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Engineering Peace – Achieving the promise of mediation in the world’s most difficult conflicts

Author information, originally the first 4 article footnotes, is provided below.

Achieving the promise of mediation in conflicts that threaten the
stability of societies and economies is one of the most important challenges of
our time. 

Inspiring progress has been made in the past few years by the UN,
and political leaders increasingly perceive mediation as vital for avoiding and
resolving conflict at all levels in society, worldwide.  Yet in individual
cases mediation is rarely used as an avoidance and prevention process, and left
until conflicts have escalated to the point that achieving a timely negotiated
outcome, or avoiding a catastrophe, is virtually out of reach.

Progress in Thought

Under Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations is
refocusing its role from peace keeping to peace making and has consequently
been strongly supporting and endorsing mediation as a practical solution to

On 8 April 2009, the Secretary-General’s report to the
Security Council on Enhancing Mediation and its Support Activities (S2009/189)[5]
had emphasized the importance of building local, national and regional capacity
for mediation and the need for coherent partnerships between the UN, regional
and sub-regional organizations, States and NGOs.

Encouraged by this,
conflict resolution experts from around the world, led by Mediators Beyond
Borders[6] and co-authors Tina
Monberg and Irena Vanenkova, attended the UN Climate Change Conference (COP15)
in Copenhagen in December 2009 to advocate for the inclusion of language
recommending mediation as an option to facilitate problem-solving and conflict
transformation under the UN Framework Convention on Climate
Change.  Ironically, COP15 was characterised by such a high level of contention
and disagreement that delegates failed to agree on most things, not least the
inclusion of dispute resolution processes, and the Copenhagen Accord failed to
achieve a game-changing result or even reach a legally-binding status.

September 2010, the Governments of Finland and Turkey convened a Group of
Friends of Mediation[7] at the United Nations. 
The aim, as summarized by Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja[8],
was “(a) to raise awareness within the international community of the
importance of mediation as a means of conflict prevention and resolution; (b)
to help build mediation capacity and expertise both within the UN and also in regional
organizations, which are often most well-placed to assume such a mediating role
in their own area of responsibility; and (c) to enhance the level of
coordination among different actors of mediation to minimize unnecessary
duplication and complications”
.  The Group of Friends of Mediation
currently comprises 37 UN Member States[9]
plus 7 regional multilateral organizations – the African Union, ASEAN, Arab
League, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, European Union, Organisation for
Security and Co-operation in Europe and Organization of American States

28 July 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution on Strengthening
the Role of Mediation in the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes, Conflict
Prevention and Resolution
(A/RES/65/283)[10].  It requested the UN
Secretary-General to issue a report on the implementation of the Resolution. 
The Secretary-General’s Report was issued in June 2012 (A/66/811)[11]
and included as an Annex the UN Guidance on Effective Mediation[12]
prepared by the UN’s Department of Political Affairs.

On 13 September 2012, the Group of Friends of Mediation issued a Statement[13]
supporting the promotion of
contacts and links between mediation communities and networks as essential in
order to improve the coordination and cooperation, and to address the
challenges of a diverse and crowded field of mediation”.

These developments at UN level indicate a
fast-growing interest in, and desire for, peace mediation on a truly global
scale.  This is backed up to some degree by initiatives on the ground. 
Mediation, in various forms and guises, has been used to achieve a number of
peace agreements under the auspices of UN and other regional organisations such
as the African Union, Arab League, ASEAN, EU, OSCE and independently by
Sovereign States.  Notable examples are Kosovo independence and the recent
co-existence agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, and dispute settlements in
Libya, Northern Ireland, Egypt, Namibia, Iraq, Sudan, Aceh and many others. 
Remarkable people have been involved as mediators, mainly former political and religious
leaders and diplomats.  In many, though not all, of these instances, the
“mediator” represented a party with a stake or interest in the
outcome – a party that may be considered “partially impartial” or
“semi-neutral” and in a position to exert leverage on the parties. 
This is not what most people understand by “mediation”, but is often
referred to as such[14].

