Intractable conflicts have been with us for quite some time now. As these conflicts pose a serious threat to international peace and security, we may look at them and ask two basic questions; (1) how and why do they start, and (2) how best to end them? Here, I am concerned with the second issue. Intractable conflicts provide many opportunities for conflict management. Numerous international actors, ranging from private individuals to international organizations have an interest in settling or helping to de-escalate intractable conflicts. The main argument I wish to advance is that of all these efforts, mediation offers the most promising approach to managing intractable conflicts.

How can parties in an intractable conflict manage their difficulties? Parties in such conflicts usually think of violence or coercion as the most appropriate response. Other methods may be available to the parties (e.g. negotiation, recourse to the United Nations, or regional organizations, international adjudication, or asking for an international conference). However, given the nature of their conflict, and entrenched hostility, it would appear that the best approach would be that of mediation.

Part 3: Who are the Mediators?

Given the complexity of intractable conflicts, the level of violence associated with them, and the dangers they pose, it is remarkable that so many political actors are prepared to intervene in these conflicts to transform them, settle them, or simply to ensure they do not become even more dangerous. It is useful to think of all potential mediators in intractable conflicts as falling into one of the following three categories.

1. Individuals. The traditional image of mediation, one nurtured by the media and popular accounts, is that of a single, usually high-ranking, individual, shuttling from one place to another, trying to search for understanding, restore communication, or help settle their conflict. This image is only partly accurate. In many instances, a mediator is an individual who does not have an official role, or who does not represent his/her country in any capacity. People such as Roger Fisher, Adam Curle, Herb Kelman, Leonard Doob, Jimmy Carter, and other members of the International Negotiation Network at the Carter Center intervene in conflicts in different parts of the world as respected persons with a strong commitment to conflict resolution. They do not do so as government officials.

Individual mediators may hold different beliefs, values, and attitudes, and their mediation strategies may exhibit greater flexibility than official state mediators. What they all have in common is knowledge, experience, and commitment to peaceful conflict resolution. Such mediation is normally carried on without the glare of publicity, and permits the parties to engage in some meaningful dialogue should they choose to. As individuals, mediators do not possess significant resources; their behavior is of necessity limited only to communication and facilitation strategies.

2. States. Today there are 198 sovereign and legally equal states, but with different capabilities, regime-structures, and interests, which interact on the international arena. They are major actors in mediation, and often find themselves having to mediate an intractable conflict that may otherwise threaten their own interests. States, both large and small, frequently have reason or motive to mediate in conflicts, especially when these are in their region or where they may have some interests to promote or protect. Whether it is the United States, Switzerland, Norway, or Algeria, states find themselves very often at the forefront of mediation activities.

When a state mediates an intractable conflict, it does so because it feels the conflict is a genuine threat to international peace and regional stability. When this happens, the state concerned, through its official representatives, may marshal all necessary resources behind a mediation effort and give it all the necessary clout. Unlike other mediators, states have considerable tangible resources, means of mobilizing them, and leaders with a mandate to use these resources. States that become engaged as mediators in an intractable conflict may find that they have to use all their resources in order to facilitate an agreement.

3. Institutions and Organizations. The complexity of intractable conflicts is such that states can no longer meet all the mediation requirements, nor facilitate a settlement when conflicts are long, drawn out, and intense. Other bodies and organizations are coming in to offer and deliver different mediation services. We have witnessed a phenomenal growth in the number of international, transnational and other non-state actors as mediators in the last decade or so. These functional actors, many of them falling under the multi-track umbrella, or track II diplomacy, have become an indispensable adjunct to traditional mediation by individuals and states.

Two kinds of actors are important here. They are: (a) specialized non-governmental actors committed to conflict resolution (such as Amnesty International, International Alert, the Carter Center), and (b) a wide variety of religious (the Quakers, Islamic Conference Organization, the Community of Sante Egidio) and civic and humanitarian organizations (The International Committee of the Red Cross, Center for Humanitarian Mediation, Oxfam) whose main concern is to heal, to deal with some of the basic issues in conflict, and achieve reconciliation, and changed attitudes, not just settlement of a conflict.

All these actors have some decided advantages in intractable conflicts; they operate informally and secretly, thus the parties need fear no loss of face. They offer services that other mediators cannot offer, and they may find it easier to gain access to the parties where formal diplomatsmay be viewed with suspicion if not downright hostility. Such actors can be less inhibited in their approach to a conflict, and can afford the luxury of appealing to the parties by promising them to work on all levels of their conflict and to achieve a long lasting solution to their problems.

The United Nations--and other international organizations-- also provide mediation. UN Political Affairs Officer, Nita Yawanarajah, provides a description of UN mediation below:

In the United Nations, the act of mediation describes the political skills utilized in efforts carried out by the United Nations Secretary-General or his representatives, through the exercise of the Secretary General's "Good Offices," without the use of force and in keeping with the principles of the UN Charter. The United Nations mediator engages in a process as a third party, when those in conflict either seek or accept the assistance of the United Nations with the aim to prevent, manage or resolve a conflict. Mediation skills, therefore, could be employed in all of the following contexts:

A United Nations mediation mandate, however, is more specifically defined. When the United Nations is called upon to mediate a resolution to a conflict, the parties accept what is called a mediation mandate. This means that they accept that the UN mediator is there to help and provide them them find solutions to resolve their conflict. A United Nations mediation mandate provides the authority for the Secretary-General or his envoys to:

  • meet and listen to all parties to the conflict;
  • consult all relevant parties for the resolution of the conflict;
  • propose ideas and solutions to facilitate the resolution to the conflict

While the final outcome has to be agreed to by the parties, being a mediator entails a much greater responsibility and involvement in the outcome of the conflict.

As in other mediations, a United Nations mediated outcome is not binding, unless the Security Council takes actions to enforce the agreement. Final implementation of the mediated agreement rests upon the commitment of the parties.

A United Nations mediation mandate is particularly useful to the parties as it gives them the opportunity to avail themselves of the experience and best practices that the United Nations ,as an organisation, has gained in the field of conflict resolution.

Nita Yawanarajah, Project Manager, UN Peacemaker Databank, Policy Planning Unit, Department of Political Affairs, United Nations.

By Jacob Bercovitch

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Jacob Bercovitch is a professor of international relations in the Political Science Department at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He is widely regarded as a leading expert on international mediation, especially in protracted or intractable conflicts that repeatedly erupt into violence. Dr. Bercovitch has written and edited eight books on mediation and conflict resolution, the most recent being Studies in International Mediation (2000, editor) and International Conflict Management: 1945-1995 (1997). He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics.