Acting Locally on Preventive Diplomacy: Q&A with Miroslav Jenča

Uzbek children collect water in a refugee camp following ethnic clashes. Osh, Kyrgyzstan, June 15, 2010 (Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA/UN Photo)

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has placed a high priority on achieving a “surge in diplomacy for peace.” An essential component of supporting the secretary-general’s vision is a strong on-the-ground presence to engage in preventive diplomacy, according to Miroslav Jenča, UN assistant secretary-general for political affairs.

“To work through partnerships, build relationships, and support national capacities for conflict prevention you must be close to the actors, to people, to governments, to NGOs, regional organizations. You cannot do this only from New York. We need to be flexible and nimble and work through partnerships. This was the thinking behind establishing the UN’s regional offices,” said Mr. Jenča, who previously headed one of three UN regional offices under the Department of Political Affairs (DPA)—the Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA).

Speaking with International Peace Institute Senior Adviser Youssef Mahmoud, Mr. Jenča said that water sharing had long been a source of tension in the Central Asian region, and the UNRCCA worked in partnership with national governments to facilitate discussion and provide technical support to take steps to resolve this issue.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How do you define this concept of “sustaining peace”? And how do these regional offices fit into that?

This is a very relevant topic because I think we can do more to raise awareness and build understanding about “sustaining peace.” Even here within the [UN headquarters] building, I am asked what exactly does sustaining peace mean? What is the role of preventive diplomacy? Actually, I think it is pretty straightforward: Sustaining peace means bringing a prevention perspective into every phase of UN engagement—before, during, and after conflict. And preventive diplomacy is a critical tool across all that.

On January 10, the secretary-general briefed the Security Council at the open debate on conflict prevention, laying out his vision of a surge in diplomacy for peace and emphasizing his personal engagement to drive diplomatic efforts to create the conditions for peace. He launched an initiative on mediation that strengthens DPA’s longstanding mediation support through political engagement and mediation support on key technical issues. Now, myself as a strong defender [of the UN] and practitioner from the field, I am convinced that you can best engage in conflict prevention only if you have a presence on the ground.  We need to be flexible and nimble and work through partnerships. This was the thinking behind establishing the UN’s regional offices.

The first one was the office in Western Africa, UNOWA—now UNOWAS, including the Sahel—then there was the Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia, UNRCCA, and the latest one, UNOCA [in Central Africa]. We hope that, given the impact in preventive diplomacy these regional offices have achieved, we can have similar presences elsewhere.

The experience in Central Asia is a good example of our engagement in situations where there are no peacekeeping operations, and the UN has been able to partner with national governments and other regional and national stakeholders to engage in preventive diplomacy.  Initially, some thought to call the regional center a regional conflict prevention center, and there were some voices saying that this was an inappropriate title—“we don’t have conflict, so we want preventive diplomacy.” Each region and sub-region has a different context and we must not have a one-size-fits-all approach. In some contexts the term preventive diplomacy carries sensitivities, somehow red lights start blinking; in other contexts we work in partnership on conflict prevention.

And UNRCCA, it’s the only center that has that title, correct?

It’s the only one. For us, the substance is more important than the name. Once you are there, there are plenty of options, opportunities, how you can implement and carry out preventive diplomacy, mediation, facilitation on the ground. And what is the most important is to support the building of national preventive capacities, because at the end of the day what are we doing there? We are helping countries to build capacities in security, stability, welfare, and democratic development. I am convinced that engaging in preventive action through regional offices is not just relatively cheap, but absolutely cheap to do this. It not only saves money; it saves lives.

The regular budget of UNRCCA was around three million US dollars. Three million US dollars! It is not much given the broad activities of the center. Preventive diplomacy is a cost-effective way of engagement for the UN. Of course, we would like to have more resources for our regional presences. At the UNRCCA, we needed to do fundraising, and many of our activities were funded through extra-budgetary measures, but still we could deliver.

Kyrgyzstan is a very clear example. When a conflict started [in 2010], we were able to deploy in response in a nimble manner because we had a presence in Central Asia and because through that office, we had established relationships with national partners in Kyrgyzstan. People might say “you didn’t do your preventive job well.” My answer to this is “Of course we will never be able to prevent and foresee all conflicts;” it is vital that when we cannot prevent violence we engage at the earliest possible moment to avoid the conflict escalating.

In Kyrgyzstan, we managed to go there immediately after the conflict in the south occurred, to put a team together, in partnership with international financial institutions and regional organizations. It was truly integrated—DPA and its regional office working together with the resident coordinator and the UN country team, as well as international partners, using, among others, UN Peacebuilding Fund resources. Resident coordinators and UN country teams (UNCTs) traditionally saw their role as in development, humanitarian aid, and human rights, but not a political role. The value that DPA brings in such situations is the overarching political guidance—joining up the pillars of the UN’s work [peace and security, human rights, and development].

