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What’s so Bad about Bias? Mediation and Sustainable Peace

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

In September 2012, the United Nations published a general Guidance for mediators working at the international, national and local levels, which identifies eight fundamentals of an effective mediation process: preparedness, consent, impartiality, inclusivity, national ownership, international law and normative frameworks, coherence, coordination and complementarity among mediation efforts, and the development of quality peace agreements. Of all these, it could be said that impartiality or unbiased mediation, being highlighted in research and models of practice as highly desirable, is one of the most debated subjects across the mediation literature.

According to the UN Guidance, if a mediation process is perceived to be biased, the risks of undermining the process are likely to be higher. Recent empirical evidence on the nature of the relationship between biased mediation and the quality of agreements sheds some light on this issue.

In a recent study, Isak Svensson found that, contrary to common belief, biased mediations can actually lead to institutional agreements that are more meticulous and hence more conducive to democratic and sustainable arrangements than unbiased mediations. The author found that because of their tendency to prioritize the ending of a conflict over other considerations, neutral or impartial mediators usually favor arrangements that expedite the secession of hostilities at the expense quality and durability.

Covering 124 peace agreements and 320 mediations or voluntary third party interventions from 1989 to 2004, Svensson’s study looked at how mediators who favor a party –either a government or a rebel group- affected the level of power sharing, security guarantees, stipulations for amnesty, and provisions for repatriation in peace agreements. Results showed that in contrast with neutral mediators:

– Biased mediators had a significant effect on political power-sharing provisions. In particular, mediators who favored rebels over governments increased the likelihood of provisions that guaranteed new government positions or quotas of political power from 3 to 9 percent.

– Government-biased mediators increased the probabilities of reaching territorial pacts from 4 to 7 percent. In other words, having a mediator on their side, governments are more open to agree to a territorial pact.

– Rebel-biased mediation increased the likelihood of stipulations of guarantees that strengthened the durability of agreements from 11 to 24 percent, which can be attributed to the fact that additional provisions and guarantees are more protective of less powerful parties who are not part of the government and count with the favor of the mediator.

– Biased mediation did not have a significant effect on the probability of reaching pacts of a military nature.

Although more research on the relationship between bias, mediation processes, and the nature of agreements still needs to be conducted, this study shows how negotiation processes with neutral mediators do not necessarily lead to better quality peace agreements. And that, in fact, mediation biases can have a positive effect on the likelihood of sustainable institutional arrangements and peace. As mentioned in the Guidance, although each mediation situation generally requires a different approach, careful attention to its fundamental dimensions can have a huge impact on its outcomes.

Svensson, I. (2009). Who brings which peace? Neutral versus biased mediation and institutional peace arrangements in civil wars. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 53, 446-469.

United Nations. (2012). Guidance for effective mediation. In United Nations, Report of the Secretary General on Strengthening the role of mediation in the peaceful settlement of disputes, conflict prevention and resolution (A/66/811).New York: UN DPA.


Kyong Mazzaro

Kyong Mazzaro supports the coordination and management of research agendas as Project Coordinator at the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University and the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR) at Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to joining AC4, Kyong Mazzaro was… MORE >

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