Lessons from Multilateral Envoys

Jan Eliasson, the then Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Darfur (fourth from left at the table), in January 2007 meets internally displaced persons' representatives in the United Nations Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS) compound. ©UN Photo/Fred Noy

Alischa Kugel

Richard Gowan

This is the first essay in a series of seven that looks at the role of multilateral envoys in peacemaking.

Mediation was a central concern for the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations convened in October 2014. The group had a deliberately broad mandate to review the UN’s peacekeeping operations (PKOs) and Special Political Missions (SPMs). It was authorized to assess and advise on challenges to the Secretary-General’s good offices and the “special and personal envoys of the Secretary-General” that are part of the broader category of SPMs. While the Panel discussed mediation issues in this context, it also had to consider how the UN’s field-based political missions, regional offices and large-scale PKOs handle mediation issues. Additionally, its purview included the UN’s partnerships with regional organizations and other actors, allowing the Panel to look at how UN operations coordinated with regional players in cases such as South Sudan.

The Panel was well-positioned to propose improvements to the ways in which the UN selects, deploys and backstops envoys and mediators; supports mediation in cases where PKOs and SPMs are deployed; and works with partners, including not only regional organizations but also individual states and international NGOs on mediation. This is, of course, only one of many areas ranging from Security Council mandates to logistics chains that the Panel was mandated to study. It had to juggle the concerns and interests of numerous different constituencies inside and outside the UN.

A basic question for the Panel was whether the UN can defend its traditional role as an impartial actor in conflict prevention and conflict resolution. This is crucial in a period in which the Security Council has requested a PKO to “neutralize” specific opponents (e.g., the Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC), and many SPMs work closely with non-UN-commanded peace enforcement missions.Can the UN retain its role as mediator in parallel with coercive measures authorized by the Council?

This question is further complicated by the need for a realistic assessment of how non-UN actors’ mediation activities impact the work of UN peace operations. In many cases, hybrid mediation is clearly advantageous for the UN. Yet in several recent cases, such as South Sudan and Mali, blue helmet missions have been cut out of crucial political processes by regional actors despite having thousands of troops on the ground. What happens to a UN mission when it loses the political initiative in this way?

Considerable progress that has been made in terms of mediation support inside and outside the UN since 2000. The UN has strengthened its systems for deploying and sustaining PKOs in the wake of the 2000 Brahimi Report, and has taken significant steps to bolster SPMs. It has also expanded its support systems for envoys and mediators over the last fifteen years. The creation of the Mediation Support Unit and Mediation Standby Team – inspiring complimentary efforts in other regional organizations and in civil society – means that the UN is able to provide more consistent and professional support to political processes than previously capable.

Nonetheless, demands for such services from those working in the field is high. UN officials and friendly member states complain that mediation remains under-resourced. Strategic dilemmas confront the UN and other mediators in an increasingly fragmented international environment. There are obstacles to mediation, but there are also opportunities through partnerships with local actors in countries affected by conflict. How can the UN make best use of these relationships?

The Envoys Project

The essays in this series are based on research a Center on International Cooperation (CIC), largely undertaken in 2014, on multilateral envoys.  CIC was lucky to have the advice and support of the Center in Humanitarian Dialogue as we designed and undertook this work (although the responsibility for the final conclusions is our own. As part of this research, CIC conducted interviews with the African Union (AU), Commonwealth, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), European Union (EU), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and UN officials and also studied public material on other organizations. The Center for Humanitarian Dialogue provided considerable support for this work.

This research – based on a study of 50 envoys with a focus on addressing specific conflicts deployed by the UN, regional organizations and other multilateral organizations at the end of 2013 – only gives part of the picture of international mediation.As another recent study has emphasized, “states still remain the single most important type of mediator” while NGOs are also key actors in the field.Even when the UN and regional actors are involved in a conflict, they do not necessarily deploy a formal envoy.

