Three’s a Crowd? Inter-Organisational Cooperation in Conflict Mediation

Then UN Special Envoy for Darfur Jan Eliasson (left) and AU Special Envoy for Darfur Salim Ahmed Salim (center) arrive on 14 February 2007 in Um Rai for a meeting with key commanders of non-signatory rebel groups to the DPA (Darfur Peace Agreement).\ © UN Photo/Tim McKulka

Alischa Kugel

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

Out of the at least 51 multilateral envoys deployed in 2013 to address conflict situations around the world, 28 envoys from different multilateral institutions worked together in mediating conflicts in the same country, region or sub-region across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. With over half of multilateral envoys active in 2013 working alongside each other in various conflict settings, inter-organisational cooperation in conflict mediation is an increasing necessity. Cooperation in mediation processes involves a wide range of multilateral actors and can take different forms. Each presents advantages and disadvantages impacting both the actors involved and the respective mediation processes.

Using some recent mediation processes as examples, it is useful to review how envoys from different institutions have worked together by looking at their policies, guidance and mechanisms. Examining the detailed functioning of envoys lets us see their strengths and weaknesses as well as how joint envoys that represent more than one institution can or cannot work together. Finally, in today’s crowded mediation field, it is worth analyzing the benefits and drawbacks for envoys working with other actors that engage in mediation such as governments and private organisations, as well as actors from the wider UN system. To obtain a complete picture, it is important to study how envoys navigate these relationship, including with heads of peacekeeping operations and political missions, and actors in the development, human rights and humanitarian realm.

Cooperation Between Envoys from Different Organisations

Why cooperation?  

Mediation and good offices form part of the core tasks of the UN Secretary-General and his representatives, and the UN is the main actor in mediating inter- and intra-state conflicts. However, regional and sub-regional organisations play an increasingly important role in the peaceful settlement of conflicts. Their involvement is enshrined in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, which states that the Security Council is to encourage pacific settlement of local disputes through regional arrangements or agencies.

Regional actors have unique advantages in local conflict resolution, including closer access to conflict situations as well as more knowledge of and leverage over conflict parties. In the last five to ten years, regional and sub-regional organisations, particularly in Africa but also in the Middle East, have taken a more prominent role in addressing political crises. In 2013-14, the African Union (AU) and the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) have worked together in addressing crises from Cote d’Ivoire to Guinea-Bissau to Mali, while the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has engaged with the conflicts in Somalia and South Sudan. In the Middle East, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the League of Arab States (LAS) played noticeable mediation roles in Yemen and Syria. The UN is increasingly working with regional organisations in different ways, including in a “lead role, in a supporting role, in a burden-sharing role, in sequential deployments and in several joint operations”.

Whatever form cooperation takes, mediation actors need to agree on a lead actor by consulting early and in a transparent manner on existing organisational capacity, capabilities and available resources. This will allow informed decision-making on the division of labor based on comparative advantages. The UN’s Guidance for Effective Mediation underlines that coherence, coordination and complementarity of mediation efforts is indispensable and recommends that cooperation should be based on “a common mediation strategy”, ensuring “consistent messaging to the parties”.

Advantages and disadvantages

The involvement of envoys from different organisations in a mediation process has its benefits, as each actor and their respective institutions bring particular strengths which enable a division of responsibilities. Furthermore, each envoy can make unique contributions to a process by employing different skills and expertise to the various phases of a mediation process.

The April 2010 political crisis in Kyrgyzstan, in which the government was overthrown, illustrates the advantages of cooperation between different organisations in mediation. In the aftermath of the crisis the UN worked alongside special envoys of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the EU in mediating between the conflict parties. The engagement was coordinated through an OSCE-initiated tripartite mechanism, called the “Troika,” which included the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office and the EUSR for Central Asia, as well as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) and head of the UN’s regional office for Central Asia.

Both the OSCE and the EU’s mediation roles were constrained during the crisis. The OSCE, which maintains centers in all five Central Asian countries (including a field presence in Kyrgyzstan in place since 1999), was able to make use of its extensive network of contacts with government officials and civil society. However, its role in mediating the crisis was hampered by the OSCE chair at the time, a position held by Kazakhstan, which was perceived by some Kyrgyz actors as biased. Similarly, the EU, which had deployed an EUSR to the region since 2005 and was able to play a useful advocacy role, was seen by some Kyrgyz political actors as an outsider with a Western political agenda. The UN in turn was perceived as an unbiased actor with the additional ability to leverage its capabilities in facilitating the conditions necessary for humanitarian response and mobilization of resources.

