The unacceptable levels of suffering caused by violent conflict demand a surge in diplomacy, including strengthening mediation capacity in the broadest terms. That is the overarching argument in Secretary-General António Guterres’s recently released report on UN activities in support of mediation, which recalls that the number of major civil wars almost tripled in the decade to 2015, a period that also encompassed a six-fold increase in fatalities in conflict.
The number of major civil wars almost tripled in the decade to 2015. Between 2011 and 2015, there was a sixfold increase in fatalities in conflict.
In the document, the Secretary-General writes that the inability to prevent crises is the most serious shortcoming of the international community.
In his first address to the Security Council, on 10 January 2017, he singled out mediation as an important tool in this regard, informing the Council of his intention to launch an initiative to enhance United Nations mediation capacity.
“The pressing need for mediation and other efforts to end the conflicts of today is as urgent as the requirement that we direct greater attention, efforts and resources to preventing the conflicts of tomorrow,” he says.
The report provides a snapshot of how the United Nations supports peace talks around the world in addition to walking the reader through the different phases of negotiations and the challenges that often accompany them.
For example, reviewing UN support for mediation process and strategy, the report points out that “getting the mediation process right can be as important as the substance of the talks.”
The inability to prevent crises is the most serious shortcoming of the international community: Secretary-General
The agenda, sequencing of issues, composition of delegations and degree of inclusion are frequent subjects of dispute which would need to be confronted before parties engage in focusing on the substance of their grievances. In the absence of the will among the conflict parties to move forward, mediation teams may need to engage in “talks about talks” and shuttle diplomacy to prepare the ground.
“Mediation support actors” can also assist in providing space for reflection and comparative experience on process design, according to the report. For example, the Department of Political Affairs assisted the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria in brainstorming in between rounds of talks in Geneva, including on their structure and design. It has supported similar exercises on behalf of the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Facilitate Dialogue in El Salvador and his Personal Representative on the border controversy between Guyana and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Getting the mediation process right can be as important as the substance of the talks.
In high-pressured environments, the report goes on, mediation teams have to explore possible arrangements for stopping or reducing violence, while remaining attuned to their longer-term implications. Mediation support can assist by providing specific thematic expertise. DPA’s Mediation Support Unit (MSU) can deploy experts on constitutions, transitional justice, inclusivity, gender, security arrangements and ceasefires, power-sharing, natural resources and reconciliation to complement and reinforce the capacities of mediation teams on the ground. MSU has provided technical expertise to processes in Yemen, Somalia and Myanmar, for example.
The report also sets out how the Secretary-General intends to strengthen the Organization’s mediation support activities. The Secretary-General points out that while the challenges facing mediation are fundamentally political in nature, “strengthening the capacities of mediators, conflict parties and societies at large to engage in mediation processes enhances the chances of their success.” He adds that professionalizing the field of mediation and building institutional capacities through training and research, documenting practices and developing guidance will improve the organizational preparedness of the United Nations and its partners and with it the chances for more effective mediation.