An Introduction

A. Walter Dorn

This paper was developed for use in courses at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre.

"Caesar: I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music, cry 'Caesar!' Speak! Caesar is turn'd to hear.
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March."

– William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2


Throughout history human beings have sought to warn and be warned of future calamities. From shrill-voiced soothsayers to Cold War military strategists, the objective has been to accurately predict impending dangers, usually in order to avoid them or, at least, to be better prepared for them. In modern peacekeeping and conflict management, early warning is also a vital though underutilized function. Indeed, it is a prerequisite for preventive action, which is considered the ideal type of action because war and death can thus be avoided. Even when prevention fails, early warning serves a later purpose. By being aware of the nature and antecedents of an escalation of violence, peacekeepers can consciously plan, if not to stop it, then to mitigate its effects and to shorten its duration.

Early warning can best be illustrated in relation to a generalized conflict, with its brewing, escalating, and de-escalating phases as shown in Figure 1. Usually, the international community intervenes in a conflict only after it has escalated, and a large number of lives have been lost. In current thinking (if not current efforts) more emphasis is, fortunately, being placed on preventive action and the saving of lives. Early warning takes on greater importance. Early warning is an activity, done formally or informally, that occurs before the conflict has a chance to sharply escalate and before preventive action is taken.

Figure 1: Conflict-response timeline

Figure 1: The early warning function in the conflict-response timeline.

Historical Cases

The record of early warning success in matters of peace is poor. UN history is filled with examples of failures at early warning, even in places where the United Nations was deployed. In 1950, even UN peacekeepers on the border between North and South Korea, whose job it was to do early warning, did not foresee the invasion of South Korea. Similarly, the Chinese entry into the Korean War, later in 1950, came as a surprise at UN headquarters, even after US/UN forces had captured the first Chinese troops. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat expressed surprise and delight that Arab preparations for attack during the Jewish holiday were not taken seriously by US, Israeli or UN officials. In 1982, the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands took UN Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar completely by surprise, though he came from Latin America and was familiar with the long-standing dispute. In 1989, guerrillas from SWAPO crossed into Namibia on the first day of the UN-sponsored independence plan, again surprising the Secretary-General, who could only stand by as hundreds were killed by South African forces. The United Nations was caught unaware of the impending Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 even though UN observers in Iraq could observe the substantial preparations for the attack. More recently, the militia rampage in East Timor (September 1999) was not predicted despite the presence of UN military and police elements in the territory for the whole summer. After each of these catastrophes, politicians, journalists and academics have looked back to try to understand the reasons for failure. They usually find many, which will be reviewed later.


Definition and Approaches to Early Warning

Researchers often dispute if there were early warnings or not in specific cases. This debate occurs because different people demand different standards for early warning. Some accept a vague sense of future conflict while others demand a precise prediction that includes the scale, nature, timing and location of the violence. Some feel that the indicators of violence themselves constituted early warning, while others seek explicit statements about the cumulative effect of all the factors contributing to the violence. Obviously, there is a range of early warning types and each situation requires a different approach. Still, it is possible to develop definitions of early warning that are both practical and rigorous. One such definition is:

"Early warning is the act of alerting a competent authority about the threat of new (or renewed) conflict sufficiently in advance for preventive action to be attempted."

What constitutes "early"? The practical answer follows from the definition: in time for an effort at conflict prevention. If there is not sufficient time to take potentially successful preventive action, then the term "late warning" is appropriate. If the conflict is already rapidly escalating, the term "warning" may not even be applicable at all. For conflict prevention and preparedness, early warning should be done as far in advance as possible. However, it is harder to make accurate predictions over the long range and, unless the threat is both imminent and evident, states are unlikely to respond to a very early warning. The character of an early warning can be measured on the scales of time (how early the warning) and intensity (how strong the warning). A balance point has to be reached in practice between these two, which will depend largely on the nature of the threat. A desirable early warning period for most conflicts would be one to six months.

In spite of the logical link between early warning and preventive action, it is not necessary that a conflict be successfully prevented for early warning to have been achieved. Early warning can take place even if preventive action was not taken or was unsuccessful. To be "early", it is only important that the warning be made early enough that prevention can be attempted. Still, a measure of a good early warning is how effective a response it receives.

A "competent authority" could be any body with a mandate to help keep the peace. For more serious threats, more important bodies should be informed. In the field, peacekeeping missions usually have such a mandate. Overall, the body with primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security is the UN Security Council. The UN Charter (Article 35) gives nations the right to bring disputes to the attention of the Security Council. Similarly, Article 99 gives the Secretary-General the power of warning: "The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten international peace and security."

