Issue 14 - Article 7

Early Warning and United Nations Reform

June 5, 2003
John Cockell, London School of Economics

Over the past two years, and particularly within the last 12 months, the UN has taken steps to develop significantly an effective, system-wide capacity for conflict early warning.

From 1987 to 1992, the UN Secretariat centralised its early warning analysis in the Office for Research and Collection of Information (ORCI). After ORCI was merged into a consolidated Department of Political Affairs (DPA) in 1992, early warning systems were taken up by the new Department for Humanitarian Affairs (DHA). By 1995, a Humanitarian Early Warning System (HEWS) had been established by DHA. As a database, HEWS primarily collected quantitative information on a range of countries of concern, focusing on those which had the potential to escalate to the level of humanitarian crisis. But with very few staff to maintain and update the system, HEWS was largely unable to expand its information gathering capacity into the qualitative areas most central for conflict early warning: political, human rights, military and societal factors.

In taking stock of these efforts to develop an early warning capacity within the UN headquarters, it is apparent that further progress will depend on two broad requirements: the need for standard methods for decentralised analysis, and the need for greater inter-departmental coordination.

OCHA has now ended any further development of HEWS as part of a broader reassessment of its humanitarian information strategies. In the coming months, as part of this internal reorientation, OCHA instead intends to develop a methodology for inter-agency humanitarian contingency planning within the UN agency.

The current process of UN reform [see issue 12], which began with the arrival of Kofi Annan as Secretary General in January 1997, has opened up new opportunities to make effective connections between improved early warning and preventive action. One of the primary reasons for this has been the initiation of new Secretariat working practices to deal with actual and potential crisis situations. Notable among these was Annan’s decision to establish two executive committees, one for peace and security (ECPS, convened by DPA) and another for humanitarian affairs (ECHA, convened by OCHA). The executive committees ensure inter-departmental consultation and joint decision-making at the most senior level, and provide a visible imperative for improved coordination at the desk level of each department concerned with political and humanitarian issues. The previous DPA–DPKO–DHA framework for coordination has also been restructured and expanded to focus on the routinised joint consideration of countries of mutual early warning concern. Within DPA, the Policy Planning Unit has also initiated a prevention team process which conducts a monthly review of analyses drafted on possible emerging crises in each major geographic region.

What these efforts still lack are standardised methods which will allow for some commonality of analysis across different divisions and departments; neither do they make explicit the link to effective preventative measures. With initial impetus coming from the support of the British government, a project was initiated by the Office of the Secretary General in March 1998 to address these needs. The Early Warning and Preventative Measures Project has now developed an early warning methodology which can act as the basis for a common analytical language for the various UN departments and agencies responsible for preventive action. In this manner, UN early warning analysis will soon be linked to the effective implementation of UN preventive action in a single, integrated planning process. The project will run a series of staff college training workshops for all relevant UN staff in DPA, DPKO, OCHA, UNDP, UNHCR and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, such that the methods become standardised across headquarters for the purpose of joint analysis and planning between these departments.

Three other aspects of this project deserve mention. One is the effort to build in a comprehensive operational approach to early warning, making the development and human rights parts of the UN system central players in the analysis and planning process. The second is the use of a composite and dynamic framework for early warning analysis which links the use of indicators to a set of sectors for qualitative analysis (for example, governance and human rights) which may be related readily to existing operational frameworks. Third, the project design team has initiated an ongoing effort to provide an integrated survey of the range of preventive measures available within the UN system, from preventive peacemaking measures through to those concerned with preventive development and preventive humanitarian action. Taken together, these recent efforts in policy, training and operation are perhaps the most significant attempt by the UN in the last decade to take a structured approach to early warning and conflict prevention.

John G Cockell
Associate, Conflict Analysis and Development Unit (CADU)
London School of Economics and Political Science
Website: <>


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