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International private mediators in a world in flux

International private or non-governmental mediators have been a significant source of innovation in mediation practice. They are distinct from local or ‘insider’ mediators operating from within a society in conflict, but may frequently engage, support or partner with them. (The important roles played by these local mediators feature significantly elsewhere in this publication.) Private mediators’ capacity to work at different levels and in support of multilateral, regional, national, and local entities and conflict parties has made them a prominent feature of the response to the fragmented and internationalised internal conflicts that characterise today’s conflict landscape. Some increasingly facilitate backchannels and promote dialogue at an inter-state level as well.

Like the rest of the mediation field, private mediators are nonetheless faced with difficult choices as they confront the changed strategic environment. They have adapted quickly to the rapid evolution of digital technologies and are also increasingly helping conflict parties address stresses induced by the climate emergency. Yet evolving geopolitics, and the new prominence of regional and middle powers in both conflicts and peace efforts, present questions about what private mediators – most of whom are largely funded by Western donors – can achieve, how they relate to important international and state actors and what principles they can uphold, and how.

Origins and growth

The potential contribution of unofficial actors to peacemaking came to the fore in October 1992, when mediation by the ecclesiastical Community of Sant’ Egidio concluded with the signing of the General Peace Agreement between the Government of Mozambique and its armed opposition in the Mozambican National Resistance, RENAMO. Less visible at this time was the work behind the scenes by Norwegian and Israeli academics and members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in early 1993 that would set in train the Oslo process, and Norway’s commitment to patient and creative peacemaking. These and other engagements (including by the Carter Center) reflected the new space for informal mediators that was opening after the Cold War as the constraints of the previous decades were beginning to loosen. But it was still a moment when the UN and other official mediation actors dominated.

Over the following decades several new non-governmental mediation organisations were founded and others evolved to fill a niche resulting from the state-centred focus and protocols of the more formal actors. Private actors with the ability to draw upon the skills and contacts gained in the official world were well placed to act with an independence, flexibility, and discretion not available to official actors, and particularly well suited to early contacts with non-state armed groups, including those nationally or internationally proscribed as terrorists. They were also able to prove their utility to governments sensitive to the implication of another state or multilateral organisation in their internal conflicts, and attracted by the discretion, deniability, and – if things went wrong – ease of dismissal offered by private actors.

These attributes were all evident in the involvement of non-governmental mediators in negotiations between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Government of Indonesia. The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), founded in 1999, had shifted the focus of its early work in Aceh away from the humanitarian crisis and towards facilitating talks to resolve the separatist conflict. The process broke down in December 2002, but was later brought to a successful conclusion by the former President of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari, and the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) he had founded as an independent organisation in 2000.

HD’s early work continued to focus on facilitation of channels and negotiations in internal conflicts. In 2003 it began exploring contacts with the Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), at the time included on terrorist lists by the United States and European Union (EU). These would be the first steps in a 15-year involvement that concluded in May 2018, when the announcement of ETA’s final dissolution was made at the Centre’s Geneva headquarters. Along the way, other non-governmental individuals and organisations also became involved, in some instances – as in the leadership by the Dialogue Advisory Group (DAG) of an International Verification Commission to monitor ETA’s ceasefire and disarmament – with a much more public profile. By this time, HD had changed considerably. It had a decentralised structure, with most of its staff located internationally and many of them ‘insider’ mediators. Active in 80% of the world’s most violent conflicts, in 2023 it was by some distance the largest actor in an expanded ecosystem of private entities mediating conflicts and advising and supporting parties at different levels.

Ram Manikkalingam, Director of the Dialogue Advisory Group, speaks to the press in his role as chair of the International Verification Commission for the peace process in the Basque Country, with his fellow commissioners in the background, Bilbao, 21 February 2014.
Ram Manikkalingam, Director of the Dialogue Advisory Group, speaks to the press in his role as chair of the International Verification Commission for the peace process in the Basque Country, with his fellow commissioners in the background, Bilbao, 21 February 2014. © Rafa Rivas/AFP via Getty Images

In addition to CMI (renamed CMI–Martti Ahtisaari Foundation), the Community of Sant’ Egidio, which has retained its particular expertise in Africa, and the Carter Center (less involved in mediation than in the past), the most prominent of the Western-based organisations working internationally include: the Berghof Foundation and the European Institute for Peace (EIP), like HD, headed by former UN officials; two smaller entities, Inter Mediate and DA G, which are headed by former government officials with first-hand experience of peacemaking in Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka respectively; as well as Conciliation Resources, which built from a focus on peacebuilding to support peace processes in Colombia, Ethiopia and the Philippines.

A wider array of organisations are members of an informal Mediation Support Network (MSN). These include prominent mediation support and peacebuilding actors in the Global South, such as: ACCORD, based in South Africa, which since 1992 has been a leading actor in the building of mediation capacity across the continent; the West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), established in response to the region’s conflicts of the 1990s in 1998; and the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPCS) in Cambodia, founded in 2008 to strengthen and support Asian approaches to conflict transformation, and an active partner in a network of South East Asian women mediators. The MSN has proven an effective means of sharing expertise across the sector. It also includes both the UN’s Mediation Support Unit, and organisations such as swisspeace, the Norwegian Centre for Conflict Resolution (NOREF), the Swedish Folke Bernadotte Academy (FBA) and the United States Institute for Peace (USIP), with funding arrangements and mandates from their governments that give them a somewhat hybrid profile.

