International Mediation and Intractable Conflict

Jacob Bercovitch

January 2004

Intractable conflicts have been with us for quite some time now. As these conflicts pose a serious threat to international peace and security, we may look at them and ask two basic questions; (1) how and why do they start, and (2) how best to end them? Here, I am concerned with the second issue. Intractable conflicts provide many opportunities for conflict management. Numerous international actors, ranging from private individuals to international organizations have an interest in settling or helping to de-escalate intractable conflicts. The main argument I wish to advance is that of all these efforts, mediation offers the most promising approach to managing intractable conflicts.

How can parties in an intractable conflict manage their difficulties? Parties in such conflicts usually think of violence or coercion as the most appropriate response. Other methods may be available to the parties (e.g. negotiation, recourse to the United Nations, or regional organizations, international adjudication, or asking for an international conference). However, given the nature of their conflict, and entrenched hostility, it would appear that the best approach would be that of mediation.

What Mediation Is

William Ury explains that the third side is a self-organizing social movement that works at all levels of the society from the grassroots to the elite. Outsiders can help get the movement started and can give it support, but basically the work is done from within.

Mediation is 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 to do so without resorting to physical force or invoking the authority of law. The essential characteristics of mediation are highlighted below:

  1. Mediation is an extension of the parties' own efforts to manage their conflict. Where they fail, a third party (mediator) is called in.
  2. Thus, mediation involves the intervention of an outsider; an individual, a group or an organization into a conflict between two states or other actors.
  3. This intervention is non-coercive, non-violent, and ultimately non-binding.
  4. Mediators enter a conflict, whether internal or international, in order to affect it, change it, resolve it, modify or influence it in some way. Their overriding interest is to reduce violence and achieve a peaceful outcome.
  5. Mediators bring with them, consciously or otherwise, ideas, knowledge, resources, and prestige. These are used throughout the process to advance the cause of conflict resolution.
  6. Mediation is a voluntary form of conflict management. This means the adversaries in an intractable conflict choose whether to begin or continue mediation or not, and they retain their control over the outcome (if not always over the process) of their conflict, as well as their freedom to accept or reject any aspects of the process or the ultimate agreement.
  7. Mediation operates on an ad hoc basis only. Once completed, a mediator departs the arena of the conflict.

All these features make mediation very attractive to parties in an intractable conflict.

Mediation is practiced widely in international relations. It has many advantages that may appeal to parties in a bitter conflict. As described above, it is ad hoc in nature, non-coercive, and voluntary, which makes it less threatening than other possible conflict management options. It is non-evaluative and non-judgmental and it is particularly suited to the reality of international relations, where states and other actors guard their autonomy and independence quite jealously. It offers both parties the prospects of a better outcome without necessarily having any direct meetings with a sworn enemy. It is also a process that leaves the ultimate decision on any outcome to the parties themselves. These aspects of mediation make it a very attractive method for dealing with intractable conflicts

Mediation Behavior

What is it that mediators can actually do in intractable conflicts? Mediators have many resources, strategies and techniques available to them for trying to transform an intractable conflict into a tractable one. Specifically, mediators may use one of the following three strategies in the course of helping to deal with an intractable conflict. They may rely on (a) communication-facilitation strategies, (b) procedural strategies, or (c) directive strategies.

(a) Communication-facilitation strategies describe mediator behavior at the low end of the intervention spectrum. Here a mediator typically adopts a fairly passive role, channeling information to the parties, facilitating cooperation, but exhibiting little control over the more formal process or substance of mediation. This is a very important role in the context of intractable conflicts, where parties in conflict lack direct channels of communication, have different conceptions of the central issues, and/or do not even have the opportunity to explore any options that might benefit both. In such situations, a mediator who can facilitate dialogue and communication, and just carry out information from one to the other, is a prerequisite for an effective process of peacemaking. Norway's intervention in bringing about the Oslo Accords in 1993 is a good example of what we mean by communication-facilitation strategies.

