The Future of Conflict Prevention and Conflict Transformation in the Global Agenda after COVID-19


Eloá dos Santos Prado – TRANSCEND Media Service



The 90’ was a prolific decade for peace and conflict studies, which in the realm of ideas brought the new concept of human security, introduced by Al-Haq and Amartya Sen and incorporated into the Human Development Index (UNDP,1990)[1]. Empirically it was a watershed to rethink war, after Sierra Leone, Somalia and Bosnia conflicts (Chabal et al. 2005, p. 226), emerging the new war that Kaldor (1999) argues, is the erosion of state monopolies of violence and in particular state sovereignty.

The introduction of the human security concept into the peacebuilding agenda has reoriented the global policy towards peace and stability through the assessment of the freedoms available. The developmentists have been working on contributions that ‘progressively reduce the underlying problems that produce these issues of disputes” (Lund, 2002 cited in Ackerman, 2003) to overcome the causes of structural issues creating rifts in the enjoyment of a prosperous, safe and dignified life. And, scholars-cum-consultants come along with top-level diplomats, political officers and analysts to support conflict-solving through negotiation, facilitation, mediation and consensus-building (Carment and Schnabel, 2003).

Having this backdrop, the ideal international security environment is the one that does not have conflict and violence lasting long nor spilling over cross-borders. Therefore, attention has been also paid to strategies and tools for handling conflict, for such reason comes to the fore conflict management, conflict settlement, conflict resolution, conflict transformation and conflict prevention. This essay, in part II, wants to reflect on the last two approaches, analyzing their impact (or not) on the ground level, and their future in the field of peace and conflict studies, particularly considering the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, it is crucial at part I to depart from the understanding of what conflict prevention and transformation aim to prevent and or transform, for this it will be discussed what contemporary violence represents to human security, which perhaps might be an indicator that lacking harmonization within concepts (new and old wars) makes action and policy-making hard. In addition, there will be presented what would be a glue to unite the tools available.

Currently, there are 70 ongoing conflicts worldwide at various degrees, meaning interstate, intrastate, one-sided or more[2]. According to UNHCR, by the year 2019, the world has reached the grim mark of 1% of the global population forcibly displaced, a method that the new wars have used to achieve their political objectives. The relevance of crossing data is to link up the causation of human insecurities with the available tools. The last part of this essay, the conclusion, will present whether the effectiveness of prevention and transformation has a future to go.

Part I – What to Change in the Face of Contemporary Violence?

This part of the essay does not intend to discuss each approach is better for handling a conflict, making dense comparative analysis of conflict resolution, which is in the mainstream of the day to day use by peacebuilding actors whether compared to prevention and transformation forms. However, it is fundamental to issue a warning that the following paragraphs intend to compose two arguments. One, conflict prevention and conflict transformation might contribute to policy-making since its combination deals with from top to grassroots problems. Two, it is crucial to revisit the ‘new wars’ concept for grasping the understanding in contemporary times of what to transform and prevent.

There is a metric of interventions to be taken at the putative conflict stage, which denote the theoretical basis for managing tensions, preventing escalation into conflict to war while grounding means for problem-solving. The model that has been so frequently used to respond to a conflictual situation is conflict resolution, a format loaded with political and military terms. Noteworthy to say that conflict resolution tends to be top-down and to move forward as quickly as possible consequently not seldom relationships relapse into tensions or conflict based on the very settlement established[3].

The literature of conflict studies has received contributions that questioned what makes the international security environment so fragile. For such reason, conflict prevention and conflict transformation have resurfaced – whereas they have been around since the post-Cold War – to prevent the outbreak of destructive conflict, saving likewise the chaos of the impacts on the international political economy interlinked due to the geopolitical interconnectedness of the markets. However, they have received more rhetorical attention than practical use on the ground, which leads to the question, why?

The theory of conflict prevention has divided its application into two tiers. One, that is straightforward in neutralizing conflict effects by using the good offices of the members of the international community. Two, the prevention dedicated to a long-run work with the structural problems, either be socioeconomic or political, resonating the needs of the ground level, considering time and inclusion. This second tier reflects the intend of conflict transformation.

Conflict transformation for its turn has roots in the field out of Lederach’s work in Central America. From his direct observations, he noted that conflict resolution had the objective to appease immediate pain and anxiety, missing the in-depth analysis of hearing the people’s claims, the imbalances of the social dynamics, and inequities embedded in the conflictual relationship. For such work, time and empowerment to people-led coordination, towards the positive dividend of transformation of renewing relationships constructively, are appreciated.

What is possible to affirm after the brief comments on conflict prevention and transformation is that transformation always encompasses the prevention, while prevention not always aims to transform something, therefore, the leading conclusion is based on the principle of complementarity, both approaches tackle what resolution does not.

