Preventive Diplomacy and International Violence Prevention

Massimo Fusato

October 2003

Additional insights into preventive diplomacy 
and violence prevention 
are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Violence prevention includes a wide range of policies and initiatives with the common goal of avoiding the violent escalation of a dispute. If we consider conflict as a dynamic process composed of alternate cycles of escalation and de-escalation, violence prevention finds its place right before the beginning of escalation, and also at the end of a phase of de-escalation. In the former, violence prevention is a short-term intervention to encourage a peaceful solution. In the latter, it is a prolonged initiative to stabilize and solidify a new peace agreement.

The activities that are considered to be part of violence prevention include:

  • monitoring a tense situation;
  • intervening to stabilize a potentially violent conflict before its outbreak;
  • initiating activities that address the root causes as well as the triggers of a dispute;
  • establishing mechanisms to detect early-warning signs and monitor specific indicators that may help to predict impending violence;
  • coordinating interventions to prevent the creation of conflictual situations, and
  • institutionalizing the idea of preventing violence at the local, regional, and international levels.


The concept and practice of violence prevention have evolved from being focused almost exclusively on the short-term interventions of preventive diplomacy, to a new, more comprehensive approach that can be defined as structural prevention and includes long-term initiatives targeting the root causes of conflict.

Violence prevention re-emerged in the theoretical literature in the early 1990s, initially without significant practical application. It was presented as an official policy of the United Nations by then-Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in his 1992 Agenda for Peace. The focus was on short-term preventive interventions. At about that time, the end of the Cold War had suggested that the international community could intervene flexibly and effectively to prevent the explosion of conflicts, an impression that was reinforced by subsequent failures to prevent violence in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. It was commonly believed that different behavior by neighboring countries, in the case of Yugoslavia, and a limited but robust military intervention in Rwanda, could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. A subsequent successful U.N. deployment in Macedonia confirmed this idea.

Since then, the concept of violence prevention has developed further and moved its focus from preventive diplomacy, including a limited set of diplomatic or military initiatives, to more structural interventions. Academics and practitioners have stretched the concept to include, in addition to diplomacy and military operations, institution building, economic development, and grassroots community building. In the 2001 Report of the U.N. Secretary General on Prevention of Armed Conflict an "effective preventive strategy" is said to require "a comprehensive approach that encompasses both short-term and long-term political, diplomatic, humanitarian, human rights, developmental, institutional, and other measures taken by the international community, in cooperation with national and regional actors."

Structural Prevention

Structural prevention has its conceptual roots in part of international relations theory. The concepts of "security community," and Galtung's [1] "Warm Peace," as well as theories of integration and international regimes, identify the structural foundations of a peaceful international community. The structure of such a community does not consist of elements of pure power, but rather of norms, values, and shared interests. Similarly, the peaceful interaction among different groups within a state can be fostered by structural initiatives of constitutional engineering, economic development, institution building, and education.

Some authors do not agree that structural prevention is a necessary part of violence prevention. Lund, [2] for example, focuses his attention on prompt, short-term, interventions to avoid the potential escalation of a dispute to violent conflict. His definition is more focused on preventive diplomacy, and he considers structural prevention to be too broad a concept, difficult to distinguish from more general processes of democratization or economic development, and eventually closer to the concept of peacebuilding.

Thus one's definition of violence prevention is affected by one's assumptions about when this activity can and should be done, and what should be done.

WHEN to Intervene to Prevent Violence:

The stage a conflict is in is very important in determining what intervention tools are most likely to be effective. Early-warning indicators and signs help define the timing and the targets of the preventive measures.

Early-Warning Indicators and Signs

In order for policymakers to support preventive initiatives, it is necessary to develop frameworks that help predict conflict and suggest the most effective response, based on the nature of the conflict, its context, and dynamics.

In order for third parties and the international community to better predict and prevent violent conflict, we have to know the warning signs that precede it. The earlier the reaction to an incipient conflict, the greater the opportunity to reverse a deteriorating situation. We can be forewarned of impending crises through early warning indicators or signs:

  • Indicators are data that, when monitored over time, tell about changes in political and economic conditions. They are long-term in perspective, and include quantitative and qualitative information such as crime rates among certain groups, trends in unemployment, negative attitudes, forms of expression, and political association.
  • Signs are more extemporal factors that do not necessarily appear regularly, but whose appearance indicates fundamental changes in a country's situation or the deterioration of inter-group relations. They can be, for example: sharp increases in violent crime, vandalism, protest, threats, or rhetoric, as well as increases in ethnically or religiously motivated attacks.

