Natural disasters have increased in recent years and there were more wars in 1998 than before, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on Thursday, urging the international community to shift from reaction to prevention.
Last year's increase in armed conflicts is particularly worrisome because the incidence of warfare had been on the decline since 1992, Annan added in a report released in New York on Thursday.
In a bid to draw attention to these issues, part of the report has been published as an essay titled 'Facing the Humanitarian Challenge - Towards a Culture of Prevention'.
In his report, Annan deplores the fact that "our political and
organizational cultures and practices remain oriented far more towards reaction than prevention".
The UN Secretary-General expresses concern over the inconsistency of the international community's reactions to humanitarian emergencies and especially its poor response to those in Africa. He warns that "if we are not true to our most basic principles of multilateralism and humanitarian ethics, we will be accused of inconsistency at best, hypocrisy at worst".
Devising preventive strategies entails understanding the causes of wars and disasters, according to the report.
It notes that unsustainable development practices such as massive logging add to the risk of natural catastrophes, while poverty and population pressure increase their cost.
Social inequality seems to be a critical factor underlying many armed conflicts, and when economic decline and radical economic reform are not combined with appropriate social policies, the result can be political instability, the report says.
It also notes that the shift from "war-proneness to war can be triggered off by the deliberate mobilization of grievance", often with ethnic undertones, propagated by so-called hate media.
While ethnicity has been an underlying factor in many recent conflicts, Annan says, other causes include the struggle to control resources such as diamonds, drugs and timber. In recent years, he says, wars in many regions have been fueled by global demand for such commodities.
A side-effect of globalization, says the report, is the growth of "uncivil society", characterised by cross-border illegal activities like drug-trafficking and money-laundering, resulting in a billion-dollar underground economy that threatens state and civil-society institutions in many countries.
Medium-term remedies proposed include preventive diplomacy, deployment and disarmament, while longer-term prevention entails post-conflict peace-building.
Early warning, says Annan, is an essential component of
conflict-prevention. However, the international community's failure to intervene in Rwanda and elsewhere stemmed not from a lack of early warning but rather from "the reluctance of Member States to place their forces in harm's way where no perceived vital interests are at stake, a concern over costs, and doubts -in the wake of Somalia- that intervention could succeed."
Even the best prevention strategies can fail so the international
community must be prepared to intervene politically or militarily when conflicts go out of hand, especially to prevent gross human rights violations, according to the UN Secretary-General.
This, he says, would be an important deterrent for repressive leaders who "watch to see what they can get away with ... before triggering an outraged external response."
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