Making international peace mediation more effective?: A closer look at the rise of mediation support structures in regional organizations

View original


Dr. Katrin Wittig

The field of peace mediation has evolved significantly as violent conflicts have become more protracted and difficult to end. In this context, the last fifteen years have witnessed a proliferation of mediation actors and mediation support structures that work, collaborate and compete in today’s evermore complex conflicts. This upsurge has gone hand in hand with the recognition of mediation as a specialized activity and the need for expertise in topics ranging from ceasefire monitoring to constitution-making and inclusivity. This briefing provides an overview of existing mediation support infrastructures with a focus on regional organizations. It discusses their main challenges and provides an outlook on their value in addressing the specific regional challenges for peace mediation.

The professionalization of mediation

While mediation is an age-old conflict resolution tool, the last five decades have witnessed increasing attempts at establishing mediation as a profession, be it at the national level through alternative dispute resolution (especially since the 1970s) or at the international level through peace mediation (especially since the 2000s).

Proponents of framing mediation as a profession highlight the importance of putting forward professional standards and acquiring specialized knowledge in process design coupled with a recognized set of method-based communication techniques (generally referred to as mediation micro-skills). Skeptics raise concerns that generalizing mediation experiences risks disregarding contextspecific variables as well as the human, trust and intuitive element essential for any meaningful mediation process. The field of mediation is thus characterized by constant tensions between trying to establish fundamentals for mediation while acknowledging the context-specific nature of mediation and thus the difficulty of establishing general guidelines.

What mediation support structures do

The professionalization of international peace mediation has been accompanied by the institutionalization of mediation support. This term refers to assistance provided to mediators, mediation teams or conflict parties with the aim of advancing settlement negotiations. Services include providing 1) operational support through process design advice (on various portfolios from power-sharing to transitional justice); 2) institutional capacity-building through trainings, workshops and coachings; 3) knowledge management and research; as well as 4) networking and experience-sharing.

These tasks have been taken up by various types of mediation support structures (MSSs)2 within state and non-state entities. These structures can take the form of inter-governmental (within international or regional organizations), governmental (within Foreign Ministries or Parliaments), nongovernmental (within mediation or peacebuilding NGOs), hybrids (such as cooperation projects between governmental and non-governmental institutions) and networks3 (like religious, women or youth networks or networks among like-minded organizations). In governmental and non-governmental organizations, MSSs generally constitute standing, in-house staff capacities for the support of peace mediation.

MSSs have developed an increasing number of mediation guidance and lessons-learnt material. The “UN Guidance for Effective Mediation”, issued in 2012, constitutes the best-known example. The same year, the African Union (AU) – with the support of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue – published a set of standard operating procedures for mediation support. Less than two years later, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) put out its “Reference Guide on Mediation and Dialogue Facilitation”. Since then, several sub-regional organizations have followed suit. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) just recently released their own sets of “Mediation Guidelines” as well as “Dialogue and Mediation Training” Curricula.

Despite an upsurge in MSSs, several states have shown initial or continuing resistance to the creation of mediation support capacities as part of intergovernmental organizations as their work is perceived as risking to jeopardize their own diplomatic interests. Resistance also comes from special representatives and envoys themselves, the very beneficiaries of mediation support expertise, who can be averse to bringing in outside experts to support their teams. Additionally, regional desks of intergovernmental organizations and foreign ministries alike have questioned the value added of separate MSSs as they see mediation support as one of their own core tasks.