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Demystifying Mediation: impressions from a retreat with senior envoys


Last week, EIP organised a workshop in Abu Dhabi with a group of senior envoys and mediators to learn more about the interplay between mediation processes and support structures. By Stine Lehmann-Larsen and Lucas van de Vondervoort

We wanted to know from practitioners what they think is needed to run a successful mediation process and what support they need to get the job done. Although there is an increasing body of work on mediation and mediation support, the envoys emphasised that they do not often get the chance to discuss amongst peers what works for them, and how they can get what they need to make a peace process a success.  Here we discuss some of the first impressions:

The management challenge: Do mediators need to be managers?

There is a plethora of experts on every possible subject of relevance to a peace process. The seminar in Abu Dhabi highlighted that senior envoys understand that it is crucial to make use of this knowledge in order to give fresh insights, think creatively by reflecting on what worked in other contexts, and to provide additional legitimacy to their proposals and access to the parties. Sometimes experts are also particularly useful because of their personal experiences and network or ethnic background and nationality. Given the importance of legitimacy in the eyes of the parties, teams may need to be reconfigured according to the parties’ preferences.

At the same time mediators need to strike a balance: just like with any team, experts need to be managed and looked after. Some have egos and are difficult to satisfy. Some are brilliant thinkers, but do not know how to act when sitting opposite a rebel or terrorist. Some may only be needed for a short period of time, but for political or administrative reasons an envoy can find him or herself stuck with an individual s/he cannot work with or sufficiently make use of. Time spent managing experts’ expectations or dealing with unhappy experts, making sure they handle themselves in an unbiased manner, or on general human resource management, is time taken from the actual handling of the peace process. To minimise such inconveniences, our participants explained that they turn first of all to people they know and trust to do a good job without asking too much of their time and second try to limit the intake of external experts to keep the management challenges at a minimum.

It is therefore essential that mediation support actors are well connected to active envoys, able to quickly build up trust, show and maintain loyalty, and able to seamlessly enter the field setting. Such inter-personal skills are almost as important as actually having the necessary technical skill sets. Organisations that appoint envoys as well as have in-house support functions, such as the UN’s Mediation Support Unit and the EU’s Mediation Support Team, provide a more direct link between envoys and the experts. However, inter-personal skills strongly determine whether also their experts remain in demand. For those outside these formal structures the challenges of finding a way in, building trust and remaining relevant are the most pressing issues.

The relevancy challenge: What support is useful for mediation processes?

In August last year, EIP hosted a seminar with some of the field’s top mediation support experts and institutions, including the UN, the OSCE, the AU as well as a several NGOs. The participants agreed there was an imbalance between what is being demanded from mediators and what is supplied by mediation support actors, leading to an oversupply and underutilisation of mediation support.

Our Abu Dhabi event showed that this imbalance is not necessarily felt from the receiving side. The mediators primarily rely on their personal networks, and in most cases feel they know where to turn to for advice, or know where to go and ask if they do not – not too concerned about which institution or support mechanism ends up providing the support. The fact that there may be much more out there in the rapidly growing mediation support community was not necessarily a problem to the mediators. They generally felt they were sufficiently supplied with good, timely advice when they asked.

On the part of both envoys and support providers there was agreement that advice needs to be tailored, flexible, and provide added value. Envoys are sent in to deal with conflicts they often know little about, but they are equipped with a particular set of analytical and interpersonal skills, and the experience to put these to good use. That means that handbooks of best-practices and lessons learnt may offer limited concrete support as their attempt at universal application often makes them too abstract for the specific purpose of the mediator.

We tend to think of tailoring in such circumstances as being tailored on content. For example, a mediator would want a note on inclusion in the Syrian conflict instead of a general analysis of the problems around inclusion. However, if experts want to reach very particular mediators and be sure their information is taken in, they may just need to take the notion of tailoring even one step further to include detail adjustment to the personality of the mediator. We all absorb information differently and mediation supporters should take extra care ensuring that their support is structured in a way that suits the specific mediator. Here the linkages between the mediator’s closest advisors, who are well-aware of his or her approach to digesting information, and the broader support community, becomes crucial. Alternatively this could mean that in some instances mediation support should target close advisors, instead of the mediator,

The leadership challenge: making support work for a strategy

The envoys stressed that while they want and need support, it will only be of use if it fits within their strategy. This is where the leadership of the envoy truly comes to the fore. The envoy is in charge of the process by developing a solid strategy that identifies scenarios, maps the options to respond to unexpected events, and identifies political actors to turn to in case something goes wrong. This also allows the mediator to identify in each situation what skills he or she needs in the team. This is true throughout the process, not just the moment when the talks begin.

Consequently it is crucial that the envoy takes charge of the process and develops a strategy for the process, also for support purposes. If the mediator is not clear on which direction to take, she or he will simply not know what to ask for – in some cases even leading to support actors asking envoys whether they have terms of references for the experts they send. This lack of a strategy becomes an increasingly pressing concern as poorly functioning processes open themselves up to serious dysfunction with ensuing difficulties in coordination, the risk of forum shopping, and ultimately greatly diminished chances of a unified peace process. The situation poses a catch-22: poorly designed and led processes are unable to identify and attract the necessary support and expertise, yet they are the ones that most badly need to be reinvigorated through support
Finally on the leadership challenge, a strong envoy is creative also when it comes to looking for advice. The envoys stressed the need for new ideas in their work and in fact, the need for innovation can motivate them to look for unconventional experts. Sometimes that means bringing in new and untested experts who brings in creative approaches still unknown to the envoy/organisation in charge of the process.

The political challenge: Mediation is just one part of a larger political process

Contemporary conflicts bring together a multitude of angles and facets that the mediator needs to take into consideration in order to manage the process. Mediators these days need to integrate humanitarian concerns, legal issues, think about implementation, and be aware of local and regional dynamics. Several different layers of negotiation between different parties may be on-going at the same time. Envoys look at mediation support actors both for expertise on specific topics, but importantly also on designing a process that fits in with, and takes into account, all these aspects. Mediation supporters therefore need to take a holistic approach to the entire conflict resolution process. Specifically, the envoys stressed that mediation processes should be linked in closely with actors working to address other phases of the conflict cycle, including early warning and prevention in the pre-conflict stages, and those working on recovery and stabilisation in its aftermath. Envoys look to their experts to ensure those gaps between different conflict resolution actors are mended. Many mediation support actors have strong links to these other communities and are ideally situated to provide such linkages. They should make sure to apply them more actively.

Thus, the envoys in Abu Dhabi simply called for a demystification of mediation. To move away from the single-event mirage of two or three top-level individuals that supposedly bring all aspects of a conflict together and instead look at a greater application of mediation skills in the wider process and integration between different levels. Mediation is simply a tool, which should be applied throughout a process. Mediation support actors have an important role to play as the mechanics of this process.