Isak Svensson and Peter Wallensteen

REVIEWS, 27 Jan 2014

René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

The Go-Between: Jan Eliasson and Styles of Mediation, Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace, 2010, 170pp.

As the authors point out “In polarized situations of armed conflict and humanitarian crisis, there is often a need for a go-between, an international third-party mediator who can help to overcome barriers and divisions that keep conflicting parties apart. There is a growing awareness that international mediators can play a critical role in the process from war to peace.”

There are basically three sources of mediators. One, the focus of this book, is the United Nations which has provided leadership opportunities for negotiation, strategic coordination, and appropriate tools to implement peace agreements.  The second source is national governments, the “shuttle diplomacy” of Henry Kissinger in the Middle East being a classic example or President Bill Clinton’s efforts in the same area, or Richard Holbrook in the ex-Yugoslav conflict.  National government mediation is now often called “Track I” mediation.  Track I efforts can call upon the power and resources of a national government, but national governments also have “national interests” and are not necessarily neutral or seen as neutral.

What is now called Track II diplomacy after the writings of Joseph Montville are nongovernmental and thus unofficial efforts. Track I and Track II can be used at the same time, but often Track II is used when there are no Track I efforts going on or when one of the parties in the conflict is not a State but armed non-governmental groups such as in the current conflicts in Mali, Darfur, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The work of a UN-designated mediator fall between Track I and Track II. There is an official mandate for action, often a resolution of the UN Security Council.  However, the UN mediator can rarely use threats, has no funds to promise aid to back up his suggestions, usually has a very small staff and cannot call upon the type of diplomatic resources that a national government has. It was only in 2007 that a Mediation Support Office was set up within the UN.  Until then, UN staff had to be pulled from other work, and seldom have UN mediators had offices on the ground constantly monitoring developments.

There is, as yet, no “training school” for international mediators, and thus one of the only ways to learn is to look at the style and techniques of experienced mediators.  This book looks at key efforts by the Swedish diplomat and sometimes UN official Jan Eliasson in four conflict situations: the Iran-Iraq war; two aspects of the Sudan conflict: the North-South Sudan civil war and the armed militias in Darfur; the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the 1992 refugee flow of Rohingyas from Burma to Bangladesh. (1) It happens that in each of these conflicts I was involved at the same time in Track II efforts but working largely from the UN in Geneva and knew some of what Eliasson was doing from UN staff involved.  While this review does not aim to “compare and contrast” official and unofficial efforts, I have a feeling for the difficulties that Eliasson faced though I had none of the “cards” which Eliasson had in his hand.

Although Sweden is a democratic and in many ways an equalitarian country, in practice there is a small, aristocratic elite which goes into diplomacy, banking and to some extent, politics. Count Bernadotte, the first UN Israel-Palestine mediator, Dag Hammarskjold and his less well-known brother who was a UN Specialized Agency director, Olof Palme, Prime Minister and then chair of an important arms control study and Jan Eliasson all come from the same milieu.  They are able to call upon others from the milieu for help and advice. Thus Eliasson could call upon the Swedish Foreign Ministry for informal help in ways that Djibril Bassolé who followed him as UN mediator in the Darfur conflict could not call informally upon the same type of resources of the Burkina-Faso Foreign Ministry.

Swedish diplomats in the UN system have always been open to discussions with NGO representatives, and so in many ways it was natural for Eliasson to discuss with field staff from NGOs in the Darfur and Rohingya situations and was open to NGO views on Iran-Iraq and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The first and probably most important step in mediation is analysis. “The mediator will need to diagnose the situation to get a proper picture of what is possible. This is not simply a matter of practical preparation but also a way to set the stage for direct negotiations.  It lays the groundwork and prepares both the parties and mediator for the continuation of the process.  It is imperative for the mediator to study the parties, their interests, and the issues and to assess whether there is a real possibility to advance toward a negotiated settlement.”

A crucial aspect of the analysis is to set out who are the key parties in the conflict — how inclusive should the mediation be?  Should countries in the regional context be consulted? Should they play an active role? One of the important issues in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the role of Russia since the conflict had started when all the parties were still part of the USSR. Ultimately the Karabakh conflict froze — that is, the fighting stopped — but the basic incompatibility remains unresolved to this day. One of the difficulties in setting up talks in the Darfur conflict is that some factions objected to the participation of other armed groups, especially those who had split off from one of the other groups.  Thus, certain important factions have not participated directly and their leaders had to be interviewed elsewhere or by NGO  representatives.

As with the Darfur situation, the longer a conflict lasts, the more factions want to be players.  “In a conflict there is often likely to be a struggle over power among different factions and/or personalities within the opposing sides.  This may serve to limit the space for agreement. If the question of who should hold power stands at the forefront, less attention may be paid to crucially important issues for long-term relationships, such as security, reconciliation, justice, transparency and pluralism.”

“Each step in the process is a daunting task requiring sensibilities for the historical and cultural context in which mediation takes place.”  The mediator needs to develop personal relationships and build trust.  He can facilitate, but he must also have some idea of where the negotiations should go and what is possible in the context.

“The go-between may try to suggest proposals to settle the conflict. One of the fundamental choices for a mediator in designing a peace process is whether to aim for a complete solution directly, or for a process with agreements on more limited issues.  The second approach would begin with, for instance, procedural and confidence-building measures, in the hope of this gradually leading to a fuller agreement.  This is the distinction between a comprehensive and a step-by-step (or gradual) mediation strategy.”

“An official mediator is seldom alone.  Conflicts attract many interests.  Some will act as facilitators for a solution, others as spoilers.  Thus, the international mediator must go not only between the conflicting parties but also between such additional actors. Indeed, in many cases, there can be competing mediation efforts not coordinated with the lead mediation mission.  Not everybody wants to go together with others in a cooperative spirit.  There are even those working against mediation, actively advising primary parties to continue to fight or to wait for a better deal.”

In Eliasson’s mediation efforts, the goal was often to ease or keep communications going between the primary parties, reduce the human suffering from the conflict, stop the fighting for a specific period of time, prevent a resumption or spread of the conflict, and find elements for a final peace agreement.

As the authors note after their analysis of Eliasson’s efforts “The lessons on mediation resources can all be connected to one key word—cooperation.”  There is a need for cooperation with local efforts and forces for peace and between official and unofficial mediators.

“The protracted nature of many peace processes — with negotiations and peace agreements breaking down, followed by new attempts to settle conflict — underline the importance of finding ways for learning the optimal ways of mediation…Important in this regard is the cumulative aspect of international mediation, meaning that initial progress can pave the way for future success down the road.  Even seemingly unsuccessful attempts can build the basis for progress later in the process.”

Svensson and Wallersteen have written a useful analysis, set out questions for future research, and in the footnotes provide a good bibliography of the field.


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 Jan 2014.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Isak Svensson and Peter Wallensteen, is included. Thank you.

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