Multilateral Envoys: Challenges to Assessing Success

©UN Photo/Olivier Chassot | In 2001 Darfuris await the arrival of Ibrahim Gamari, Joint Special Representative for the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID). Mr. Gambari and his team visited Mukjar following the Fourth Special Envoys Retreat El Geneina, West Darfur.

Center on International Cooperation

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

Envoys dispatched to make peace deploy with a bag full of assumptions. Those who send them believe the multilateral framework gives their emissary the moral legitimacy to intervene. They think that pooling efforts under one collective engagement is more cost effective. They claim multilateral conflict prevention saves lives. But how can these and other assumptions about the effectiveness of multilateral envoys be tested?

As the UN and the AU have worked to improve their work in the field of mediation, they have concurrently strengthened their ability to measure and account for the results of their interventions. This builds on a growing body of evaluative work undertaken by the mediation community to identify success factors and articulate norms and good practices for an increasingly crowded field.

Any analysis of these efforts should begin with a review of the common obstacles to assessing mediation initiatives, examining the main success factors and the extent to which a multilateral approach renders these challenges more or less acute. In the low-control, multi-causal world of multilateral special envoy diplomacy, an examination of assessment issues reveals a range of implications and choices for how multilateral organizations go about deploying special envoys. Ultimately, such evaluations cannot escape the tensions inherent to multilateralism. If nothing else, they bring these tensions into even greater focus, while offering at the same time opportunities for sharpening the narrative for a multilateral approach to conflict prevention.

Assessing Success or Failure

The difficulties in assessing, as objectively as possible, the success or failure of mediation and conflict prevention diplomacy have been well documented. Several of these challenges, such as the difficulty in determining a relevant baseline for many indicators or the lack of reliable counterfactuals, are inherent to the nature of the endeavor, regardless of the type of mediation or profiles involved.

Likewise, assessments of mediation efforts, whether undertaken from bilateral or multilateral entities, are also heavily influenced by perceptions and political agendas that are often divorced from facts and objective analysis. Maintaining confidentiality during and after various proceedings is an imperative of most if not all mediation processes, but it does affect post-assessment efforts.

The difficulty in establishing a foolproof counterfactual and the lack of access to all that was said and done combine, in turn, to make attribution notoriously resistant to objective metrics. Causal links between mediation efforts and ultimate outcomes, especially those concerning peace or justice, are seldom as direct and transparent as assessment sponsors would hope for. Lacking robust, unfalsifiable foundations, these links are often disputed on political and technical grounds.

Finally, the field of mediation is particularly vulnerable to the selection effect, whereby the most intractable conflicts receive the most attention, including when it comes to assessment. As a result, the sense that mediation is difficult, while axiomatic, is often amplified by a pundit focus on those truly complex cases.

Other assessment challenges, while also applicable to bilateral mediation, become particularly acute in the case of multilateral deployments. The aforementioned selection effect is a predominant feature of multilateral mediation assessments, precisely because the most difficult conflicts tend to be handed to multilateral organizations. Furthermore, building consensus on the objective of the mediation is even more difficult when the mandates and support for the mediation need to be negotiated among many competing member state agendas and perspectives. Often, agreement among member states to “get someone out there” can only be achieved on the basis of vague objectives, which renders assessments of results more complicated. Even within smaller multilateral organizations, shared definitions of success and goals prove to be problematic.

Multilateral mediation also faces more difficulty in delineating and obtaining consensus on a clear endpoint. For multilateral organizations, engagement never really ends, especially where the UN or regional organizations are intervening within their regions. When a mediator is called back, diplomacy continues in some form. Even when a formal mediation process is successfully closed, an assessment must consider the aftermath, which inevitably raises the question: when is it safe to declare mission accomplished? This conundrum affects all mediation initiatives, and is compounded by all of the aforementioned challenges, but it affects multilateral efforts with distinct intensity.

The mediation community has undertaken significant efforts to overcome these challenges. In recent years, it has shaped a growing consensus on the need to combine robust, data driven approaches with contextual analysis and, where relevant, imports from other disciplines such as psychology, rational choice and game theory.

Generally, reporting on mediation efforts has gained increased credibility, narrowing the understanding gaps among relevant actors including member states that oversee, authorize and fund multilateral efforts. However, beyond the increased complexity and costs of properly assessing mediation, this renewed focus on assessment brings into relief two broader, strategic questions.

The first question relates to the very real possibility of assessments “doing harm.” From technical challenges to political pressures, there are various reasons for which an assessment can be discarded, misinterpreted or manipulated, in increasing order of harm. The repercussions are also varied. They can take the form of a damaged reputation for individuals, including the mediator, an institution or, more generally, for the practice of mediation. In the case of mediation failure or even stalemate, disagreements over an assessment and how to properly interpret its findings can also potentially undermine member state decision-making for corrective measures, with many avoiding self-examination as to if and how they may have contributed to such failure.

