Thousands of books, articles and guides offer a wide array of mediator’s responsibilities and functions. However, in my opinion, this range can be boiled down three very distinctive roles that a mediator should assume simultaneously: 1) a guardian of protocol, 2) an interpreter and 3) a creative contributor. We strongly believe, it is this mix that is key to building up the maximum capacity of a mediator.
Guardian of protocol. This role includes a long list of quite technical, but nonetheless important duties, regarding the organization of the preparatory phase and the holding of the negotiations themselves. The location and venue of the negotiations should be chosen wisely and organized in such a way so that to accommodate the needs of the parties and the mediator. Sufficient resources should be available to support a potentially lengthy negotiation day, and extra capacities for emergencies might be prepared too. During the active negotiation phase mediator should ensure polite and constructive dialogue, adhere to the agenda and set time limits, provide an opportunity for all parties to speak and break for internal talks in separate rooms. Mediator, however, might sometimes want to use his protocol powers to keep parties in the main negotiation room to push for an agreement.
Interpreter. This second role requires not only excellent language and communication skills, but also intuition and sensitivity. Mediator should act as a bridge, as a messenger and as a transistor that ensures that parties are in constant dialogue, that the positions of the opposite sides are mutually known and, most importantly, provided in an acceptable and understandable form that reveals the true underlying interests and, preferably, focuses on commonalities rather than differences. Exchange and interpret, with a view to “produce a clearer and, if possible, less adversarial view of the stated needs of each party, that is one of the primary duties of the mediator. The involvement of a messenger might help to avoid reactive devaluation of mutual proposals, which might happen if adversaries communicate directly.
If we assume that “wars begin in the minds of men” (UNESCO Constitution), “the pacific settlement of conflict (…) relies on efforts to change people’s perspectives, mental framework and predispositions so as to make war seem like a less palatable instrument for conflict resolution.” (Conflict Resolution: New Approaches and Methods, 2000). Thus mediator might be able to encourage parties to abandon their prejudices and evaluate each others positions and suggestions reasonably, without excessive negative feelings. Mediator can encourage the parties to assess their own cases and those of the other side and “perform the role of “reality-checker”, perhaps by assuming a role of a devil’s advocate, if [parties] are unrealistic in their assessment” (Blake et al., 2011). When seen or heard from a distance, a case might appear in a different light and therefore room for concessions might be created.
Moreover, a third party should help separate people from problems – once again appealing to reason, rather than personal feelings, and ultimately focus on interests, not positions. Positions tend to be inflexible and often deceiving, while the revelation of true underlying interests through confiding discussion can prove crucial for the outcome, and it mediator is in the unique position of being able to encourage such a discussion.
Creative contributor. While mediator is supposed to be impartial, it does not mean inactive – his (her) work should not be limited to only technical tasks. In fact, mediator is the only person who not being invested into the conflict personally can take a bird’s eye view of the situation and come up with an out-of-the-box solution, or at least proposition. And proposing is very different from imposing, so conflicting parties can always reject the suggested idea, however, often they will not since it can actually exploit the previously not seen opportunity space. Creative approach is essential when trying to break free from the logic of the zero-sum game, persisting in the Syrian conflict, for instance. This logic suggests that victory of one means definite defeat of another, but this trade-off is very rarely the case. The task of the mediator is to explain that resolution of the conflict can be mutually beneficial.
The problem-solving approach to mediation implies that conflict is a subjective construction, arising from perceived incompatibilities in goals and values, and therefore there is no reason why a complete resolution should be impossible, the perceptions are subject to alteration. Following this approach, mediator should assume the role of a problem-solver and come up with multiple options for mutual gain for the parties to choose from, as well as some objective criteria to serve as a basis for the potential result.
Ultimately, it does not matter who is the hero and who is the villain. What matters, is that there are people with different agendas, and the task of the mediator is to merge these agendas into one, maybe not the most desirable, but acceptable to all parties. I believe that it is the most important and most difficult task – to remain above the situation, above the prejudices and antagonisms, and to think beyond the given and the short-term gains, while sharing this vision with the parties concerned. As it was already mentioned above, success of the mediating efforts lies largely outside the control of the mediator, making it one of the most stressful and challenging jobs. It does not mean, however, that one should not try to assist the conflicting parties blinded with their emotions and immediate interests, and to open their eyes to new opportunities of reaching a peaceful common future.
Beck, A. (2013). Why Annan Failed and Brahimi Struggles: The Challenges of Mediation in Syria. Diplomatic Courrier. Retrieved from http://www.diplomaticourier.com/news/regions/middle-east/1486-why-annan-failed-and-brahimi-struggles-the-challenges-of-mediation-in-syria
Blake, S., Browne, J., & Sime, S. (2011). A Practical Approach to Alternative Dispute Resolution. Oxford University Press.
Brahimi, L., & Ahmed, S. (2008). In Pursuit of Sustainable Peace: The Seven Deadly Sins of Mediation.
Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR): Glossary of terms. (2015). Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.cedr.com/about_us/library/glossary.php
Conflict Resolution: New Approaches and Methods. (2000). UNESCO.
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Mediation Support Unit. (2012). United Nations Guidance for Effective Mediation, 23. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/wcm/webdav/site/undpa/shared/undpa/pdf/UN Guidance for Effective Mediation.pdf
Mitchell, C. R., & Webb, K. (Eds.). (1988). New approaches to international mediation. Greenwood Press.
Swisspeace foundation: Mediation. (2015). Retrieved April 19, 2015, from http://www.swisspeace.ch/topics/mediation.html
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