And therein lies the largest and
least-recognised challenge.  People often miss the true value of mediation
because they do not understand it properly.  Many think that by mediating they
somehow lose a degree of “sovereignty” and “control” over
the matter. Actually, the reverse is invariably achieved: mediation frees the
parties to be better and stronger negotiators and to control their own outcome,
not have someone else do that for them.  This natural misconception of the
nature and operation of mediation results in too many parties turning to
mediation only when their conflict has escalated to the point that it is a last
resort, often proposed by an exasperated third party desperate to see peace
break out instead of war.  So, in almost all cases, mediation comes about very
late in the life cycle of the conflict, long after substantial direct and
collateral damage has been done and much blood has been spilled.  Mediation
offers most value when employed as soon as negotiations run into difficulty and
would be more often used for conflict avoidance and prevention purposes, rather
than dispute resolution, if it were better understood.

This leads to the important question: can
the increased level of interest and desire for mediation on the global level be
readily implemented in practice so that mediation is used far more often, and
at much earlier stages?

Implementation Steps by the UN

From a structural perspective, the UN established a Mediation Support Unit (MSU)[15]
in 2006 in the Department of Political Affairs to provide administrative and
logistical support and advice to envoys and on-the-ground mediators and
negotiators.  The MSU works to strengthen the mediation capacity of regional
and sub-regional organizations, and is a resource on mediation knowledge,
policy and best practices.  Part of that important role involves the Standby
Team of Mediation Experts[16] set up in
2008.  This is a rapid-response group of seven mediation experts that can be
deployed individually or as a group to assist in mediation efforts.  Standby Team
members have a wide range of backgrounds and areas of expertise including
power-sharing, drafting constitutions, negotiating cease-fires and other security
arrangements, as well as gender issues as they relate to conflict.  Current
Standby Team members provide critical support to UN envoys, field-based political
and peacekeeping missions and UN Resident Coordinators in such countries as
Yemen, Congo, Mali, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia.  They also
help develop UN best practices and mediation training materials and other tools.   However, all seven Standby Team members are on
full-time but short-term (12 month) assignments with the UN.  They are not
engaged to be lead mediators in any conflict, and are in-role for insufficient
time to provide essential continuity from beginning to end. 

But meanwhile…

Most supra-national organizations and Sovereign States have yet to
develop a track record in the systematic use of mediation to resolve
international conflicts.

Mediation has not, for example, taken off in investor-State disputes
(most of which are handed through the World Bank’s International Centre for
Settlement of Investment Disputes – ICSID), or in international trade disputes
between Sovereign States (which are handled through the World Trade
Organization – WTO).  Many of these disputes involve significant stakes and
consequences for civil society.

ICSID’s Rules include “conciliation” – a very different
process from mediation, but one nonetheless designed to encourage early
outcomes.  However, of the 426 investor-State disputes so far filed at ICSID,
only 9 have used conciliation.  In October 2012, the International Bar
Association published proposed Rules for Investor-State Mediation[17],
but they have yet to be used to help manage the resolution of a dispute.

Article V.5 of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Understanding 1994[18]
enables disputing States to request Good Offices, Conciliation or Mediation at
any time, and the WTO Director General may ex officio provide such services if
required; however, mediation has rarely, if ever, occurred[19]

The pronouncements of the Group of Friends of Mediation are mainly
directed to some of the world’s most difficult conflicts that can or do result
in war, but are surely not intended to exclude trade wars or battles between
corporations and States over major infrastructure projects that go wrong.

There must be a reason why States support the Group of Friends of
Mediation at the UN in urging greater take-up of mediation, yet decline to use
mediation to resolve disputes among themselves on trade issues or with major
investors.  It is important to identify what is holding them back, and then
take appropriate action to overcome the obstacles.

Changing Mindsets

Three fundamental factors are critical to bridge the gap between the
strong collective policy demand for peace mediation on behalf of almost every
country and the systematic implementation of mediation in the real world
at an early stage.  The first is to generate a proper understanding of what
mediation is and how and why it works.  The second is to instil widespread
confidence in the quality of mediators and provide the tools to select the
right mediators given – as the Group of Friends of Mediation has put it –
mediation’s diverse and crowded field.  And the third factor is the
enhancement of convening skills to bring parties to the negotiating table.

