The process of converting a situation of armed conflict into one of stable peace is long and complicated. In most cases where international peacemakers are in the lead, there are four phases. First, overture, when a third party or parties ('the mediator') persuades representatives of the armed combatants ('the parties') to enter into negotiations for a peaceful settlement of their conflict. Second, negotiation, when the mediator helps the parties to work out an agreement ('the settlement') that is, for each of them, a better option than continuing the war. Third, implementation, when the mediator (or another third party) helps the parties to implement the settlement (what the UN calls 'multi-functional peacekeeping'). Fourth, peacebuilding, when various actors (including the parties, the mediator, international institutions and/or national institutions) undertake long-term efforts to consolidate the peace and, especially, to address the root causes of the conflict – which may have been only superficially addressed in the settlement.
Overture is a phase when confidentiality is particularly important, especially in internal conflicts. As with preventive diplomacy, success is most likely if the media are not aware – or are only vaguely aware – that an effort is being made to persuade the parties to negotiate. The barriers to negotiation are usually immense. The government has been at war with what it typically perceives as a gang of armed criminals and is now being urged to enter into a negotiation with those criminals. Even worse, it has to accept that for the purposes of the negotiation, it and the 'criminals' will be treated as political equals. It will not be granted preference or privileges simply because it is internationally recognised as the country's government. If the mediator is sufficiently skillful, the government will be persuaded to see that a negotiation on the basis of political equality is an inescapable pre-condition for peace. It is understandable that its leaders will insist that they need private time to convince core supporters that such negotiations are the right course. Premature revelation of the concessions made will not advance the cause of peace. While the mediator recognises that confidentiality is a political necessity at this stage, he or she may nevertheless chafe at not being able to announce positive developments impartially before the parties put out their inevitably one-sided views.
Confidentiality also impairs the mediator's ability to engage with civil society as a source of information about the nature of the conflict and its underlying causes. In recalling the UN peacemaking and peacekeeping enterprises in which I was involved, I am often shocked to realise how little we actually knew at the outset about the conflicts into which we were about to insert ourselves. But consultation with in-country experts is usually precluded during overture. At that stage the overriding objective is to convince the parties to accept mediation and that requires a high level of confidentiality.
Confidentiality remains an important factor in the negotiation phase but is a less absolute one. Because the negotiations are known, both civil society institutions and the general public want to be informed and to contribute their ideas to the negotiators. This can be of value to the mediator, especially if civil society is well organised and there is strong public support for compromise and reconciliation.
Constraints nevertheless remain. One is that the international mediators may not be interested in contributions from civil society. Another is that the parties may not want their negotiating positions revealed to their own supporters or to the other side – let alone to the public at large – until they are ready to disclose them. The mediator must therefore be very discreet. Another can be the need to protect what Alvaro de Soto, the former Personal Representative of UN Secretary-General to the Central American Peace Process, calls 'the integrity of the mediation': there should be only one mediator; the mediator must have overall control of the negotiation; the mediator can enlist others, whose help can be of great value, but they must never take an initiative without the knowledge and approval of the mediator. A free flow of information about the negotiation increases the risk of unwanted initiatives and the confusion that they can cause. A desire to control the negotiation process can thus lead the mediator to insist on confidentiality.
There are, however, powerful factors that can incline the mediator towards openness and public participation. One is the need for information. The mediator is a stranger in a foreign land and may need to test ideas with local people in order to judge how they will be received. Another factor is that civil society institutions can help create the climate for successful peacemaking. If they are to play this role, however, the mediator may have to take them into her or his confidence about the kind of agreement that seems likely to emerge. In so doing, the mediator risks incurring the ire of the parties for violating confidentiality of the negotiation.
International mediators often find it necessary, however, to violate confidentiality on a lesser scale. They may, for instance, find that their mediation is being damaged by excessive secrecy. At one point in the El Salvador negotiations, we learned that some Frente Marti Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) field commanders were suspicious that their political demands were not being promoted with sufficient vigour by the FMLN negotiators in Mexico City. Because this occurred at a time when the negotiators were making significant progress, both the FMLN leadership and the government saw the need to reassure these field commanders. The UN was allowed to bring several commanders from the field (where fighting continued) to Mexico City to witness the negotiations for themselves.
The mediator faces a similar dilemma when an important social sector aligned with one of the parties is misled – often deliberately – about the likely contents of the emerging settlement. In Guatemala, when it became clear that the business community was alarmed by an impending agreement, the mediator was able to assure the employers' organisation that they had been misinformed. He thus opened himself to the charge of breaching confidentiality but judged it to be a necessary risk. Such are the judgments that international mediators must make. A similar risk is justified if a mediator concludes that an important sector of society has to be brought into the process, either because its involvement will help the mediator or because it is capable of undermining an eventual settlement if it is excluded from the negotiation.