The question of what to do with an assessment, even in the rare instances where member states agree on its findings, underlies a second major consideration. It is fairly clear that a narrowly-defined drive for evaluative perfection is ill-suited to mediation. This truism should not be construed by mediation practitioners and institutions as a reason to dismiss assessments. But the incongruity of expecting a scientific formula means that member states and decision makers must debate mediation results in an effort to reduce the scope for disagreements.

The aim should be to maximize the value and relevance of the assessment findings in subsequent decision making. In the context of political negotiations, one may even argue that the inherent difficulty in drawing definitive conclusions is in itself valuable, as it forces debate and further engagement.

These debates are only productive if they are based on a reasonable set of interpretations. The value of assessments is to narrow, but not always to eliminate, the range of potential interpretations. Hence, rather than strive Sisyphus-like for technically perfect and indisputable findings, multilateral organizations should seek to develop and implement clear methodologies. Harmonizing the factors and indicators used to reach credible conclusions will also narrow the scope of potential interpretations. Such an approach would go a long way in shaping the necessary, and healthy, discussions among member states that such claims could trigger. In other words, keeping in mind the potential to do harm, assessments of mediation efforts should support, rather than stifle, conflict prevention dialogue and engagement in the public arena.

What Makes or Breaks a Mediation Effort?

While assessing the results of a specific multilateral engagement remains fraught with technical and political hurdles, there is little disagreement, in principle, on the factors that seem essential for mediation to succeed. These factors combine four broad distinctions:

  • they range from the personal to the structural;
  • several are well within the mediator and the mediating organization’s control while many are not;
  • they usually reinforce one another; and,
  • for a few, their degree of relevance generally increases under a multilateral envoy framework.

A common feature of most success factors is that, more often than not, their significance is proved by their absence. Such is the case with conflict party willingnessto negotiate, and the perceived appeal of any alternative to a negotiated agreement, tragically demonstrated in Syria.Other well-documented variables which the mediation community collectively emphasizes as critical to any engagement include the timing of deployment; the legitimacy and personal qualities of the special envoy; the strategic use of thematic expertise to generate options or settle factual questions; and the incentives (negative or positive) that a mediation effort may have at its disposal to move the parties forward. 

As with the methodological constraints described in the previous section, the relevance of several success factors increases when the mediation is conducted under a multilateral approach. With regards to legitimacy, multilateral cachet constitutes a double-edged sword, with claims of supra-national impartiality contending with suspicions by warring parties or other actors of hidden member state agendas and a history of malevolent interference. The perception of the multilateral organization and its special envoy is therefore highly contextual.

The AU’s credibility as a mediator varied greatly from Kenya in 2008 to Madagascar in 2009. In Kenya, the AU mediator, Koffi Annan, was quickly accepted as the only mediator and benefitted from a great level of acceptance in the country. In Madagascar, the AU mediator suffered from the organization’s difficult history with the island country.

Similar variances beset the UN, the EU, and other regional entities. In Guinea in 2008, the UN’s regional special envoy enjoyed wide acceptance, built through a combination of personal efforts and local appreciation for the UN system’s long-standing support to the country throughout the crisis. In 2008, the UN’s regional Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) mediated the crisis. The UN enjoyed great legitimacy following its decision to maintain a significant presence throughout the violent incidents while other international actors withdrew or severely limited their presence. Such legitimacy, which similarly allowed the UN to offer timely assistance in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, is not something the organization can always take for granted.

Legitimacy can also be buttressed – or undermined – through the choice of status conferred upon the special envoy. In Madagascar, the UN’s ability to sustain engagement, both among rival factions and between the international community, was undermined inter alia by the relatively low administrative rank given its mediator. Similar choices confront the EU, with changes in titles to its representatives providing signals, at times unintentional, as to the level of engagement, support and interest on the part of EU member states.

Communication and reporting on the process is a well-recognized mediation tool per se, but, particularly in a multilateral process, it can also make or break the special envoy’s legitimacy. Any communication may expose her or him to accusations of member state manipulation and undermine the impartiality and principled approach that multilateralism is meant to embody.

A second factor compounded by a multilateral designation relates to the strength of the mandate. As noted earlier, such strength, which is critical for success, is notoriously difficult to achieve among member states for whom deployment of a special envoy is often the easiest and weakest common denominator they can agree on in the face of a conflict. The mediation in Madagascar provides a compelling illustration, since it can be argued that not even the lead-SADC mediator, let alone the UN and the AU, benefited from clear and robust mediation mandates.