By working closely together, these three actors were able to pool together their respective strengths. In addition, the Troika sent consistently unified messaging that lent legitimacy to the transitional government and reinforced a united stance on the need for stability and respect for human rights. Through their successful cooperation, the Troika achieved sustained international attention on the conflict and contributed to preventing a deterioration of the situation in Kyrgyzstan.

More recently, the UN, AU and ECOWAS successfully joined efforts in mediating a return to constitutional order in Mali following the March 2012 coup. The organisations continue to work together in finding a political solution for the conflict that ensued in the country’s north. And in Yemen, the UN’s Special Advisor worked closely with the Gulf Cooperation Council in facilitating the latter’s power-sharing agreement that led to a relatively peaceful hand-over of power in February 2012.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers

However, inter-organisational cooperation in mediation can also bring disadvantages that at their worst jeopardize the very processes they were supposed to support. Deciding on a lead actor can pose the first hurdle to effective cooperation. A leaked exchange between two US state department officials over why the UN and not the EU should lead efforts to oversee a political transition in Ukraine in early 2014, illustrated that decision- making on the lead actor is a sensitive political process that is often driven by the interests of influential countries. Complicating matters, the UN Charter does not offer clear guidance on the question of whether it is the world organisation or regional organisations that should take the lead in mediation efforts. Further, the 2009report of the Secretary-General on enhancing mediation and its support activities acknowledges that there is no clear framework for effective decision-making between the UN and regional organisations regarding partnership arrangements.

The risks in failing to establish a clear lead are manifold. Organisations with diverging interests may launch parallel processes in competing for a mediation role, creating an “opportunity for forum shopping as intermediaries are played off against one another. Such a fragmented international response reinforces fragmentation in the conflict and complicates resolution.” In Cote d’Ivoire following the disputed 2010 presidential elections, the AU and ECOWAS both engaged in parallel mediation processes that had contrary approaches to the crisis. While ECOWAS, along with the UN, took a firm stance on the need for the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo to yield power to Alassane Ouattara, the AU’s envoy, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, insisted on a power-sharing agreement between the two. Though the AU soon endorsed the ECOWAS decision to recognize Ouattara as the winner, divisions on the way forward within the AU mediation panel, particularly driven by South Africa, persisted. Responding to the persistent differences, then-ECOWAS president James Victor Gbeho warned of a lack of unity in the approach to the crisis and charged that these actions undermined ECOWAS’s mediation efforts.

Even with an established lead in the mediation effort, lack of coordination on the way forward among stakeholders as well as the lack of a coherent mediation strategy can still prove problematic. Following the military coup in Guinea-Bissau in April 2012 that took place just ahead of the presidential elections, ECOWAS took over the lead in mediating an agreement for the return to civilian rule. The mediation efforts achieved an agreement wherein the junta ceded power to a transitional civilian government, which, however, did not include any members of the government overthrown in the April coup. The ECOWAS agreement created deep divisions between national and international stakeholders that either supported the transitional government or wanted to see a return to constitutional order with the authorities in place prior to the coup. The differences were particularly stark between ECOWAS and the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP), which wanted to see a resumption of the presidential vote.

The failure to agree on a common strategy further emboldened some political actors to refuse compromise, halting domestic political progress. In addition, the unease with which the agreement was received among the international community made it difficult for the transitional government to receive broad recognition, which affected its ability to mobilize resources for the transitional period.

Ways toward improved coordination

These setbacks notwithstanding, cooperation in mediation processes, as mentioned in the introduction of this essay, is increasingly common. This is in part due to the growing assertiveness of regional organisations to address conflicts in their respective areas of influence. In recognition, the UN and regional organisations have begun institutionalizing processes to enhance cooperation in mediation. These include exchanges between organisations on lessons learned and best practices, including joint training exercises that help to build stronger ties between organisations and enhance cohesion.

The UN has also entered into partnership agreements with several regional and sub-regional organisations including the AU, EU, OSCE, OAS, CARICOM, ECOWAS, SADC, ASEAN and OIC. These relationships aim to strengthen mediation capacities and enhance “more coherent and complementary approaches in specific mediation processes”. These partnerships range from multiyear programs with “institutionalized cooperation procedures such as desk-to-desk interactions” to more flexible approaches like joint deployments. Meanwhile, the AU’s Peace and Security Council Protocol, under Article 16, provides a framework to enhance the AU’s cooperation on peacemaking activities with other regional organisations, aiming to promote effective continental mediation and conflict prevention measures.

