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Mediation Perspectives: MSN Commentary on the UN Practice Note on Climate Change and Peace Processes

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Mediation Perspectives is a regular series of blog contributions by the CSS Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors.

In this blog, we discuss the implications of climate change for peace mediation. Members of the Mediation Support Network (MSN) met recently to discuss a UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Practice Note on “The Implications of Climate Change for Mediation and Peace Processes”.

The benefits of a joint “climate enemy”

The UN Practice Note posits that climate change is not just a risk for peace mediation, but potentially also an opportunity for bringing actors in conflict together to address mutual interests in response to the adverse effects of climate change. Extreme weather conditions, forest fires, floods and droughts, could consequently be seen as a joint “enemy” and could mobilize co-operation across conflict lines.

How is climate change affecting the work of mediators?

The role of the peace mediator is not to be advocate for environmental protection, but to facilitate the prevention, resolution and management of violent conflict. This involves shifting conflict interactions into mutually beneficial interactions. Climate change is likely to increase the scale and scope of issues such as land rights, water use, drought management, mining and natural resource sharing. It can also alter the strategic, tactical or logistical opportunities and considerations around waging and ending armed conflict.

How can climate change be part of a mediated process?

To address aspects of climate change effectively, mediation teams need to integrate appropriate expertise into their teams. They also need to remain impartial and acceptable to the conflict parties. It is therefore advisable that they avoid any real or perceived imposition of an externally-driven agenda, and focus on how actors in conflict see and experience the impacts of climate change in their specific context. Based on this, mediators can then help conflict parties agree on ways to deal with these issues across conflict divides. The actual label of “climate change” or “climate security” may not come up in the conversation, or appear in the peace agreement. What matters is that the conflict is resolved in a mutually acceptable manner without sacrificing long-term environmental use and management questions, not what label is used.

How can we bring the voice of the future into the mediation process?

Besides addressing its immediate impact, the long-term impact of climate change on conflicts calls for the inclusion of future generations in the mediation process, thus adding to existing discussions around how to design and carry out inclusive conflict analysis and process design. Ideas discussed in the Practice Note and during the MSN meeting include incorporating the expertise and unique experiences of women, youth, indigenous and religious actors – but also mobilizing the potential of technological advances. This includes areas such as modelling and remote sensing, which could enable mediators and conflict actors make better informed decisions, as they take into account real-time data and forecasts on the impact of climate change on the environment, population, and conflict dynamics.

How is climate change already a part of mediation processes?

MSN members shared examples of how climate change and environmental issues are already integrated in peace mediation practice. The discussion also generated ideas for how this could be improved, and highlighted gaps and limitations in current practice.

  • From process to network thinking: Current global political realities have led to a decrease in formal peace processes and an almost complete absence of comprehensive peace agreements. The UN Note parries that by providing tips and recommendations that are useful for the whole peace field to apply to the conflict and climate change landscape, including using different types of processes. These could include traditional and local conflict resolution and mitigation mechanisms, consultations and dialogue. Rather than solely focusing on the actions of a single mediator, the UN Note indicates how peace, environmental and climate actors can co-operate and create a peace ecosystem to address the challenges posed by the joint ‘climate enemy’.
  • Towards a more inclusive peace and climate ecosystem: Another shift in peacemaking is the growing number of mediation and conflict actors, and the awareness of the need to work sustainably with local mediation actors and deal more seriously with inclusion questions – to ensure they also consider both nature and future generations. One MSN member showed how their local partner gave ‘nature’ a literal and metaphorical voice at the negotiation table by personifying it in a role play exercise, bringing an emotional dimension to the topic that would not be possible just through technical expertise.
  • Preparing for an uncertain future: Examples from MSN members demonstrate how mediation practice is already getting better at dealing with current environmental challenges, such as a greater need for the peaceful and collaborative management of natural resources that are already being affected by climate change. But there is a big gap in mediation practice in terms of forecasting and preparing for the future impacts of climate change, and how these will exacerbate conflict drivers. Technology now allows accurate and localized climate forecasting, yet the bridge between peace mediation and climate tech has generally not yet been established. Two natural resource peace agreements between the Awe and Azara communities in Nigeria in 2022 offer an example, since they include commitments to mainstream climate adaptation into their agricultural practices and to rehabilitate degraded crop and pasture land. Yet, for now, it is still unclear how to put these commitments into practice.
  • Multiple outcomes besides peace agreements: Examples from MSN members highlight that we are currently seeing multiple outcomes from mediation and mediation support work beyond peace agreements. They often include technical agreements on a specific issue, such as the use or protection of environmental resources. Alternatively a community might agree to work together in a network or peace committee to monitor and respond to conflicts related to the use and management of natural resources. That trend is also emerging between states. As an example, a discreet dialogue track between countries surrounding the South China Sea aims to prevent a collapse in fish stocks in the sea which could damage whole economies, devastate the environment and destabilize societies. Despite political disputes across that territory, dialogue participants have succeeded in producing a common fisheries resource analysis.

Climate co-operation – a peacemaking outcome in its own right

Mediation processes which focus on co-operating around shared environmental and climate challenges can lead to more constructive relationships between actors and their willingness to work together in the future, even if they don’t lead to an agreement on paper. Examples are networks of resource users that meet on a regular basis. This means it makes sense to explore multiple outcomes besides formal peace agreements, even if this may be harder to measure and fund.

How can we implement the ideas offered in the UN Practice Note?

MSN members felt that the UN Practice Note provides an excellent overview of the topic, and, as it suggests, serves as a conversation starter in an emerging area of work, but that many questions remain unanswered and different sub-topics need digging into to show how they play out in practice.

Armed actors and climate action

One area which MSN members discussed was whether climate action and finance could provide a source for peace, or alternatively if such actions and financing could actually lead to new forms of conflict? Can the peacemaking sector help in getting climate action and finance to areas controlled by non-state armed groups where populations are often hardest hit by climate change? And what could joint climate and peace outcomes and indicators look like in the future? It is in these areas that peacemaking actors could possibly make their greatest contribution.

Read: The UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Practice Note: “The Implications of Climate Change for Mediation and Peace Processes”.

Hear: Simon J.A Mason and Olivia Lazard’s episode on ‘Bringing Nature to the Negotiation Table’ on the Climate Change and Conflict Dynamics podcast.

Discover: More about the Mediation Support Network and read the other two commentaries from the MSN on UN publications: 1) a commentary to the UN Guidance for Effective Mediation; and 2) a commentary to Guidance on Gender and Inclusive Mediation Strategies.

MSN commentaries are based on MSN discussions but summarise the authors’ reflections and do not aim to provide a comprehensive or consensus MSN view. Special thanks to the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) for supporting the Mediation Support Network through the Mediation Support Project (CSS and swisspeace, funded by the Swiss FDFA).

Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s 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. To keep up to date with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.

About the Authors

Simon J. A. Mason is a Senior Researcher and Head of the Mediation Support Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich.

Sebastian Kratzer is Manager for in the Mediation Support and Policy Unit at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD).

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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