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Mediation Perspectives: What is Mediation?

Pictured here are US Secretary of State John Kerry and Swiss Federation Council President Didier Burkhalter at the Geneva II conference on Syria. Image: Wikimedia

On 25 November 2014, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with various German mediation support NGOs, organized a conference on peace mediation. The aims of the conference were to explore the role that Germany can play in this field and to raise the country’s profile as a conflict mediator. As part of the discussion, one of the working groups focused on the types of human resources and institutional structures needed for effective mediation and mediation support. In this context, the first question to arise was “what is mediation?” Indeed, only once this question is answered can the relevant resources and institutions be assembled to effectively provide the desired forms of ‘mediation.’ This implies that the first step for organizations seeking to expand their role as mediators is to be clear about what exactly they have in mind.

Without being comprehensive, the following seven types of third-party supported peace promotion can all fall under the broader umbrella terms of ‘mediation’ and ‘mediation support’:

  1. Peace diplomacy: This is often the most visible form of mediation, where diplomats and special envoys shuttle between parties, pass messages, and bring parties together, in pursuit of an agreement. Peace diplomacy efforts often occur in response to political crises, and there is little long-term structure to the process. While some mediation techniques are used, the focus is mainly on communication techniques. The OSCE efforts in the Ukraine crisis illustrate this type of ‘mediation,’ which is often called ‘facilitation’ or ‘crisis diplomacy’ because the third party helps with communication and ‘convening’ (i.e., organization and bringing stakeholders to the table) but does not provide a structured process.
  2. Track I mediation: Mediation in structured, longer-term peace processes is the classical form of mediation in the international arena. Track I mediation can be understood as a structured process, where an impartial third party assists conflict parties from the track I, elite level, in negotiating a mutually acceptable agreement. Track I mediation is guided by a political envoy, who is supported by a team of experts including professional mediators, subject matter experts, etc. Track I mediation is effective in ending violence and addressing the root causes of conflicts. However, it requires 1) a high level of expertise from the third party, 2) a willingness of the conflict parties to try negotiations, 3) time, and 4) a minimal degree of support from regional and international actors. The Sudan North South process between 2002 and 2005 illustrates this type of mediation.
  3. Preparing parties for negotiations: In many cases, parties do not want a formal mediator but will accept third-party assistance in preparing for peace negotiations. Often, ceasefire mediation follows this model, in which experts help to prepare the parties but are either not present at the actual joint talks, or maintain a low profile. This type of mediation support can also be combined with other forms of mediation. This was the case in the Syria process, where the opposition was trained in negotiations ahead of the UN-mediated Geneva II Talks in January 2014.
  4. Supporting local mediators, peace committees and infrastructures for peace: Mediation support work can also focus on assisting local mediators and developing peace committees and infrastructures for peace. Following a conflict transformation philosophy, the argument behind such efforts is that a peace agreement on paper, signed by elites, will not be sustainable without broader and more inclusive processes involving various state and non-state actors before, during and after a formal mediation process. Especially in fragile states, hybrid forms of state and non-state peace committees need to be institutionalized to deal with inter-community conflicts, so that they do not flare up into violent, political contests. Third parties engaging in these types of activities need long time-frames, i.e. five to ten years. Examples of third parties supporting this type of work can be found in Nepal, Ghana and Kenya, to name but a few.
  5. National dialogues: National dialogues are another form of peace promotion that aims to be more inclusive than traditional peace diplomacy and track I mediation. The word ‘national’ indicates that there is no formal third party leading the process. Instead, the third party may have a supporting role, assisting with logistics and providing input on process design and other topics if required. While national dialogues often focus on creating understanding and trust, there are also forms of national dialogues that seek to create options and recommendations for the track I level. A key question in national dialogues is how the outcome of the process is integrated into track I negotiations and the ‘normal’ political system. The UN-supported National Dialogue in Yemen between 2013 and 2014 is an example.
  6. Track II dialogue processes: In these types of processes, which are narrower than national dialogue processes, mid-level elites, often former government actors, come together to develop options for how to resolve a specific conflict. The outcomes of these processes are not binding, and the link to the track I level is crucial to their effectiveness. The Geneva Process between Israel and Palestine is an example.
  7. General mediation support: Rather than focusing on supporting a specific ongoing case, general mediation support aims to improve mediation practice and policy more widely, through various activities that include training, research, policy development and networking. These activities can contribute to the professionalization of the field. Much can be learned from one case that is relevant for another case – as long as learning proceeds carefully and ‘copy-paste’ approaches are avoided. Networking, such as by the UN Group of Friends of Mediation or the Mediation Support Network, facilitates learning, policy development and smoother collaboration on future cases. To be effective, general mediation support needs to be based on, and feed into, other mediation activities.

The UN definition of mediation (UN Guidance, p. 4) and the Mediation Support Network’s definition of mediation support provide guidance in categorizing the activities mentioned above. However, both definitions are broad, and, in daily usage, ‘mediation’ and ‘mediation support’ are sometimes used interchangeably.

The advantage of this broad understanding of mediation and mediation support is that if one of these types of activity is successful, the others also benefit. Peace diplomacy, typically, leads to high visibility. When this occurs, other forms of mediation and mediation support often use this visibility to their advantage. As ‘mediation’ in general becomes popular, it becomes easier to access resources. Furthermore, because there are synergies between different forms of mediation and mediation support, placing them all under the same umbrella may create synergies and improve their overall effectiveness – again, assuming it is done carefully.

However, the downside of this broad understanding and the interchangeable usage of ‘mediation’ and ‘mediation support’ is a confusion of approaches that can sometimes outweigh the advantages. The main problem is that different forms of mediation and mediation support require different types of expertise, human resources and institutional arrangements. This is why experts disagree on the length and depth of mediation training needed – with some arguing that training is not required at all, and others that three years is necessary. Without clarity about the form of ‘mediation’ in question, adequate human and institutional resources cannot be developed. Furthermore, if the most visible form of mediation, i.e., peace diplomacy, receives negative press, or conflict parties experience it as being ineffective, it will negatively affect other forms of mediation and mediation support by association.

The way forward could therefore be for the German Foreign Ministry – and indeed any foreign ministry or international organization seeking to expand its role in the field of mediation – to be clear about the forms of ‘mediation’ and ‘mediation support’ it aims to become involved in. The various options are not mutually exclusive and can even be complementary. However, to make use of synergies and avoid confusion, the similarities and differences between the various approaches have to first be clearly spelled out. This is important in order to establish the priority of the seven (or more) types of mediation and mediation support an organization aspires to. On this basis, an organization can then effectively target the appropriate human resources and institutional arrangements it needs to develop.

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 and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts.


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