The Chinese, French, German, Russian, British, American and European Union Foreign Ministers in deliberations with Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, 14 July 2015
In the first century of our era, Mathew the Evangelist wrote “Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” And six centuries before that, in 600 BC, a Greek lawyer called Bias said, “Gain your point by persuasion, not by force. It is better to mediate between enemies than between friends, for a friend is sure to become an enemy and the enemy a friend.”
So we can conclude that conflicts and disputes are a part of the human condition, and conflict resolution is as old as humankind. No one can escape conflict whether at home, in the family or at the workplace. All of us have to deal in peace making and reconciliation after our own fashion.
Conflicts can be of various types: between individuals, businesses, states/provinces, and nations. Conflicts exist between government and opposition, authorities and civil society, and between warring countries or blocs. There are decades-old inherited conflicts, and brand new ones. Every large nation suffers from separatism, and so the list and variety of conflict situations is endless. When people come from diverse backgrounds, with different capabilities and attitudes, or when conflict escalates from aggressive words to violent actions, the process of mediation is even more challenging.
In 1981 an iconic book, Getting to Yes, inspired a whole range of mediation literature, and Harvard University now even has an entire course dedicated to this subject. Most of the formulae proposed by these experts deal with conflicts in business circles. Getting to Yes had a few mediation principles: check each side’s perceptions, avoid blame, draw out the core interests, allow free expression without interruption, communicate only in a polite way, refuse to react to avoid escalation, and express appreciation. To these it could be added that mediation is not a court of law; there are no rules, procedures or precedents. And it may be better to achieve something than end up with nothing.
In practice, however, there is no universal template; each situation is unique and requires improvisation. And a further inconvenient truth is that across the world from Bogota to Mindanao, the vast majority of mediations have ended in failure.
If the disputing parties are ready to accept a mediator, that itself is a giant step forward, which confers authority on the mediator, and pre-supposes that both sides are ready to discuss a settlement.
The disputants may not be equal in hierarchical terms, wisdom, strength or on any other parameter; this may in fact be the root cause of the conflict. A basic equivalence may have to be contrived by the mediator reinforcing the weaker party. But this is a delicate manoeuvre, because the appearance of partisanship will bring mediation to an end.
Negotiation is a process of give and take. In identifying possible areas of compromise, a mediator must be clear on what are the so-called ‘red lines’; the ne plus ultra for each side.
Every party to a conflict has a core position, and it is important that this be recognised and understood. Each side must have the opportunity to freely express its demands and expectations. If this cannot be managed without acrimony in the presence of the other party, then ‘proximity talks’ are an option; which involves the two parties being in reasonable proximity, but not in the same room, requiring the mediator to shuttle between them until such time as both can be brought together for a successful conclusion. But frankly, this option of ‘proximity talks’ is less than an ideal situation, because they usually fail.
The mediator’s role is, according to Henry Kissinger, to “formulate, persuade and perpetuate.” The mediator must present ideas that could form the basis of a solution, identify the various steps towards that settlement, and how the solution can be sustained in future. Occasionally the services of a guarantor organization or individual are called upon, but even this arrangement is fragile. The UN Security Council, for instance, failed to prevent the collapse of the JCPOA or the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
It is claimed that there is no problem that time does not solve, and it is best for the mediator never to appear to be rushed. The mediator must be indifferent to time, and allow rising tempers to cool. A deal struck in the spur of the moment is never a deal for long. The quicker the fix, the sooner it falls apart.
The ideal mediator is patient and pragmatic, neither deferential nor diffident, undeterred by setbacks, and willing to take the responsibility for unpopular compromise. To save the face of the contending parties, the mediator must be ready to act as a lightning rod. Ownership is important and this can never be the mediator’s.
Even if it is the mediator’s formula, the settlement must be in the language of the parties concerned. At the end of the mediation process, both sides should feel that they have achieved something; neither should feel defeated. It is aptly said that the best settlement is when both parties end up feeling equally aggrieved.
Publicity is the enemy of conflict resolution, which is best done behind closed doors until its conclusion. This, for example, has been one of the problems in attempts at reducing tension between India and Pakistan, where one country or the other has sought advantage by briefing to its benefit, thereby terminating the negotiation.
There have been calls in India for the government to mediate in Ukraine and now in Israel-Palestine. India has a very successful record at domestic dispute settlement, in Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab and elsewhere. But overseas, after the Nehruvian period, the record is less commendable. The Tamil Tigers and Sri Lanka is a case in point, as is the political instability in Nepal since the fall of the 240-year old monarchy in 2008.
It could be supposed that India’s expertise is local, not global; but the successful G-20 in India in 2023 belies this presumption, and let us recall that China, with absolutely no previous record of global mediation, proved successful in bridging the profound rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Some governments have built a reputation for mediation, such as Norway, which was involved in the Middle-East and elsewhere. In Norway, with a small population and the locus of the Nobel Peace Prize, the search for amicable settlement has for centuries been a feature of its civil litigation. But there are gaps even in Norway’s international mediation record. It failed in Sri Lanka with the Tamil refusal to disarm. The Swiss and the Swiss-based International Red Cross are active in this arena, using constitutional neutrality, there are some intergovernmental bodies like the UN and Commonwealth, and non-governmental organisations like the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and Interpeace. Another is the Carter Center which worked with some success in North Korea in hostage situations, and Cuba. Gulf states Oman, and especially Qatar, a small rich country with a pan-world airline, an American military base and offices of Hamas and the Taliban, have been active in mediation efforts, especially with issues concerning Iran, and lately, Gaza.
Timing is essential. Mediation can come too soon or too late. Turkey was the ideal mediator in the Russia-Ukraine war, being a Black Sea neighbour, with strong economic ties to Russia and providing arms to Ukraine. It successfully facilitated a settlement in March last year which would have saved at least 400,000 casualties. But it could be said that this arrangement came too soon, and it was aborted from a quarter not present at the negotiation.
There can always be a malign deus ex machina. I was the mediator at talks between the Papua New Guinea government and the insurgents on the island of Bougainville. The understanding was that if the rebels laid down their arms, there would be a cease-fire and talks would begin about devolution of powers. The PNG government at Port Moresby refused to be present, so these were ‘proximity talks’ which took place near Brisbane in Australia. The rebel groups were not united and there was a problem even in addressing them, since they had self-accredited military titles such as the ‘Bougainville Revolutionary Army’. After 10 days hard going, an agreement was reached providing for a ceasefire, but on the way back by sea to Bougainville the rebel boat was fired upon. It is not known who was responsible but indications are that a party not party to the negotiation brought that mediation to an abrupt end.
Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, disciples of Mahatma Gandhi, pioneered mediation and conciliation with a complete difference. The performative and dramatic aspect of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was important to its success. To quote from a contemporary account,
“The Commission itself is theatre, its hearing open to the public, televised and broadcast. The hearings are presided over by the Archbishop himself in full Episcopal purple. The hearings move from town to town, the table for the witnesses set so high that they never have to look up. A large banner on the wall reads Reconciliation through Truth. It could just as easily have read Truth through Reconciliation.”
India’s unique contribution to conflict resolution and the search for reconciliation was manifested in the incomparable person of Mahatma Gandhi. In the Mahatma we were privileged to possess a one man Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a case where one individual’s aura was sufficient to bring a healing touch to even the most fraught and violent situations.
Einstein called it “the convincing power of his personality.” Gandhi believed in the principle of ‘no victor, no vanquished’. This surely has to be the foundational formula for every successful mediation.
(Reproduction of a talk given by the author at the Synergia Conclave, Bengaluru, in November 2023)