Publication date: 
Feb 2013

Jonathan Cohen is Director of Programmes at Conciliation Resources. This chapter from Building Peace in 2013: Reflections and Experiences from the Oslo Forum Network was first published by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue


Progress in resolving conflict can seem like a waltz with unwilling partners – one step forward, one step back, one step to the side. Often a lack of communication means that efforts are pulling in different directions. It rarely looks graceful.

While the continued violence in Syria seems to defy the efforts of mediation and reminds us that every year violence erupts in unexpected ways and in unexpected places, we should not lose sight of the fact that there are contexts where mediation is working.

The field of conflict transformation has developed significantly over the past two decades. The world suffers fewer armed conflicts and less conflict-related violence than in the past. More conflicts are settled through negotiation and inclusive dialogue rather than through military means.

Increasingly, experience is showing us that conceptions of peaceful political settlements that emanate from the negotiating table are too limited.

A good negotiation process leading to a signed agreement is an essential element of a peace process, but other stages and processes are equally critical.

There is a growing acknowledgment of the need to provide political space for the grievances and claims of groups (often minorities) with divergent perspectives.

To be sure, there are still immense challenges in the quest to provide just and lasting settlements to protracted armed conflict and violence around the world.

Despite progress, we all need to get better at building peace.

One component of this is undoubtedly improving mediation and mediation support. The UN Secretary-General’s 2012 report on Strengthening the role of mediation in the peaceful settlement of disputes, conflict prevention and resolution is an example of the increased attention being given to such efforts.

The report and accompanying guidance notes go some way towards moving the debate beyond clichéd notions of power mediation or the deployment of a prestige mediator to bring together conflict parties to agree an end to fighting and to work towards a common and peaceful future.

Skilled mediation, that is politically astute and professionally competent, is undoubtedly critical in supporting processes of negotiation. But mediation efforts that are not attentive to political processes, however well conducted, will yield limited results.

In this light, the UN report’s positive language around the issue of inclusivity, and its recognition that there are multiple actors involved in peacemaking, is important.

If those at the negotiating table are to have the legitimacy needed to construct the compromises that are inherent in any peace agreement, it is essential for the process to have legitimacy. For this to be the case, those at the negotiating table need to be cognizant of and engage with the myriad of other factors and actors that enable peace processes to cohere.

Parties need support in getting to the table, in being confident of their capacity to negotiate, and to derive something from the process for their communities (and/or themselves).

In the face of violence, which is often chaotic and beyond the control of homogeneous armed forces (whether state or non-state), mediation can struggle to keep pace with the way violence transforms and reinvents parties involved in conflict. It can also struggle to connect the negotiating table to the wider processes of change that are essential if the talks are to be more than a mere respite in a cycle of violence.

In emergencies or high intensity conflicts, mediators are right to focus on stopping the fighting and this will usually require a mediator with muscle. But more is needed if this is to exceed a temporary stay of violence, and to be part of a foundation for a polity and society that is resistant to violent conflict.

Complex mediation structures all too often come into being to balance the interests of states circling around a conflict and not just the concerns of the parties. But this can also serve to paralyse processes, which are perpetuated out of a desire not to lose a forum of engagement rather than a belief that this forum can deliver.

The experience of the Minsk process and the Geneva talks, both seeking to resolve long standing conflicts in the Caucasus, typify this dilemma.

But these processes also highlight that mediation, however skilled, well designed and well intentioned, is always constrained by the interests and ambitions of the conflict parties. And when processes are stuck it is crucial to expand the parameters and think beyond the confines of the negotiating table, the top-level parties and the mediators.

The Georgian-Abkhaz context is a good example of civic peace initiatives expanding the parameters of debate by generating joint films, research and advocacy across a conflict divide.

Informal dialogue processes were not able to prevent a resumption of hostilities in 2008 but they have sustained relationships, been incubators of new ideas, and continue to challenge political leaders and societies to reflect on long-term challenges.

If the efforts of formal mediation processes, including discreet and confidential processes where necessary, are insufficient, we need to focus on how we can construct a wider architecture that makes such processes successful.

There is a trend towards more sophisticated mediation and conflict transformation architecture with strong local ownership as well as careful and strategic international support.

A good example of a more creative approach is the hybrid form of mediation support seen in the Philippines.

