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Mediation Perspectives: Seven Avenues for Research in International Mediation

Peter Wallensteen

Peter Wallensteen speaking at the 2016 International Conference on Mediation.

What are new avenues for research in international mediation? This question was discussed at the International Conference on Mediation, which took place in Basel, Switzerland, in June 2016. It was jointly organized by the Centre for Mediation in Africa (CMA) at the University of Pretoria, the Global South Unit for Mediation (GSUM) at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, and swisspeace, which is an associated institute of the University of Basel.

The utility of the conference lay in its focus on two topics. First, trying to bridge the research–practice gap by having both mediation researchers and practitioners attend the event. Second, the conference sought to bridge the North-South gap by hosting researchers and practitioners from both the Global North and Global South, and thereby helping to rebalance the present research asymmetry that exists in the world.

By drawing on a variety of perspectives, the conference highlighted the following areas of research as being particularly relevant for the further development of the mediation field.

1) Regional mediation efforts: The existing mediation literature provides useful insights on the different types of mediators, as well as their strategies and styles. However, there is a gap when it comes to analysing how mediation approaches vary from one region to the other and how this manifests itself in the regional mediation support structures built up by states, (sub-)regional bodies and the United Nations. A comparative analysis of these mediation support structures and the mediation activities they engage in could help shed light on what has worked in the past and what still needs improvement. The analysis could also support the identification of niches on which new actors in the mediation field could focus, and thereby complement existing efforts.

2) Cultural differences in mediation: There is ample evidence that mediation is a universal practice found in all cultures. At the same time, there are variations in the use and parameters of mediation in different cultural contexts. Due to the dominance of the Global North in mediation research, the cultural aspects of mediation practices from the global South are often under-explored. Research on this question – ideally done by, or at least with, researchers from the Global South – needs to tease out those aspects of mediation that are universal, and the ones that are culturally specific. This could also enrich the dominant type of mediation approaches as taught and researched in the Global North.

3) Norms in mediation: The role of norms in international mediation has gained prominence in recent years. The UN Guidance for Effective Mediation, for example, sets out clear standards which mediators are expected to follow. Mediators are no longer only expected to help negotiating parties find an agreement to end violent conflict. Depending on their institutional mandate, they are also asked to promote a number of norms such as gender equality, transitional justice, democracy promotion and human rights. This development has sometimes led to a polarizing debate between those who see mediation as providing a unique opportunity to incorporate international norms into peace processes and those who believe that promoting too many norms can complicate and even overburden the processes, and thereby delay the end of violence. Further research on the practical implications of norms and their perception by the conflict parties and the broader population, rather than only the mediators, could help nuance the existing debate. Additionally, it can shed light on how norms influence mediation processes and to what extent mediators are, and should be, norm entrepreneurs.

4) Measuring effectiveness: Measuring the effectiveness of mediation is arguably a difficult task given that the direct attribution of causes and effects, the timeframe and the indicators for successful mediation (reaching a peace agreement, stopping violence, stability in the long term, etc.) all remain unclear and under-researched. In response, conference co-organizer Laurie Nathan proposed a new approach to measure the long-term impact of peace negotiations. He stated that peace agreements might serve as a main reference point for measuring the success of a mediation process in the short term. However, in the long run, the agreement loses importance and the constitution becomes the defining document for the future of a country. Post-conflict constitutions often reflect the most important constituting elements of the new vision for the state and society and thus researchers should pay more attention to them when measuring the effectiveness of a peace process.

5) Shift the focus away from mediators to conflict parties: Mediation research has focused strongly on the mediators and how their strategies and styles relate to the outcome of a mediation process. However, given that mediation is a voluntary process based on the consent of the conflict parties, it is surprising that the latter are often not given central attention in research. A systematic analysis of their motivations, strategies and interests could help deepen the analysis of mediation processes and allow further insights into why they succeed or fail. Moreover, other actors heavily influence a mediation process, such as advocacy groups and the larger peacebuilding community. An analysis of how they relate to the mediation process could shed light on the larger context in which peace negotiations take place.

6) Impartiality: Impartiality is commonly understood as the mediator’s ability to run an unbiased and balanced negotiating process. For many observers, impartiality is a key attribute of a mediator. However, scholarly literature remains divided on how impartiality actually relates to the effectiveness of a mediation process. Some authors say that impartiality is indispensable for an effective peace process. Others claim that partiality can sometimes be an advantage since partial mediators might be able to convince the party they are allied with to accept a solution they would otherwise have opposed. One possible way to deal with this problem is to differentiate between different types of impartiality – e.g., relationship/source and process partiality. In any case, more empirical research on how impartiality plays out in specific cases could help to analyse how mediators can strike the right balance in a peace process.

7) Inclusivity and Ownership: These terms have become buzzwords in the mediation field among researchers, practitioners and policy-makers. Both concepts are also responsible for a renewed interest in National Dialogues conceived of as nationally-led and inclusive endeavours, with external actors merely present at the margins. However, the challenges faced by this approach in practice, for example in the Yemeni context, have led observers to question the sustainability of large-scale, inclusive conflict resolution mechanisms as viable alternatives to small-scale, exclusive and secret mediation fora. Clearly, conducting additional research on the roles of local actors beyond the immediate conflict parties would be useful in order to understand the politics of inclusivity and ownership in conflict countries.

In closing, it is obvious that mediation research can substantively contribute to the professionalization of the field. In this article, we have argued that tackling the above seven research gaps will make the practice of mediation more effective and globally relevant.

About the Authors

swisspeace is a practically-minded organization that strives to 1) build up local and international peacebuilding capacities, and 2) shape political and academic discourses on peace policy.

The Centre for Mediation in Africa (CMA) at the University of Pretoria aims to help make mediation efforts throughout Africa more effective by 1) offering academic and practical courses in mediation; 2) researching new and current best practices; and 3) supporting actors engaged in mediation.

The Global South Unit for Mediation (GSUM) at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro promotes learning, research and training on international mediation among scholars, diplomats, governmental officials and civil society.

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. To keep up to date with the with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.

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