Why are Some Mediations Successful and Others Not?

Evan Hoffman, PhD, is a Senior Associate at the Canadian International Institute of Applied Negotiation. Dr. Hoffman has published numerous articles on conflict prevention and resolution, peacebuilding, and mediation; and he has provided consulting services to: the Carter Center, the UN, the EU, the Ottawa Police Service, St. Lawrence College (Cornwall), the Vietnamese Ministry of Justice and others on these topics. He tweets at @drevanhoffman.

Mediation aims to bring a lasting resolution to a conflict between two or more parties; it is akin to negotiation, but with the addition of a neutral, 3rd party mediator to assist in the process. Mediators (and negotiators) strive to achieve both short-term success, like reaching a new agreement— and a continuation of that agreement over the long-term. The obstacle to reaching a short-term success is that no agreement is reached; the obstacle to achieving long-term success is that an agreement collapses.

Mass action is a very powerful instrument that can either support or challenge a peace process.”—Thania Paffenholz

In recent research I undertook about durable peace following civil wars, I identified the management of both power and spoilers as essential to the construction of a durable peace resulting from mediation. An agreement that creates a lasting, durable peace must provide balance between the parties to the conflict and address power inequalities.

Balanced agreements bridge the positions of parties to a conflict, equitably dividing resources, such as disputed territory, between the groups. Contrastingly, unbalanced agreements have provisions that hinder a party by reducing its power and/or overlooking the very issues which drive the conflict itself. Faced with an unbalanced agreement, the party on the disadvantaged side of the agreement has no incentive to implement the settlement and may renege by resuming conflict.

The list below provides a snapshot of four lessons that can guide future mediation efforts in cases of civil and international wars. A more complete list is also available.

4 Challenges to Successful Mediation

  1. Power struggles between conflicting parties must be channeled into nonviolent mechanisms and processes. This can only happen when mediators possess an understanding of how the previous conflict was structured. Previous power structures that played a part in perpetuating violence must be altered or rebuilt. For example, according to this International Crisis Group (ICG) report, the recent peace agreement in Mali is deeply flawed because it reinforces existing political institutions which are believed by some to perpetuate the conflict because they exclude important groups from fully participating in the government.
  1. Mediators may need to sacrifice their neutrality by empowering the weaker party, weakening the more powerful party, or by siding with one party against an agreement which they have judged to be detrimental to durable peace. For example, US Special Envoy to the Balkans and the US lead diplomat in that mediation process, Richard Holbrooke was ready to assign blame to one side and use military force if necessary in order to support the larger peace process by altering the power dynamics.

A recent examination of 83 peace agreements in 40 countries from 1989-2004 found that peace is 60% less likely to fail when both civil society actors and political parties participate in the process.

The example above demonstrates a directive mediation strategy and it is not useful in all scenarios. Rather, it may even be harmful. To ensure a successful long-term outcome (sustained nonviolence), a mediator may defer to such a strategy, but must do so with a conscious understanding of where they stand on the tricky ethical question of exerting their power. This article offers several helpful guidelines on the ethical use of force in mediation.

  1. Once mediators are reasonably sure that short-term success is likely to be achieved via mediation, they need to switch their focus to long-term peace. A focus on both the short and long-term needs of a peace plan must be maintained. For example, some argue that the peace process in Myanmar (Burma) should focus on resolving the current conflict while also preparing contingency plans in the event that a new, national peace agreement that includes all actors cannot be reached. Similarly, in an effort to establish peace between Uganda and Sudan, The Carter Center undertook extensive efforts over the course of several years to implement the 1999 Nairobi Agreement, including holding 3 days of talks to agree on the additional steps required to implement the agreement thus demonstrating a long-term commitment to implementing the peace agreement.
  1. (Photo Credit: "Aung San Suu Kyi mural, Vine Street" by Dom Pates Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0). Accessed 06/23/2015.)

    (Photo Credit: “Aung San Suu Kyi mural, Vine Street” by Dom Pates Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0). Accessed 06/23/2015.)

    Mediators should consider the implementation phase of mediation and whether spoilers will emerge. According to the ICG, non-signatories to the agreement in Mali risk being labelled as spoilers by the Malian government and then eliminated through military force. ICG’s advice, unsurprisingly, is that the mediators need to be more inclusive and bring all the relevant parties into the peace talks now. Fortunately, these “potential spoilers” can be proactively managed at this stage in the peace process since they have been identified early, but all too often it would seem that spoilers are not identified early enough and/or properly managed, thus leading to the collapse of a peace agreement.

Mediators often face restrictions or limitations because of narrow mandates, little (or misguided) political will, inadequate resources, restrictive contexts, lack of international support for their efforts or poor planning and execution of the mediation process. The peace processes in South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and many other countries have been struggling for these very reasons. Nevertheless, much has been learned about how a mediator can help create a context to achieve a successful outcome. Actors involved with planning mediation, or actually mediating, should take the time to learn from past successes and failures.
(Feature Photo Credit: “Mali begins Touareg dialogue | بدء الحوار بين مالي والطوارق | Le Mali entame le dialogue avec les Touaregs” by Magharebia. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0). Accessed 06/23/2015.)

  1. Claudia says:

    Thanks for engaging with such a complex topic. I personally find that one of the biggest issues international mediation is the lack of neutrality. Look at Israel-Palestine and the pressure so many negotiations have been under. “Mediators” never really supported the parties in finding their own agreement, they’ve either been absent or too involved.
    Another problem is that mediation, at this level, takes time. No one ever acknowledges that, everyone is running for the quick, mediatic fix and it never works. And when that doesn’t work, then there is an ever faster race to violence.
    Last but not least, the question of justice. Is it always possible to do or have justice in the process of reaching a peace agreement? I think that sometimes, given all the hurt on both ends, it is easier to actually talk about social restoration or rebuiling trust and connection within the communities so that life can go on.

  2. Evan says:

    Dear Claudia:

    Many thanks for sharing your comment and I agree with you that this is an extremely complex topic.

    Like you mention, there are many factors other than just the 2 that I looked at that can help explain mediation success.

    Time is an interesting one and to the best of my knowledge there isn’t much –if any- research on that particular topic. Perhaps the closet thing we have is the notion of ripeness.

    The question of justice is a good one too, and my sense is that the field still hasn’t reached a consensus on how to handle justice issues in peace processes and this is a very pertinent topic. Just today, for example, I saw a news story about FARC rebels in Colombia saying they reached a deal with the government regarding amnesty for past war crimes. See http://colombiareports.com/did-colombias-government-and-farc-rebels-reach-a-deal-on-justice/

    So, it would seem there is still much room for more research on these questions!


  3. Olam Geoffrey says:

    The following are the factors why mediation fails,
    -The mind set of most of the people,thought that,court is the only way to resolved conflict.
    -People based on their wealth status and other power sources like gun,human resource among other.
    -Inadequate knowledge and skills in mediation made to fail
    -Higher % of people have not understood the impact of mediation

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