The Secretaries-General have seldom invoked this authority explicitly--only three times, in fact.1 While they regularly inform the Council of developments in peacekeeping operations, especially of problems in the field, it is rare that they bring a new matter (agenda item) to the Council by invoking a formal, public meeting of the Council. Early warning to the Council, when it is done, is done as a form of quiet, cautious diplomacy. The reasons for this reflect the obstacles to early warning in general.


The Difficulties of Early Warning

There are a host of challenges for those involved in early warning. First, no one can be certain of the future. Fate often makes unexpected turns, for better or worse, and what might appear to be an imminent threat might be fortuitously avoided. Even the plotters of violence are not certain if and when they will implement their plans. A random factor always plays a role in human events.

Uncertainty about the future leads early warners to fear being wrong in their predictions. If the warning of a threat is not borne out, then the warner can be accused of "crying wolf". Alternatively, there is also a fear of being right! Most people and organizations, the UN included, like to focus on success and positive outcomes, and pessimism is discouraged, even counterproductive. By sounding the alarm in advance, a warner risks being labeled an "alarmist." Furthermore, making an early warning suggests that the authorities are not in control and they may take offence. Thus, various Secretaries-General have sought to make their warnings discreet and private, out of the public eye. Otherwise, they fear that bringing a threat to public attention would amount to pointing a finger at one or more disputants, raising the pride and the backs of the protagonists, making mediation and conflict avoidance more difficult. Thus, early warning, if done in an improper manner, can actually be an impediment to quiet diplomacy and discreet preventive action. Also the planners of violence will certainly do their best to discredit the early warning, the warner, and any talk of preventive action.

Other prohibiting factors also relate to response measures. A person or organization sounding the alarm has an added responsibility to come forward with preventive measures, usually involving unwelcome intervention. The earlier the warning, the less apparent will be the desire or justification for intervention. Often those capable of intervention or preventive action (like countries on the Security Council) do not like to be pressed to utilize their capabilities and will resent the early warner for directly or indirectly exerting such pressure. Even after applying such pressure, if no action is taken and the conflict escalates, then the early warner will appear to be ineffective since he or she could not convince the competent body to take appropriate action. Or if preventive action is taken and proves successful, then the dilemma of conflict prevention works against the early warner: successful prevention erase proof of its success. Critics will simply state that there was no real danger in the first place!

These challenges in early warning make it a difficult but not impossible task. There are, however, important cases of successful UN early warning, which shows that courage can be summoned in the face of daunting challenges. Two early warnings are worth noting: in the Congo in 1960 and in Rwanda in 1994.


Positive Cases of Early Warning

In early 1960 the proactive Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld made a tour of newly emerging African states. After noticing that the Congo was ill-prepared for self-government, he demonstrating his ability to "meet trouble half way," by sending his capable Under-Secretary-General Ralph Bunche to the Congo. Bunche cabled back his first-hand observations, including his comment: "power keg here but full explosion may be avoided." Immediately after receiving an request from Congolese authorities for intervention, Hammarskjöld invoked Article 99 to call an urgent meeting of the Security Council for July 13, 1960. He noted that the danger had broad, global implications since the superpowers supported opposing factions in the Congo and the country could easily have become a flash point for a larger conflict. He also proposed a solution, saying: "I believe the UN may be able to save this situation, chaotic as it is rapidly becoming."2 At Hammarskjöld's recommendation, the Security Council created a peacekeeping force, called ONUC (Force de l'Organization des Nations Unies au Congo) which played a difficult but stabilizing role over the next four years, though the Secretary-General lost his life in the effort.

Approximately three decades later, to help implement the 1993 Arusha peace accords for Rwanda, the Security Council established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). There were many indicators of an oncoming genocide available to the peacekeeping operations in 1993/94. The most stark information was provided by an informant who was responsible for training the militia in Kigali. Three months before the genocide began on April 6, 1994, he told Force Commander Roméo Dallaire that the militia were being trained to kill 1,000 people in 20 minutes and that he had been asked to compile a list of Tutsis in Kigali that he thought was "for their extermination." He showed a UNAMIR officer some weapons caches that were being kept ready for the massacres. He also said that Belgian troops in the mission would be targeted deliberately to "guarantee Belgian withdrawal." Dallaire passed this information on to UN headquarters in his fax of January 11, 1994 (see Annex). He also requested permission to raid the arms caches and to find asylum for the informant. But his request was turned down. Furthermore, UN headquarters did not share this fax with members of the Security Council. Thus, the field commander had issued an important early warning but UN headquarters failed to make its own appeal for assistance. Dallaire's ominous warning was borne out with uncanny accuracy in the genocide of April-July 1994, where some 800,000 Rwandese were killed. At the start, a group of Belgian peacekeepers were murdered and the Belgian government withdrew its peacekeepers, just as the genocidists had sought.