Adaptation and innovation

Collectively, the non-governmental organisations quickly extended the breadth and depth of their work. They take seriously a commitment to improve the practice of mediation and peacemaking (a number have developed particular expertise in training) and to pioneer practice on core issues such as gender and inclusion, as well as newer areas such as climate security and environmental peacemaking or digital technologies, which have at the same time been the subject of attention by the UN and other multilateral organisations. With a commitment to conflict transformation maintained over fifty years, the Berghof Foundation grew outwards from an original focus on peace research and continues to integrate research with operational support, including on subjects such as engaging with protest movements to strengthen non-violent strategies.

Private mediation entities see their greatest assets as their independence, impartiality, and relationships that extend from the highest levels of government and international organisations all the way to conflict-affected communities or armed groups.
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Most of the more prominent private mediation entities see their greatest assets as their independence, impartiality, and relationships that extend from the highest levels of government and international organisations all the way to conflict-affected communities or armed groups. They benefit from their ability to hire former diplomats and negotiators as senior advisers and door-openers as well as to work with local partners, and to remain engaged in conflict contexts over many years, often working quietly, away from the spotlight. They draw support from donors – for the most part Western governments and institutions such as the EU – who invest strategically in work they cannot do themselves.

Yet operational exigencies that regularly demand discretion, and a business model that makes competition almost inevitable (including, in some instances, between donors anxious to play a role in given conflicts), have at times led to criticism. Conscious of the reputational risks that this entails, over the years the larger organisations have developed commitments to identified values and operating principles. In 2020, the leading private mediation actors together agreed a ‘statement of intent of complementarity’ that sought to maximise their combined impact and minimise risks of duplication or contradiction (see Further reading). More robust systems of accountability have helped document their work, but balancing the need to demonstrate impact with the difficulty of doing so given their commitment to a low profile is not easy. Moreover, while pressure to assess results has grown, the results themselves have in some respects become more intangible: with long-term agreements more infrequently obtainable, their efforts can still make valuable contributions to the reduction of violence or conditions created for political talks to take place. But such achievements are hard to quantify.

While pressure to assess results has grown, the results themselves have in some respects become more intangible.
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Experience has highlighted the benefits of partnerships. These have ranged from formal arrangements – such as a ‘hybrid’ International Contact Group that brought states (Japan, Saudi Arabia, Türkiye and the United Kingdom) and international NGOs (The Asia Foundation, Conciliation Resources, HD and Muhammadiyah) together to support negotiations between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front – to much more informal collaborations. Examples of the latter include the range of non-governmental mediation and peace supporters around the Basque peace process, or the collaboration between a Swiss ambassador, HD, Inter Mediate and a national mediator in Mozambique in support of negotiations that concluded in a new peace agreement between the government and RENAMO in August 2019. Many organisations sustain creative partnerships with local mediators, offering a mix of advice and capacity building, technical and logistical support, and in some instances access to resources.

Collaboration with official actors extends from informal exchange in contexts such as the annual Oslo Forum mediators’ retreats, co-hosted by Norway and HD, to operational partnerships. ACCORD has for many years provided close support of the African Union and the continent’s sub-regional organisations. CMI has also worked closely with African institutions; separately, it developed a specialisation in support for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and remains deeply engaged in Eastern Europe. EIP’s proximity to the European Union and a board of governors comprised of nine European member states gives it a particular mix of flexibility and diplomatic access.

Several UN missions have gained from private entities’ relationships with actors either beyond their reach or whom they have not been able to prioritise, sometimes out of a need to maintain their impartiality or distance. In Yemen, years of peacemaking efforts led by the UN have been complemented by consultations at the local level led by the Berghof Foundation and other NGOs. EIP, for example, has worked to build the capacity of southern Yemen actors. In Libya, HD worked with the UN mission to expand the range of participants in a National Conference planned for 2019. After this was torpedoed by the outbreak of open conflict, it provided support as the UN worked towards a ceasefire and the resumption of a political process. DA G, meanwhile, helped the UN reach out to armed groups, while Chatham House provided economic expertise, and International IDEA support on constitutional issues. At the request of the UN Special Envoy for Syria, swisspeace and NOREF supported the Syrian Civil Society Support Room, enabling civil society actors to share perspectives with the Special Envoy.

Such relationships are most effective when the UN envoy or other official lead is able to ‘conduct’ the orchestra of non-governmental partners, and they each have a clear understanding of the parts they are assigned to play.

With the flexibility to operate when and where states and multilaterals can’t, unofficial mediators are in some respects well placed to chart the difficult period ahead.
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New frontiers

With the flexibility to operate when and where states and multilaterals can’t, to tap into different networks through a wide range of partnerships, and to continue to push thinking and practice forward into new areas of work, unofficial mediators should be well placed to chart the difficult period ahead. As the development of their field has been primarily rooted in and supported by the West, this will involve rebalancing their work to be most effective in a new geopolitical context while navigating an increasingly challenging funding environment.

The return of inter-state war in Ukraine and the high levels of geopolitical polarisation impeding bilateral diplomacy elsewhere have already pushed a number of the mediation organisations to engage more directly at the inter-state level. This takes different forms, from the support to official actors on the Black Sea Grain Initiative described on p.53 below, to quiet engagement between a state and its neighbours on issues of contention, work with governments on internationalised conflicts, or the facilitation of discussions on regional issues. For several years, HD has facilitated dialogue among officials from the states bordering the South China Sea to reduce the risk of maritime confrontation and conserve resources. EIP, meanwhile, has supported confidential dialogue among high-level individuals from the countries bordering the Arabian Gulf to try to develop initiatives to de-escalate tension.

Conscious of the challenges ahead, many of the private mediation organisations recognise that, if they seek to maintain credibility on a global stage, as well as effectiveness at the local and national levels, a strategic priority will be to establish and build trusted relationships with a sufficiently diverse range of partners. In a multipolar world in which peacemaking has become increasingly transactional, maintaining their independence, values, and impartiality as they do so will not always be straightforward.