Understanding for the what, how and why of mediation

There is a surprisingly low level of
appreciation of what mediation really is.  This is particularly true at State
level – among politicians and administrative staff in national governments who
have come to understand “mediation” as shuttle diplomacy, political
wrangling dressed up as neutral intervention, and arm-twisting by interfering
third nations with the power to impose sanctions.  None of these things is
mediation.  There is a need for education mediation.  Expressed in seven words,
mediation is merely negotiation facilitated by a trusted, neutral person.

The comprehension issue needs to go beyond
identifying the misconceptions.  Beyond the universe and religion, people
rarely accept what they do not understand.  Systematically integrating
explanations of how and why mediation works into educational, civil society,
governmental and other settings would be a useful first step.

Quality & Selection of Peace Mediators

Mediation is a far more advanced, highly sophisticated skill than
most people realise. Great mediation – and anything less than great is
inadequate in conflicts that can lead to war – places an enormous strain on
mediators to get their role and interventions exactly right at every step. 
Skills that are beyond mediation are also required – in particular
inter-cultural proficiency.  Mediation is a job for very special, highly
trained people who are well-experienced in the science, art, psychology and
basic grit of mediating.

There is now a huge body of training
expertise in the world, but it needs to be geared to the type of conflicts that
can result in damage to societies and economies.  Experience always gives the
best lessons, but can be replicated to some extent through simulations in
well-constructed mediation training.  Simulations need to be appropriate for
facilitated peace negotiations and be based on real-world case studies as far
as possible.  Moreover, they are most effective and realistic when they allow
trainees the freedom to be themselves rather than an artificial character in a
documented scenario[20].  A network of the
world’s best trainers, collectively capable of delivering programmes in a vast
number of languages and cultural settings, is needed.

The competency of a mediator needs to be appreciated by the parties
before they get engaged in the mediation process.  They need to trust their
mediators, and building that trust begins with what they know about the
mediator.   Trust is a fickle, irrational, thing.  It is about relationships,
respect, reputation, authority, confidence, wisdom, reliability and integrity. 
Mediators cannot expect parties to have blind faith about their credentials;
they need to disclose much more about themselves in advance.  Their profiles
must credibly recite their experience in mediation.  They need to open up about
how other parties for whom they have mediated perceive their conflict
resolution skills.  Such insights into their credentials build rapid respect
and trust and develop a feeling that this mediator is truly competent, which in
turn exudes a positive inclination towards mediation itself.

But competency at all these levels is not the only attribute of
quality.  Equally important is suitability.  The mediator, and his or her
support team, needs to be genuinely accepted by all constituencies involved in
the dispute in order to perform their role effectively.  Their personalities,
prior achievements and experiences and philosophical attitudes, all have a
subtle yet powerful bearing on being accepted by disputing parties.

In addition, inter-cultural management and communication competency
is necessary in almost every case.  A deep knowledge of all relevant cultural
frameworks, patterns and perspectives, the ability to adjust and interpret
communication styles and mange the mediation process across different cultural
norms, and a detailed appreciation of cultural focus areas is all essential.

Capturing all this systematically is readily achievable through
appropriate training, schemes that generate experience and independent performance
assessments.  It would be valuable to all parties for all peace mediators to be
part of a global, high-level credentialing scheme through which the profiles of
all qualifying mediators were searchable online.  The International Mediation
Institute[21] has already developed
such a credentialing scheme that can be readily applied to international peace

Convening the Parties

Getting conflicting parties to the negotiating table in the right
frame of mind – convening them – requires the intervention of a third party
having position, strength, humility and persuasion ability.  It is an important
professional skill.

Often, people locked in conflict situations are not on speaking
terms, or if they are, there are unspoken limits on what might be proposed. 
Each side becomes obsessed with their own tactics and goals and the weaknesses
of their opponent.  In this game of pretence, bluff, tactics, positioning,
demands and threats, to propose negotiation is to blink.  Blinking suggests
weakness and uncertainty.  In a Mexican stand-off, nobody dares do it first.  
Parties then plough on regardless, unable to stop pouring more oil on already
troubled waters. Ultimately, the eventual winner often ends up a joint loser,
nursing a Pyrrhic victory.  As Professor Friedrich Glasl expresses it in his
nine-step conflict escalation ladder, “Do you have a conflict, or does
the conflict have you

The role of the convenor is to anticipate and break that mindless
spiral of self-destruction.  Convenors generally need to be outside the epicentre
of a dispute, be perceived as impartial, and have the skills and insights to
persuade warring parties to talk.  A convenor can end up as the mediator, but
can also simply be one who proposes mediation, gets the principle accepted by
the parties, helps find the right process and identify the right mediators. 

