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The UN Security Council and the prevention of conflict: where does the 2030 Agenda fit in?

16 November 2015 - Thomas Wheeler, Andrew Tomlinson

A debate on conflict prevention and the 2030 Agenda offers an opportunity for the UN Security Council to discuss how its work impacts on structural and systemic conflict drivers. At the same time, a preventative, developmental approach to conflict will largely depend on action outside the Council, say Thomas Wheeler and Andrew Tomlinson.

This week, under the presidency of the United Kingdom, the UN Security Council (the Council) will host a Ministerial-Level debate on conflict prevention under the heading of “Security, Development and the Root Causes of Conflict”. The Council debate, led for the first time by development ministers, will discuss how the Council’s mandate to maintain international peace and security relates to the 2030 Agenda and the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The Council has addressed development issues before, for example holding a debate on inclusive development under Chile’s January 2015 presidency and discussing the economic, social and political factors underpinning peace and security under Brazil’s presidency in February 2011. Nonetheless, given that the world’s new universal development agenda has identified peace as one of five cross-cutting priorities and that peaceful, just and inclusive societies are an intricate part of development, this is a timely debate for the Council to have. The 2030 Agenda makes it clear, in Goal 16 and elsewhere, that its universal vision applies to all societies, and requires action both within countries (for example, on inclusive governance) and at regional and global levels (for example, limiting illicit flows of armaments).

A debate at the Council on the 2030 Agenda’s relevance to conflict prevention is especially welcome. As the UN’s last report on peace operations made clear, “the international community is failing at preventing conflict”. When the Council debated and passed a resolution on conflict prevention in August 2014, the focus was on shorter-term operational conflict prevention – immediate crisis response, early warning systems, and mediation. Thus it ignored more upstream conflict prevention focused on structural issues – such as the economic, social and political root drivers of conflict – and systemic, global issues that generate conflict.

This week’s debate could help fill these gaps through a focus on upstream conflict prevention. In his recent report on conflict prevention, the UN Secretary-General argues that the 2030 Agenda breaks new ground and strengthens the normative framework for prevention. Indeed, many structural drivers of conflict are addressed in the SDGs, through targets on access to justice, responsive decision-making, reducing corruption and promoting equality between social groups. These key targets for peace also cut across all the SDGs, above and beyond Goal 16. Moreover, the 2030 Agenda addresses systemic drivers of conflict, including climate change, global governance, illicit flows of arms and finance, and transnational organised crime.

The debate, then, needs to explore how the Council connects to upstream prevention under the 2030 Agenda:

  • How can Council-mandated peace operations ensure that key targets for peace are addressed in post-conflict countries that are at risk of falling back into conflict?
  • How will UN bodies and agencies work with one another towards a comprehensive approach?
  • If the 2030 Agenda is all about including people and (civil) society, what partnerships need to be built outside the UN system?
  • How could SDG targets and indicators help monitor success in peace operations and quantify any risk of renewed conflict?
  • How does Council work on women, peace and security relate to SDG 5 on gender equality?
  • How does Council work on transnational issues like arms flows or organised crime relate to targets on systemic conflict drivers?
  • How does the Council’s own membership and structure relate to systemic conflict prevention?

But the debate must go further still. The Council frequently becomes an important actor at critical moments in the trajectories of countries and regions impacted by violent conflict or recovering from it. Efforts to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies in these contexts exist before, during and after the period of the Council’s involvement. The Council’s decisions – especially risky when it responds to short-term crises – must not inadvertently undermine and harm longer-term efforts. Importantly, the 2030 Agenda is about people, not states. The primacy of improving security, justice and governance with and for people must not be undermined by the national security objectives that tend to predominate at the Council. This could, for example, happen if the Council was to use Goal 16 to justify heavy-handed and counter-productive security responses to terrorism – a topic it regularly debates. The debate on the Council’s role in the 2030 Agenda must cover not only the opportunities but also the risks. 

Some are sceptical about whether the Council should be discussing the 2030 Agenda at all. Critics argue that the body has no mandate to focus on development issues, and worry that the Council’s members may use engagement on the 2030 Agenda to justify intervention in sovereign affairs.

But the inclusion of peace in the new development framework is not about reconfiguring existing institutional mandates within the UN; it is about mainstreaming a preventative approach within development – addressing a significant gap in past approaches.

At the same time, isolating development issues to specific UN bodies while allocating responsibility on security issues to others makes little sense in today’s world. Recent UN reports on peace operations and the organisation’s peacebuilding architecture have made absolutely clear that this incoherence must be addressed if the UN is to sustain peace and prevent conflict effectively. Key targets for peace in the 2030 Agenda represent a sound conflict prevention plan shared across the UN’s pillars, institutions and agencies. That the Council has an opportunity to discuss its own role in advancing them should not be a divisive issue.

Furthermore, the 2030 Agenda must be nationally owned and led. As a non-binding set of global development commitments, it does not legitimise additional levels of external interference: as the document states, implementation will occur at national level. For better or worse, national governments will continue to determine what domestic issues international actors can and cannot engage on. Meanwhile, the Council’s legal mandate to authorise intervention in other countries is unaffected by the 2030 Agenda, which does not open countries up to additional scrutiny by the Council.

What matters most for the Council’s debate is how the 2030 Agenda can be leveraged to keep countries off its agenda. The Council is struggling to deal with an overflowing inbox of world crises: 2014 saw more armed conflicts than at any time this century, the most conflict deaths since 1989, and the highest number of displaced people since records began. As the UN Secretary-General has argued, the Council is failing to fulfil its mandate at enormous human cost in places like Syria. The long overdue adoption of a preventative, developmental approach to conflict is vital to ease the burden both on the Council and the entire UN system – helping to reduce the costs of peacekeeping and crisis response, and lessening controversy on security issues between states.

Seventy years since the UN was established “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, it is essential that the world’s highest peace and security body takes this discussion seriously. But a preventative, developmental approach will largely depend on action outside the Council: the entire UN needs to be mobilised to promote peaceful, just and inclusive societies under the 2030 Agenda. Beyond the UN, regional bodies like the African Union, structures like the G20, and platforms like the Open Government Partnership should also be debating what role they too can play. And the 2030 Agenda needs to impact most at country level, uniting leaders, institutions and people behind a progressive vision of change that addresses each society’s vulnerabilities to serious violence.

At each level, effective engagement depends on buy-in and trust. To foster this, the Council certainly needs to resist the temptation to securitise the development agenda or ruffle sovereign feathers, yet it can still show genuine leadership and invention to ensure the 2030 Agenda heralds a new era for global cooperation on conflict prevention.

Thomas Wheeler is Conflict and Security Adviser at Saferworld. Andrew Tomlinson is Director & Quaker UN Representative, QUNO.

Find out more about Saferworld’s work on the 2030 Agenda.

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The inclusion of peace in the new development framework is not about reconfiguring existing institutional mandates within the UN; it is about mainstreaming a preventative approach within development – addressing a significant gap in past approaches.

Thomas Wheeler, Andrew Tomlinson