Mediation in conflict contexts is often seen as a high risk, high-powered business – a skilled broker using his powers of persuasion and diplomacy to bring parties who may have been engaged in violence for many years to agree an end to fighting and to work together towards a common and peaceful future.

The so-called successes have become iconic – Arafat and Rabin shaking hands in front of the White House, McGuinness and Paisley sharing a joke sitting side by side. Past enemies, now partners, in a shared future. However, in reality, a slide back into violence is often the more enduring outcome, and has demanded some uncomfortable questions to be asked about the role of mediation.

What kind of outcome should a mediator be seeking to achieve? Should the aim be to simply get warring parties to sign on the dotted line? Who is best placed to mediate – the UN, the career diplomat, the dominant regional power, or maybe the local community chief?

In September 2012, the United Nations (UN) Secretary General released a report titled Strengthening the role of mediation in the peaceful settlement of disputes, conflict prevention and resolution. Annexed to the report was a United Nations Guidance for Effective Mediation.

Conciliation Resources, as part of the Mediation Support Network, inputted into the guidance's drafting, a process led by the UN Mediation Support Unit (MSU).

Rethinking effective mediation

The report goes some way to moving the debate beyond the clichéd mediation situation described above. There is positive language around the issue of inclusivity, and the guidance recognises that there are multiple actors involved in peacemaking, including civil society actors and women.

It is also more realistic about the effects of mediation efforts – recognising that they can have both positive and negative impacts on peace processes.

At Conciliation Resources, our experience of peace processes is leading us to challenge the idea that peace is agreed at the negotiating table between the main conflict parties, primarily those who have been engaged in violence, with a high-level external mediator bridging the divide. Instead a focus on the quality and process of mediation and peace processes is needed.

It is important to remember that conflicts are inherently complex, and that mediation is only one component of an overall peace process.

Mediation needs to be clearly located within the broader framework of effective peace process support.

Moving forward

  • Mediation efforts can be greatly improved if regular conflict analysis is undertaken that is based on a locally informed understanding of the context.
  • Conflict analysis should not be seen as an extractive process – the best processes of learning, exchange and connection come with some investment in the capabilities of civil society groups.
  • Mediators should not just engage with the most obvious stakeholders but find ways of consulting and engaging with a broad set of actors, particularly those who may be less accessible and marginalised from decision-making processes.
  • It is important to listen and respond to the demands of those you want to include and, while some will want a place at the table, others will not, preferring to exert influence, and contribute, behind the scenes.
  • Whilst there is still a need for a ‘professional’ mediator with specialised training, there should be a broader recognition of conflict resolution tools and skill sets – local mediators may bring different methods and approaches that are of equal value to the process.
  • The transition from armed to political actor may seem from the outside to be slow and obstructive to peace, but may simply reflect the negotiations taking place within an armed group to ensure consensus. Peace process support, including mediation, should work to support this transition, allowing actors space to engage with their constituencies in debate and reflection.


Zahbia Yousuf
is Peacebuilding Editor and Analyst at Conciliation Resources