The most advanced formalized cooperation agreement to date exists between the UN and AU in the form of draft joint mediation guidelines. These aim to enhance the sharing of information, as well as the coordination of policy and strategy to make joint mediation efforts more coherent. The guidelines are intended to help map out the organisations’ core competencies. Work on the joint guidelines began in 2008, with a first draft completed by 2010. The process, however, was marred by disagreements between the AU and UN over the electoral dispute in Cote d’Ivoire in 2010/11 and between the UN and NATO and the AU over the use of force in response to the crisis in Libya in 2011. These difficulties notwithstanding, the AU recently proposed in its submission for the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) that the two organisations should revisit these guidelines with the aim of finalizing and adopting them.

Joint Envoys

The closest type of institutional cooperation takes the form of joint envoys that represent more than one institution. This form of cooperation between institutions is fairly new and examples are few and far between. In 2013, there were only two joint envoys: Mohamed Ibn Chambas, the Joint African Union-United Nations Special Representative for Darfur, and Joint Chief Mediator and Lakhdar Brahimi, the Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syria. The position for the AU-UN Joint Mediator was established in 2008, while the UN-LAS post was created four years later in 2012. An earlier example of a joint envoy not involving the UN includes the AU/SADC Envoy to Madagascar, appointed in 2009.

The main advantage of a joint envoy is the added political weight the position receives through the representation of two institutions. Regional organisations are likely to be more familiar with the conflict and benefit from access to and influence over conflict parties, while the UN’s participation signals the attention of the international community to the conflict, and the direct involvement of the Security Council that can take wide ranging punitive measures if needed.

The appointment of a joint envoy can also be used to refocus international attention on a country’s situation. For example, the establishment of the AU-UN Joint Mediator position that combined the previously separate UN and AU envoy positions to the Darfur conflict was conceived as part of an effort to revive momentum toward achieving a resolution. The appointment can also come out of a compromise with the parties involved. For the Darfur conflict, the government of Sudan reportedly wanted to see an African-led process and was reluctant to accept the UN’s role, while the AU lacked the necessary instructional capacity to take on a larger role. The Joint mediator position provided a solution that worked for all stakeholders.

Joint setup also enables a division of labor according to the respective institutions’ comparative advantages in the conflict setting, as well as the sharing of support functions and overall financing. The UN-LAS envoy, for example, received support in exercising his mandate from two deputies, each appointed by one of the two organisations, and held an office in Cairo, the headquarter location of the LAS.

However, the joint envoy model can also prove difficult. Regional actors may feel marginalized in the decision making process at the Security Council, which is ultimately determined by the five permanent members. Once the LAS brought the Syria crisis to the attention of the Security Council, for example, the League’s influence over the process was hampered – even with the establishment of the position of the joint envoy – and meaningful progress was obstructed by China and Russia. There may also be a blurred understanding of responsibilities toward the respective organisations from one side of a joint envoy. In 2011, the AU voiced concern that despite repeated instructions from its Peace and Security Council, the then-Joint Mediator did not liaise or coordinate efforts with the other AU mediation entities on the ground. The AU specifically requested the Joint Mediator to consult with it before taking further decisions, and both the AU and the UN requested the Joint Mediator to provide a comprehensive report on his activities and any future plans, indicating a clear lack of such consultations previously.

While the reporting practices and level of cooperation with other entities on the ground can depend on an envoy’s personal approach to their work, the joint deployments setup may put one or both organisations at a disadvantage. It may also expose a lack of coordination between the organisations’ headquarters that can encourage joint envoys to take initiatives into their own hands without communicating to the organisations’ respective oversight bodies. The lack of consensus on a political strategy between the organisations can also send confusing messages to an envoy that at worst can paralyze a process. Close and effective cooperation between organisations deploying a joint envoy is therefore paramount to avoid “a clash of political or bureaucratic approaches”.

Cooperation with Other Actors On the Ground

Envoys rarely operate alone in a specific conflict setting. In the majority of cases, along with the likely presence of actors from regional and sub-regional organisations there frequently already exists a network of UN Country Teams (UNCTs), civil society groups, international NGOs, private diplomacy and bilateral actors. Mediation is also not an exclusive task for envoys. Heads of peacekeeping operations and political missions conduct good office functions on behalf of the Secretary-General and support compliance with and implementation of peace agreements.