However, what, in fact, do prevention and transformation change? Without elongating it, none of them was consistently institutionalized into the routine of all stakeholders, and perhaps what hinders it is the concept of war and conflict in use. They are two distinct entities, the first declared and based on the number of battle-deaths (1,000), and the second the contested interest, armed or not, of the parties for multiple reasons.

Therefore, what is at stake is the contemporary violence to achieve political objectives, dismantling the State and causing harm to the civilian population as methods of the new warfare. The battlefield was reconfigured because of human insecurities and its purview[4], ‘most contemporary conflicts are very local, global connections are much more extensive, including criminal networks, Diaspora links, as well as the presence of international agencies, NGOs, and journalists’ (Kaldor, 2013). Reassessing concepts is a necessity to create a space to foresee what policy on conflict transformation and prevention will look.

It is not a question of semantics, but a matter of refocusing action. Numbers of the global trending on forced displacement, which is a central method of the ‘new wars’, means something as well as the current causal/triggers of conflict that is not only cultural, but also “economic, political, epistemological, and so on; it is also layered and situated between the local, translocal, . . . and global” (Latham 2001 cited in Chabal et al, p. 227). Identifying human insecurities are the expected early warning that the UN wanted.

The result of clinging to the concept of war based on the death toll is the bizarre fact of having numerous ongoing conflicts with daunting reports of egregious violations of human rights[5] lasting long[6], without a proper commitment of the international community through a global policy. Therefore, in defence of the ‘new wars’, there is three-pronged outcomes to deal with, the lack of proactive preventative diplomacy, the lack of a global blueprint for strategic policymaking on prevention and transformation and the lack of consistent data for evidence-based and generating.

In conclusion, harmonizing the understanding of concepts to enlighten what to transform and prevent by focusing on the causation of violence certainly would be more effective in evidence-generating to reunite concerted effort in tackling conflict resonating the people’s needs.

Part II – The New Dawn: COVID-19, the Unexpected Enabler

Prevention has been central for the United Nations compromise with peace and security. The seeds of preventative diplomacy were sowed since Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar was in charge, he advised having ‘less last time use of the Security Council’ (Carment and Schnabel, 2003). Afterwards, reviving its potentialities and recalling the nature of the UN – neutral, global membership and multilateral – Dag Hammarsjöld leveraged its promotion for regional containment of conflicts. In 1992, it was the time of Boutros-Ghali to focus on preventing conflicts emerge and escalate based on five measures: confidence-building; fact-finding; early-warning; preventive deployment and demilitarized zones. Finally, in 2001, when the chief’s organization was Kofi Annan, it was passed the Security Council Resolution 1366, reaffirming the commitment of the international community to support national efforts for conflict prevention, acknowledging the pivotal role of civil society.

Regarding transformation, critiques voiced out against it. For some, it is a buzzword that had its ideal objective of transforming relationships and systems entangled into conflict resolution (Mitchell, 2002). For others, conflict transformation is a utopian engineering “with a messianic and moralistic commitment to radical change inspired by an ideology” (Karl Popper, 1976 cited in Ryan, 2007, p.26). Yet, its current state is aligned with bold but non-binding agendas, such as the Agenda 2030, which brought the sustainable development goals containing indicators, that deals with the causes of conflict localizing at ground level the mobilization of actors and affected people to work for improvements.

Even though the prospects of the positive impact of both approaches, except for the Bougainville Island (Boege,2011), no Nation has experienced it beyond the rhetorical level. The advancement of conflict transformation or prevention has occurred at the regional level, and the European Union or ASEAN can illustrate it. However, that is not the best example as it may represent the interests in keeping tendentious power dynamics.

Suddenly, the COVID-19 pandemic seems a window of opportunity to embrace multilateralism and leverage conflict prevention and transformation towards a global policy rather than resorting to political and military intervention. The pandemic has not only exacerbated preexisting human insecurities but has also turned contemporary conflicts more violent, for such reason, the momentum is now, when diplomacy, cooperation, solidarity is at the table.

In practical terms, the United Nations early warning system has not worked, as the commission designated did not prosper to operationalize it, but the new organizational model of decentralization and regionalization opens a channel to mainstream up to date data, making reports on countries to the General Assembly[7], functioned to discuss, debate, and make recommendations on subjects that pertained to international peace and security, including development and human rights.

Recalling likewise that the system is coordinated and should operate as the UN as One, agencies[8], funds and programmes are all committed to human rights availing them to contribute to systems and mechanisms of human rights monitoring as well as with the lead agency, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Already for the proactive and preventative diplomacy and the lack of a global blueprint for strategic policymaking on prevention and transformation, perhaps it is time for the United Nations to urgently call upon representatives to discuss, take stock of past actions to design a roadmap. In the lent words of former Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld,

“I believe we have only begun to explore the full potentialities of the United Nations as an instrument for multilateral diplomacy, especially the most useful combinations of public discussion on the one hand and private negotiations and mediation on the other.”[9]

That would be a step forward towards conflict transformation, without losing the moment to also include in policing the recommendation for multi-party and multi-year approach for international cooperation, after all, systems and relationships demand time to recover and adjust for further peaceful dialogues to solve their issues.

