TOWARDS AN EFFECTIVE UN EARLY WARNING SYSTEM:
A Review and Recommendations
Excerpt from A. Walter Dorn, “Early and Late Warning by the UN Secretary-General of Threats to the Peace: Article 99 Revisited” in Woodcock, Ted and David, David (eds.), Analysis for Crisis Response and Societal Reconstruction: The Cornwallis Group V (Proceedings), Canadian Peacekeeping Press, NS, 2000, p.357.
For an update, see re-publication of the paper as Chapter 14 (available electronically) in Schnabel and Carment, Conflict Prevention from Rhetoric to Reality, Lexington Books, 2004.
The goal of early warning has been recognized by the United Nations for decades but a system that produces such warnings has not yet been developed. The constraints on developing UN early warning systems have been financial and managerial, as well as political and technical. The recent past has been characterized by deep financial cuts, loss of posts and institutional retrenchment. Still, with the UN reform process being constantly pushed, there is reason to hope that an effective early warning system, as a vital component of effective conflict prevention and preparedness, can yet become a part of the UN Secretariat. The following is a review of the current UN system along with recommendations (with explanations) on suggested ways to build an effective system. The recommendations, which are based on universal principles, apply to any early warning system that might be created within the UN or outside in the future.
Current Shared Responsibilities
Several departments within the UN Secretariat currently have responsibilities for early warning, as do the various human rights bodies mentioned above. The Department of Political Affairs (DPA) has “primary responsibility” within the UN Secretariat for preventive action and peacemaking1. This includes a mandate “to identify potential or actual conflicts in whose resolution the United Nations could play a useful role.” The six regional divisions within DPA are each charged with identifying “potential crisis areas and providing early warning to the Secretary-General on developments and situations affecting peace and security.” 2In 1998 a Prevention Team was established within DPA to review each month selected cases that might necessitate preventive measures. For this purpose each of the division produces prevention papers, with cases to consider.
Another indication of the growing interest and commitment to early warning is the project, begun in 1998 under DPA, on “Early Warning and Preventive Measures: Building UN Capacity.” It features a training program at the UN Staff College in Turin, Italy, where some two hundred staff members from two dozen UN agencies, departments, offices, funds and programs have taken courses to develop their skills in identifying the causes and stages of conflict, structuring early warning analysis, and considering and coordinating a range of preventive measures. This is an important long-term initiative to create an enduring institutional capacity for early warning and prevention.
One of the earlier and most ambitious early warning systems established was the Humanitarian Early Warning System (HEWS) of the Officer for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA, formerly called the Department for Humanitarian Affairs or DHA). It involves a few (three or four) professional staff and a significant computerized capacity. The system incorporates a multitude of indicators and information sources (statistical and textual) to allow monitoring of deterioration in over 100 nations. However, over its first few years, the system has yet to produce a single “early warning” of armed conflict, though it has been operational since July 1995. The initial efforts were deficient in that too much reliance was placed on statistics, computer databases and automated computations for pattern recognition and neural networks, without linking this to more practical human analysis. In colloquial terms, HEWS relied too much on a “black box” approach but a more “hands on” proactive approach, guided by human experience, intuition and curiosity is currently being taking, involving field trips and detailed reporting.
It is generally recognized that, traditionally, different sections of the UN, as with many large bureaucracies, lacked effective coordination and information flow.3 In order to address this problem within the Secretariat, an OCHA/DPA/DPKO Framework for Coordination was developed after the creation of the Department for Humanitarian Affairs (now OCHA) in 1992. This expanded over time to include mangers from the United Development Program (UNDP) and other UN agencies (UNICEF, UNHCR, WHO, WFP, FAO and the World Bank). One goal is “joint analysis of early warning of a looming crisis, within a broader framework for the coordination of operational planning and implementation” among the departments. This includes “early warning information gathering and analysis, planning of preventive action, fact-finding, etc.” Desk officers are to exchange “early warning signals, staff reports, internal meeting notes, maps, assessments, agency situation reports, etc.” 4 An Interdepartmental committee meets regularly to facilitate the Framework for Coordination, to prioritize countries for review, decide on further monitoring measures and, finally to make recommendations to the Secretary-General’s Executive Committee on Peace and Security (and on Humanitarian Affairs). There is said to be “agreement as to the responsibility and criteria for ‘sounding the alarm’ in impending crises.” Even still, participants are hard pressed to describe any success stories achieved to date. Currently, disturbances in the Fergana Valley and insurgency in Nepal are among the situations being considered.
The following proposals on improving the UN early warning system can conveniently be divided into those dealing with overall organizational aspects, information-gathering, information analysis and dissemination.
Organization of Early Warning
A single body should be designated with overall responsibility for the function of early warning (EW). This EW unit should be accountable for failures at early warning.
