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The possibilities for prevention

The underlying tensions that eventually erupt in violence are often easy enough to identify. As Peter Hansen, United Nations Under- Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, recently noted, "Given our awareness of the circumstances and conditions which generate marginalization and vulnerability, exploit differences and exacerbate tensions, one need not be an Einstein to determine that tackling root causes is the only answer if we're serious about preventing conflict."57

An obvious way, then, to prevent conflict is to reduce tensions. It could be argued that the reason many countries have not fallen victim to widespread violence is precisely because they have pursued policies of more equitable development and effective social integration.


Figure 5: The number of deaths from wars and related causes (above) has averaged around 400,000 per year for all developing countries, with little change between 1945 and 1992. But the toll varies greatly by region (below), with deaths falling dramatically in East Asia and the Pacific from 1945 to 1992, but increasing in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa during the same period. Source: Sivard, R. L., World military and social expenditures 1993, Washington, D.C., 1993. Note: Long-term trends in these charts were calculated using a moving average over several years.


Malaysia, for example, is ethnically diverse. The majority are the indigenous Bumiputra population, but 30 per cent are Chinese and another 8 per cent Indian. Following race riots in 1969, the Government introduced clear policies to distribute the benefits of economic growth more equitably and thus reduce the potential for social tension.58

An effective way of reducing tension is to ensure equal opportunities for all children. Meeting their needs and investing in their healthy development is the foundation for more stable societies.

Children themselves of course have an important contribution to make—in trying to avoid the mistakes of their parents. Schools can foster these ideals through courses that allow children to explore ways of resolving disputes between individuals and communities that do not rely on violence. 'Education for peace' is often thought of as a form of reconciliation after war is over, but it also has potential for prevention (Panel 6).

Many parts of the world are already in an unstable situation where violence seems a likely outcome. In these circumstances, the international community needs effective early warning systems to permit speedy mediation. A number of international NGOs, notably the human rights organizations, perform a valuable service. However, receiving a warning and acting on it are two different matters.

As United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has observed: "The whole idea of preventive diplomacy is something new and thus not readily accepted. It is like the introduction many years ago of insurance for your car. People were at first not ready to spend money on an accident that might never happen."59

After Rwanda, where serious observers still fear a renewed outbreak of genocidal strife, the contiguous country at high risk is Burundi, where the United Nations currently has people on the ground monitoring the situation. Thus far, the presence of the Secretary-General's Special Envoy and the deployment of human rights monitors, along with a mission from the Organization of African Unity, may have helped reduce the toll from ethnic fighting. Even in this case, however, the UN Centre for Human Rights has found it difficult to raise sufficient funds to pay for the monitors it needs.


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