Mediation takes place across a range of styles and it is inherently connected to the person who is mediating. As much as the various styles are being used to explain or expose a certain way on how to mediate issues, people, and disputes, the personality, individualism, idealism, and ethics of the mediator play an equal part in success or failure of a mediated process. A third dimension, apart from the styles and personality, is the contextual dimension of the mediated process. Some may feel that mediation principles adhere to all the contexts, be it labour disputes, a peace dialogue, or a cease-fire mediation, and that the only distinction is the style of mediation used, whether it is to contain the violence or to engage into resolving the deeper issues and root causes of a conflict. Others say that there is no blue print when it comes to negotiations skills and that it all depends on a sound understanding of the history and the context. And again other voices say that it may be wise if the mediator knows nothing at all when he or she engages with the party in order to really remain neutral and impartial at all times and throughout the process.
1. Principles of negotiation
When it comes to principles of negotiation, we are all reminded of the teachings and learnings derived out of the Camp David process, the principle of consensual negotiations as taught by eminent scholars at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard. And, in many cases, these principles do apply to a range of settings, contexts, and situations. However, it must be pointed out that mediation differs a lot from negotiation in every aspect of the word. Some schools and training centers do apply the same rationale when it comes to seeking interests instead of positions and focusing on the problem rather than the people. The underlying assumption is that there is an equality of power in terms access to information, equity in representation at the negotiation, and a common set of cultural values, ranging from language to basic human needs. Albeit striving for this theoretical approach is a valid point, mediation needs to take different dimensions and categories into account. In most cases I have been involved in, the first principle to focus on problems rather than people is a problem in itself. Often times, people are the problem. Hence – while the technique of negotiation is a very important skill, it needs to be sequenced differently and in a different settings when we talk about mediated process as mediation focuses on not only voluntarism of working towards a common solution, but most importantly in a change of attitudes. While negotiations focus on a predefined set of activities, e.g. disarmament, power-sharing, etc., mediation focuses on a process. A principle of mediation is therefore that the process of mediation focuses on both, the people and the problems and it is up to the knowledge (less so the skills) of the mediator to get this aligned, building trust and dialogue and a constructive atmosphere, in order for equal negotiations to take place.
2. The moment of ripeness
The teachings of learned scholars tell us that it is important for a conflict to be ripe to be amenable to solutions. This can take place either because the people are tired of war, or the warring parties are running out of military options, etc. This canon has been repeatedly taught in schools, universities and is the foundation for any conflict intervention. It has been complemented by the notion of readiness, where parties, and possibly interveners, need to be “ready” in order to engage in conflict transformation.
From personal experience, I would argue that while these are valid points and tenets, early response and early entry is crucial as it is linked to the right of the individual to be alive and mediation is there to cease, halt or delay the violence. Often times, people refer to success or failure of mediation. The question remains to what extent this can be of importance and to whom? Is it of importance to the mediator, so that he can have another mediated process under his belt or is it of importance to the agency that is sending the mediator? Or isn’t it rather a question of who will benefit from the mediation? Since there are many mediation contexts, I would limit my suggestions onto cease-fire and political mediation, and thus there can be no doubt that in line with the tenets of human rights for the right to live, that a thoughtful and timely early intervention is better than having the population bled out before intervening. It is assumed that not everyone nor every outfit is destined to do such an intervention, yet there are a number of agencies, intermediaries, individuals and insider mediators who, if and when properly equipped can enter the conflict realm and provide throughout mediation services, that can then complement other mediation activities.
More interesting and of importance to the mediator are the intrinsic conflict dynamics and the perception that exist between the parties that guide a mediator’s decision to intervene or not.
3. More knowledge, less doing
Although skills are important, the emphasis is more on knowing than doing. Communication skills and even administrative skills, especially documenting, recording, storing, sharing and reporting, are vital components and corner points of any mediation endeavor. Yet, if there is a toolbox the mediator can use to gain trust and credibility to get his or her job done, then it happens less so by him or her doing something, but rather with him or her knowing about the conflict, knowing about the cultural sensitives, knowing on how to communicate the things that can be said and to explore the things that are left unsaid, knowing on how to use the power to create alliances in order to support mediated processes, and knowing about languages. This, of course, may change, depending on the context and the setting of the mediated process. For instance, if a process requires security arrangements to be agreed upon, then the skills and the knowledge of a technical experts with facilitation skills would be quite useful to use. Furthermore, different conflict environments or topics may necessitate a different range of styles, actors, and complimentarity of efforts and actions in order to succeed. A key competence, which cannot be taught in schools, trainings, or other laboratory experiments, is timing. Knowing not only about the relevance of time in a specific cultural setting, but also knowing when to do what and what time and for what purposes,is a key competence, and, if I may use the term deliberately, a critical skill for any mediator. Again, this may be different for other dispute resolution mechanisms, but it holds definitely true for any mediation effort. Kofi Annans’ intervention in Syria is a case in point. Timing should not be confused with ripeness, since ripeness discusses the issue of intervention or not, while timing suggests that a process is already underway and that the mediator needs to work on changing attitudes, behaviors and motivations of all involved parties at the negotiation table. Knowledge is the essence of any mediation process.
4. Final thoughts
I would like to conclude by emphasizing on the issue of knowledge. Universities, training institutions, and international organisations need to review the way future generations of mediators will be trained, taught, and peer shadowed in order to be effective, not successful or failed, mediators.