In addition, it would be of great value to reaffirm the role of the (I) NGOs in this endeavour and create space for bringing in other stakeholders. At least, business corporations, due to their influence in the international economy, and particularly by the fact that most of the times they continue to operate in insecure places; and the media, due to their role in adopting peace journalism, crucial for paving the way to a proactive diplomacy and bridge methods of transformation.

Summing up, conflict transformation and conflict prevention are tools that cannot operate alone, and a global policy would support the institutionalization and the engagement of their use.


After reflecting upon the future of conflict prevention and conflict transformation, the conclusion is that accountability must be at the centre of the discussion, making everyone uncomfortable with the reports on human insecurity skyrocketing, causing amongst other mass displacement and other in numerous human rights accounts. It is time to prevent suffering, deaths and assume that new wars have reconfigured the battleground.

The problem of strategies and tools is that they are disconnected from a policy, enlarging the gap between public discussions, implementation and engagement. For such reason, the lack of global policy on conflict transformation and conflict prevention brings enormous setbacks, making the work and funding like the fate of “The Suppliants” torment (by Aeschylus), a laborious work without a fruitful result.

Finally, preparedness and contingency were the lessons that humanity has learned so far with the COVID-19, which certainly is the most unexpected enabler to rethink the way diplomacy, international cooperation, development, and humanitarian work should recommit to available tools for conflict prevention and transformation taking stock of it.

Perhaps, the barrier to overcome is political willingness to admit, accept and (re) commit to it, but as the pandemic was not forecasted, the fear of a failure at the global scale of economy and markets can also be an enabler to a sort of proactiveness in this realm.


[1] UNDP, Human Development Reports, available at

[2] Available at

[3] Kleinfeld, P. and Amin, M. (April, 2021). Holdout rebels, sidelined victims, and other hurdles to peace in Darfur. The New Humanitarian. Available at:

[4] Based on a gender normative perspective, I would cite Pramila Paten, UN Secretary’s General Special Representative on Sexual Violence, who has stated that ‘the women’s body became a battlefield’, when commenting on the ongoing crisis in Tigray and the use of rape as weapon. Interview available at:

[5] The recent events happening in Tigray/Ethiopia amounting in sexual and gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, widespread destruction and looting of public and private property by all parties illustrate the needs. Available at: .

[6] The estimate time to live in a refugee condition is approximately 20 years or more. We can have a glimpse of the consequences of the forced displacement with the illustration of the recent discussions of the closure of Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, which already has 3 generations born inside camp, mostly of them from countries still struggling to find security – political, social, economic, physical (i.e Somalia, South Sudan, Burundi, etc). Available at:

[7] Considering the institutionalized format of the Arria Formula meetings, there is also the possibility of reaching out the Security Council for debriefings from the field. Available at:

[8] UNHCR, for instance, has an internal policy on human rights engagement (2020-2023) that provides a stimulus to the organization report and contribute to the monitoring system. Available at:

[9] UN Pulse – Dag Hammarskjöld Library. Available at:


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CHABAL, P, ENGEL, U. and GENTILI, A.M. (editors) (2005). Is Violence Inevitable in Africa? Theories of Conflict and Approaches to Conflict Prevention, Leiden; Boston: Brill. Available at:

KALDOR, M. (1999). New and old wars: organized violence in a global era. Stanford, Calif, Stanford University Press.

KALDOR, M. (2013). In Defence of New Wars. Stability, 2(1): 4, pp. 1-16, DOI:

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PRADO, Eloá. (2021). Prevention and Conflict transformation: CAT 1 – What is conflict transformation? Unpublished manuscript, Universitat Oberta de Cataluñya.

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Internet Sources:

Crisis Group, last updated 30, April 2021. Available at

Interview with Pramila Paten, UN Secretary’s General Special Representative on Sexual Violence. Available at:

Kleinfeld, P. and Amin, M. (April, 2021). Holdout rebels, sidelined victims, and other hurdles to peace in Darfur. The New Humanitarian. Available at:

Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, information. Available at:

Tigray/Ethiopia situation. Available at: ttps://

UN Pulse – Dag Hammarskjöld Library. Available at:

UNDP, Human Development Reports. Available at

UNHCR policy on human rights engagement (2020-2023). Available at:

UN Security Council Report: Arria Formula. Available at:


Eloá dos Santos Prado – Lawyer and humanitarian emergency aid worker. Graduate student, Master in Conflict, Peace and Security joint programme of the Universitat Oberta de Cataluñya and United Nations Institute for Training and Research. Specialist in international relations, geopolitics and global governance, Universitat Oberta de Cataluñya and Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals.

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