There were other significant early warning signs in Rwanda. The radio station Radio Mille Collines, owned and operated by persons high in the government, was spouting hate propaganda to demonize the Tutsi minority. Government ministers advanced a campaign of propaganda and urged mass killings. Weapons were imported, including automatic rifles and vast quantities of machetes that could not be justified for farming purposes. There was a long and bloody history of massacres and other serious human rights violations. Furthermore, a year earlier UN human rights investigators reported rumours of a network of senior officials devoted to killing Tutsis. The combination and collaboration of such information could have provided UN headquarters with the most tell-tale signs of impending doom [see Rwanda paper]. As we shall see, early warners need to proactively seek information on a variety of indicators and perform analyses to try and foresee future threats.


The Fire Analogy

To develop an effective analytical system for early warning, as the UN is now trying to do, it is useful to construct a conceptual model for conflict and its early warning indicators. The "fire of conflict" model is an excellent because it has a range of valuable applications. In it conflict is seen as analogous to a fire. The goal is to identify the potential for the fire before it ignites and rages out of control. What then are the signs of the latent fires?

First, we identify the logs or heavy wood. These are the long-standing grievances that could sustain a fire. For conflicts within nations, these are often appalling socio-economic conditions and the large disparities among different groups, especially those based on ethnic or religious ties, which have replaced ideology are the mainstay of armed conflict. For conflicts between nations, the "logs" may be the unresolved disputes over territory, resources, economic affairs, military rivalries, the treatment of minorities, etc. The logs are sometimes called the "background conditions" or "structural or root causes" of conflict.

The "kindling" is the lighter wood that helps start the logs burning. The kindling is analogous to the "accelerating factors" or "proximate causes" of conflict. These are recent activities that create heightened animosity among the conflicting parties. In internal conflicts, they may be repressive measures taken by governments against target groups like a clamp down on the opposition, increased human rights abuses, intimidation and forced segregation of minorities, etc. They may also be social trends like sharp economic decline, increased unemployment, poverty and crime. In international conflict, the kindling could be in the form of military build-ups, sabre-rattling, cross-border shootings and incursions, as well as verbal attacks and hostile economic measures.

Finally, the match that lights the fire is the incident that motivates one or more parties to resort to armed force. The matches are sometimes called "triggering events" or initiators. For internal conflicts, they would include assassination of leaders or their removal from office, election-rigging, the imposition of new and unjust laws, military or paramilitary attacks on civilians, or even minor disruptions of the delicate status quo, etc. Even symbolic acts can be ignite conflict. In the recent Palestinian-Israeli conflict (Fall 2000), the visit of a former Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem was considered, by the Palestinians at least, as a triggering event in the escalation of violence. In international conflict, the match is often provided by military maneouver or attack. Nations might, for instance, fear a surprise attack and mistake military activities as such.

Often in early warning, the logs (ominous socio-economic conditions) will be apparent but is not accompanied with kindling. This gives the international community time to deal with the fundamental problems. On the other hand, the rapid escalation of conflict is usually determined by the match, which can be lit in unpredictable fashion. This highlights the central challenge for early warning: determining the time of initiation. As with volcanoes, people often have lived so long time with the threat of an eruption that they no longer expect it or prepare for it. Often the warners can see the logs and kindling (or the volcano cone) but have no idea when fire will begin. Hence, they tend to be extremely cautious in make any warnings. Furthermore, in human affairs, those who wish to ignite a conflict usually keep their chosen time secret. For this reason, the identification of the triggering events often requires secret intelligence, the use of secret means to gather secret information. Again, this is an area where the UN rightly has trouble operating.

Another case is when there is plenty of kindling and matches but no logs, so the conflict burns itself out quickly. This may occur if the number and strength of the actors are small. But it is of less concern to the international community since the damage is smaller and is self-contained.

