Mediating for Peace: Lessons from the UN and Norway


A conflict doesn’t end overnight. It’s a long, slow process, in which two parties, once they arrive at the table, go from small negotiations to more contentious ones. By Sushma Joshi Mediation is tough business. UN negotiators more accustomed to the traffic gridlock in Manhattan than the environs of downtown Kathmandu may have found that mediating in a civil war is far from a cocktail party in the Big Apple.

Nepal’s polite but firm refusal to the UN’s advances is not the first time a nation has greeted the UN with a firm “No.” Since 1949, India has strenuously refused UN intervention in the long-standing Indo-Pak dispute over the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian government sought UN intervention in 1949, accusing Pakistan of interference in its internal affairs. During the Security Council debate, the UN got to hear the Pakistani side and set up a commission to arrange for a plebiscite in which the state would vote on accession to India or Pakistan. India, uneasily aware that the majority of the people in Kashmir would be in favour of joining Pakistan, refused to go ahead with the plebiscite. It has since rejected any involvement of the UN in Kashmir.

More usually, it is the rebel forces that reject UN intervention. Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) said “no, thanks” to the UN in 2002. The Colombian rebels wanted the government’s withdrawal from two southern provinces as a precondition for peace talks.

The UN may be invited to mediate in a conflict and then find that its suggestions are roundly rejected. Take Cyprus. Divided in half between the Cypriots of Greek and Turkish origins residing in the island, Cyprus did accept UN intervention. But the UN soon found out how difficult it was to broker a peace settlement when the “Annan Plan” for unification was overwhelmingly rejected in a referendum by the Greek Cypriots. Their internationally backed government went on to join the EU by itself, leaving the Turkish Cypriots out of the picture.

Even when the UN has been actively involved, it may not necessarily be well-equipped to preserve the peace. The most dramatic failure of the UN was in Srebrenica during the Bosnian civil war. 400 Dutch soldiers of the UN force abandoned their posts and failed to prevent the slaughter of 800 Muslim men by the Serbs. In 1998, the Amnesty International criticized the UN tribunal in Rwanda for working too slowly, compromising the rights of some suspects and failing to protect witnesses.

The UN seems to do better with territorial disputes that do not already involve massive loss of human life and historic resentments.

This uneven history of UN intervention may have been the reason why the Government of Sri Lanka invited Norway to act as the mediator in 1999. Norway was perceived not to have any vested interests in Sri Lanka. It has also had a long presence in Sri Lanka through the presence of organizations like the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) and Redd Barna. It is knowledgeable about the Sri Lankan situation. It was also unable to impose conditionalities and depended upon the goodwill of the conflicting parties to follow through with the suggested solutions. The Norwegians have strong experience in international mediation in Guatemala, Colombia, Haiti, Sudan, Aceh, and the Philippines, among others.

Four peace talks were held between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) between 1985 and 1994; Norway-mediated 2002 talks were the fifth peace attempt. Norway’s mediation in the Sri Lankan peace process has not been an easy task. There have been accusations of favouritism from both parties. Ceasefires have broken down on the Tigers’ side. But the government of Sri Lanka has kept channels open, and, thus far, the conflict seems to have quieted down. As Norway’s peace envoy to Sri Lanka, Erik Solheim, said: “No one expects the conflict to be solved in weeks or months.”

Lessons learnt from the Norwegian experience? Support negotiations of the warring parties. Support mechanisms to monitor commitments. Demonstrate real “peace dividends” that benefit people on the ground. Norway’s State Secretary Vidar Helgesen echoed these sentiments in Bangkok in November 2004.

But before all this can start, there has to be a genuine desire for peace. Helgesen rightly said: “It is important to keep in mind that successful mediation is only possible if both parties have a genuine will for peace. History shows us that sustainable peace agreements can only be achieved if the parties themselves are committed to the solution. They are the ones who need to make bold choices. If parties to conflict are not willing to do so, there is little a third party can do.”

A conflict doesn’t end overnight. It’s a long, slow process, in which two parties, once they arrive at the table, go from small negotiations to more contentious ones. Building up trust and respect between the two parties is of prime importance. In Nepal’s case, that might mean leaving children out of the conflict by both parties, to start with. Stopping torture could be a second step. Not blockading food to civilian populations might be a third.

Peace and prosperity go together. The masters of peaceful leadership are also the masters of wealth – Norway topped the overall UN wealth ranking for four years, from 2000 to 2004. The ranking takes into account life expectancy, income and educational attainment. It was followed by Sweden and Australia. America may be the brashest country when it comes to boasting of its wealth, but President Bush’s constant wars have taken a toll – it came eighth in 2004.

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