Currently, the responsibility for early warning is spread among several departments. As such, it is easy for each body to ignore the early warning responsibility, and evade the risks to be taken by issuing early warnings. It is proposed that one unit be held accountable for any lapses. While early warning can continue to be included in the mandates of several departments, one person (e.g., the unit chief) should be given the primary and coordinating role and made accountable. This will put the onus on that person/unit to produce early warnings. It should be accountable for both missed opportunities and for false alarms, though it should be understood that early warning is not an easy task. Still, it should be possible to establish a track record for early warning. This kind of responsibility for early warning combined with accountability has never before been institutionalized in the UN.
A learning mechanism should be part of the early warning system (EWS).
Failures to issue early warnings, which can be expected to be frequent, should be reviewed in order to determine if there are deficiencies in the system, improvements to be made and, more generally, lessons to be learned. In this way, the early warning system and individuals involved should “learn from experience” over time.
The officer in charge of early warning should not be responsible for proposing response options, though s/he may contribute to this important task. This overall responsibility for preventive action should be held by a different body.
Imposing a requirement that the early warning coordinator or unit also recommend potential responses to looming threats will slow down, or make impossible, the early warning process. While such recommendations can be attached to the warning, the “early warners” should be unencumbered from that obligation. Their warning should, however, provide an analysis of the threat with as much information as possible that could be useful in the consideration of responses. By listing possible “accelerators” and “decelerators” of future conflict, the early warners can contribute to the development of preventive actions.
More broadly, the UN should consider the creation a Strategic Information Centre or Unit with a responsibility for handling information at all stages of the conflict, from prior to escalation (leading to early warnings) to the post-conflict peace-building stage. Early warning could be one important task of such a body.
This integrated approach has much to commend it. It would allow for information gathering through the life cycle of a conflict and across the military/civilian divide. This will help smooth the transition between early warning and peacekeeping and post-conflict peace-building. There is a strong need for a body within the Secretariat which is dedicated to information gathering and analysis. In the past, a number of large peacekeeping operations (PKOs) included a distinct military information branch (MIB) in the field. Various UN operations (from the Congo5 to the former Yugoslavia) have shown the utility of dedicated information bodies (MIBs) in the field. The need for strengthened informational procedures, both at headquarters and in the field, has been recognized. Both the Secretary-General and the Council have stressed the need for improved information capacity.6 The Information and Research Unit of the DPKO Situation Centre assisted considerably in many non-peacekeeping tasks, including early warning. In an Information Centre, the capacity for analysis could be used in the spectrum of UN roles (including, early warning, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance, as well as possibly arms control verification).
The priority information and potential information sources should be actively identified.
Currently, UN early warning systems work in a passive information collection mode, which is only the first stage. As part of the feedback loop in the information system, analysis of incoming information should result in the identification of further information requirements. Often, these are crucial facts which must be “sought out.” It is important to follow up leads and “hunches” in the second stage. Of course, the early warning unit should be aware of limits imposed by international law and UN policies on its information-gathering activities.7
The early warning unit should be able to draw upon national information and intelligence agencies.
National agencies sometimes have the most crucial information (e.g., on current troop positions, obtained by satellite, and illicit arms imports, obtained from “assets”). The Information and Research (I&R) Unit of the DPKO Situation Centre maintained useful links with national intelligence services. HEWS, which is currently tasked with an ambitious EW mandate, lacks any such contacts. It is vital that the proposed EW unit be in communication with such bodies, since they often have crucial information necessary for early warning. Of course, it may be necessary to corroborate reports from several agencies and sources to avoid inaccuracies and national biases.
Bring UN human rights agencies into close contact with the early warning unit.
Human rights violations are important indicators of potential conflict. It is desirable to maintain an on-going dialogue with the UN’s human rights and refugee agencies (which are mostly based in Geneva).
Develop partnerships with NGOs, especially those engaged in early warning.
Similarly, there will be great benefit to working more closely with groups that can provide some of this much needed information gathering and analysis capability. NGOs often have people in the field able to observe situations first hand and with many local contacts. They are often more than willing to provide warnings to the UN because of the risk to the safety of their staff in the event of an escalation of conflict. In addition, there are several NGO groups which are now forming with the mandate for early warning (e.g., the Forum on Early Warning and Response, of which the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs is already associated), with whom the EW unit should be in close contact.
Monitor early warnings issued by other organizations.
In some cases, early warnings will already have been sounded, often from sources within the country in question and sometimes from outside groups. The early warning unit should keep track of such warnings to prompt further investigation, and to corroborate or discount the reports.
Explore the possibilities for new information-gathering agreements and norms.
There have been significant advances in on-site inspection standards for both arms control and peacekeeping. The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, for instance, provides for the most intrusive system of inspection of any multilateral treaty yet, based on an “any site, anytime” approach, qualified by “managed access” provisions.8 In the not so distant future, similar “challenge inspection” provisions could be considered for incorporation a global on-site inspection system favoring transparency in military affairs. Eisenhower’s proposal of 1960 for a UN aerial reconnaissance system (made five years after his first open skies proposal), could be re-examine by governments and others. This should be done in relation to the current Open Skies Treaty in Europe and the capacity of reconnaissance satellites. In addition, the UN should consider developing the capacity for aerial surveillance in its peacekeeping and other missions.
