“If you wait for the parties [in conflict] to come and say 'please mediate', it would happen very rarely.” This is how United Nations Mediator-in-Residence Francesc Vendrell summed up to Politically Speaking a major lesson of a 34-year career shepherding peace negotiations on behalf of Secretaries-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan.
In 1989, the United Nations assumed a leading role as an intermediary, as armed conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua threatened to destabilize the entire Central American region. In Nicaragua, for example, the involvement of the UN would lead to voluntary demobilization of the contras and the establishment by the General Assembly of the first UN-observed elections in an independent country (ONUVEN).
“It was the one major conflict in which the UN was not involved,” Mr. Vendrell said about the Central American peace processes, at a time when the Organization was mediating disputes around the world – including in Afghanistan from where Soviet troops had just withdrawn, and in Cambodia – when the world powers seem to have been disengaging.
Cover photo: Photo: Stanko.Gruden / STA
The lead mediation institution in the Central American region until then had been the so-called Contadora Group – named after the first meeting in 1983 between the Foreign Ministers of Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela in Contadora, Panama – and later joined by representatives from Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Uruguay.
By late 1980s, it was clear that the Contadora process had not achieved sufficient traction, Mr. Vendrell said. The group’s most important member was Mexico, which had its own pressing domestic issues. Carlos Salinas de Gortari, elected Mexican President on 6 July 1988, sent an emissary to Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar suggesting that the UN take the lead in the mediating the conflicts, signaling that the Contadora Group would take a back seat.
“The Mexican Government came to the Secretary-General and more or less asked him to take over, with the support of the other Latin American countries,” Mr. Vendrell noted.
He summarized the Mexican approach to Mr. Pérez de Cuéllar as follows: “We can no longer be in the forefront in Central America. Our relations with the US are far too important. We are burning our fingerswith the US over this issue. So, why don’t you, Secretary-General, move forward and we will support you, but from behind.”
Ensuing negotiations and behind-the-scenes prodding led to the Esquipulas II Agreement. Signed in 1987 by the Governments of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, the agreement facilitated the UN in peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts in Central America.
In November 1989, the Security Council created a military monitoring mission, the United Nations Observer Group in Central America (ONUCA). The Council mandated ONUCA to verify compliance by the Central American Governments of their undertakings to cease aid to irregular forces and insurrectionist movements in the region and not to allow their territory to be used as a base to attack their neighbours.
“These were the first Blue Helmets in Latin America,” said Mr. Vendrell, who by this point was spending most of his time dealing with the Nicaraguan contras in the region, working alongside fellow UN mediator Alvaro de Soto. “With that, we eventually became involved with the demobilization of the contras and in, basically, the peace process in Nicaragua.”
While the United Nations had observed elections in non-self-governing territories in the 1950s and 1960s, there was no precedent for doing so in a sovereign state. In 1989, the leaders of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua signed the Tela Accord calling for the Nicaraguan contras to demobilize by 5 December prior to the holding of Presidential elections in 1990.
In mid-October 1989, Mr. Vendrell found himself, as a member of the joint commission of the UN and OAS, before what the media have reported as more than 2,500 armed Nicaraguan contras in the jungle of Yamales, Honduras, near the Nicaraguan border.
It was his first face-to-face visit with the rebels who were deeply mistrustful of the UN, a feeling further fueled by their supporters in US Congress who linked the Sandinista regime with Cuba. The US Government had rejected the outcome of the elections in 1979 and 1984, and insisted that demobilization would be more effective after democratic elections.
“Given this precedent, we suggested to the Sandinistas that they might wish to ask the UN to monitor the elections,” said Mr. Vendrell, who had been appointed the Secretary-General’s Deputy Personal Representative for the Peace Process in Central America, adding also that if a sovereign state asked for UN assistance, it would avoid concerns of the UN meddling in internal affairs.
The UN Observer Mission for the Verification of the Elections in Nicaragua (ONUVEN) was established by the Secretary-General to oversee the polls held on 25 February 1990. Its mandate went beyond observing and reporting on the election to ensuring that the political parties had equal representation in the Supreme Electoral Council, equal access to state-run television and radio, among other provisions.
Believing that a mission headed by a senior, moderate member of the US Republican party would carry greater weight with the then-administration of George Bush in accepting the outcome of the election, the Secretary-General named Elliot Richardson, a former Republican US Attorney General, to head ONUVEN.
As it turned out, the Sandinistas were defeated by an opposition coalition led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of a slain newspaper publisher.