(b) Procedural strategies enable a mediator to bring both parties together, in some neutral environment, where they (i.e., the mediator) exert some control over the conflict management process. Here a mediator may exercise control over timing, issues on the agenda, meeting place and arrangements, media publicity, the distribution of information, and the formality or flexibility of the meetings. A good example of the effective use of procedural strategies is President Carter's control over all aspects of the physical setting at Camp David in 1978.

Procedural strategies give a mediator the opportunity to control aspects of interaction. This is very significant for parties in an intractable conflict who may not have had an opportunity to interact together in any other place save the battlefield. Procedural strategies help to minimize stress and disruption that arise when two or more conflictual parties who have little history of peacemaking get together to deal with their intractable conflict.

(c) Directive strategies are the most powerful form of intervention. Here a mediator works hard to shape the content and nature of a final outcome. This is done by offering each party in conflict incentives, promises of support, or threats of diplomatic sanctions. When a mediator engages in such behavior, the parties are confronted with new resources or the prospect of losing resources. This may change the value they attach to their conflict and produce behavior that is more consonant with the requirements of conflict resolution.

Directive strategies are crucial in any intractable conflict. They allow a mediator to break through a cycle of violence by changing the factors influencing the parties' decision making. By making financial or diplomatic support contingent on co-operation, people who are otherwise opposed to settlement might be persuaded to agree to one. President Carter, for instance, was able to break through both Israeli and Egyptian intransigence at Camp David by promising them both $2 billion each if they would sign a ceasefire agreement. Directive strategies take the form of promises of rewards or threats of withdrawals, if certain agreements are not made or actions are not taken. In either case they are significant in getting parties in an intractable conflict to change their values and behavior.

Who are the Mediators?

Given the complexity of intractable conflicts, the level of violence associated with them, and the dangers they pose, it is remarkable that so many political actors are prepared to intervene in these conflicts to transform them, settle them, or simply to ensure they do not become even more dangerous. It is useful to think of all potential mediators in intractable conflicts as falling into one of the following three categories.

1. Individuals. The traditional image of mediation, one nurtured by the media and popular accounts, is that of a single, usually high-ranking, individual, shuttling from one place to another, trying to search for understanding, restore communication, or help settle their conflict. This image is only partly accurate. In many instances, a mediator is an individual who does not have an official role, or who does not represent his/her country in any capacity. People such as Roger Fisher, Adam Curle, Herb Kelman, Leonard Doob, Jimmy Carter, and other members of the International Negotiation Network at the Carter Center intervene in conflicts in different parts of the world as respected persons with a strong commitment to conflict resolution. They do not do so as government officials.

Individual mediators may hold different beliefs, values, and attitudes, and their mediation strategies may exhibit greater flexibility than official state mediators. What they all have in common is knowledge, experience, and commitment to peaceful conflict resolution. Such mediation is normally carried on without the glare of publicity, and permits the parties to engage in some meaningful dialogue should they choose to. As individuals, mediators do not possess significant resources; their behavior is of necessity limited only to communication and facilitation strategies.

2. States. Today there are 198 sovereign and legally equal states, but with different capabilities, regime-structures, and interests, which interact on the international arena. They are major actors in mediation, and often find themselves having to mediate an intractable conflict that may otherwise threaten their own interests. States, both large and small, frequently have reason or motive to mediate in conflicts, especially when these are in their region or where they may have some interests to promote or protect. Whether it is the United States, Switzerland, Norway, or Algeria, states find themselves very often at the forefront of mediation activities.

When a state mediates an intractable conflict, it does so because it feels the conflict is a genuine threat to international peace and regional stability. When this happens, the state concerned, through its official representatives, may marshal all necessary resources behind a mediation effort and give it all the necessary clout. Unlike other mediators, states have considerable tangible resources, means of mobilizing them, and leaders with a mandate to use these resources. States that become engaged as mediators in an intractable conflict may find that they have to use all their resources in order to facilitate an agreement.

