be held with the aim of establishing a new organization to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. With the United Nations, the world once again had a major global governance institution that could employ its organizational capacities to prevent conflict. The appeal of conferences outside institutional auspices continued, however, with a number of issues deemed inappropriate for consideration within the United Nations itself. Examples include the conferences on South-East Asia (Laos and Viet Nam) throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and the talks on the Middle East (including the Geneva Conference on the Middle East, held in 1973) and Cyprus (London Conference on Cyprus, held in 1959).8 Yet, the use of peace conferences as such declined. Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, so-called global conferences became a more significant feature of the international landscape than conference diplomacy as previously construed. These conferences, often held in the stultifying atmosphere of the cold war, involved almost truly universal membership, dealt with conflict prevention only in an indirect manner, addressing the structural obstacles to sustainable peace.

During and after the end of the cold war, a major increase in intrastate conflict saw some new recourse to peace conferences. In the 1980s, the Contadora and Esquipulas peace process saw Latin American States acting jointly to end the Central American civil wars through a series of mediation and peace conference efforts. These sought to build a lasting peace in the region, establishing a common security of sorts.The break-up of the former Yugoslavia engendered multiple conferences that aimed to end the conflict. Eventually, the Dayton conference held in 1995 succeeded in bringing the fighting to an end and laying the groundwork for Bosnia’s post-war development. The 1990s and 2000s also saw a number of major peace conferences held for the Middle East: the Oslo conferences, the Madrid conferences and the Middle East Peace Summit held at Camp David are three prominent examples. These came close to establishing lasting peace between Israel and its neighbours, but were short-circuited by further outbreaks of conflict, illustrating the limitations of conferences in the contemporary context.

Drawing Lessons

What lessons can be drawn from this brief overview of the practice of conference diplomacy? Certainly, whereas early conferences eschewed any notion of sovereign equality, there is now the presumption that “general peace conferences” must include representation from all relevant States (and often non-state actors as well). This practice developed in parallel with multilateralism itself, though the inclusive nature of the peace conferences at The Hague predated the founding of the League of Nations. Given the difficulties that a consensus-based approach had engendered in The Hague—where 44 sovereign States were brought together to represent “the conscience of the civilized world”—this development had not been inevitable.10 At the same time, the conferences at The Hague indicated to diplomats, who offered the lesson to their successors, that there was a certain benefit in coming together in a setting apart from regular diplomatic channels to take a fresh look at well-known problems. In addition, while we think of the formation of international networks underpinned by personal ties as a modern-day preoccupation, the development of a shared spirit, which in general underwrote the aims of the conferences at The Hague (despite eventual setbacks), did in fact give rise to a network of diplomats that later cooperated in establishing the League of Nations.11

On the other hand, when States aim to set the terms of a newly brokered peace, or attempt to conclude a still-simmering conflict, reflexive reliance on conference diplomacy, unless carefully managed, can prove counterproductive. Historians will long debate the failings of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which suffered from the decision to hold a conference so soon after the conclusion of a major war, and with limited membership.

Less novel than in the days of Metternich, a contemporary critique of conference diplomacy is that—when focused primarily on ongoing conflicts—as in Syria, the convening of a conference demonstrates the pressure for leading States to “do something”, rather than a considered diplomatic approach.12

Diplomats should be wary of resorting to conferences, which inevitably generate significant media attention, when a clear strategy is lacking. In many instances, traditional diplomacy, as in the mediation of the European Union between Serbia and Kosovo, may be more appropriate than the convening of a major conference intended to apply strategic pressure to parties (or potential parties) to a conflict.

Looking Ahead

To be effective as an instrument in the coming decades, conference diplomacy must take into account the nature of contemporary conflict. The number of non-state conflicts has risen from approximately 15 recorded instances in 1989 to 38 in 2011,13 and battle deaths in these types of conflict increased more than threefold between 2007 and 2011, from approximately 2,000 to more than 6,000 reported deaths per year. Increasingly, when conferences are convened, they ought to take account of the variety of actors involved in contemporary conflict, or with a stake in it, including non-state armed groups (which may be proscribed terrorist organizations) and civil society organizations (which are often given the opportunity to observe international peace conferences but are seldom able to participate).

If the ambition of multilateral conference diplomacy is to serve as an effective tool for conflict prevention and to create and implement sustainable peace, it will be pivotal to involve all parties in multilateral peace conferences—both those driving conflict and those impacted by it. In the light of the multitude of challenges threatening international peace and security, Bertrand G. Ramcharan suggests that “the time might be opportune to convene an international peace conference to modernise the architecture of peace and security in the twenty-first century.”14 His suggestion is a timely one, and ought to be part of a wider conversation about global governance reform, including reform of the Security Council of the United Nations to enhance its ability to serve a preventive function. As we mark the 200th anniversary of the Congress of Vienna and the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, we must continue to innovate in our collective mission to prevent deadly conflict.  


1    Mark Mazower, Governing The World: The History of An Idea (New York, Penguin, 2012), p. 3.

2    Bertrand G. Ramcharan, International Peace Conferences (Leiden, The Netherlands, Martinus Nijhoff, 2015).

3    A.J.R. Groom, “Conference Diplomacy”, in The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy, Andrew F. Cooper, Jorge Heine, and Ramesh Thakur, eds., (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 266–267.

4    Martha Finnemore and Michelle Jurkovich, “Getting a seat at the Table: The Origins of Universal Participation and Modern Multilateral Conferences”, Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizationsvol. 20, No. 3 (July – September 2014), pp. 361-373 (363).

5    Ibid., pp. 363–365.

6    Stephen C. Schlesinger, Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations. A Story of Superpowers, Secret Agents, Wartime Allies and Enemies, and Their Quest for a Peaceful World (Boulder, Colorado, Westview, 2003), p. 21.

7    Groom, “Conference diplomacy”, p. 265.

8    Ramcharan, International Peace Conferences.

9    Michael Stevens and others, “Latin American Perspectives on Peace and Reconciliation”, in International Handbook of Peace and Reconciliation, Kathleen Malley-Morrison, Andrea Mercurio and Gabriel Twose, eds., Peace Psychology Book Series 7 (New York, Springer, 2013), pp. 561–79.

10 Arthur Eyffinger, The 1907 Hague Peace Conference: “The Conscience of the Civilized World” (The Hague, Judicap, 2007), Preface.

11 Mazower, Governing the World: The History of an Idea.

12  New Statesman, “The Syria peace talks are doomed before they have even begun”, 22 January 2014. Available from

13 Human Security Report Project, Human Security Report 2013. Available from 

14 Ramcharan, International Peace Conferences.