Mr. Vendrell’s involvement in Central America remained strong after the Nicaraguan elections. In 1990, while continuing to serve as the Director of the Europe and the Americas Division in the Secretary-General’s Office, Mr. Vendrell would become the Secretary-General’s Representative in the Guatemala peace negotiations.
“I was always interested in international affairs and human rights,” Mr. Vendrell recalled.
Joining the UN in 1968 at the age of 27, Mr. Vendrell was a recent college graduate with one year of teaching in Papua New Guinea under his belt. Within five years, he would be in Chile, accompanying the first representative of the Secretary-General and analyzing human rights violations under the Pinochet regime.
“I had worked for the UN Human Rights Division, as it then was, in the 1970s in New York, later I was in Political Affairs and Decolonization. As decolonization became increasingly marginal by the middle eighties, there was a growing belief that officials in the Department should also be doing other political work not only decolonization,” he recalled.
When the UN was seeking a political officer to be part of a mission that the Secretary-General sent to report to the Security Council on the treatment of prisoners of war in Iran and Iraq in late 1985, Mr. Vendrell’s name was recommended to the Secretary-General’s office, known commonly within the UN as the 38th floor in reference to the floor on which the Secretary-General’s suite of offices is located.
“Then, because I was Spanish speaking, I was put in touch with the Chief of Staff of the Secretary-General and together we thought that the UN could usefully become involved in finding a peaceful solution to the conflicts in Central America,” he recalled. Adding that with the support of the Secretary-General, “we were able to find ways to be accepted by the relevant parties.”
Among the highlights of his work has been to witness the achievement of self-determination of East Timor.
“It is not that I felt that the Timorese should be independent or not, but the question was to ensure that the people were able to achieve their internationally recognized right to self-determination,” said Mr. Vendrell, who, while serving as the Director of the Asia and Pacific Division in 1993-1999, was one of two people in DPA involved in the negotiations with Indonesia and Portugal regarding the Act of Free Choice.
“I didn’t necessarily believe that I would leave the UN with this issue solved, but then a set of opportunities occurred,” he explained.
The economic crisis of 1997 badly affected Indonesia and had a negative impact on Suharto’s autocratic rule with riots that forced him to resign in May 1988. His successor, Habibie, did not have the same commitment as Suharto to holding on to East Timor. In addition, Member States, such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand, United States, European Union members, and others, began to take more active interest in East Timor’s fate.
“So that was the moment to use what really turned out to be a fairly brief window of opportunity to move forward and do what was our objective – to ensure that the Timorese could decide their own future freely,” Mr. Vendrell said.
East Timor became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century on 20 May 2002, after three years of UN administration and more than two decades of fighting under Indonesian rule.
In contrast, the case of West New Guinea, in which Mr. Vendrell was not involved, haunts the well-known mediator as an example ofa failed decolonization process. General Assembly resolutions 1514(XV) and 1541 (XV), of December 1960, provide how a colonial territory may eventually be integrated with an independent country through an electoral process based on the principle of one person one vote.
“The Indonesians demanded that the decision on the status of the Territory should not be based on one person, one vote but through district councils, the members of which were chosen by the Indonesian Government,” noted Mr. Vendrell.
In addition, the vote was carried out publicly with each representative declaring in front of the minister on interior of Indonesia and the UN Special Representative together whether they wanted to stay with Indonesia or not.
“That was in my view a travesty,” Mr. Vendrell said. “The Security Council acts for political reasons and we know that their behavior is not always exemplary, but I think in this case it was the Secretariat that had the responsibility and I don’t think the responsibility was discharged properly.”
Among his other key roles, Mr. Vendrell served as the Special Envoy for Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, and for Myanmar (while concurrently serving as Director of the Asia and the Pacific Division), and as Special Envoy for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (while Director for Special Political Assignments). Mr. Vendrell also served as Personal Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan from 2000-2002, after which he served as EU Special Representative for Afghanistan from 2002-2008. His full bio is available here.
The concept of a “Group of Friends” is now a common tool utilized by the United Nations to move along negotiations and has been readily used in political efforts ranging from Afghanistan to Haiti and Myanmar. It is basically a collection of supportive Member States selected by the Secretary-General to assist in his conduct of good offices. There is no evidence that a Group of Friends had been created prior to 1990, when Mr. de Soto and Mr. Vendrell first used it in the case of El Salvador.