The fire analogy allows us to go further. When the fire has just started to burn, the warner, late though he may be, will seek to sound the alarm and alert the fire department. The dilemma faced by an early warner of an outbreak of violence is much like that faced by a person wondering whether to pull a fire alarm. As the indications of fire appear, a number of people are usually in a position to pull the alarm. Member states as well as the various international and non-governmental agencies all have the right and duty to bring threats to the peace to the attention of the UN. To sound the alarm, the warner must either have new and unique information on the danger or, once several actors see the danger, he must be bold enough to choose to be the one to pull the fire alarm. The two main reasons for the dearth of warnings from the UN Secretary-General to the Security Council are pinpointed in this analogy. He rarely has more information than the most powerful members of the UN (or states closest to the conflict) and, when a conflict becomes obvious, he often prefers that Council members take the initiative in sounding the alarm because they will then be more motivated to mount a response. This does not mean that his early warning role is unimportant, but rather it shows that it can be difficult to implement.


Early Warning Process

The early warning process follows the same pattern as the intelligence process: information must be gathered and analysed before a warning is made, which is then hopefully used to undertake preventive action. These steps are illustrated in Figure 2.


Early Warning Process

There is constant feedback in the cycle: during analysis new information requirements are discovered and new information changes the nature of the analysis. The United Nations already has established an excellent internet site (ReliefWeb) for the sharing of information that is useful for early warning in complex emergencies (see www.reliefweb.int).

The analysis part of early warning involves the synthesis of background and current event information, the careful selection of indicator information, the examination of motivations and behaviours (to predict future directions), the assessment of capabilities (to carry out violence), the development of scenarios (to explore the possibilities for conflict escalation) and the determination of the most probable outcomes. One could turn to the "fires of conflict" analogy to help identify structural, proximate and triggering factors.

Both the analysis and the warning should, ideally, also include suggestions for preventive action. One approach to devising preventive actions is to start by summarizing the accelerators (kindling wood) and triggers (matches). The removal of such factors would be one means of preventive action. In addition the international community could carry out other peace promotion (fire retardant) activities. The study of preventive actions is carried out later in the course.



There is growing interest in the development of international early warning systems. The recent report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (Brahimi report) has recently recommended that

"a new information-gathering and analysis entity be created to support the informational and analytical needs of the Secretary-General and the members of the Executive Committee on Peace and Security (ECPS). Without such capacity, the Secretariat will remain a reactive institution, unable to get ahead of daily events .... The proposed ECPS Information and Strategic Analysis Secretariat would ... bring budding crises to the attention of the ECPS leadership."3

Though the study and conscious practice of UN early warning is in its infancy, with only a few success stories to build on and many failures to learn from, it an area that holds much promise. The United Nations must begin to anticipate crises instead of simply reacting to them, taking preventive action where possible. UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan has asserted that "the UN of the twenty-first century must increasingly become a centre for preventive action." The need for prevention has become all too apparent after the great calamities of the 1990s. To make prevention possible, effective early warning systems are not only necessary but also an idea whose time has come.


ANNEX: The Rwanda "Genocide Fax"

