Conflict prevention is a broad term that refers to a variety of activities and strategies within the field of peacebuilding that are deployed to pre-empt and subsequently neutralise potential triggers to widespread violent conflict.

Former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld first articulated the concept of conflict prevention half a century ago. Since its inception the concept has grown in popularity in fields of diplomacy as key actors and institutions have increasingly shifted from a culture of reaction to prevention in their approach to violent conflict.

This shift towards a preventive approach to violent conflict has been accelerated by a number of moral, political and economic imperatives. Needless to say, the human suffering, destruction of communities and loss of lives that routinely occur in violent conflicts are the primary moral justifications for a preventive approach.

Beyond these humanitarian considerations; the economic degradation that nations suffer whilst embroiled in violent conflict – through loss of livelihoods, destruction of property, loss of trade and foreign investment – demonstrates why a preventive approach is also an economic imperative for actors engaged in violent conflict.

Furthermore, the detrimental humanitarian and economic effects of any violent conflict rarely reside within national boundaries. Once conflict has broken out the costly security and humanitarian interventions that often result cause the international community to place their citizens at risk – both directly and indirectly – as well as placing a huge financial burden upon the international community.

Operationally, most preventive diplomacy can be placed within two broad categories:

  • Direct/operational prevention – Reactive and often short term interventions taken to prevent an imminent outbreak of violence, i.e. the use of mediators.
  • Structural prevention – Long term institutional or grass roots changes designed to help create sustainable peace, whilst addressing the underlying causes of violence within a community, i.e. development assistance.

It is also widely agreed that successful conflict prevention strategies must take an ‘upstream’, community first approach; prioritising the needs and concerns of the local communities involved in the conflict.