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Examining Mediation as a Tool to Resolve International Political Disputes

[This article has been authored by Tarasha Gupta, an Editor at Mapping ADR.]

Keywords: Mediation, Politics, Diplomacy, International Relations, Conflict


Mediation is a conflict resolution process whereby disputants take the assistance of a third party (a state, group of states, or organization) to settle their conflict without the use of physical force or invoking the authority of law. The United Nations’ Guidance for Effective Mediation stresses a number of key fundamentals that need to be considered for successful international mediation, including consent, impartiality, inclusivity, national ownership, and quality peace agreements.

While mediation has been used to solve conflicts for centuries in the private and commercial realm, it is equally, if not more, useful to solve larger international political disputes as well, for three reasons. First, the destructive capability of states’ weaponry makes the cost of conflict extremely high in such situations. Mediation, therefore, provides a quicker and relatively cost-effective method of resolving disputes. Second, within the international sphere, there is no adherence to generally accepted rules, nor is there a central authority regulating states’ behaviour. Third, power is diffused across a myriad of units in the international sphere, all of which wish to protect their sovereignty. Mediation, through its non-coercive and voluntary nature, is, therefore, an effective tool to deal with differences between these antagonistic interests, as it does not endanger states’ right to act according to their own wishes.

In light of the above, this article examines the use of mediation in resolving international political disputes. It explores the role of mediators in such disputes, the definition of a “successful” mediation process, and the external influences on such outcomes.

The Role of Mediators in International Disputes

Bercovitch and Langley argue that it is futile to distinguish between mediation, conciliation, facilitation, diplomacy, and fact-finding, as a mediator often employs one or more of these strategies to resolve an international conflict. The role taken on by a mediator can be described on a “continuum of ascending levels of involvement”, depending on the circumstances of the conflict. Mediators may adopt a procedural strategy by deciding the agenda, timing, meeting place, or other arrangements of meetings between the disputants, to reduce the stress on parties that may not have a prior history of peace-making. They may also take a more interventionist role by promoting a specific outcome or attempting to influence parties through diplomatic sanctions or providing humanitarian aid (the directive strategy of mediation).

The adoption of a more prescriptive approach by the mediator is disadvantageous, and may even be at odds with principle of national ownership in the mediation process; for a settlement to be effectively implemented, it must be a voluntary consensus between the disputants themselves, and mediators cannot impose solutions upon them. To illustrate the ineffectiveness of highly prescriptive international mediation, one may consider the mediation in Sudan led by the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (“IGAD”). In 1994, the IGAD prepared the ‘Declaration of Principles’ outlining the essentials for achieving peace in Sudan, however, because it ran contrary to the position of the Sudanese government, it was not endorsed by them for another four years. Similarly, Trump’s Israel-Palestine peace plan failed to take the input of Palestinian leaders and was thereby rejected by them.

At the same time, merely playing a procedural role may not be beneficial to the mediation process. Depending on the circumstances, it may be preferable for the mediator to have an increased degree of involvement. For example, the UN Secretary-General’s special representative to Palestine remarked in 1948 that the parties wanted to receive his ideas for settlement during the process. The role of a mediator must therefore remain flexible and be shaped based on disputants’ expectations from the process. Further, Princen’s analysis of then US President Jimmy Carter’s mediation at Camp David explains that Carter saw his role as mediator to be simply facilitating improved communication and that it was the disputants’ job to solve the conflict. He would simply come up with a “blueprint” for the solution. However, the circumstances of the dispute did not allow this, and an agreement was reached only when Carter became, in effect, a third negotiating party (this was partly also due to his position as US President).

Therefore, the role of a mediator is highly contingent on the circumstances of the conflict itself. There is no one-size-fits-all model of mediator involvement which can be imitated for success in each instance. Their role may also be influenced by factors external to the mediation process itself, as will be explained later in this article.

What Constitutes “Successful” International Mediation?

As mentioned earlier, the United Nations’ Guidance for Effective Mediation notes “quality peace agreements” as a fundamental of international mediation. However, although a mediation process is usually considered successful if it results in the signing of a peace agreement, that does not translate into conflict resolution or the creation of long-term, durable peace. In fact, more than half of all civil war peace agreements arrived at through regional governmental organization mediation fail within a week. For example, after mediation by the United States, Russia, and the United Nations in 1991 in Angola’s civil war, the two disputing factions agreed to sign the Bicesse Accords. However, this did not lead to peace; after the elections, Angola returned to a devastating war, causing over 300,000 casualties in two years.

Therefore, it is important to look beyond short-term consensus and the creation of a peace agreement in defining successful international mediation. This leads to the question of enforcement of the consensus reached through mediation; if the formulation of an agreement clearly does not translate to durable peace, is it the job of the mediator to ensure enforcement of the agreement as well? Laurie Nathan answers this question in the negative. Noting that the blurred line between mediation and enforcement leads to the reduction of mediation to power-based diplomacy, Nathan argues that mediation and enforcement should be conducted by separate actors. Enforcement measures taking the form of punitive action such as sanctions are ineffective; less than a third of sanctions implemented between 1914 and 1990 achieved the intended foreign policy goal. Punitive measures also directly hindered the mediation process in Burundi, where sanctions undermined Tutsi confidence in reconciliation, prolonging hostilities. The adoption of punitive enforcement measures further makes the mediator a party to the conflict, violating the process’s characterization as a third-party intervention.