But studying formally-appointed envoys does help raise three questions that, while hardly unfamiliar to the mediation community, may need some answers. First, what are the strategic demands on multilateral mediators today, and what organizations are taking the lead in response to these demands? Second, how professional and systematic is the support is these mediators receive? Third, what are the lessons for the UN in terms of collaborating with other actors in mediation processes?

Multilateral Envoys: A Strategic Profile

As of late 2013, we identified 50 envoys meeting our criteria for dealing with specific conflicts mandated by the organizations covered by our study. Twenty-eight of these were working on a conflict where at least one other multilateral envoy was also active. Of these, sixteen were UN envoys; seven represented the African Union; eleven other African organizations; and sixteen other organizations. The concentration of multilateral activity in Africa is clear: 30 of the 50 individuals worked on the continent, in contrast to seven in the Asia-Pacific; six in the Middle East; five in Europe and two in the Americas. We are presently reviewing these figures to factor in the last year’s events in Ukraine, the Middle East and Africa but we presume that the latter will remain the main focus of multilateral efforts.

Reflecting this trend, 24 of the envoys we covered at the time of this research were Africans themselves (and 22 of them are dealing with conflicts on the continent). Multilateral envoy-hood otherwise appears to be a distinctly European trade: seventeen of our subjects come from Europe, with the remainder largely coming from the Americas and Asia-Pacific. Of the UN-mandated envoys in the study, six were African and five were European. Such categorizations can obviously obscure key factors about the personalities involved: as an Algerian, for example, Lakhdar Brahimi features in our data as an African but his experience and networks in the Middle East, Europe and globally are essential to his political leverage.

Nonetheless, the data emphasizes two points. The first is that, at least in the field of multilateral mediation, the mantra of “African solutions to African problems” is increasingly a reality. (As a point of comparison, five of the SRSGs currently leading UN PKOs in Africa are from the continent, whereas four come from elsewhere.)The second is that, in a global context where European power seems to be diminishing, Europeans punch above their weight in multilateral diplomacy. It is worth asking whether the increased tensions on Europe’s borders will now absorb more of its best diplomats – and if there is a strategic case for expanding the pool of UN mediators from other regions. There is only one Asian and one Latin American citizen working as a UN envoy, SRSG or DSRSG dealing with conflict-related matters deployed in Africa at the present time.

The data also reaffirms the well-established observation that multilateral envoys typically deal with civil wars and their consequences: fully 26 in our sample were dealing with intra-state conflicts and transitional political processes in late 2013. Seven were dealing with conflicts involving non-state armed groups of various types, while seven more were focused on inter-state conflicts and six on land or border disputes between countries.

Again, these figures highlight a clear trend while obscuring a number of qualifying factors. They also obscure geographical factors, such as the absence of multilateral envoys from most Asian conflicts. A comparative study for this project by Teresa Whitfield emphasizes that multilateral envoys tend to be handling internationalized civil wars, whereas they are often excluded from more contained conflicts. Moreover, multilateral envoys have largely been excluded from mediating or facilitating peace talks with transnational Islamist extremist groups. Given the threat posed by such actors to peace operations and humanitarian efforts in cases like Libya, Mali and Syria, Whitfield’s findings raise hard questions about how UN and non-UN mediators can adapt to current conflicts.

Mediation Support and Professionalization

The growing challenges to multilateral envoys raise questions about how well-supported and professional these individuals are. Academic mediation analysts typically underline the importance of mid-level staff in managing peace processes. Senior multilateral envoys do not always defer to their juniors so readily. In the words of one international official interviewed during our work, “sometimes we take for granted that high profile people will know certain things . . . we need people who know all the daily nuts and bolts of the process, someone who knows all the discussions and the complexity. Otherwise we can miss a lot.” Nonetheless, multilateral organizations (especially in Africa) continue to invest a great deal of trust in high-profile figures. The average age of the individuals in our sample was a little over 64 at the time the survey was completed – but depressingly, only three of the entire group were women.

