As the argument rages over whether to provide arms to rebels in Syria, we observe once more that initially-reluctant Western governments are pushed to act just when the available options are limited and generally unpalatable.
In contrast, preventive action can save lives and protect human rights, at significantly smaller cost and risk than acting later. European states and the European Union still need to absorb this vital lesson.
The timing and scale of the Arab uprisings was virtually unforeseeable, but once they had spread from Tunisia to Bahrain and Libya, it was unlikely that Syria would remain unaffected.
Yet, it was not inevitable that the isolated protests in March 2011 would spiral into an increasingly deadly conflict that has now cost more than 90,000 lives, involved war crimes, crimes against humanity and a growing risk of genocide, led to jihadist groups taking over in some places and threatened regional stability.
However, this chain of events was also not particularly surprising given historical precedent in Syria and the interests of neighbouring countries.
This is not to say that preventive action is easy, risk-free or cheap. There is no guarantee that it would have worked in Syria. But there would have been considerably more options available in early and late 2011 to influence Russia, the Syrian regime and rebel groups than there are today.
The European Union was slow with its contingency planning, the initial sanctions regime was weak, and diplomatic efforts vis-a-vis Russia lacked political urgency.
Research has persistently demonstrated that feasible options for preventive or at least mitigating action are available to decision-makers before a crisis erupts. Investment in preventive action is deemed four times more cost-effective than crisis management, relief and reconstruction efforts. In general, the principle that prevention is better than cure has gained substantial currency.
The international community demonstrated in Macedonia, El Salvador, Kenya and elsewhere, that the worst can be prevented if states and organisations act decisively using diplomatic, economic and/or military means.
Worldwide, the number and lethality of civil wars has dropped significantly due to international efforts.
Reactive peace building
EU member states, such as the UK and Germany, and the EU have embraced preventive action in a range of policy documents. Yet when faced with implementing this principle in decision-making, spending and acting, the EU falls short of its potential.
A major evaluation of the EU’s €7.7 billion spending on conflict prevention and peace-building between 2001 and 2010 criticised its reactive nature and showed that more than half of all spending went to only four countries already affected by conflict: The West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan.
The most recent example of the gap between rhetoric and practice, are the negotiations over the EU’s Instrument for Stability – an instrument worth €2 billion and designed to mobilise resources quickly to warnings about immediate or actual crises.
Member states have refused demands from the European Parliament to reserve at least 10 percent of those funds over the next seven years for preventive action.
Increasing the ringfence for prevention would be all the more important as the absolute funds available for the instrument are poised to shrink as compared to the current year.
Member states in particular prefer to concentrate attention and resources on crises and threats that are already in the headlines and where politicians can take the credit for putting out or at least containing fires.
Preventive success is by its very nature less visible – the harm does not materialise and some diplomatic efforts have to be conducted in silence to be successful.
International bodies such as the European Union could be expected to be more foresighted in its action and the EU has considerable potential in terms of its tools, expertise, and long-term staying power to make prevention the hallmark of its foreign policy.
Steps to prevent mass atrocities
To realise this objective, however, the EU needs to take a number of steps, as we have recently outlined in a report on how to strengthen the EU’s capacity to prevent mass atrocities:
First, the EU should strengthen country and regional expertise through training, career incentives, recruitment and networking with experts in member states and outside of government service.
The European External Action Service (EEAS) and the EU Council should also review the existing warning systems and assessment products which are already present within EU member states to facilitate the sharing of intelligence.
Secondly, sources of early warning should be empowered by making the EEAS less hierarchical, creating fast-track warning channels and encouraging the expression of dissent and inconvenient news from the top.
The EU should appoint a senior adviser with an explicit mandate to provide early warning of possible mass atrocities and to make recommendations for early action.
Thirdly, the EU’s capabilities to react quickly to mass atrocities should be improved by better contingency planning. Adequate structures and resources for the planning and operational coordination of missions are needed.
Fourthly, the EU should carve out regular spaces in decision-making on preventive action and become more responsive.
The EU is often too slow in its decision-making and needs to make a choice between waiting for perfectly coordinated and consensual action that comes too late, and less coordinated and limited action that is timely.
Finally, the EU needs to increase the effectiveness of its long-term preventive approach, including by devoting more money to prevention (in the Instrument for Stability and other financial progammes).
We recommend systematically assessing risk factors and relevant measures in country and regional strategy papers and making the prevention of mass atrocities a standard agenda item in the EU’s dialogues with third countries most at risk.
None of these actions can guarantee that there won’t be another Syria, but while EU leaders concentrate on solving today’s crises, they must not lose sight of avoiding tomorrow’s.