CABLE-212-xxx-xxxx FAX NO: O11-xxx-xxxxx




  1. Force commander put in contact with informant by very very important government politician. Informant is a top level trainer in the cadre of interhamwe-armed militia of MRND.
  2. He informed us he was in charge of last Saturdays demonstrations which aims were to target deputies of opposition parties coming to ceremonies and Belgian soldiers. They hoped to provoke the RPF to engage (being fired upon) the demonstrators and provoke a civil war. Deputies were to be assassinated upon entry or exit from Parliament. Belgian troops were to be provoked and if Belgians soldiers restored to force a number of them were to be killed and thus guarantee Belgian withdrawal from Rwanda.
  3. Informant confirmed 48 RGF PARA CDO and a few members of the gendarmerie participated in demonstrations in plain clothes. Also at least one Minister of the MRND and the sous-prefect of Kigali were in the demonstration. RGF and Interahamwe provided radio communications.
  4. Informant is a former security member of the president. He also stated he is paid RF 150,000 per month by the MRND party to train Interahamwe. Direct link is to chief of staff RGF and president of the MRND for financial and material support.
  5. Interahamwe has trained 1700 men in RGF camps outside the capital. The 1700 are scattered in groups of 40 throughout Kigali. Since UNAMIR deployed he has trained 300 personnel in three week training sessions at RGF camps. Training focus was discipline, weapons, explosives, close combat and tactics.
  6. Principal aim of Interahamwe in the past was to protect Kigali from RPF. Since UNAMIR mandate he has been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali. He suspects it is for their extermination. Example he gave was that in 20 minutes his personnel could kill up to 1000 Tutsis.
  7. Informant states he disagrees with anti-Tutsi extermination. He supports opposition to RPF but cannot support killing of innocent persons. He also stated that he believes the president does not have full control over all elements of his old party/faction.
  8. Informant is prepared to provide location of major weapons cache with at least 135 weapons. He already has distributed 110 weapons including 35 with ammunition and can give us details of their location. Type of weapons are G3 and AK47 provided by RGF. He was ready to go to the arms cache tonight-if we gave him the following guarantee. He requests that he and his family (his wife and four children) be placed under our protection.
  9. It is our intention to take action within the next 36 hours with a possible H HR of Wednesday at dawn (local). Informant states that hostilities may commence again if political deadlock ends. Violence could take place day of the ceremonies or the day after. Therefore Wednesday will give greatest chance of success and also be most timely to provide significant input to on-going political negotiations.
  10. It is recommended that informant be granted protection and evacuated out of Rwanda. This HQ does not have previous UN experience in such matters and urgently requests guidance. No contact has as yet been made to any embassy in order to inquire if they are prepared to protect him for a period of time by granting diplomatic immunity in their embassy in Kigali before moving him and his family out of the country.
  11. Force commander will be meeting with the very very important political person tomorrow morning in order to ensure that this individual is conscious of all parameters of his involvement. Force commander does have certain reservations on the suddenness of the change of heart of the informant to come clean with this information. Recce of armed cache and detailed planning of raid to go on late tomorrow. Possibility of a trap not fully excluded, as this may be a set-up against this very very important political person. Force commander to inform SRSG first thing in morning to ensure his support.
  12. Peux ce que veux. Allons-y.


Davies, John L. and Ted Robert Gurr (eds.), "Preventive Measures: Building Risk Assessment and Crisis Early Warning Systems", Rowan & Littlefield, Lanham, 1998.

Dorn, A. Walter and J. Matloff, "Preventing the Bloodbath: Could the UN have Predicted and Prevented Genocide in Rwanda?", Journal of Conflict Studies, Vol. XX, No. 1 (Spring 2000), p.9.

Doom, Ruddy, "Early warning and conflict prevention: Minerva's Wisdom", Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, http://www.jha.ac//articles/a022.htm, posted 3 June 2000.

Miskel, James F. and Richard J. Norton, "The Paradox of Early Warning", Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, http://www.jha.ac/articles/a017.htm, posted 3 June 2000 (first posted 4 July1997). [Presents an alternative view on early warning, which is pessimistic about the need and the possibility of effective early warning.]

Rupesinghe, Kumar and Michiko Kuroda, "Early Warning and Conflict Resolution", MacMillan Press, London, England, 1992.

Schmeidl, Susanne and Howard Adelman (eds). 1999. Synergy in Early Warning: Conference Proceedings. Columbia International Affairs Online. http://www.ciaonet.org/

Singer, J. David, "Correlates of War Project: Data Files", University of Michigan, 1994.



Amnesty International


Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict


Carter Center (Emory Univ.)


Forum on Early Warning and Research (FEWER)


Human Rights Watch


International Alert


Minorities at Risk Project (Gurr)


PIOOM (Interdisciplinary Research Program on Root Causes of Human Rights Violations), Univ. of Leiden, incl. conflict/human rights map

www.fsw.leidenuniv.nl/www /w3_liswo/pioom.htm

International Crisis Group

or www.crisisweb.org

ReliefWeb (UN site for info. on complex emergencies)


UN Department for Political Affairs (DPA)


UN Staff College (courses on EW)




1. The three explicit invocations of Article 99 in the Security Council were for the Congolese crisis (1960), the Iranian hostage crisis (1979) and the escalation of conflict in Lebanon (1989). There are over a dozen implied invocations before the Council, but most of these were late warnings or statements of support for warnings already provided by a member state. Furthermore, Article 99 is used to justify a host of informational activities by the UN Secretary-General.

2. The Hammarskjöld quote is cited in Urquhart, Brian, Ralph Bunche: An American Life, New York: W.W. Norton, pp.311. On July 9, Bunche had cabled the warning: "Powder keg here. But full explosion may be avoided", pp. 308–9.

3. "Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations" (chaired by Mr. Lakhdhar Brahimi), UN Doc. A/55/305–S/2000/809 of 21 August 2000, p. x–xi.