“We felt that in a negotiation in which there were two parties, one the Government and the other the FMLN [Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberaci6n Nacional], at a time when the support that the FMLN was receiving from the outside was decreasing, Cuban assistance for the FMLN was virtually at an end, whereas US support for the Government of El Salvador was still there, that the Secretary-General might find it difficult to mediate,” Mr. Vendrell recalled, “and to be an honest broker in a situation where one of the parties was much weaker than the other one.”
The increasing use of Groups of Friends was evident in a speech given in 1995 by then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali: “The increasing complexity of operations has led, on the political side, to the intensification of peacemaking efforts. Thus, a new concept, that of ‘Friends of the Secretary-General,’ ‘International Conferences,’ or ‘Contact Groups’ means that, while the United Nations peacekeepers are on the ground, intense diplomatic efforts continue, with the many parties to a conflict, in order to reach a political settlement.”
The concept of a Group of Friends is these days a useful tool in the exercise of the Secretary-General’s good offices – a term which refers to a range of diplomatic activities carried out in the name of the Secretary-General to prevent or respond to disputes or conflicts. Such activities primarily include facilitation of dialogue and mediation, and can be set in motion at the Secretary-General’s own initiative, in response to a request from one or more of the parties to a dispute, or as a result of a request from the Security Council or the General Assembly.
The exercise of the Secretary-General’s good offices has developed through extensive practice. Its origin derives largely from Articles 98 and 99 of the United Nations Charter, the latter of which authorizes the Secretary-General to formally bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which may threaten international peace and security.
Good offices have, from the beginning, been exercised in a wide variety of contexts, ranging from border disputes, to constitutional or electoral crises, civil conflicts or interstate wars. The Secretary-General may decide to take such action in person, or appoint special advisers, envoys, and representatives to carry out good offices and mediation on his or her behalf.
“The term “mediation” frightens Governments. At least it used to frighten them. Maybe it doesn’t anymore,” Mr. Vendrell said.
“If you approach two parties trying to see if you could help, it is better to offer assistance than mediation,” he continued. “You may perhaps say you want to be a facilitator or a conveyor of messages, you can point out that perhaps they need an observer in the talks because someone needs to keep a record of what each side said, and if there is no third party to take notes, each side will have their own understanding of what happened.”
“Also, when there is a stalemate in the talks, it helps to have a third party to help them overcome the impasse and return to the negotiating table. You don’t have to use the term mediation, but of course if the parties are happy, it is fine. I tend to think that ‘good offices’ has always been a better term.”
Despite working in collaboration with the OAS in the demobilization of the contras in Central America, Mr. Vendrell said he does not think two separate organizations should mediate together.
“In Nicaragua, the OAS and the UN were involved, but the lead was very clearly with the UN Secretary-General,” he noted, underscoring that similarly to the proverbial dangers of too many cooks, the parties to the conflict would be well advised to choose a single mediator.
He holds a similar view when it comes to regional and sub-regional organizations.
“The fruit of the pudding is in the eating. If the results are positive and the regional organizations want to do it, that’s fine. The UN Charter basically provides for either, the UN or the regional organization, to take the lead. It’s debatable whether the regional organization should have the first try or the UN,” Mr. Vendrell explained.
The problem focuses more on resources.
“The primary purpose of the UN is to ensure peace and security, and to take action when peace and security are broken. I still think this is the primary core role of the UN,” Mr. Vendrell said.
“The UN is best placed by the fact that it has an international, independent civil service, by the fact that it has greater means than other international organisations, and by the fact that it still has a moral prestige that others perhaps lack. The other organizations can have a complementary role to play.”
“Although we have problems within the UN ourselves in terms of management and resources, that is often amplified in regional and sub-regional organizations which have even fewer resources,” he noted.
Illustrating his point, Mr. Vendrell also noted that time is a resource.
“Often if it is an internal conflict, the AU or a sub-regional organization chooses either a group of heads of state or former heads of state. If it is a group of current heads of state, in my view, they do not have the time to spend in the kind of detail that is needed to reach a lasting agreement. If they are retired then it is better, it is easier. It would be best if it were only one, not several,” he said, cautioning against what he called “mediator shopping.”
“The problem of at least some of the sub-regional organizations is that there is a regional super power; one country is in the lead, which inevitably may be tempted to put its own national interest before a settlement that meets the people’s requirements. The mediation carried out by a sub-regional organization is almost inevitably going to deal with a conflict in a neighbouring state. Neighbouring countries, however, are not the ones that should be mediating because in most cases they have a real or a perceived interest in the outcome, so it is difficult for them to be an umpire.”
