Learning the grammar of peace

Is there a time when mediators should not even try to get warring parties round a peace table? The answer is probably not, but timing does seem key to a successful long-term outcome to negotiations.

The crux is securing a genuine and sustained peace, such as in Mozambique in 1992, versus one that barely makes it past the press conference, as in several abortive rounds of Somali talks. That in turn is related to the “ripeness” of the conflict – usually a mutually hurting stalemate, with dialogue accepted by both sides as the only logical relief.

But according to Martin Griffiths, director of the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a conflict resolution agency involved in several international mediation efforts, it is the responsibility of the mediator “to try and trigger” the right conditions, rather than waiting for a propitious time to engage.

The “ripening” of circumstances can be the pay-off from the long slog of staying in touch with the warring parties, badgering them to think about negotiations, and then encouraging them to prepare their positions. “You’ve got to keep on trying and be available, so when the time is right you’re ready,” Griffiths told IRIN. “All the years that go by in groundwork are not wasted.”

The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue brought analysts and mediators together last week at a “retreat” in Zanzibar to discuss the challenges of conflict resolution in Africa. One critical area, perhaps the nub of it all, was how to make a peace deal stick?

The urgent imperative for most mediators is to end violence and suffering. In a paper prepared for the Zanzibar meeting, Laurie Nathan, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and the University of Cape Town, contrasted two models of negotiation: “deadline diplomacy” and “confidence-building mediation”.

The first seeks to use politically appointed representatives to pressure the parties into an agreement with a mix of incentives and muscle; the second is a much slower process of facilitated talks, in which a neutral and trusted mediator seeks to win compromises.

“The parties must be confident that their opponents will honour their promises; and stable governance in the long term depends on the ongoing cooperation of the parties. Given these factors, confidence-building is not a luxury or a distraction. It is a pragmatic imperative and should be the paramount goal of the mediator,” wrote Nathan.

Among the dilemmas is how to engage with rebel movements that might be perceived as beyond the pale, be horribly splintered, have powerful patrons, or limited home-grown capacity to negotiate a credible, comprehensive deal.

''The parties must be confident that their opponents will honour their promises; and stable governance in the long term depends on the ongoing cooperation of the parties''

Do you forge ahead with a core group, hoping the rest will follow? How do you avoid forum shopping by conflict parties when there are multiple mediators, who can also be in competition? And, can mediation rob a “legitimate” armed struggle of its “revolution”?

Santa Okot was a member of the negotiating team of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – an exceptionally violent millenarian movement that has destabilized northern Uganda and its immediate neighbours for two decades.

A former member of parliament, she was brought in as a resource person to help the LRA articulate its position at the Juba peace talks in 2006. The dialogue with the Ugandan government finally collapsed two years later amid recriminations by both sides, and with an International Criminal Court indictment of the LRA leadership hanging over the talks.


Okot said there was an urgent need to train the LRA’s “own mediators, at the very beginning of the peace process”. She also found that although Joseph Kony, the rebel group’s charismatic leader, was “naturally bright”, he only had limited formal education, and “there was need, page by page, to explain the details of the agreement”.

Lack of capacity can be less of an issue when dealing with political details – most rebel leaders are politically astute - but when it comes to post-conflict reconstruction and the hard economics of resource management and institution-building, the comprehension gap between bush-based guerrillas and the technocrats on the government’s side of the table can suddenly widen.

“A mediation process has the responsibility to ensure that capacity-building happens,” noted Endre Stianson, a Norwegian government advisor involved in the negotiations between the Sudan government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement that led to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. “You won’t get a deal that sticks unless you do this.”

Photo: C Dufka/HRW
A young man marked by Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone

The drive for a quick fix to the violence, to open humanitarian space, and get reconstruction underway, can translate into little more than a carve-up of power, rewarding the men with guns at the expense of the unarmed majority.

So-called "track two" negotiations, where non-governmental intermediaries become involved to support conflict resolution, using a variety of unofficial channels, try to insert a degree of popular ownership and accountability into the process.

Whose peace?

“Those mediating [in track one, typically representatives of inter-governmental organisations or third-party governments] are talking on behalf of whom?” asked Bineta Diop, the executive director of Femmes Africa Solidarite. “They are not bringing the mainstream into the dialogue; they are taking decisions on our behalf, but are not consulting.”

Diop, who has led women’s peace-building initiatives in conflicts in West Africa and the Great Lakes region, told IRIN: “Unless you bring track two hand-in-hand with track one, you will not get anywhere.” Unfortunately, governments and rebel movements, who often both claim to be fighting in the name of the people, may not share that aspiration to actually listen to their constituents.

Along with ownership and inclusion is the argument that unless the root causes of conflict are addressed, a peace agreement may merely postpone a return to violence. The onus on the mediation, then, can be to try and craft a “transformative” post-conflict framework.

“More and more often the challenge to the sustainability of the peace agreement is to take the discussion beyond a new political dispensation of power among those that have resorted to violence – whether states or rebel movements – in order to ensure that broader societal concerns are addressed,” said Chris Coleman, chief of policy planning and mediation support at the UN Department of Political Affairs.

“That takes staying power by the international community,” rather than the more usual formula of peacekeepers, elections, and good luck to you.

Africa has the architecture for effective mediation, from regional bodies mandated to play a peace and security role, to more ad hoc processes such as the African Union’s Panel of the Wise of elder statesmen. At the Zanzibar meeting there was honest discussion over an accepted capacity deficit to run effective, long-term mediation, which may require assistance from outside partners, under broad African leadership.

“The capability is here, many individuals have the skills, but the organizational capacity is missing,” Vasu Gounden, executive director of the South African-based African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, told IRIN. “You have to distinguish between capability and capacity.”


See also: AFRICA: Mediation 101