Mediation in International Conflict: An Overview of Theory, A Review of Practice
by Jacob Bercovitch
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Mediation in International Conflict: An Overview of Theory, A Review of Practice" Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques, eds. I. William Zartman and J. Lewis Rasmussen, Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997, pp. 125-154.
Mediation is not a mysterious art, as early myth would have it. Mediation can be studied, taught and understood. Bercovitch defines mediation as " a process of conflict management, related to but distinct from the parties' own negotiations, where those in conflict seek the assistance of, or accept an offer of help from, an outsider (whether an individual, an organization, a group, or a state) to change their perceptions or behavior, and do so without resorting to physical force or invoking the authority of law." (p. 130) Within this broad definition, mediators may adopt a variety of roles and approaches.
Estimates of the rate of international mediation generally fall in the 60 percent range, although surveys have reported rates ranging from a low of 45 percent to a high of 82percent. Surveys also report significant success rates. Bercovitch says, "Mediation may well be the closest thing we have to an effective technique for dealing with conflicts in the twenty-first century."(p. 131)
Studies of international mediation fall into four general approaches. Prescriptive studies offer advice to negotiators. Other studies seek to develop a comprehensive model of conflict resolution. Economists and game theorists seek mathematical models of rational negotiation behavior. The final approach seeks to distill conflict resolution guidelines from empirical case studies and experiments. Each approach has made valuable contributions to our understanding, although the author feels that the last approach has been the most productive.
When and why should mediators mediate? Mediation is most useful in protracted conflicts, where the parties have reached an impasse but still want to end their fighting and are willing to compromise to do it. Traditionally, mediators intervene out of humanitarian interests. However, many other motives may play a role in their decision, including the desire to affect history, to spread their own ideas, to limit the conflict's impact on their own (national) interests, to extend their own influence, because they were asked or because it is part of their job. Disputants may seek mediation to reduce conflict escalation and promote settlement, in the hope that the mediator will influence the other party, to show their commitment o resolution, to have a scapegoat should negotiations fail, or as a guarantor for the any settlement.
Mediators engage in a wide array of roles, functions and behaviors. In the case of international mediators, these may be classified under three main strategies. Communication strategies include contacting the parties, transmitting messages, building trust and rapport, clarifying and supplying missing information. Formulation strategies include arranging the mediation setting and protocols, shaping the agenda, controlling timing and maintaining parties' focus, suggesting concessions, options and settlement proposals. Manipulative strategies include keeping the parties in negotiation, changing their expectations, pressing them to be flexible, filtering information, adding incentives or threatening punishment, and threatening to withdraw. The choice of strategy and behavior should depend on the nature of the conflict.
International mediators may be individuals, states or other organizations. Conflict researchers and Quakers have both served as informal individual mediators. States usually serve as mediators by through their senior decision making officials. Smaller, less powerful states such as Sweden have a reputation for impartiality, and often conduct low-profile interventions by invitation. Larger, more powerful states have more resources to employ sanctions and inducements, and often offer to mediate in high-profile talks. Organizational mediators range from international groups such as the UN, to transnational groups like Amnesty International or the Red Cross, to regional groups like the European Union or the Arab League.
Bercovitch identifies three factors that contribute to effective mediation. First, parties must be motivated to settle their conflict and seriously committed to mediation. Second, the conflict circumstances must be ripe for intervention. "The existence of a hurting stalemate (e.g. a military setback, a change in power relations, or a failure to impose a unilateral outcome) remains the best benchmark in a conflict for deciding when to initiate mediation."(p. 145) Certainly, the parties must have already tried and failed to negotiate on their own. Third, an appropriate mediator must be available. Bercovitch notes that "there is wide agreement among scholars and practitioners that appropriate mediators should possess intelligence, tact, skills in drafting formal proposals, and a sense of humor, in addition to specific knowledge of the conflict at hand."(p. 146) High rank is associated with mediator effectiveness, as is the use directive strategies.
Finally, Bercovitch considers methods and standards for evaluating international mediation efforts. Since mediation may pursue many different goals, different sets of criteria will be needed. Subjective criteria assess party satisfaction, perception of fairness, and the quality of the parties' relationship. Objective criteria focus on such elements as reductions in violent behavior, reaching an agreement, and the breadth and endurance of settlements. Both sorts of criteria are important. General assessments must be sensitive to the goals of the mediation and to the complex nature and context of the conflict.