Imagine this: You walk down the street and ask some randomly picked out people to name major conflicts in the world. I can’t back this up with statistics but I presume the answer would be something like: “Iraq, Afghanistan, oh yes, Darfur.” And as it’s been all over the news lately, you might even get Pakistan as a bonus.
The biggest, most violent conflicts catch the news. The public’s attention is caught by moments of sadness and moments of destruction which camera crews and reporters capture all too vividly.
However, public awareness is almost non-existent for the more than 60 other significant violent conflicts that are underway around the world, and although newspapers might mention the assassination of a minister or notable public figure, the international community leaves the people in conflict helpless. It takes some time before conflicts are picked up by news redactions. And most often, only when the conflict has escalated and the images then speak for themselves.
To be a headline, to be on people’s minds and roll over their tongues, the conflict should have certain characteristics, like being easy to explain. For example a polarization of the good guys vs. the bad guys. Simplification certainly helps the process.
Some leaders make it very easy on the editors by orating statements like: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” followed by press conferences and then war. They often walk themselves into conflicts, unable to get out.
The result is shown in daily news items. And despite the fact that these pictures might suppose victory, they are above all, a sad illustration of a failed conflict prevention process.
Military intervention is often the most visual act in “defending” a country’s interest, but it is on all levels, the most expensive one – in human lives, in financial commitment, in the loss of long term development opportunities…the list is endless.
So what about the slumbering conflict in Chad?
A poor African country on the border of Darfur with weak governance and the lack of proper resources for refugees and border security. Chad is a country that hasn’t got a horde of highly respected journalists hanging around looking for a good story. Who knows about the situation there? What will it take for us to hear about it?
Or Lebanon. This is, after all, closer to home.
After the 2006 invasion by Israel and a beautiful World Press Photo, a civil war is brewing. There is still no government, as elected politicians from all the different factions cannot agree. Unless a major international diplomatic effort is made, an effort on the same scale as the process which is taking place now with the world’s leaders between Israel and the occupied territories, we are heading towards civil war, and the further destabilization of Europe’s oil rich border region; a cruel and violent conflict is about to occur, one we will we hear of…. eventually.
Most of the massively covered conflicts are already far down the road of destruction and human losses. But luckily, there is something happening in the background.
Behind these front-page conflicts, there are people talking, getting to know each other, exploring other communities’ interests. Setting up dialogues to see where mutual interests can be met. A process that includes many public names. Some might call it networking, others see it as a sort of informal get together or we could just say… preventive diplomacy.
Preventive diplomacy can deliberately be run behind closed doors, away from the spotlight. Other times, it’s just not that visual. It has often no direct and obvious outcome. No result you can pin down, with no handshake-deal that can serve as a media-friendly photo-opportunity. But that does not mean the progress made, can’t be revolutionary; on the contrary.
The public, as well as the media have a huge role to play in preventing conflicts. Public awareness is the first step towards a peaceful solution.
Once the civil society is convinced of the crucial importance of conflict prevention, inherently, policymakers will be stimulated to make conflict prevention a keystone in their international relations and negotiations.
All problems are interrelated, on all different levels of society. It’s like a huge web, or a giant domino game.
No government can afford to stare at its belly button for too long because it will fall over sooner or later. No government can think an anti-terrorism policy, a military intervention or nuclear proliferation is an isolated situation or problem.
The threat of terrorism is not just an issue for those countries which have been targeted by horrifying acts of destruction. The nuclear threat coming from Iran is not just a point on the agenda of Iran and the US.
The consequences of potential conflicts concern the whole world. And that is why conflict prevention and preventive diplomacy is so important to all of us. Why wait for the conflict to escalate and the military powers to fire problems away? Why would we want to choose for the most expensive way of trying to solve things?
Military intervention asks for taxpayers’ money, but above all, it demands the people to go to fight the enemy. Families to wave out their loved ones, maybe never to come back. It cannot go without numerous losses, on both sides of the enemy line.
And that brings us to the beauty of preventive diplomacy.
Because with this way of solving things, you don’t even need an enemy line. This way of problem solving only asks for good faith, willingness and … admitted, taxpayers’ money.
The writer works with the International Task Force on Preventive Diplomacy
Conflict Prevention Program, EastWest Institute in Brussels, Belgium.