Conflict resolution: Negotiating the “crowded field” of mediation

by Luigi Jorio,
May 10, 2013 – 11:00

Most armed conflicts are resolved not by force but at the negotiating table. However, the growing number of mediation actors seen in recent years can be counterproductive, according to a recent study by Swiss authors.

“Sometimes it’s a race for the Nobel Peace prize,” admitted Rachel Gasser from swisspeace, the Swiss Peace Foundation. “A growing number of actors are seeking opportunities to engage in peace-making.”

In itself, this trend is positive, she told – “everyone contributes their own skills to the process” – but she added that the competition between mediators, in particular between international and regional organisations, represented a serious problem.

“If this is not tackled, it risks compromising the peace process,” Gasser wrote in the study A Crowded Field: Competition and Coordination in International Peace Mediation, published in February.

Mediation is an efficient instrument: in the past 20 years, 80 per cent of conflicts have been resolved thanks to peace negotiations. According to the foreign ministry, between 2001 and 2008 only five conflicts were concluded by a military victory, while 17 were resolved via mediation.

With the end of the Cold War, the nature of conflicts changed. In general, they are no longer between two states, but between governments and rebel groups or various armed groups within a state or at a cross-border level.

As a result, mediation has changed too. The foreign ministry explains that in the past, the aim was to reach a truce and improve the security situation.

Today, negotiations have become more complex: there are questions relating to federalism, local autonomy, distribution of wealth or the sharing-out of powers.

Forgotten wars

There are more than 400 ongoing conflicts around the world, some of which have lasted decades and still seem unlikely to end. And even if they aren’t on the front pages of your newspaper, they keep on causing death, pain and suffering.

Lasting peace

“You’re aiming for a lasting peace involving – in addition to the political elites – the local community, civil society, women and the victims of the conflict,” said Gasser, who is currently supporting the peace process in Myanmar.

For these reasons, she added, there is no longer just one mediator but a team of mediators.

Gasser said that in recent years, numerous international organisations, NGOs and states – including Qatar, Turkey and Finland – have positioned themselves as mediators in various regions around the world.

According to A Crowded Field, written with David Lanz at the University of Basel, since 1992 the number of peace processes per year has decreased but the number of mediation actors for any given conflict has increased significantly.

This increase is connected to the new, more open global context created after the Cold War and the growing international recognition of mediation.

Switzerland as mediator

Switzerland is recognised as an important actor in international mediation. The reasons for this are linked to its neutrality – the fact that it doesn’t belong to any bloc (EU, NATO) nor have a colonial past.

Since 2000, Switzerland has been involved in more than 20 peace negotiations in about 15 countries, including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Georgia, Sudan, Uganda, Colombia, Mexico and Somalia.

Swiss mediation efforts are diverse. In some cases, the government is directly involved in negotiations or assigns experts to teams of mediators directed by the United Nations or regional organisations.

Switzerland also invites conflicting parties to negotiations. For example, in 1985 in Geneva, the first meeting took place between the then US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The foreign ministry works closely together with non-governmental organisations such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva or Conciliation Resources in Britain.

There are essentially three factors which drive competition between actors.

“Clashing interests between states, overlapping mandates of mediation actors and disagreements over the principles and values of international politics and conflict resolution,” Gasser said, having analysed three conflicts in Africa (Sudan, Kenya and Madagascar).

States, she explained, tend to offer a prominent role in the peace talks to those groups with which they have a privileged relationship – and which they think will help them advance their interests after the conflict.

This pushes mediators to launch parallel peace initiatives, with the aim of gaining control of the process.

Gasser said the case of Sudan is revealing: “Egypt’s launching of the Joint Initiative with Libya in 1999, which directly competed with the IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) process, was primarily motivated by a concern that this process threatened the country’s interests.”

The then Egyptian government, led by Hosni Mubarak, feared that granting the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement a referendum on self-determination – as proposed by IGAD – would have led to a resource conflict over the Nile.

For his part, Moammar Gaddafi in Libya wanted to maintain strong ties with Sudan’s former prime minister.

On the other hand, competition between the United Nations and regional organisations is caused by overlapping hierarchies and mandates.

In Madagascar, the UN, the African Union and the Southern African Development Community all had mandates to mediate. All three bodies had positive intentions, according to Gasser, but extensive negotiations delayed the process.

To mitigate the negative effects of this “crowding”, and to avoid the conflict parties going off in search of the mediator who offers them the best compromise, the authors of the study have formulated some recommendations.

“One could adopt a ‘hierarchical coordination’, where a lead agency, whose superior hierarchical position is recognised, coordinates other agencies by assigning specific tasks to them,” said the study, adding that other third parties can be included or asked to leave if their involvement is no longer useful.

A second type of cooperation involves agencies operating on the same hierarchical level who form a network and, having a common objective, agree on a division of labour.

Gasser concluded, however, that coordination between agencies is not a universal solution.

“If the parties involved prefer war to peace, even the most sophisticated coordination mechanism will not have any effect.”

Luigi Jorio,
(Adapted from Italian by Thomas Stephens)

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