High Alert

Does the United Nations Need an Early-Warning System?

U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Marine One at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly September 18, 2016. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The United Nations Security Council has long been on notice that it should be able to provide early warning of impending international crises. As early as 1985, speaking on the 40th anniversary of the founding of the UN, Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar had already concluded that “as crises have frequently been brought before the Council too late for preventive action, it would seem to follow that the Council might well establish a procedure to keep the world under continuing survey in order to detect nascent causes of tension."

In the 30 years since Pérez de Cuéllar’s call, the idea of an early-warning system gained traction, with the General Assembly and the Security Council adopting several resolutions to that effect.  

Yet the Council has continued to underperform in anticipating and preventing conflicts, largely confining itself to reaction, which means higher political and financial costs, not to speak of lives lost. Its peacekeeping budget has swelled past eight billion dollars a year, and it maintains over 101,000 peacekeepers in 16 different operations around the world. But the UN is straining under the pressure of having too much peace to keep, and with Council members exerting tight control over the agenda to shield allies from scrutiny and the secretary-general unwilling to bring scrutiny to situations that warrant concern, reaction is the default substitute for prevention.

Security Council members are unlikely to change their ways anytime soon, so the next best option is for the next secretary-general to do so.


Article 99 of the UN Charter grants the secretary-general the authority “to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter that in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld—who first formally invoked Article 99 in response to the situation in the Congo in 1960—interpreted it to mean that he had, as he said, the “duty to seek to anticipate situations that might lead to new conflicts or points of tension and

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