Explore the possibilities for technology.
The UN has traditionally been technophobic, both in the field and at headquarters. As mentioned, there are many technological possibilities still waiting to be explored, from remote sensing technologies (such as aerial and satellite monitoring) to ground sensors (such as miniature-seismic detectors). While there has been an expressed interest in technology within certain quarters of the UN (e.g., in the Peacekeeping Committee and in UN expert reports on verification) there has not been even a detailed study about how technology can have a positive impact on peace and security and play a role in UN’s tasks, including early warning.
Analysis and Dissemination
The EW unit should be provided with sufficient analytical skills to carry out its mandate.
None of the bodies currently tasked with early warning have a sufficient analytical capacity. For the ambitious mandate of early warning, much information must be analysed and corroborated, leads must be followed and new information requirements identified. Formulations of potential scenarios and their continual modification, after checks against reality, are essential. The Information and Research (I&R) Unit of the DPKO Situation Centre demonstrated the capacity for this. This positive experience should be useful to the proposed EW unit.
Issuing reports on early warning should become a regular activity both within the Secretariat (i.e., reports to the Secretary General) and to the Member States (i.e., reports from the Secretary General).
To establish a new “early warning” norm, which will help to make the UN a more proactive body, reporting should be regular, even if there are no early warnings to make. One possibility would be to include a section on potential threats to the peace in the Annual Report of the Secretary-General. In addition, regular EW reports should be made by the Secretary-General to the Security Council, both in the formal and the informal sessions. This is the essence of the responsibility imposed on him by Article 99 and as part of the UN’s overall responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. The early warning function should becomes a regular part of his service.
The UN Secretary-General is now positioned better than ever before to engage in early warning. There are now early warning mandates from the Security Council and the General Assembly to supplement that which is given in the UN Charter itself. The UN currently possesses better information systems than ever before. New technology is providing ever more effective means of information storage and transfer, and aids greatly in information searching and analysis. In addition, there appear to be progressive movers within the UN’s international civil service and a Secretary-General who is thoroughly familiar and experienced with the UN’s role in peacekeeping and conflict management.
Will the UN maintain its habitual pattern of reacting to conflicts instead being proactive by warning about them and preempting them? If the Secretary-General and member states seize the possibilities for new peace mechanisms in the new century, and recognize that the time is ripe for an expanded and earlier UN roles, then there is every possibility for hope. Then Article 99 will be not merely a theoretical possibility, seldom used, but a living provision of the UN Charter and an additional tool that might help save the world from much misery and suffering. UN early warning is surely an idea whose time has come.
1. UN Secretary-General, 1996. 50th Anniversary Report on the Work of the Organization, United Nations, 1996 (UN Sales No. E.96.I.19) – see section on “preventive diplomacy and peacemaking”, p. 193. DPA was created in March 1992, and was officially given responsibilities for preventive diplomacy and peace-making one year later. Prior to that, such functions were performed by the Executive Office of the Secretary-General. (See General Assembly resolution A/47/120 for the mandate of the Department of Political Affairs.) A good summary of DPA responsibilities is provided in DPA overview (“http://www.un.org/smlogo.gif”): “The DPA has five main responsibilities in support of preventive action and peacemaking. First, it must monitor, analyze and assess political developments throughout the world. Next, the Department identifies potential or actual conflicts in whose control and resolution the United Nations can play a useful role. It then prepares recommendations to the Secretary-General about appropriate actions in such cases. Fourth, the Department executes the approved policy when it is of a diplomatic nature. Finally, it assists the Secretary-General in carrying out political activities decided by him and/or mandated by the General Assembly and the Security Council in the areas of preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace-building, including arms control and disarmament.”
3. In fact, the previous Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, wrote in his “Supplement to an Agenda for Peace”, submitted to the General Assembly on 3 January 1995, that “in an international bureaucracy interdepartmental cooperation and coordination come even less naturally than they do in a national environment.”
5. For a description of the first such body, the Military Information Branch in the UN’s Congo operation, see Dorn, A. Walter and Bell, David H., Intelligence and Peacekeeping: The UN Operation in the Congo 1960-64, International Peacekeeping, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 1995, pp.11-33.
6. The Council President stated on 22 February 1995: “The Security Council strongly support’s the Secretary-General’s conclusion that peacekeeping operations need an effective information capacity, and his intention to address this requirement in future PKOs from the planning stage.”
7. For an analysis of the legal and other constraints on UN information/intelligence-gathering see, Dorn, A. Walter, “The Cloak and the Blue Beret: The Limits of Intelligence-Gathering in UN Peacekeeping”, Pearson Paper No. 4, Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, Nova Scotia, 1999.
8. The UN Special Commission has also gained much experience from its inspections in Iraq. In Cambodia, the UN peacekeeping force (UNTAC) was given unprecedented powers of inspection (e.g., extending to inspection of files and documents in the offices of the political parties).