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Mediation Perspectives: Peace Mediation Quo Vadis?

Darfuri Armed Movement Discussions

Photo: Darfuri Armed Movement Discussions/Wikimedia Commons.

Is the way that armed conflicts are being mediated today different as compared to five or ten years ago? If the answer to this question is ‘yes’, what are the challenges facing mediation efforts and how might mediators go about confronting them? These and other questions were explored during a panel discussion at the 2013 International Security Forum (ISF).

Peace Mediation is Changing

In the 1980s, track 1 mediators focused on the security aspects of armed conflicts, leaving the political, economic, social and justice questions to be dealt with later by other mechanisms. From the mid-1990s, however, track 1 mediators have been asked to approach mediation very differently: the root causes of armed conflict were to be addressed, and this was oriented by a total “vision of society” that was developed by the conflict parties. The result was long and highly complex peace processes, such as the Burundi Arusha (1998-2000) or the Sudan North-South processes (2002-2005). In both cases, mediation teams were larger, and consisted of mediation process experts, topical experts on security, justice, economy, and social issues, alongside coordination by a chief mediator (such as Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela (Burundi) or General Lazaro Sumbeiywo (Sudan)). Since the Sudan Process, there has not been an equivalent peace process, which begs the questions: are we in a phase of transition that possibly mixes the 1980s security mediation model with comprehensive mediation approach of the 1990s? If so, at what stage are we at in terms of development?

Challenges Today

In response to this question, the ISF panelists outlined some of the contemporary challenges facing peace mediation efforts. It was noted, for instance, that there is a tendency to start using mediation too early, and in cases where the parties are not willing to try negotiations. The understandable pressure to end the violence quickly leads to fast patchwork agreements that often do not work, or put a far greater burden on the implementation phase, as the classical “pre-negotiation, negotiation, implementation” cycle is thrown overboard.  In this respect, the failed Darfur 2006 agreement is an interesting example.

Moreover, the lack of international consensus on the minimal parameters for a peace process (as in the case of Syria), as well as the way military means are used (Libya, Mali), results in less space for long, complex mediation processes. Counter-terrorism policies have also limited the space to engage with actors listed as terrorist organizations, narrowing the space for talking with some actors that would have to be engaged with for an effective mediation (e.g. Hamas in the Middle East).

There also seems to be a tendency for international actors to use the term “mediation” for an approach that would be better called “high powered diplomacy, including some mediation techniques”. Mediation can be understood as a structured process where an impartial third party supports conflict parties in reaching a mutually acceptable agreement. The mediator focuses on the process and moving the parties towards agreement on the content. However, the mediator does not impose any content into the agreement. In mediation, any decisions on the content of the agreement must stem from the conflict parities.

By contrast, in high powered diplomacy the mediator and international backers of the mediation process put pressure on the parties not just to attend the negotiations, but also as to what ends up in the agreement. The first Kofi Annan ceasefire plan for Syria, for example, was designed without all relevant parties negotiating the content; it was the end-result of high powered diplomacy, not of mediation. This is not to say high powered diplomacy is not good and not needed, however it should not be confused with mediation, even if some mediation techniques are used.

An evergreen challenge for peace mediation is the lack of experienced, well trained and professional peace mediators, who have the ability to design and carry out long, complex peace processes that address the totality of a conflict. In the past, there were some in-depth, applied mediation courses. Up to three-year training courses were organized for future mediators, but these were quite often shut down, frequently as a result of budgetary policy. Today, the tendency seems to be heading more towards the use of topical experts (e.g. on security, justice, economy, social issues) to assist conflict parties, rather than mediation experts who design peace processes. Could it be that in 15 or 20 years, conflict parties will be assisted mainly by such topical experts, and there will be no mediation generalists left?

The Way Forward

In summary, too much is currently expected from mediation, while at the same time not enough policy support, expertise and resources is being offered to make it effective. Yet, it would be dangerous and totally wrong to glorify the past. Mediation efforts have also failed dismally in the past, such as negotiations that were staged prior to the Rwandan genocide. Peace mediation has always worked at the edge of the possible, and has thus been continuously undergoing change. Yet the ISF panelists insisted on the need for understanding how mediation was practiced in the past, as some of the basic approaches are still used today. There are also various international efforts to improve mediation practice, for example by increasing the coordination of mediators (e.g. by the UN) and mediation support actors (Mediation Support Network), learning from local mediation experiences (e.g. in Somalia), professionalizing mediation practice (e.g. Peace Mediation Course and the UN Ceasefire Mediation and Management), and clarifying the terminology (e.g. the UN Guidance for Effective Mediation). These are good steps, but more has to be done. Honestly facing and exploring the changes that peace mediation is currently undergoing is the first step to adequately responding to them.


Simon J. A. Mason is a senior researcher and head of the Mediation Support Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS).


“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 reading on this topic please see:

Enhancing Global and Regional Mechanisms for Conflict Management and Resolution

The Peace Corps: Current Issues


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