While there remains a strong case for involving senior figures as mediators, some African officials raised concerns about reliance on grandees: “They are limited in what they can do and bound by time constraints in a process that shouldn’t be bound by time.”

In this context, ensuring skilled and well-resourced nuts-and-bolts experts are in place to support mediation processes takes on additional importance. Whitfield argues that the UN’s Mediation Support Unit (MSU) is “setting a standard” in this field through developing strategies and providing thematic advice on peace processes – in addition to acting as a “global asset” supporting mediation by non-UN actors. The Mediation Standby Team also plays a significant role. But, as noted above, diplomats and UN officials share concerns that the MSU and Standby Team are overloaded – and the need to liaise with non-UN actors frequently increases the strain.

For UN mediation to succeed, it needs strengthening of these centralized assets and a guarantee that individual UN mediators also have the staff and resources they require. Looking beyond the UN system, there is a further need to assess the state of mediation support within the UN’s partner organizations. Whitfield notes that the EU, OSCE and Commonwealth have all made progress in this area but that the AU and ECOWAS have less well-developed assets. In the AU, for example, “the high level of most envoys means that they receive no formal training, and the literature, tools, management skills and knowledge developed in recent years are still quite scarcely used.” The UN and non-governmental organizations still often provide considerable support to African-led peace initiatives, a fact reflected by projects such as AU-UN cooperation on drafting joint mediation guidelines.

As these complex mediation partnerships are developing, one question is how to best target the UN’s assistance. Possible solutions include civil society organizations, who can play a role in providing advice on triangular cooperation between the UN, regional organizations (in Africa or elsewhere) and NGOs on matters ranging from policy formation to operational support.

Political and Organizational Challenges of Hybrid Mediation

Any commentary on cooperation between the UN and non-UN actors in peace processes needs to address political as well organizational tensions. In many recent cases, cooperation has been marred by tensions between the UN and its partners. This certainly includes Darfur and Syria, where the UN has appointed joint mediators with, respectively, the AU and the Arab League. In such cases, as Alischa Kugel notes in her essay for this project, the joint envoy may receive “blurred” guidance from different institutions or “take initiatives into his/her own hands without communicating strategies to the organizations’ oversight bodies.”

It is surely safe to say that there is no single perfect approach to rationalizing and guiding hybrid mediation processes. But the mere fact that nearly two thirds of the envoys in our survey are deployed alongside another multilateral envoy - to say nothing of national, non-governmental and local actors - means that the recurrent challenges in hybrid mediation cannot be ignored.

How should the UN approach those cases where its mediators deploy alongside partners from other organizations, whether in a pre-arranged framework or an ad hoc fashion? And what of cases where field-based UN operations, whether SPMs or PKOs, operate in parallel with non-UN-led mediation processes? We have noted rising concerns with those cases, most prominently in Mali and South Sudan. UN PKOs are operating in volatile environments but are effectively cut out of related political talks. How long can the UN credibly undertake military and civilian tasks on the ground when its top-level political role is limited in this manner?

Further questions concern how a UN mediator works in conjunction with both non-UN political partners and a blue helmet PKO (most recently in the Great Lakes region with MONUSCO). Such arrangements may be operationally and politically useful or necessary on a case-by-case basis, but they risk obvious transaction costs. They also underline the questions about how to balance the political work of a UN mediator with the security activities of the peace operation. This is especially so when, as with MONUSCO, the latter is mandated to undertake coercive action against specific spoilers.

There are no easy ways to resolve these dilemmas, but we hope this collection of essays on envoys makes a contribution to understanding the challenges involved as these issues are discussed and debated.

Richard Gowan is a non-resident fellow at CIC and in his previous capacity as the Center’s research director oversaw the mulitlateral envoys project. | Twitter: @RichardGowan1

Alischa Kugel is a CIC consultant and as a former Senior Program Officer at CIC was a contributor to and editor of this research. | Twitter: @AlischaKugel