In the past decade and half, the region that Mr. Vendrell has been most often linked to is not Central America or South-east Asia but Central Asia. Mr. Vendrell spent eight years in Afghanistan, first serving as the Personal Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General and then, after leaving the UN following the Bonn Conference, as the European Union Special Representative from 2002 to 2008.
The Secretary-General had had a good offices mandate from the General Assembly going back to 1981. When the Taliban arrived in the country they did not repudiate this role for the United Nations. By 1996, the Taliban had taken control of the majority of the country, engaging in military confrontations with the Northern Alliance.
Despite failed direct talks in 1999 in Tashkent between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, in 2000, Mr. Vendrell, by then the Personal Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, facilitated indirect talks, also known as “pendulum talks”, that included both parties in light of their commitment to arrive at a peaceful resolution of the conflict on the basis of a common agenda facilitated by the United Nations.
“In most of the mediations I have been involved with, there were basically two parties: either two governments or a government and the armed or unarmed opposition. In Afghanistan at the end in 2000, we added one party which were the supporters of the former king [Zahir Shah], because I felt that the King seemed to have a higher level of popularity and legitimacy than the two belligerents” Mr. Vendrell recalled.
But mediation between multiple actors, he said, particularly rebel groups, such as in present day Syria or Darfur, is much more difficult.
“Ideally, they should all be included, but you might never reach an agreement if they are all included,” Mr. Vendrell said. “So you have to choose.”
Nevertheless, the situation became more complicated in late 2000, after the 12 October attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. Following this event, the United States and Russia pushed for the adoption of Security Council resolution 1333 (2000) placing restrictive sanctions on the Taliban leadership to pressure the regime to hand over Osama Bin Laden to international justice.
“The Taliban, after the imposition of the sanctions by the Security Council, said that the UN could no longer be an honest broker,” Mr. Vendrell had told IRIN in an April 2001 interview.
“The Secretary-General [Kofi Annan] when he was here [in March], and I myself, tried to make the Taliban understand that the Secretary-General and the Security Council were two different things. The Secretary-General played no role, one way or the other, in the imposition of the sanctions,” he continued, referring to Mr. Annan’s visit to Pakistan in March 2001. “I am hopeful that the Taliban have not said their last word, that they are able to see the difference between the Secretary-General in his humanitarian incarnation, which they now acknowledge, as impartial and quite different from the Security Council. They should also be able to understand that the Secretary-General can act as an honest broker even with parties that are under sanctions, and can play a useful role.".
Nevertheless, while the Taliban informed Mr. Vendrell that they could no longer accept United Nations good offices, they agreed to talk to him in his personal capacity, which he continued to do, reporting to New York, and the two other Afghan sides about his meetings with the Taliban leadership.
The adoption of sanctions had nonetheless radicalized the Taliban position, Mr. Vendrell recalled, as illustrated by the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddha sculptures in Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, despite appeals by many governments, cultural organisations such as UNESCO and Buddhist institutions, and an appeal in person by then Secretary-General Annan.
Eight months later, following the 11 September 2001 attacks and ensuing military operations in the country, Mr. Vendrell was in Bonn, Germany, participating in the conference which aimed to plan for a post-Taliban government. Despite his central role, he publicly raised concerns that “an agreement signed under a certain amount of time pressure and with so many warlords controlling most parts of country, it could be difficult to implement.”
Over the years, Mr. Vendrell continued to call on the international community to not abandon Afghanistan but to redouble efforts there, including to build up civilian institutions.
The Security Council on 31 October 2000 unanimously adopted resolution 1325 on women and peace and security. It marked the first time that the Security Council addressed the unique impact of armed conflict on women, and recognized the contributions women make to conflict prevention, peacekeeping, conflict resolution and peace-building. It also underscored the importance of women as active agents of peace and their equal and full participation in decision-making.
When asked if women were increasingly being included in peace processes, Mr. Vendrell responded, “Yes, much more, and I think rightfully so.”
Each conflict, Mr. Vendrell stressed throughout the interview, is different: “They each have their own characteristics and they each require different techniques. You cannot simply take the formula of one conflict and immediately apply it to another conflict.”
“When I was negotiating between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, it would have been very hard to suggest that Afghan women should be involved in the talks” he recalled.
But the situation was vastly different in El Salvador and Guatemala, where Mr. Vendrell did consult women, in the latter case those from indigenous groups.
In Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, his teams also sought to include women in negotiations.
“We did bring in 1996 a good number of women into the whole process because they had a lot of influence with their husbands, children,” Mr. Vendrell said, “and that was very helpful.”