Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Missing a trick: expertise in mediation and negotiations

UNIDIR’s ‘Disarmament as Humanitarian Action’ project has examined how process in multilateral arms control negotiation matters. Arms control is but one area in which issues of human security are subject to complex negotiation. In my research field – analyzing the roles of international organizations in peacebuilding – I believe that, similarly, many international organizations pay insufficient attention to the institutional machinery and expertise required for managing negotiations to end high intensity conflict.

Laurie Nathan has presented a strong and eloquent argument for increasing institutional support for mediation in a concept paper called ‘Deficiencies in African Mediation’ prepared for the Organ Directorate of the South African Development Community (SADC) Secretariat. His argument rests on the premise that mediation is a specialist endeavour ‘not reducible to common sense or power-based diplomacy’ and that the quality of mediation matters; ‘depending on their proficiency, mediators can either heighten or reduce the prospect of a positive outcome’ [1].

Nathan noted that the evolution of mediation skills to facilitate dialogue and co-operative problem solving between individuals and groups has taken place primarily in domestic contexts, where in many cases it’s regarded as a professional discipline. Examples of relevant skills and techniques include: conflict analysis, shuttle diplomacy, designing and convening mediation processes, preparing agendas, conducting meetings, managing media relations, paraphrasing or re-framing positions, identifying common ground between the parties, and generating options for resolving deadlocks.

Recently, the Economist newspaper ran a double feature highlighting the increasingly important role of secular (such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD)) and faith-based (such as the Sant’Egidio community) organisations in mediating intra-state conflict. In addition to the essential pre-requisite of impartiality, it noted the value of ‘discretion, secrecy and flexibility’ that such small organizations can bring, and also stressed the importance of their experience and specialist mediation skills. For example, the Economist suggested that the technical support of a back-up team of mediators from the CHD was critical to avoiding deadlock and maintaining momentum in recent post-election mediation between the ruling party and opposition in Kenya, led by Kofi Annan. It concluded that ‘the betting is now on Mr. Annan and his team trying to repeat their Kenya trick in beleaguered Zimbabwe’.

Chance would be a fine thing. After the (un)contested Zimbabwe election the African Union reiterated its support for SADC’s mediation effort led by President Thabo Mbeki. Yet, there are critical weaknesses in this mediation effort. The most obvious and well-documented is mediation bias. As Nathan has shown, there is abundant historical evidence that a mediator who displays bias ‘will lose the trust of the disfavoured parties, become less effective if not ineffectual as a result and complicate or even heighten the conflict’ [2]. Since 2005, Zimbabwe’s largest opposition party - the Movement for Democratic Change - has repeatedly objected to President Mbeki as a mediator because he was perceived to be biased. Unsurprisingly therefore the post-election ‘talks about talks’ focused on the issue of the mediator(s) with the MDC insisting on a permanent African Union (AU) envoy to join the talks alongside Mbeki. In the deal that enabled the current negotiations, Mbeki remains the main mediator, but is crucially assisted by a ‘reference group’ composed of AU head Jean Ping, the UN’s Zimbabwe envoy Haile Menkerios, and the SADC official George Chikoti.

Over and above the issue of finding mediator(s) that are acceptable to the parties, it is unclear as to whether the proposed reference group will be able to deliver the requisite specialist expertise. Both the AU and SADC lack institutional knowledge and specialist expertise to support mediation efforts. For example, in the case of the Darfur peace process in 2006, the head of the AU team, Ambassador Sam Ibok, recognized this handicap but couldn’t find suitably experienced mediators to join the process at short notice. This, Nathan said, contributed to

‘a deeply flawed approach of deadline diplomacy emanating from AU headquarters and the international funders and partners of the peace process. It inhibited effective mediation, produced a peace agreement that did not achieve peace, and sowed divisions that exacerbated the conflict’.
[This is a quote from 1. Argument elaborated in 3.]

Nathan has identified various categories of expertise required for supporting mediation processes. These include mediation, country, thematic, intelligence, communications and management and administrative expertise. Specialist expertise could be located within expert mediation units, while organizations might also consider decentralized ways to harness mediation talent through roster mechanisms and cooperation with specialist non-governmental groups.

Other international organizations and donor states are themselves not particularly well endowed with much of this expertise. (For example, although the UN has traditionally provided the forum for the resolution of international disputes, it has only recently invested in building up its mediation capacity. This followed recommendations from the 2004 High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change which led to the establishment of a Mediation Support Unit and website in the Department of Political Affairs. Tellingly, the Panel stressed that in appointing envoys, mediators and special representatives, high-level competence should be placed above all other criteria.) This perhaps explains why mediation support has received little attention in on-going efforts to strengthen peace and security capacities of the AU and African regional organisations.

We’re missing a trick here. Building institutional expertise in mediation is arguably one of the most over-looked and cost-effective ways to promote the efficacy of international organizations in preventing and ending violence.

This is a guest blog by Catriona Gourlay. Catriona is a Marie Curie Fellow at UNIDIR, currently working on a project on EU-UN cooperation in peacebuilding.


1. Laurie Nathan, ‘Concept Paper: Deficiencies in African Mediation’, Prepared for the Organ Directorate of the SADC Secretariat, 13 December 2007.

2. Laurie Nathan, ‘Deficiencies of African Mediation’ and ‘A Case of Undue Pressure: International Mediation in African Civil Wars’, 1998.

3. Laurie Nathan, ‘No Ownership, No Peace: The Darfur Peace Agreement’ Working Paper, series 2, no. 5, Crisis States Research Centre, September 2006.

Picture downloaded from Flickr.