Recent successes in Colombia and the Southern Philippines, as well as the resolution of the name issue between Greece and North Macedonia, are evidence that the settlement of conflicts is possible even in an increasingly complex world. So writes Teresa Whitfield, Director of the Policy and Mediation Division of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs in a contribution to the 2019 Oslo Forum, co-hosted by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But, Ms. Whitfield points out, divisive geopolitics, the resurgence of populism and the increased regional and international involvement in civil wars are hampering peacemaking efforts in many other places. So, how are mediators confronting these challenging circumstances? In the first installment of a series reproducing Ms. Whitfield’s paper for the Oslo Forum, we take a look at the current conflict and mediation landscape, before examining issues such as orchestration and inclusion; the design of mediation processes, and innovation.
Enthusiasm for mediation as a tool to prevent and resolve armed conflict has never been more vocal than recent years, nor have mediators ever been busier. Yet, traction on the big armed conflicts has been wanting. As mediators and others gathered for the Oslo Forum in 2018 outlined, the model for the negotiation and implementation of comprehensive peace agreements that evolved in the immediate post-Cold War period is deeply challenged by the complexity of today’s armed conflicts. Mediators have had to develop new tools, practices and strategies.
Mediation has long relied on a capacity for human interaction. The skills and experience of the mediator and his or her supporting team matter greatly, as do deeply-held principles of consent, impartiality and the need to build trust. For the mediation of armed conflicts, the awareness and cultivation of internal and external pressures that might help conflict parties move towards peace and a need to secure broad ownership of any agreement reached are also perennial requirements.
But mediation is also in constant evolution. It is a reflection of, and responsive to, the world in which it is applied. This paper addresses the practice of mediation today from the perspective of the complexity of that world, and the challenge presented to mediators to respond to this complexity in kind.
As the UN’s ascendancy in the peacemaking field in the immediate post-Cold War period waned, mediators quickly proliferated. Today, the UN, international non-governmental organisations, regional organisations, states and a broad array of local mediation actors (civil society entities, including women’s organisations, religious, tribal and community leaders) may all be involved in a single conflict theatre. They engage with greatly enhanced capacities for mediation support, and distinct advantages and disadvantages, as well as demands relating to the normative agenda – on justice or inclusion for example – but also notoriously varied levels of co-ordination and coherence.
In the past few years there has been landmark progress in reaching agreements on decades-old conflicts in Colombia and the Southern Philippines. The former was not formally mediated, but facilitated by Cuba and Norway with a range of other international actors, including the UN, playing supportive roles. Malaysia mediated the latter, with the effective support of an International Contact Group composed of a mix of states and non-governmental organisations. More recent signs of hope include the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and new, if fragile, agreements on South Sudan and the Central African Republic, each responding to decisive engagement by regional actors (Sudan and Uganda in South Sudan, and Chad and Sudan in underpinning the agreement mediated by the African Union (AU) on the Central African Republic) and following the breakdown of earlier agreements. In addition, a UN mediator finally resolved what had become known as “the Name Issue”, as Greece and “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” agreed to recognise the latter as the Republic of North Macedonia. That it took twenty-five years to agree to that one adjective was testament to the sensitivities at stake.
Elsewhere, UN and other mediators have been thwarted by a heady, and often toxic, combination of divisive geopolitics – a return to divisions between Russia and the United States, new tensions between
China and the United States, Sunni-Shi’a divisions with impacts across and beyond the Arab world – a resurgence of populism within states that has fostered resentment and insecurity, and increased regional and international involvement in civil wars that has contributed to their intractability. Conflicts have been exacerbated - and mediators challenged – by the fragmentation and atomisation of non-state armed groups and local militias; a potent and fluid mix of political, economic and ideological agendas, too frequently driven by predatory elites and aspirations and ideologies with which it is difficult to negotiate; porous borders, facilitating the movement of armed groups and the economies that sustain them; as well as broader systemic factors such as climate change.
The revolution in information and communications technology (ICT) has brought unprecedented gains, but also unleashed new challenges. Growing connectivity has helped spread democratic ideas and information, had hugely positive impacts on education, women’s rights, and emancipation more broadly, and helped to mobilise those who demand change, especially young people. But social media have also contributed to a groundswell of hatebased violence and intolerance, and facilitated a range of transnational activities, from trafficking in arms, people and contraband to jihadi recruitment, that sustain and exacerbate armed conflict.
Meanwhile, although the normative agenda has broadened, a backlash by groups of countries and organisations fueled by ideological or religious opposition to human rights and global norms, including the women, peace and security agenda first enshrined in Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000, reflects a determined effort to shrink the space for civil society mobilisation and rights defenders. Ostensibly heightened sensitivities around sovereignty and intervention contribute to this polarisation.
The demands for mediation to meet the challenges of contemporary armed conflict with its own form of complexity are urgent. Absent shifts over which a mediator has no control – a sudden change in leadership, or an external shock such as a natural disaster for example – mediation in most of today’s conflicts is a long term endeavour. Assuming his or her responsibilities, a mediator will be in for a marathon effort, perhaps a relay, rarely a sprint. Along the way he or she will need to think about engagements and strategy at multiple levels and inclusive of multiple different actors. He or she will work in the shadow of geopolitics, yet need to be conscious of the importance of grounding a peace process’ legitimacy within, but also beyond, the conflict parties. He or she will also want to maximize the potential of new technologies to assist this effort. Paying particular attention to the next generation, and thinking about structural issues such as the economy, become vital elements of incremental progress towards a sustainable peace.
Title picture: Special Representative and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert meeting Baba Sheikh, the Yezidi Supreme Spiritual Leader and member of the Yezidi Spiritual Council, and other Council members in Shekhan, Iraq. Photo: UNAMI PIO/Salar Brifkani