Violence-Prevention Models

There are numerous early-warning systems at work in conflict-prone regions around the world. The Clingendael Institute of International Relations [3] in the Netherlands has made an effort to track these systems in their report "Conflict Prognostication: Toward a tentative framework for Conflict." In the report, three violence-prevention models are discussed:

  • the correlation model focuses on structural indicators and causality, and how these can help us understand why conflicts occur;
  • the sequential model focuses on shorter-term early warning, by studying the sequence by which events that can trigger conflicts have occurred in the past;
  • the response model is different in that it is "policy-driven" or "consumer-driven." Rather than trying to understand the causes of conflict, it identifies the points in a conflict process at which strategic interventions are likely to affect outcomes.

Early-warning models differ in terms of their objective, structure, manner in which data is collected, and mandate of the monitoring authorities. When choosing a methodology, one must determine whether to use short-term or long-term indicators, take a qualitative or quantitative approach, or collect generic vs. specific information. Most of these choices have to be adapted to the specific context of the region in which the data are collected, as well as to the availability and reliability of information.

Types of Indicators and Signs

Monitoring programs are formulated to provide the knowledge needed to tackle the issues that eventually lead to violent conflict. General indicators -- economic, social, legal, or environmental -- are monitored by governments (and often by international organizations) in most areas of the world. There is no consensus on which indicators most accurately predict the emergence of a conflict, and in some cases findings are contradictory. Studies done by the Clingendael Institute suggest that military and political conditions serve as triggers for the outbreak of violent conflict, while economic and social indicators reflect the societal background conditions that encourage discontent and political mobilization. Typical signs and indicators may include:

  • Sudden demographic changes and displacement/movement of people
  • Increasing "territoriality" of groups/peoples
  • Short-term and long-term changes in economic performance of a country or a region
  • Increase in poverty or inequality
  • Rise of unemployment rate
  • Economic shocks or financial crises
  • Deliberate acts of governments against a specific group or region
  • Destruction or desecration of religious sites
  • Active discrimination or legislation favoring one group over another
  • Potentially destabilizing referendums or elections
  • Government "clamp-downs"
Public opinion or "social" factors
  • A rise in "societal" intolerance and prejudice
  • An increase in numbers of demonstrations or rallies
  • Intervention or support on behalf of one of the parties/groups by an external actor
  • "Diffusion" or "contagion" of ideologies or conflicts in neighboring regions
  • An influx of refugees from a conflict in a neighboring country

The Minorities at Risk Project is a quantitative system that analyses and monitors the state of minority groups around the world, in order to determine whether or not they are "at risk." Once in place, a project like this may serve as an effective way to predict and prevent the onset of genocide and rising intergroup tension. The following summation of the Minorities at Risk Project [4] is taken from Gurr's book, People versus States [5].



Minorities At Risk Project

Ethnic violence happens when the group forms a basis for political mobilization and action in defense or promotion of its self-defined interests. Within this group there is an entity or association that claims to act on behalf of the group. The groups included in the MAR study had to meet one of various sets of operational criteria, such as:


  • A group had to be in a country where the population in 1995 numbered at least 500,000.
  • A group had to number 100,000 or, if fewer, exceed 1 percent of the population of at least one country in which they resided.


According to the MAR dataset, there are 275 minorities at risk in the world, constituting about 17.4 percent of the world's population. There are two categories in which minorities are divided:

Ethnic Groups: people who share a distinctive and enduring collective identity based on a belief in common descent and on shared experiences and cultural traits. Sometimes also referred to as communal and identity groups.

Ethno-political Groups: identity groups, whose ethnicity has political consequences, resulting in differential treatment of group members or in political action on behalf of group interests.

The Effectiveness of Early-Warning Systems

Challenges to the relevance and efficacy of early-warning systems include the problems inherent in data collection and system implementation. Local networks of civil groups or associations, educational institutions, or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can be effective in monitoring day-to-day changes in a society, since they are familiar with the context in which they are working. International nongovernmental organizations or other international organizations are often essential both for monitoring activities and for providing resources for local activities.

In order for early-warning systems to function properly, they must be integrated into the international framework and preferably the U.N. system. Even more importantly, they must be visible to local politicians and elites, who then have access to the information and can address the situation themselves. After gathering data, a number of additional problems may arise: where does the information go once it has been collected? Who has the mandate, willingness, or resources to act in those cases where the risks of impending conflict are unambiguous? Even if systems of early warning are in place there is still often a general absence of political capabilities, resources, and willingness to get involved on the part of international actors. Any violence-prevention system therefore has to be designed and institutionalized in such a way as to commit politicians and governments to certain responses.

