Two grim milestones this week should give a world facing a string of frozen and active conflicts plenty of food for thought. Sunday marked six months since war broke out in Sudan between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. Saturday will be the 15th day of conflict in this latest round of violence in Israel and Palestine.
In both cases, death and destruction rage largely unchecked, and each war has produced the same kind of human misery as civilians are killed and injured, humanitarian aid is blocked and millions of people are displaced from their homes – in the case of many Gazans, not for the first time. Critically, both conflicts also lack an effective political and diplomatic exit route out of a cycle of destructive violence. This speaks to a failure in international diplomacy, not only in bringing conflicts to an end, but also preventing them from spilling over into violence in the first place.
This week’s failure of the UN Security Council to agree on a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza was another discrediting episode for what is meant to be the world’s premier body for promoting international peace and stability. The inertia reveals the need for fresh thinking when it comes to conflict prevention and resolution, engagement, how to reconcile competing goals, and how to manage the roles of international and regional organisations.
There is a pressing need for new strategies and approaches. This is becoming increasingly important given that most conflicts are preceded by warning signs that can be acted upon if the right amount of focus is applied. Yes, it is true that the October 7 Hamas attacks were unprecedented in their scale and violence but the fact that the occupation has been left unchecked for decades has meant continued violence. Furthermore, two million Gazans had been hemmed into what was effectively an open-air prison for nearly two decades, and Palestinians in the West Bank were living under military occupation – this should have been warning enough that the potential for war was there. Even now, there is no political or diplomatic endgame for Gaza, with a likely outcome being simply that the violence ceases without any plan to develop a lasting political settlement.
If international diplomacy has been found wanting thus far, new global alliances and relationships might be able to chart a different course. The G20 summit in September, which concluded with the induction of the African Union to the bloc, showed that parts of the world once sidelined when it came to high-level diplomacy – particularly countries in the Arab world, Africa and what’s becoming known as the Global South – were forging new networks and ways of doing things. Similarly, an expanding Brics bloc welcomed six new members this year, including Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This may lead to a re-think about engagement and mediation, and could produce new mechanisms that can identify and articulate the kind of grievances that are often a blind spot for western-led diplomacy.
Looking at the state of Israel, Palestine, Sudan and other conflict zones, many people would be forgiven in thinking that we live in a world where might makes right. If that dispiriting notion is to be dispelled then the flaws in international diplomacy exposed by the Israel-Gaza war, the conflict in Sudan and crises in many other hotspots need to be addressed. In the case of the Middle East right now, few believe that there is anything to be gained from a regional war. This shows how there are many incentives to develop a preventive diplomacy that heads off escalation before it erupts. The work to build a new diplomatic approach has to begin now, before another conflict catches the world off-guard.