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What support does a mediator need for a peace process? Key takebacks on effective mediation support


EIP recently gathered a group of envoys from the EU, OSCE, UN and Switzerland at Château Jemeppe in Belgium, to discuss the ins and outs of peace processes. The focus lay on support needs, both in political, strategic and technical terms. These are our impressions from the discussions. By Stine Lehmann-Larsen and Ingrid Magnusson 

“We were begging, borrowing and stealing people”

In building a strong team, envoys need to draw upon a wide range of expertise. Proficiencies discussed included local knowledge, process expertise, external critical voices, system insiders and former protagonists. However, putting together a support team which contains all these components has its challenges.

Process expertise is often used to support the design of comprehensive and sustainable processes, and to help iron out specific issues within these. It is usually provided by mediation support units for a limited period of time, and therefore not necessarily available for longer stretches. For example, the UN Mediation Support Unit is not equipped to provide envoys with long-term, permanent staff with extensive, comparable process support knowledge, but focuses on precise expertise on specific issues or short-term process-related matters.

Local knowledge is recognised as a crucial expertise to understand the operating context, its history, the parties and their strategies, and gain access. However, for those working within rotation systems, such as EU delegations, local knowledge may be hard to come by. Delegations often struggle to ensure that local knowledge is continuously available, as those who know the situation on the ground move every few years. Within other systems, local expertise may be readily available but hard to employ given bureaucratic hurdles and obstacles to deployment.

In addition, envoys benefit from critical voices to inform their thinking. The peacemaking scene is still characterised by competition between many external parties, and a seemingly ubiquitous urge to launch new initiatives. Sometimes what is needed more than anything else is someone with some distance to the process; someone who can point out potential stumbling blocks to help resist the urge to act for its own sake. Since honest criticism of new initiatives or existing strategies may be sensitive, it is central that envoys have trusted advisors who are distanced from the peace process and that have the confidence to deliver uncomfortable points. Such people are not easy to come by.

Insider knowledge of the international systems is another key quality often lacking in the team. System insiders – those who know the institutions inside out, its assets and how to leverage it – can map this out and help fit the pieces together. Within the EU system, for example, there is a wealth of expertise on a multitude of governance and structural issues, which can be tapped into at will – a huge bonus which can push negotiations forward and show the parties what the envoy has to offer. Thus, insider knowledge of the system is needed to see this bigger picture, identify the expertise and support available, and make effective use of it.

Finally, envoys could make more use the insights of former protagonists who have previously been on the warring side of a conflict. Such are currently an underused resource, as they in an advisory capacity can enlighten envoys on the thinking, dilemmas and challenges faced by warring parties in negotiation situations. This can further the understanding of the kinds of strategies adapted by similar actors in different settings.

Aside from the challenges outlined above, many processes go through different phases – an envoy can go from direct shuttling between the parties, to supporting another third party mediator in direct talks, to monitoring reforms and implementation of an agreement. All these are natural stages in a peace process, but require different kinds of skills and expertise. It is therefore crucial that support teams can adapt rapidly to new scenarios and tasks. The complexities present in building such support teams suggests that a broadening of perspective could be useful.

“You need to follow through … think about the totality”

Continuity is a central concern for any attempt at resolving conflict and managing crisis. Envoys are suggested to link up with each other’s plans as peace processes go through changes in management, to ensure that strategies are fulfilled – and if not, revised on a well-informed and carefully planned basis. This relates both to when envoys from the same institution replace each other in a process, and when a process is handed between actors from different institutions. Related, it is no secret that knowledge management is important, but it could be done more systematically when mandates transfer from envoy to envoy. For example, it could be made mandatory for envoys to hand over to the incoming envoy when exiting a mediation setting. This continuity is important for the parties as well, as relationships which have taken long time to build up need to be transferred carefully. For this reason, it is important to ensure careful handovers between support staff as well, which can help maintain contacts or transfer long-term local knowledge.

In order to create continuity, envoys need to ensure that comprehensive support is planned out for the entire process. Once an agreement is signed, states and multilateral institutions must be lined up to follow through with the plan, through political, developmental and other institutional support. Building strategies for this is an intricate task, for which deep knowledge and a broad contact network is needed. Where envoys do not have this knowledge and linkage, joint taskforces can be set up to initially help do an inventory of the tools, mechanisms and expertise available to support the process. Later, this can be used to rally actors within the system around the same process and message.

“What is missing is political support. The rest can be done”

Peace processes are by their very nature political. Not only the parties themselves, but also interested governments and multilateral actors expect to be given a say in how the turns and takes of the process unfold. Related to the point above, it is crucial that envoys and mediators can navigate this political interest, and what is more, leverage it in support of their process plan.

Political support can come in many ways. The envoy’s mandate is of vital importance as it helps set the frame of action both towards the parties and the external actors. For the mandate to effectively anchor support, the states and multilateral actors who have provided it need to act as a sounding board, helping to interpret and implement it.  This goes beyond the mandate; envoys need to engage with their political backers regularly to ensure that their strategy is accepted and supported, and that they are able to draw upon the resources available to them. This is especially important in planning and securing external support for the implementation process. A continuous strategic discussion with the political actors who will help implement the agreement is needed to make sure that mediators can deliver on the proposals they put forward

Mediation support should therefore make sure to assist in the nuances of how to leverage political support. This includes getting key government actors on board, ensuring regional actors buy into proposals, mobilising diplomatic support such as timely phone calls, statements, and joint diplomatic action locally, and more. Mediation support actors provide input on this by suggesting different options, sounding out avenues to pursue, and help appraise different strategies. This point also underscores the broad scope of actors who provide mediation support: sometimes other envoys are perfectly situated to assist their peers and colleagues in this.