HOW to Intervene

Violence prevention's effectiveness depends on the choice of the right targets and the appropriate tools.

The Targets: Causes of Conflict

Knowledge of the originating factors of a conflict is essential for the choice of the tools for prevention and the targets of intervention. Preventive intervention is more effective in addressing some factors rather than others, each entailing different policy implications.

It is possible to distinguish between different categories of causal factors. Brown[6] distinguishes between:

  • Underlying causes or permissive conditions which create the conditions that are necessary for a conflict to develop. Permissive conditions can be of different kinds: structural; political; socioeconomic; and cultural or perceptual. While the presence of these conditions determines whether or not a society is conflict-prone, it does not tell anything about when and how the conflict may escalate to violence. Conflicts are often an integral part of social dynamics and the engine of social and political development. Only conflicts that turn violent are disruptive and harmful.
  • Triggers or proximate causes fuel escalation and determine if and when a conflict will turn violent. These are the variables that must be known in order to control escalation, and which must be targeted in a preventive action. Proximate causes can generally be defined as rapid and unexpected changes in any of the underlying causes. Change acts as a catalytic factor causing the ignition of violent conflict.

Brown introduces a further distinction between different types of triggers:

    • Mass factors, the structural, economic, and cultural forces that influence shared perceptions and diffused hostility.
    • Elite factors or the behavior of specific leaders, who deliberately fuel the conflict for their own ends. These triggers are more easily recognized, and provide a focus for preventive diplomacy to encourage effective, short-term interventions. Permissive conditions, conversely, would be the target of initiatives of structural prevention.

In every conflict it is possible to define the sources of incompatibilities between different groups, as well as the "swing factors" that determine whether the dispute will be settled peacefully or will escalate to violence. Lund [7] classifies factors as:

  • Structural factors, which produce acts of violence only "remotely and indirectly." Lund notes that the definition of the relevant structural factors is not always helpful to policymakers and practitioners, who must act with limited resources in a limited amount of time.
  • Dynamic factors, which are more "direct and immediate," and can "identify strategic points at which interventions can have real results," according to Lund.

On the basis of this distinction, three categories of causes are listed:

  • Received legacies and socioeconomic conditions: These are factors that are inherited from the past and cannot be changed in the short term.
  • Institutions and political processes: Norms and institutions that can be acted upon and changed in the medium term, influencing the behavior of the conflicting parties.
  • Actions of protagonists: Show how groups and their leaders perceive the situation, and how they react to it. These behaviors could be influenced and changed in the short term.

The Tools: Violence-Prevention Initiatives

Initiatives are actions taken by third parties or participants in a conflict, to prevent the development of a destructive conflict, to reverse an escalation or worsening spiral of violence, or to ease tensions that may exist in conflict-prone regions. The nature of a specific initiative should be determined by the cultural and contextual factors specific to each case, and adapted to address early-warning signs and indicators where such systems are in place.

Initiatives may have one or more of the following goals:

  • Suppressing violence;
  • Removing the instruments and resources through which violence may be carried out;
  • Addressing the issues in dispute by engaging the parties in dialogue or negotiations;
  • Creating or strengthening the procedures and institutions through which such negotiations can be regularized in permanent institutions such as governments;
  • Alleviating the socioeconomic conditions that provide tempting occasions for incitement to violence; and
  • Modifying perceptions and feelings of mistrust and suspicion among the parties.

Third-Party Incentives

Rothchild [8] suggests "incentives" that third parties can use to prevent escalation at different stages of conflict. Third-party incentives are defined as:

Structural arrangements or distributive or symbolic rewards or punishments used by third parties to encourage a target state or movement to shift its priorities in a desired direction.

Rothchild sees conflict as moving through a dynamic series of five phases of conflict activity in relations. The following list identifies problems that need to be addressed at each phase of the conflict, and suggests initiatives that third parties could take to help prevent escalation:

Structural and symbolic aspects of conflict are present under the surface; there may be some expression of grievances; and real or imagined memories of past suffering.


  • Facilitate communication between parties to prevent information failures
  • Build confidence in a common future; facilitate inter-elite reciprocity and exchange
  • Finance development among economically disadvantaged groups
  • Push for more inclusive resource allocation and a representational political system.

Increased politicization of conflict; rising tensions and military mobilization; struggle over control of resources or state; ethnic or group scapegoating; changes in balance of power; decreased space for compromise.


