International Mediation: What Works and Why?

Lori’s post below prompted me to look back at an article I wrote for DIPLOMAT magazine back in 2012 about the history and subtlety of international mediation. Here it is.

What I wrote then about neutrality in mediation – and the sacrifice it requires from a mediator (my added emphasis):

One way to be a credible and efficient mediator is to appear unambiguously peaceful and reasonable, with no practical interest in the outcome. Norway has done well in recent years by projecting this national image to make an impressive contribution. As the New Statesman put it in 2003: ‘Spin the globe and put your finger on a conflict, and there is a chance you will find a Norwegian trying to resolve it…Norway has become a peace superpower.’ Norway can point to significant progress in a number of high-profile conflicts, including the Middle East (most notably the 1993 Oslo Accords) and Sri Lanka.

Likewise people armed only with religious authority can make a positive difference. A classic modern example is the Beagle Channel dispute between Chile and Argentina over islands and sea areas at the very foot of South America. The issue boiled over in December 1978 when Argentine troops seized disputed territory. Pope John Paul II quickly sent a personal envoy to the two capitals, a move which led the two countries to resolve the problem peacefully. After six years hard work (and the intervening Falklands War between the UK and Argentina, when Chile sided with the British) this mediation brought about a bilateral Treaty of Peace and Friendship.

That sort of high-profile religious diplomacy is exactly what the Quakers strive to avoid. Early Quaker leaders, such as Robert Barclay, believed that those who accepted Christ’s message would naturally reject all forms of warfare. In 1678, Barclay wrote An epistle of love and friendly advice to the ‘ambassadors of the several princes of Europe, met at Nimeguen to consult the peace of Christendom’, urging them ‘to give up their evil ways’.

A century later, Barclay’s grandson and other Quakers tried hard, but unsuccessfully, to prevent war between the American colonies and London. Quaker Joseph Sturge had rather better results in 1850, persuading Danish leaders towards recognition with the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein. His later interventions to try to stop the Crimean War of 1853-1856 were welcomed by Tsar Nicholas but roundly condemned in the British press.

Undaunted, the Quakers made many attempts to promote peace as the Machine Age wars swept the planet. The British and American Friends won the Nobel peace Prize in 1947 for their work in post-war relief operations.

Private Quaker initiatives continue to this day, having a special approach based on quiet listening aimed at helping people involved achieve inner peace and so be more receptive to new ideas. But this requires a level of self-denial not always found in professional diplomats.

Quaker peace worker Mike Yarrow says: ‘It takes a certain amount of courage to intervene in a complicated, dangerous situation…to keep it up the conciliator needs some sense of satisfaction. All this can readily build up to a feeling that the individual is essential to the resolution of the conflict, and even that he or she has the solution. Such feelings are fatal to this kind of unofficial effort.’

This is why the sort of mediation attempted by various governments or even the United Nations in the Middle East and elsewhere often does not get far. These government/official-mediators themselves can have too much at stake, not least their own reputations.

That adds a layer of complexity to already fiendishly complicated issues. And detracts from what the parties themselves may think – and need.

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