The issue of legitimacy is inextricably and positively linked to the level of international support for a multilateral engagement. The extent to which member states (of the organization and beyond) are aligned behind the special envoy constitutes perhaps the single most determining factor for multilateral diplomatic success. The evidence for such a connection abounds. In Yemen, which up in 2011-12 presented the only “Arab Spring” case of a negotiated agreement, the UN Special Envoy’s mediation has been significantly aided by a consistently unified international community within the UN Security Council and the GCC, in stark contrast with the bitter divisions that have undermined the joint LAS-UN engagement in Syria.

Similar examples of international cohesiveness were found in other “success stories”: In Kenya in 2008, following an early plethora of competing efforts, the AU mediator achieved widespread support from key member states. In the Great Lakes in 2009, the UN special envoy managed to unify disparate efforts behind one multilateral process. The recent experiences of Syria, Madagascar and, to a lesser extent, Libya, offer a tragic illustration of the impact of disunity, when international divisions play directly into the interests of the warring parties, further weakening their willingness to negotiate and accept multilateral mediation. The UN’s Special Envoy in Libya initially benefited from strong support from the UNSC. But this support began to fray following the UNSC authorized and NATO-led military operation. Significant divisions within the AU further undermined his ability to mediate between the two parties.

Sustained, unified international support also allows the special envoy a judicious use of pressures and even threats from various member states. Such mediation tactics are highly risky, and are usually only successful if well-timed and coordinated with relevant member states, as in Kenya, when the possibility of economic sanctions from leading donors was strategically mooted at key moments of the negotiation. Strong support also permits greater coherence with related initiatives designed to complement, rather than contradict, the special envoy’s work. These can include track II diplomacy through bilateral channels, and the formation of a team of bilateral envoys under the multilateral framework of a group of member state friends to provide additional incentives and oversight.

For several multilateral organizations, a carrot and stick approach can also be built from within, depending on the weight and depth of the toolbox at their disposal. The ability on the part of the special envoy to leverage the organization’s technical and financial resources can significantly contribute to her or his mediation efforts. In this regard, the playing field among multilateral institutions is highly uneven. An EU or a UN special envoy can usually rely on a range of tools, including aid financing and access to specialized expertise throughout a mediation process. In Yemen in 2011-12, for example, the legitimacy of the mediation in the lead-up to the National Dialogue was greatly enhanced by the use of the UN Peacebuilding Fund and the establishment of a trust fund to support the preparatory committee and finance the logistics of the conference proceedings. However, looking back now in 2015, the long-term impact of this intervention needs to be questioned.

Such resources may not need only financial support. An extensive country presence of related actors, e.g. development or humanitarian entities, can also provide the eyes and ears to support the mediation process and the special envoy’s analytical capacities. The UN’s engagement in Guinea or Kyrgyzstan, whereby the regional special envoy worked closely with UNDP and other agencies in conflict prevention programming, provides an interesting illustration of internal connectivity and its value for mediation. Such reach is however not available to all multilateral institutions. Even in those institutions with multidimensional mandates and capacities, leveraging of political, technical and financial resources in support of a mediation strategy is often under-utilized due to poor internal coordination and institutional silos.

Finally, no peace agreement can result in a sustained settlement in the absence of follow-on capacities and mechanisms for monitoring implementation of key provisions. In this regard, multilateral special envoys are in theory better placed to ensure sustained institutional follow up and support: few, if any, of their institutions ever completely withdraw from the scene following the end of a formal mediation process. In one form or another, the organization remains. The challenge, however, is to ensure that what stays behind is equipped, politically and financially, to support and monitor the aftermath. Here as well, the record is mixed, even for large multilateral organizations such as the UN, the EU, or the AU. This fact is often omitted from mediation claims, as this success criterion captures, along with the others just cited, a number of the political and technical dilemmas these organizations face when assessing their special envoy diplomacy.

Dilemmas for Multilateral Institutions

The list of success factors appears quite daunting – and in fact, no single mediation effort has benefited or will mostly likely ever benefit from all of them coalescing simultaneously. For multilateral special envoy deployments, this reality has two important corollaries.

First, as the factors listed above demonstrate, multilateral special envoys usually work in circumstances where they have at best only limited control over a number of important variables. From the mandate to access to resources, their operational space for independent maneuvering is beholden to a range of actors and motivations. In only a very few exceptional cases do the stars all align to provide an optimal mediation environment.

This fact shapes a second reality. For multilateral institutions, assertions related to their special envoy interventions are fraught with pitfalls. Beyond the technical challenges in assessing impact, any claim of results achieved must carefully factor in imperatives of national ownership and leadership in ensuring lasting political settlements. In particular, taking credit for success can rankle national sensitivities and upset delicate member state dynamics.