3. Later Escalation Phase:

Triggering of mass violence and major shifts in conflict relations; increased polarization and outbreaks of organized violence; rise in rhetoric communicated by elites; group demands increasingly nonnegotiable.


  • Influence parties by exerting pressure to desist from further provocative acts
  • Take a traditional role as peacekeeper
  • Prevent future escalations of conflict by promoting negotiations
  • Act as strong third-party mediator

Major violence has ended but societal and inter-group relations are missing; uncertainty over commitment and a breakdown in communications; polarization, communal fears, and predatory behavior; self-interested and ambitious elites.


  • Increase communication and reduce uncertainties
  • Assist in the rebuilding of institutions
  • Halt emergence of new rounds of violence
  • Design strategies that induce cooperation and future interethnic relations
  • Create "iterative" bargaining environment
5. Military/Security Phase:

Vulnerabilities in ceasefires and demobilization phase; need for the implementation of promises and commitments; lack of economic or institutional resources; inter-group fears and misperceptions.


  • Finance and oversee disarmament and demobilization
  • Retrain police and army and reformulate role
  • Reduce vulnerabilities by providing information to reduce misperceptions and by manipulating pressures to alter payoff structures
  • Generate economic opportunities
  • Assist in post-conflict elections
  • Prevent future conflicts by promoting democratic institutions

Coercive or Noncoercive Initiatives

As the list above indicates, third-party incentives can be coercive or noncoercive and their aim is to raise the opportunity costs of continuing on a destructive path, through changing the parties' calculation of costs and benefits. Sometimes "packages" of coercive and noncoercive incentives can be applied, with coercive ones becoming more dominant as the costs of altering preferences and the intensity of conflict rises. (See Power Strategy Mix.) Rothchild indicates that noncoercive incentives are more likely to result in a durable peace, and that if coercive methods are applied it is important to follow up with aid and political reforms in order to prevent a relapse of violence.

1. Noncoercive

There are four main types of noncoercive incentives:

Purchase Side payments that alter payoff structures.
Insurance Promises or guarantees to uphold agreements, especially in relation to the participation of weaker parties.
Legitimization Incentives that stabilize commitment to democratization in post-conflict phase.
Economic support Promises of financing that can alleviate competition over scarce resources or compensate the "loser." New findings show that high levels of poverty increase the occurrence of civil war.[9]
2. Coercive

There are three main types of coercive incentives used by third parties:

Diplomatic pressure Partially coercive but still a "cooperation incentive." Includes political, economic, strategic, and military policy approaches.
Sanctions A punitive strategy designed to alter behavior.
Military intervention Used by third party especially to strengthen political initiative; can decisively alter the balance of forces.

Challenges of Preventive Diplomacy

One of the greatest challenges to preventive diplomacy is getting potential interveners involved before the conflict has escalated a lot, to the point of a hurting stalemate, which is traditionally the time that is thought to be "ripe" for resolution. So many would-be interveners tend to wait, hoping that the situation will get better on its own, or until they are sure that their overtures will be welcome. Actually, however, a great deal of good can be done before a conflict reaches the hurting stalemate stage. In fact, a general rule of thumb is that intractable conflicts are much easier to prevent than they are to cure. So the importance of early warning and early intervention is considerable.

[1] Galtung, Johan, Solving Conflicts: a Peace Research Perspective, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988)

[2] Lund , Michael, Preventing Violent Conflicts: A strategy for preventive diplomacy, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 1996)

[3] See: The Clingendael Institute:

[4] Gurr, Ted Robert, Minorities at Risk - A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflict, (Washington, D.C.: USIP Press, 1993)

[5] Gurr, Ted Robert, People versus States: Minorities at risk in the new century, (Washington , D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2000)

[6] Brown, Michael (Ed.), The International Dimensions of Internal Conflict, (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1996)

[7] Lund, Michael, Preventing Violent Conflicts: A strategy for preventive diplomacy, (Washington, D.C.: US Institute of Peace Press, 1996); and Lund, Michael, and Rubin, Barnett, and Hara, Fabienne, "Learning from Burundi's Failed Democratic Transition, 1993- 96; Did international initiatives Match the Problem?" in Rubin Barnett (ed.), Cases and Strategies for Preventive Action, (New York, The Century Foundation Press, 1998)

[8] Rothchild, Donald, S, "Third party incentives and the Phases of Violence prevention," in Lekham Sriram & Wermester (Ed.), forthcoming, International Peace Academy Press

Use the following to cite this article:
Fusato, Massimo. "Preventive Diplomacy and International Violence Prevention." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <>.

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