In countries where the UN does not have a political presence, it increasingly relies on UNCTs for political analysis, but also for early warning, prevention and early engagement to address tensions on the ground. It is important to note here that the political engagement by UNCTs is limited, as they don’t have a mediation mandate. Similarly, NGOs and civil society groups can provide crucial analysis on the potential and actual impacts of a situation on the ground and make recommendations on further action for the international community. Furthermore, both individual states that act as third-party intermediaries and private diplomacy actors can play an important role in early engagement with conflict parties, as they can react quickly, discreetly and with flexibility. Private diplomacy actors may have the added advantage of being perceived by the conflict parties as not pursuing their own agenda, and can thus be more acceptable to the parties involved. They do, however, lack the influence over conflict parties that individual states or multilateral institutions may have.

Once an agreement is reached, the various actors – particularly field missions, UNCTs, NGOs and civil society groups – assist through the provision of technical knowledge and local expertise in implementing the various aspects of a peace agreement. These can range from security sector reform efforts and rebuilding institutions to national reconciliation and reviving the economic sector. Local partners can also be key in generating pressure on domestic elites, mobilizing constituencies and sustaining pressure for peace on the national and sub-national level. In working with local civil society groups, it is important to be aware of their possible connection with the government or opposition parties. One of the main challenges is thus to ensure a balanced representation of groups in order to avoid a biased approach.

At times the presence of a multitude of actors can lead to a maze of fragmented peacemaking efforts, inhibiting a clear definition of roles and hindering effective cooperation and coordination. Teresa Whitfield recounts that in Nepal, between 2002 and 2006, in addition to UN involvement,

                  … international NGOs engaged in peace efforts … included the Carter Center, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Crisis Management Initiative, Community of Sant’Egidio, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, International Alert, International IDEA, Transcend and the US Institute for Peace. In addition, there were workshops organized in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, as well as in Nepal; … and offers of specific help in mediation from the governments of Norway and Switzerland.

It is important to note, however, that a number of these actors, particularly those that engaged in the conflict over the longer term, were able to make significant contributions to peacemaking efforts in Nepal.

The various actors on the ground are thus vital interlocutors for an envoy, who can make use of their knowledge and expertise to make progress on political processes and ensure the implementation of agreements. Mary Robinson, the then-UN Envoy for the Great Lakes region, tapped into the existing network of women’s groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the region to build an “inclusive peace dialogue” aimed at ensuring women’s participation in peacebuilding efforts. In addition to the AU Special Representative of the African Union and the European Union Senior Coordinator for the Great Lakes Region the Envoy also worked closely with the US Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region and the DRC on implementing the Peace, Security, and Cooperation (PSC) Framework Agreement. The U.S.’s long-standing diplomatic and security engagement in the region, its important role as a bilateral donor to the DRC, and its considerable influence within international financial institutions that provide funding and technical assistance to the DRC government, allowed the US Special Envoy to exert considerable influence over the process and makes him an important partner in its implementation.

In some cases, envoys may also leverage peacekeeping operations, political missions or UNCTs to their advantage. In the DRC, Mary Robinson fully supported the military offensive by the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade against the M23 rebels in the DRC, which through its military gains has enabled advances on the diplomatic track. In addition, Robinson and the head of the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), Martin Kobler, collaborate closely and have daily interactions on approaches to developments on the ground. The presence of liaison officers in MONUSCO and the Envoy’s office in Nairobi, respectively, further ensures their linkage and close cooperation.

Envoys with regional mandates frequently coordinate their efforts with relevant UNCTs to harmonize political, security and development approaches to specific crises. The Great Lakes region once again serves as a good example, where the UN Special Envoy initiated the close involvement of UNCTs in the implementation of the PSC framework. Since then, country teams in the signature countries agreed on each others’ specific role in the framework’s implementation and laid out a plan to move forward.

As with the other cases discussed, effective cooperation lies at the core of a fruitful relationship between envoys and other actors on the ground. Successful linkages to these actors can influence peace processes from the early stages to the implementation of peace agreements – even after the envoy’s engagement has concluded. Crucial also is the necessary support and buy-in from headquarters, which often have to overcome existing divisions between departments to enable collaboration on the ground.

Three’s a crowd, or three’s company?

The deployment of multilateral envoys is an important and effective tool in civilian crisis management. But mediation is no longer an exclusive task carried out by the UN. With the increased engagement by regional actors and the presence of actors on the ground making critical contributions to peacemaking efforts, effective cooperation between multilateral envoys is vital for effective engagement in a conflict. Only well-coordinated efforts can bring the benefits that international cooperation has to offer.

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