Stedman’s definition of successful international mediation, used by Bercovitch as well, appears to pre-empt the concern of joint mediation and enforcement. It posits that success occurs when, firstly, an agreement is reached by third-party intervention, and, secondly, the agreement is implemented such that the disputing parties refrain from returning to war “when the outsiders leave”. By defining success as the continuance of peace once third-party intervention ends, it removes from the purview of “successful” mediation situations where peace is only achieved due to the mediator’s enforcement of the peace agreement.

If this is the case, then it is clear that the outcome of mediation is not dependent solely on the mediation process itself; it is shaped by many external influences, including the disputants’ willingness to abide by the agreement, which is often out of the mediators’ control.

External Influences on the Outcome of International Mediation

Typically, heavy emphasis is placed on the mediator and their dexterity as the key determinant of the success or failure of international mediation. However, it is only one of many influences on the outcome of the mediation process. The most obvious external influence is the nature of the dispute itself. Bercovitch and Langley’s empirical study concludes that lengthy, complex disputes with high number of fatalities are “incompatible with successful mediation”, as they are intensely hostile and less “amenable to mediation”.

Their study also notes how the substantive nature of the issues at stake have, in previous research, been found to directly impact mediation outcomes. Generally, “intangible” issues of legitimacy concerns, national honour, and concerns of the image are associated with prolonged hostility between disputants. On the other hand, disputes involving “tangible” issues (those which can be concretely measured, such as money, territory, etc.) are relatively easier to mediate. For Bercovitch & Langley, the implication for mediators is that they should repackage issues and focus on tangible issues for the mediation process to be successful. Application of this suggestion, however, seems ineffective for most disputes, which often involve a combination of both tangible and intangible issues. For example, a dispute appearing to be merely territorial may be rooted in parties’ concerns of their image and the national honour associated with occupying that territory. Therefore, the suggestion of focusing on tangible issues merely to achieve an agreement is not necessarily favourable; as has been previously noted, mediation cannot be deemed successful simply because an agreement is reached. To create long-term, durable peace, it is necessary for international mediation to address and resolve the differences causing the dispute, not just its symptoms. Thus, this suggestion should not be taken as a model guaranteeing success if imitated. Rather, its use should be limited to those conflicts where the root of the dispute may be expressed in tangible issues, not simply when the dispute impacts tangible issues.

Next, the institutional body to which the mediator belongs to also significantly impacts the outcome of mediation. For example, Zach Vertin’s report on mediation in Sudan noted that the internal politics of the IGAD impacted not only the composition of the mediation team but ultimately would “infect” and “complicate” the peace process. Further, institutional predispositions impact the flexibility and mandate of their mediators, thereby impacting the outcome of a possible agreement. For example, the Organisation of African Unity (“OAU”) in a 1964 Resolution of the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government forbade secessionism and irredentism, a stance reiterated in a 1967 Resolution. This led to the OAU attempting to resolve successionist struggles while opposing the main demand of one of the parties. It further bars redrawing borders as a solution to conflict even if both parties agree to it.



Unlike other kinds of mediation, international mediation does not come to an end when parties reach an agreement. Even if the methods suggested by the studies cited in this article are used to reach a peace agreement, its durability and enforceability is often dependent on factors external to the mediation process itself. The high-stakes nature of the disputes at hand also makes splitting differences an undesirable outcome, requiring reconsideration of traditional mediation techniques.

This article, therefore, reaches three conclusions with respect to international mediation, each having implications for mediators’ strategy. First, mediators’ level of involvement should depend on the circumstances of the conflict and must strike a balance between the two ends of a continuum. Second, international mediation cannot be deemed “successful” simply because parties have reached an agreement. Rather, consideration of durable, long-term peace is crucial. Finally, the outcome of international mediation is contingent on several factors external to the mediation process itself.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, it is important to note that mediation is and should be tailored to specific conflicts, and arguments encouraged or discouraged in this article may not be applicable in all circumstances. Instances of successful international mediation should remain examples, and not imitable models, of success. As this article has established, a mediation strategy that is successful in one instance may be detrimental in another; an increased level of mediator involvement made Jimmy Carter’s mediation successful but reduced the level of national ownership in Trump’s and the IGAD’s peace plans. A mediator’s focus on tangible issues may successfully resolve some disputes, however, this may be ineffective when the dispute is rooted in intangible issues. Therefore, it is crucial that mediators remain flexible and craft their techniques according to the circumstances of the dispute.

Additionally, there is a need to improve the legitimacy of the third parties intervening as mediators, in order to foster the growth and development of international mediation. Mediating states and institutions must be seen as just, fair, and unpartisan. Unfortunately, as previously enumerated, history proves otherwise – since their interests are impacted by international political disputes, mediators sometimes ignore one disputant in favour of the other. Yet, without correcting this perception through practice, disputants will view the process with suspicion, and mediation will never occur in the first place.

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