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Mediation Perspectives: Broadening Participation in Peace Processes – From “Why” to “How”

A boy waving a Yemeni flag in front of a group of protesters, courtesy of Al Jazeera English/flickr

“This is the first time in history that a body that is inclusive, with all representatives from Yemeni society, got together […]. Instead of the politics of closed-door meetings, what we see here is a very transparent, inclusive process.” Jamal Benomar, UN Special Envoy to Yemen, about the Yemen National Dialogue Conference

Why Participation is Needed

Much has been discussed and written in recent years about the importance of broadening participation in mediation processes. There is a general consensus amongst practitioners and academics that the inclusion of actors beyond the warring parties is desirable. This is not just a normative question: inclusive processes can certainly lead to more durable, legitimate and locally owned processes. Influential actors (including ‘those with guns’) need to be represented because they have the power to end the conflict, and if sidelined, they will block the process. Affected actors (such as civil society), should also participate in one way or another, as any peace agreement will directly affect their lives and the future of their country. A recent statistic study indicates that inclusion of civil society actors in peace settlement indeed increases the durability of peace. Among many other actors, the United Nations underlined the value of the inclusion principle in its ‘Guidance for Effective Mediation’. So if it is that important, why are many processes today still far from inclusive?

Why Broadening Participation is Challenging

The first and main reason is that if societies are inclusive and their politics participatory, it is very likely there would be no violent conflict in the first place. So lack of inclusion and participation in peace making is not just due to faulty design by peace makers, it is one of the major causes of conflict in the first place. The main conflict parties generally do not want to share power, and they fear that their power base will be reduced by opening up spaces for other actors, such as opposing political parties, religious and indigenous groups, business communities, or refugees.

The international community, wanting a quick end to violent conflict, quite often wishes to minimize the time and effort required for seeking broader participation. Time pressure in Darfur in 2006 led to a quick fix approach that failed. The ongoing National Dialogue in Yemen had to struggle with the same question: on the one hand, how much time and effort should be invested to ensure that all the different constituencies were represented in order to create a credible and legitimate process and outcome? On the other, how urgent was it to move ahead and get some tangible results and move out of the transitional period before the entire process collapsed?

For mediators, the question of participation is also tricky, as they are not the ones who select the participants of the negotiations. Mediation is a voluntary process, where conflict parties are assisted by an impartial third party. It is thus the conflicting parties who generally decide and agree who will participate, and not the mediators. The mediators can bring up arguments for broader participation, but they are not the ones deciding. If the international community forces parties to come to the negotiation table, or indeed excludes them, this is not mediation.

Even if there is a willingness to increase participation on the side of the main conflict parties and the third parties assisting them, the way to get there is far from straightforward. A high number of participants alone do not guarantee an effective process. A time-consuming in-depth analysis of the conflict, context, and potential actors is needed to include the right actors in the process. Participation must also be examined in the context of other process design questions (e.g. goal of process, decision making procedure, urgency of issues to be addressed etc.). Without doing so, a process runs the danger of only including the most obvious stakeholders, or leaving the decision completely in the hands of those already sitting at the table.

Reframing the Debate

Given that there is consensus not only on the importance of broad participation but also on its challenges, the discussion should shift from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’. How can the process be inclusive, but nevertheless effective and manageable?

As a first step, it is important to focus on being ‘inclusive enough’, without insisting on total inclusivity. There is also a need to move away from the view that only those ‘at the table’, i.e. those represented in direct peace talks between parties, are participating in a peace process. There are many different ways of influencing a process, without being directly represented, and a range of possibilities to integrate stakeholders from various society sectors.

As Thania Paffenholz highlighted at a recent workshop, there are many different models of inclusion, ranging from direct participation to observer status, consultative forums or high-level civil society initiatives. One example is the Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation process in 2008, where neither civil society nor the business community were represented at the table but influenced the formal process by providing inputs to the debate in the form of position papers.

Although the selection of the participants often lies in the hands of the negotiating parties, the mediator has also influence and can illustrate the value added of broader participation. In the Sudan North – South process between 2002 and 2005, for example, both sides resisted greater inclusions in terms of regions and actors. The mediators argued that some topics could not be adequately addressed without the inclusion of the affected actors and as a result, at least some groups were eventually included in some phases of the negotiations.

Mediation support actors can also work towards broadening participation by helping to build the capacity of marginalized actors so that they are empowered to contribute to a negotiation process. In Yemen, NGOs such as Berghof and CMI were involved in such capacity building, in order to strengthen civil society’s participation for the national dialogue process.

Participation in peace processes will always remain extremely challenging due to the very nature of the problem being addressed. What is new is that we increasingly have more ideas and experiences of the different ways in which actors can influence the mediation process, even if they are not sitting at the table. At the same time, it is important to remain modest of what is possible and shy away from wishful fantasies of the international community being the actor to impose the participation in peace processes. Imposed participation may be necessary in some cases, but it is not mediation, and is likely to fail if the pressure cannot be upheld in the long-term.

The National Dialogue Conference in Yemen is an interesting example of an inclusive process, with the hopes of many attached. But only the months and years to come will demonstrate if this set-up eventually leads to a long-lasting peace for all Yemenis.


Corinne von Burg is program officer at swisspeace. In order to facilitate exchange among practitioners and academics on broad participation, swisspeace has recently launched an ongoing series of public and internal events on the topic.


“Mediation Perspectives” is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. 


For additional material on this topic please see:

 The Search for a Negotiated Peace in Colombia and the Fight Against Illegal Drugs

Myanmar’s Peace Process: The Importance of Federal Reforms and an Inclusive National Dialogue

Understanding the Conditions Necessary for Fruitful Negotiations in Afghanistan


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