For multilateral institutions, these realities carry hard choices and implications across a number of areas. Among them, the initial decision to deploy, and the choice of special envoy, loom as the most sensitive. Regardless of the genesis for such deployment, multilateral organizations must communicate clear understanding of the elements that contribute to the “chemistry” in order to create the right “baseline” at date of entry for future strategy formulation. Questions of whether the time is ripe for multilateral engagement, and who is the right mediator, are critical, but they are not always left to the decision of the organizations themselves. Hence – especially when the choice to deploy is influenced by heavy member state pressures – multilateral organizations must improve their ability to shape discourse on how it will be assessed. This can be achieved by tracking and keeping record of the (often suboptimal) conditions in which the special envoy was deployed.

Similarly, astute assessment is required to inform the exit strategy, and the timing and conditions under which a multilateral special envoy should end its mediation. Here again, in complex situations, the decision will often balance competing factors. These may at times include political agendas and “do no harm” considerations, which can apply when a multilateral engagement seems to prolong the violence. In these cases, the organization must keep a close finger on the member states’ pulse when thinking about initiating and publicizing any formal assessment of its mediation engagement. The conduct of an assessment can itself be potentially misconstrued as a harbinger of changes that key stakeholders may not necessarily wish for.

Finally, operational constraints on multilateral envoys have implications as to how the organizations report on their mediation efforts. Particularly in cases of success, recognizing the international mediator’s role doesn’t necessarily conflict with ensuring national ownership of the peace attained, or with giving credit to member state support. In their efforts to tread that careful line, multilateral organizations often end up either downplaying or overstating their case. This balancing act takes many forms. On one hand, claims of success are often overblown and unsubstantiated by robust evidence. On the other, the responsibility for failures is unduly accepted. And too often for multilateral diplomacy, evidence of genuine success resembles Melville’s description of misery: it hides aloof, so we deem that it is none.

When Are Envoys Effective?

Assessments of multilateral special envoy mediations bring into full display the fragile balancing act that is inherent to multilaterally-led diplomacy. Even reporting on results poses challenges that extend beyond the technical obstacles associated with evaluation of conflict prevention initiatives. As such, for organizations such as the UN, the AU or the EU, reflections on their special envoy deployments provide a stark reminder of the realities of multilateralism. Their envoys are rarely in full control of all success factors, and their mediation efforts and how they present them must constantly balance competing agendas.

These realities need not however obfuscate opportunities for multilateral organizations to shape a compelling narrative for their special envoy diplomacy. First they must acknowledge constraints, and then frame discussions of their mediation engagement around the core ethics of multilateralism. In the low-control, multi-causal environment in which these organizations operate, greater transparency in choices made and principles invoked, as well as enhanced clarity of responsibilities, would send a powerful signal to their member states: multilateralism is often the worst form of mediation – except for all the others.

Case studies: main features of selected mediation processes


Madagascar 2009: SADC, UN, and AU

        • Lack of unified support from the international community: competing agendas and objectives
        • Lack of clarity on roles amongst SADC, AU and UN mediators
        • Good analytical capabilities within the UN mediation team but weak logistical support from the UNCT
        • Weak mandate and status of the UN Special Envoy
        • Weak political support within the organization

Kyrgyzstan 2010: UN and OESCE

      •  Standing and access, of UN Special Envoy and UN SRSG (regional)
      • Effective collaboration between UN and OESCE
      • Adequate timing of deployment
      • UN systems and capacities on the ground to monitor the situation and inform the mediation strategies

Guinea 2008: UN

          • Accessibility and responsiveness of UN SRSG (regional)
          • UN SRSG mediation skills and approach
          • Analytical capacities on the ground, and logistical support
          • Link between mediation and programmatic tools and resources, through, inter alia, effective collaboration with UNDP
          • Country acceptance and legitimacy of the UN, based on history of UNCT presence and support during the crisis

Yemen 2011-2012: UN and GCC

          • Strong, unified international community support (UNSC, GCC) Accessibility and responsiveness of UN Special Envoy
          • UN Special Envoy mediation skills and approach
          • Link between mediation and programmatic tools and resources, through, inter alia, trust fund for national dialogue and UN PBF funding

Libya 2011: UN

          • Contradicting international goals and strategies
          • Party (un)willingness
          • Weak mandate of the Special Envoy and lack of programmatic tools resources to complement mediation effort

Kenya 2008: AU

          • Unified international community behind one mediation process
          • Standing and access, of AU Special Envoy
          • Weak alternatives on both sides
          • Strong external pressure at key moments
          • Smart mediation approaches (communication, expert inputs)