Thursday, 21 April 2011 22:49

Middle East and North Africa uprisings - why do conflict parties resist ‘mediation’ efforts?

While commentators continue to debate military intervention in Libya, other, political efforts are also underway by the international community to help resolve the conflicts besieging North Africa and the Middle East. But why are these being met with resistance? And can they really be considered ‘mediation’, or are they something else?

The last few weeks saw several offers of ‘mediation’ from the international community to the conflict parties in Libya and the Yemen, respectively: building on its ongoing attempts to find a political solution in Libya, Turkey proposed its own ‘road map’ for peace on 8th April, including:

  1. An immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of Gaddafi’s forces from certain cities

  2. A humanitarian corridor and unfettered humanitarian access

  3. An ‘inclusive process for democratic change’

Turkey’s efforts have met with some resistance: already some days earlier, groups had gathered outside the Turkish consulate in Bhengazi to protest its role, in particular its refusal to sell arms to the opposition, according to Turkish Daily Hurriyet.

Similarly, an African Union delegation of heads of states arrived in Libya on 10th April, headed by South African President Jacob Zuma. They too brought with them a concrete peace plan that included:

  1. An immediate ceasefire

  2. No restrictions to the delivery of humanitarian aid

  3. Protection of foreign nationals

  4. A political settlement through dialogue between the government and the rebels

  5. Eventual suspension of Nato air strikes

While according to the delegation, Colonel Gaddafi accepted their peace proposal, they were met by angry protesters upon arrival in Bhengazi, rejecting any plans that could involve Gaddafi staying in power.

In Yemen meanwhile, mediation overtures from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) received similarly mixed responses: they were first welcomed by President Saleh, and then rejected by him. He apparently objected to comments from Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister that the mediation would lead to his eventual stepping-down, describing them as ‘belligerent intervention’. More recently, it seems President Saleh again accepted the GCC proposal as a framework, including a transfer of power to his deputy; and immunity from prosecution, so long as this remained within the parameters of the constitution. The Yemeni opposition meanwhile has rejected this deal, announcing a deadline for Saleh’s departure.

Why is it that parties, or wider groups in society, reject ‘mediation’ offers in this way? Mediation good practice may offer some insights here for the international community:

First, mediators need to win the trust of all sides. A key ingredient of such trust is true ‘omnipartiality’ – that is, not being partial to any side’s position or favoured outcomes; or indeed, favouring any particular outcome at all. In this, rather purist, understanding of mediation, mediators are there to accompany a process; and to leave the content of the discussion, and the identification of options and solutions, to the parties themselves. All three mediation efforts described here fall short in this regard, as they put very concrete proposals on the table from the start.

Secondly, mediation may not be the favoured means for resolving a conflict at all; or it may not come at the right time: opposition in Yemen and Libya voice concern that settling the conflicts at this time may be premature, and may pre-empt their favoured outcome, namely a removal of Colonel Gaddafi and President Saleh respectively. Hence their rejection of mediation efforts by the AU and GCC: those involved in the uprisings say that there are times when civil resistance needs to run its course in order to topple a repressive regime or effect fundamental social and political change. There are many examples of this in history, ranging from India to Poland and the Philippines. Outside efforts at hasty settlements will then be viewed with suspicion.

This does not mean that outsiders should stand by idly where violence erupts. Mediation good practice instead suggests that ceasefire negotiations as a humanitarian priority, and talks on the substance of a dispute, need to be distinguished and carefully sequenced.

In fact, it may be more appropriate to call these recent international efforts ‘diplomacy’ rather than ‘mediation.’ What is the difference? The former can involve a whole range of tools in the diplomatic toolkit, including deal-brokering, arm-twisting, or imposition of a particular outcome by a powerful outsider (and there may be times when these are effective at settling a conflict). The latter is: a voluntary effort involving an impartial third party to help parties to a conflict find their own solutions to their own problems.

To be sure, the lines between the two are often blurred: one actor may be engaging first in one, then the other; or even in both at the same time. But it is still a distinction worth making: mediation offers a real and potentially powerful alternative, where deal-brokering etc. are not effective and do not lead to a satisfactory solution. And there may still be a strong case for such mediation in the ongoing uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East – if it comes at the right time, and if the parties accept it.

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