Words can make or break peace. Although the success of a mediation process depends on political will, mediators and conflict parties often seek inspiration from other peace agreements for possible concepts and formulations. To assist mediators, conflict parties and other stakeholders in this creative process, the Legal Tools for Peacemaking Project at the
Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, University of Cambridge, in collaboration with the Mediation Support Unit in the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA), has created the new database, Language of Peace.
Language of Peace is an innovative tool that provides instant access to a rich collection of more than a thousand peace agreements, which can be searched for key issues, which are then instantly cross-referenced and compiled. The provisions of agreements are broken down into 26 categories (which cover some 250 sub-topics), ranging from ceasefire arrangements and power sharing to human rights and guarantee mechanisms. Users can browse, search, compile and export into a word document or PDF the provisions of peace agreements relevant to their enquiry. Language of Peace builds on and complements the UN Peacemaker database, which hosts the full text the agreements.
At the launch of the database on 6 December, hosted by Switzerland, DPA Under-Secretary General Jeffrey Feltman and former UN envoy and mediator Ambassador Álvaro de Soto recounted experiences from Colombia and the Central African Republic, to Cyprus, Syria and the broader Middle East to debate some of the challenges faced, and strategies used, in crafting peace agreements. Constructive ambiguity, for example, has its supporters and detractors in the mediation community: sometimes it may useful to get over a hurdle, create some political momentum or generate space to tackle other issues. However, as illustrated by the differing interpretations of the 2012 Syria Geneva Communiqué’s reference to a “transitional governing body with full executive powers”, buy-in based on differing interpretations does not translate into political commitment. Ultimately, there remains a risk that ambiguity will undermine the precision needed for effective implementation.
A specific phrase or concept might also be “toxic” to one side but critical, or benign, to the other. The recent agreement in Colombia is an example: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are sensitive to the concept of “disarmament and demobilisation” – the first two steps in what is frequently referred to as DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration) – and insisted instead on the negotiation and agreement of terms for dejación de armas – “leaving of arms”. Similarly, rather than “reintegration”, the FARC pushed for the creation of “normalization zones”, arguing that their forces were already integrated into local communities and what was needed was to “normalise” the situation.
Creativity is key. The negotiations of the 1995 Oslo II Interim Agreement and the use of the Arabic word Ra’is as the title for the head of the Palestinian Council – Yasser Arafat at the time – offers a good example. Ra’is flexibly translates from Arabic to English as either “President” (the Palestinian preference) or “Chairman” (the Israeli preference). The authoritative text of the agreement is in English, but Ra’is is used throughout, without translation. This helped to overcome a major stumbling block; although sadly the fundamental differences have yet to be resolved.
The debate also highlighted that agreements, including ceasefire agreements, should not be gender neutral. In the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS)-led negotiations on the ceasefire in the Central African Republic in 2013, DPA assisted with the inclusion of three specific and concrete provisions on conflict-related sexual violence: 1) requiring the immediate halt of sexual violence by the conflict parties; 2) making sexual violence a prohibited act in the definition of the ceasefire; and 3) requiring that sexual violence be addressed by the parties as part of the consolidation of peace. The ceasefire broke down, unfortunately, but the references to conflict-related sexual violence were included in the 2014 agreement, there were also similar references in the Mali ceasefire.
The panel also touched on how negotiation processes expose differences in the civic development of conflict parties and their ability to engage and move from maximalist often emotional positions to formulating negotiation strategies around needs. Mediators find that it is frequently necessary to increase the capability and comfort levels of conflict parties in order to generate real investment in a process and commitment to what is in effect a piece of paper.
The Language of Peace database does not pretend to provide easy fixes to what are complex and politically loaded challenges; but by facilitating access to comparable text, it aims to help mediators reframe issues, and provide support to conflict parties as they embark on the highly charged creative process that is the crafting of the agreement. A second stage of the project will be the development of case studies examining how the twenty-six main issue areas identified in the database have been addressed in different agreements.