Are you saying it took a crisis to bring everyone together? If there were no crisis it would be harder?

To some extent, yes, before it, it was harder. Before, sometimes, when I was visiting some countries the resident coordinators saw me as an unknown entity who might represent some kind of danger, a political sensitivity that could negatively impact their work; they sometimes saw conflict prevention and political engagement as too sensitive for the UNCT to be involved. But, this was the situation before 2010, and now we are in 2017. During those seven years, I have seen real development and a real change of paradigm in this relationship between DPA, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and the country teams, so things have progressed a lot to the satisfaction of all sides with due respect to the mandates of UN entities. The UNDP-DPA Joint Programme on Building National Capacities for Conflict Prevention, which integrates political and development approaches, has now grown from strength to strength. Still, there is more we can do to build on the joint program and work in many other areas to realize the SG’s vision for a surge in diplomacy for peace.

Our regional centers can really work as the basis for bringing the UN together, understanding our roles better, and using the scarce resources we have much more efficiently. If you look at the cycle after the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, it started with first ousting President Bakiyev in the beginning of 2010, then the inter-ethnic and very tragic conflict, and then stabilization with international engagement under the leadership of the United Nations. The people of Kyrgyzstan and the leadership at the time are to be commended for coming through the conflict and moving to the referendum on a constitution in 2010, then a parliamentary election, then a presidential election. Last year they had parliamentary elections, and this year the presidential election will take place.

And all peacefully?

And all peacefully; all results of the elections were accepted. This is a credit to the people of Kyrgyzstan. However, it doesn’t mean that the root causes of the conflict have been fully addressed. Much more needs to be done, through the sustaining peace approach, to prevent the recurrence of conflict.

The UNRCCA’s engagement also drew on the cooperation we had forged with regional organizations. For example, there on the ground we established the so-called troika with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union, under the leadership of the United Nations. I did not suggest that the UN be the leader, because we are a global organization; it was the European Union and Kazakhstan, which was at that time chair-in-office of the OSCE, who said that the United Nations should lead the troika, and Kyrgyzstan agreed.

For a year-and-a-bit we engaged in shuttle diplomacy to Kyrgyzstan and other places and working together, building regional and international support to address the factors driving the conflict. And we also had good relations with those regional organizations that were not part of the troika, before and after the crisis in Kyrgyzstan. I’m talking about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States, NATO, and the Economic Cooperation Organization.

Do you think there are ways in which these regional offices could be revisited from this perspective of diplomacy for peace, rather than for the resolution or prevention of conflict?

People want to hear practical examples, so I would use the water issue in Central Asia, because in the region the most serious potential source of conflict is water, but it is also an enormous opportunity for cooperation. You have upstream countries—Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan—with abundant water resources, but they have lower levels of economic development and lack hydrocarbon resources. Then you have downstream countries that are rich in other natural resources but suffer from a lack of water. So, if we want to have stability in this region, and we should remember that Afghanistan is also part of the Aral Sea basin, you need a solid regional basis for water sharing. And this is something we have helped to do, under my leadership for seven years, and UNRCCA continues to work on. We provided technical support, prepared the documents [for agreements on water sharing], based on the advice and expertise of top international water law experts. We drew extensively on local expertise, combined it with international best practice and worked closely with the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea. It involved political engagement too because ultimately it is a question of building trust and political will. With the developments in the region, the time may now be ripe as the trust among the countries in the region is growing.

It’s useful to go through all the different tools we used for this purpose. I mentioned the strategic relationship with the World Bank. Then, of course, we have the relationship with regional organizations that supported our efforts. Next, we used DPA’s standby team of mediation experts, and the UN’s wider pool of experts on process design and water. We traveled to all the countries, and to Geneva, the Economic Commission for Europe, which has wonderful expertise on water treaties. UNDP helped us on the ground with small projects and the Asian Development Bank as well was engaged. And at the same time we organized training for experts in each of the countries to actually build this network of our supporters for the future, to understand international water law, to understand the United Nations, and also to show them that we can actually solve their problem through a legal framework and guarantees as well, to ensure that regional water conventions would be honored.

I outlined this experience as but one example of engagement by regional centers in situations of no imminent threat of violent conflict, but where there is the potential for sharp deterioration if we don’t act. This encapsulates how we see preventive diplomacy: supporting national partners through political engagement and technical expertise, and building national capacities to prevent conflicts and achieve resilient societies for the long term—societies that can address grievances through peaceful means and enjoy openly debating issues without fear of violence.