Over the last two months, we have witnessed a series of unprecedented events in the Middle-East and North Africa, as nation after nation has exploded in revolution, civil disturbance, and rioting. Whilst Libya is currently undergoing the most serious problems, as the days pass, it is also emerging that other players are involved in behind-the-scenes operations, trying to determine outcomes no doubt to serve their own interests. Such players include the US and UK Governments.

As the secret agendas (operations) emerge, it echoes elements of the mediation process, where only after considerable time and patience do any hidden agendas and personal interests begin to surface. In a recent private mediation, it took many hours before secretive issues were expressed and then able to be explored. Watching the Libyan crisis unfold, factions have become entrenched as pro and anti- government forces fight for possession of cities and territories. The same can be seen in hostile negotiation scenarios, where two parties may be driven by their deep seated beliefs of being right; and yet as we are now learning, such positions may be reinforced by other players, unseen or unheard of at the outset, but who nonetheless exert considerable pressure or influence . A few weeks ago I wrote on the subject of assumption, and how it can lead to great mistakes. The evolving crisis in Libya reinforces this principle well: while the world community ignorantly assumed the conflict was a two party affair, it now seems it is not!

The tragedy is that Libya may well descend into a state of complete civil breakdown. Already sanctions are being discussed, and the implementation of no fly zones considered. Yet the hypocrisy is that the very governments who only weeks or months ago, were selling arms and undertaking secret trade deals, are now deciding to act responsibly and want to assert sanctions. But that is politics! For me, the Libyan crisis demonstrates that one should always consider the potential influence of parties or individuals not present at the negotiating table. One may be presented with a briefing for a mediation with the facts outlined and parties identified – but always ask yourself: are there hidden influences to be considered? The problem we face as ADR professionals is we don’t know what we don’t know. Parties in dispute will never, or rarely tell us all the truth. It is up to us to explore, rigorously test, and use every ounce of intuition to discern what else may be at work, driving and influencing the parties’ decisions and stances. Recently in a small business mediation, it transpired that the position of one party was not driven by his desire to find a solution, but that his wife, a silent partner (financially), had intimated all sorts of domestic grief if he did not come up trumps! Likewise on the international scene, in the weeks and months to come, we will no doubt learn more about the US government’s discreet dealings with the Libyan people to overthrow President Gaddaffi - or how many of the hundreds of Libya’s civilian deaths are attributable to recent UK arms exports?

by Howard Stern

Operating primarily in the UK and Europe, Howard works exclusively in conflict and dispute resolution. His work follows a 25 year career in project management, training and development. Howard is a member of the British Civil Mediation Council, accredited by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution as a mediator, and affiliated with various NGOs. His love of travel and the great outdoors has taken him to many places, sometimes in pursuit of his wider professional interests in international politics, and to explore the global pressures facing society as it copes with rapid population growth.