The signing of a Framework Agreement in October 2012 between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front saw a mediation process supported by an International Contact Group (ICG) which was, for the first time, comprised of both states and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs).

The diplomatic leverage of states was accompanied by the flexibility of INGOs with long-standing relationships with key interlocutors as well as connections to civil society and social movements.

While the process did not have an open door for civic actors, the engagement of international civic organisations did create a bridge of sorts.

One area where the process, like most peace processes, was lacking was in the participation of women.

Only a couple of women took part in the ICG, both representing an INGO. Men also dominated the parties at the table. However, at the beginning of the crucial implementation phase the Philippines Government panel is now chaired by Professor Miriam “Iye” Coronel-Ferrer, who stands alongside Teresita “Ging” Quintos-Deles, the head of the Government's various peace efforts.

It is frequently observed that it is important to listen, and respond, to the diversity of women in conflict-affected areas, including finding ways to provide a place for them at the negotiating table. This needs to go beyond mechanistic observation of women's issues or men's issues, or the number of women in a process.

The norms and standards established over the past decade in regard to women, peace and security are no more than a starting point.

If socially important constituencies are not present, the process' durability after any agreement will be weaker.

Moving from policy to practice remains a challenge and developments on the ground in conflicts the world over have not met expectations in this regard. Often this is limited by the very language of ‘women, peace and security’ rather than recognition that this is a springboard from which to confront deeper questions about gender roles in the generation of conflict, the potential to transform it, and the sort of societies that can be built after violent conflict.

Most countries afflicted by violence struggle with governance challenges and there is little tradition of civil society holding power to account.

While civic initiatives can be dynamic components of change, civil society should not be idealised – it can be divided and rife with prejudice, pushing politicians forward to creative solutions or holding them back with opposition to concessions.

A strong analysis of the composition of civil society is, therefore, essential but mediators who parachute in to a context are rarely resourced or, indeed, skilled to do this.

Therefore, creative means need to be found to identify and support those within conflict contexts, peacebuilders and insider mediators, who can feed insights into formal processes. Such people are able to nurture relationships across divides (within their own communities and beyond), understand risks, and enrich the formal peace process so it gains traction in the long-term.

In intractable contexts, a multiplicity of engagements can mean that, if there are blockages in the formal process, ideas can be generated or relationships sustained in other contexts.

Such efforts, often led by civic peacebuilding initiatives in the shadow of state or intergovernmental mediation efforts, mean that society has the capacity to ensure that, when the tectonic plates of a conflict shift enough to create opportunities to build peace, there are individuals or constituencies able to seize them.

These efforts and actors are the social capital for resolution – essential if agreements are to be reached and sustained.

As we look ahead to 2013 and the many conflicts confronting national and international actors, we need to ask how to build negotiations and peace processes that are less elitist and more able to meet the needs and expectations of those most affected by conflict.

Past experience has all too often seen elite-level mediated negotiations fail because leaders could not sell the outcomes and societies would not buy the compromises – the failure of the 2001 Key West talks between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are a potent case in point.

Negotiations, and usually mediated negotiations, need to be accompanied by efforts to generate wider participation in the process as a whole.

Structuring and sequencing this in fluid conflict contexts that often pay little heed to top-down orchestration will never be easy: balancing confidentiality, transparency and accountability needs careful choreography. But mediators need to heed this challenge and get beyond the weapon-wielding stakeholders to those who have soft power or limited power in order to increase the legitimacy of decisions taken at the negotiation table. This can also improve the prospects for the implementation of any agreement.

Resourcing implementation is what determines whether an agreement works or fails, as much as the quality of its content.

Support to mediation, therefore, does not just stop at the signing of an agreement, though the role and character of such support transforms as a new phase is entered.

There is a gap between the theory and practice of mediation. In an ideal world, a mediator should be a professional and disinterested person with strong institutional support and political backing.

It seems that the exception is the rule and, more often than not, mediators have interests in particular outcomes and unequal relations with the conflict parties. They rarely have either specific mediation experience or strong professional support. The innovations we are seeing in the field of mediation support and civil society-led peacebuilding are in response to these challenges.

Demystifying the negotiating table and travelling the multiple paths that need to be pursued to consolidate and sustain peace is a challenge that pushes beyond the norms of mediation.

If we fail to grasp this, we are limiting our ability to play the creative and transformative roles which are essential in supporting people to make the transition from violence to politics as a means to end their conflicts.

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