In her seminal work on the subject, Referral To Mediation[23],
Judge Machteld Pel identifies the numerous challenges facing convenors, many of
which cross subject boundaries and are equally applicable to achieving peace

The UN and other multilateral organizations have the position to be
Convenors.  Whether they are fully resourced to execute that function, with the
appropriate range and level of skills, is another matter.  The UN’s Mediation
Support Unit, for example, is focused on administration, which is a vital
facility, but distinct from convening.  Thorough training is required to develop
the skills of convenors and to recognise this as a core field of expertise.


The progress made in the past five years in recognising the
principle and value of mediation in achieving peace has been nothing short of
extraordinary.  The demand is there.  Multilateral organizations now need to
translate that interest and demand into the development of their capabilities
as Convenors, promoting understanding of what mediation is and how and why it
works, and most critically of all developing a strong cadre of highly-trained,
multi-talented inter-cultural peace mediators whose skills are certified and
who can be identified and valued easily.

One of the early mediation skills books was entitled A Sudden
Outbreak of Common Sense
.[24]  If appropriate
resources are dedicated to addressing understanding, quality and convening,
outbreaks of peace could become more common than outbreaks of war.

End Notes

[1] Nadja Alexander
is Professor of Law and Director of the Institute of Conflict
Engagement and Resolution at Hong Kong Shue Yan University.

[2] Michael
Leathes is a director of the International Mediation Institute, an
international charitable foundation based in The Hague.

[3] Tina Monberg is director of
Mediationcenter a/s in Copenhagen.

[4] Irena
Vanenkova is Executive Director of the International Mediation Institute.





[9] Bangladesh, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria,
Burkina Faso, Colombia, Costa Rica, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan,
Kenya, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Montenegro, Morocco, Nepal,
Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Philippines, Qatar, Romania, Slovenia, South
Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania (United Republic of), Uganda,
United States of America.





[14]  For
an overview of peace mediation, see Chapter 8 of The
Political Adviser’s Handbook by Frederik Wesslau, published by the Folke
Bernadotte Academy, a Swedish government agency that works to enhance the
quality and effectiveness of peace negotiations.






[20] See M Le Baron and N Alexander, “Exporting Mediation
through Role Plays: Intercultural Considerations in Knowledge Transfer”  in D
Busch, C-H Mayer and CM Boness (eds), International and Regional
Perspectives on Cross-cultural Mediation
(Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang
Publishing 2009) at 151–168.


[22] see Friedrich Glasl’s Nine-Stage Model of
Conflict Escalation at  Also, Dr Glasl’s
book Confronting Conflict – A First-Aid Kit For Handling Conflict (2007)


[24] A Sudden Outbreak of Common Sense:
Managing Conflict Through Mediation by Andrew Floyer Acland (1990)


Irena Vanenkova

Irena Vanenkova is a CEDR-Accredited mediator (1998) as well as holder of the MATA advanced mediation certificate. Irena holds the English Tutor Diploma of The Linguistic University in Moscow (1983), a Bachelor of Economics at the Moscow Institute of Business Studies (1997), and a Diploma in Public Relations Management at the… MORE >


Michael Leathes

Michael Leathes is a former in-house counsel and in that capacity a frequent user of mediation services. After retiring in 2007, Michael helped establish the International Mediation Institute (IMI) as a charitable institution and served in a pro bono capacity as the first Executive Director of the IMI. He stepped… MORE >


Nadja Alexander

Nadja Alexander is a Professor of Law and Director of the Singapore International Dispute Resolution Academy (SIDRA) at the Singapore Management University. She is a Senior Fellow of the Dispute Resolution Institute at Hamline University in the United States. Nadja Alexander is an award winning author (2020, 2011) and educator (2018,… MORE >


Tina Monberg

Tina Monberg is a solicitor, psychotherapist and corporate lawyer with unique insight into the potential for mediation. After graduating in mediation from Harvard Law School, Tina became a coach and trainer for mediators. Her three mediation books contain strategies for conflict resolution based upon the experiences and techniques she has… MORE >

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