3. Institutions and Organizations. The complexity of intractable conflicts is such that states can no longer meet all the mediation requirements, nor facilitate a settlement when conflicts are long, drawn out, and intense. Other bodies and organizations are coming in to offer and deliver different mediation services. We have witnessed a phenomenal growth in the number of international, transnational and other non-state actors as mediators in the last decade or so. These functional actors, many of them falling under the multi-track umbrella, or track II diplomacy, have become an indispensable adjunct to traditional mediation by individuals and states.

Two kinds of actors are important here. They are: (a) specialized non-governmental actors committed to conflict resolution (such as Amnesty International, International Alert, the Carter Center), and (b) a wide variety of religious (the Quakers, Islamic Conference Organization, the Community of Sante Egidio) and civic and humanitarian organizations (The International Committee of the Red Cross, Center for Humanitarian Mediation, Oxfam) whose main concern is to heal, to deal with some of the basic issues in conflict, and achieve reconciliation, and changed attitudes, not just settlement of a conflict.

All these actors have some decided advantages in intractable conflicts; they operate informally and secretly, thus the parties need fear no loss of face. They offer services that other mediators cannot offer, and they may find it easier to gain access to the parties where formal diplomats may be viewed with suspicion if not downright hostility. Such actors can be less inhibited in their approach to a conflict, and can afford the luxury of appealing to the parties by promising them to work on all levels of their conflict and to achieve a long lasting solution to their problems.

The United Nations--and other international organizations-- also provide mediation. UN Political Affairs Officer, Nita Yawanarajah, provides a description of UN mediation below:

In the United Nations, the act of mediation describes the political skills utilized in efforts carried out by the United Nations Secretary-General or his representatives, through the exercise of the Secretary General's "Good Offices," without the use of force and in keeping with the principles of the UN Charter. The United Nations mediator engages in a process as a third party, when those in conflict either seek or accept the assistance of the United Nations with the aim to prevent, manage or resolve a conflict. Mediation skills, therefore, could be employed in all of the following contexts:

A United Nations mediation mandate, however, is more specifically defined. When the United Nations is called upon to mediate a resolution to a conflict, the parties accept what is called a mediation mandate. This means that they accept that the UN mediator is there to help and provide them them find solutions to resolve their conflict. A United Nations mediation mandate provides the authority for the Secretary-General or his envoys to:

  • meet and listen to all parties to the conflict;
  • consult all relevant parties for the resolution of the conflict;
  • propose ideas and solutions to facilitate the resolution to the conflict

While the final outcome has to be agreed to by the parties, being a mediator entails a much greater responsibility and involvement in the outcome of the conflict.

As in other mediations, a United Nations mediated outcome is not binding, unless the Security Council takes actions to enforce the agreement. Final implementation of the mediated agreement rests upon the commitment of the parties.

A United Nations mediation mandate is particularly useful to the parties as it gives them the opportunity to avail themselves of the experience and best practices that the United Nations ,as an organisation, has gained in the field of conflict resolution.

--Nita Yawanarajah, Project Manager, UN Peacemaker Databank, Policy Planning Unit, Department of Political Affairs, United Nations

Conditions for Successful Mediations in Intractable Conflicts

Mediation is an effective and useful way of dealing with intractable conflicts. This is not to suggest that every intractable conflict can be mediated. Many conflicts are just too intense, the parties too entrenched and the behaviour just too violent for any mediator to achieve very much. Some intractable conflicts go on and on with little signs of abatement. They cease to become intractable only when there is a major systemic change (e.g. change of leaders, collapse of country, etc.). How then can we distinguish between conflicts that can be mediated and those that cannot? When should mediators enter an intractable conflict, and how can they increase their chances of success?

1. Mediators can engage in an intractable conflict only after a thorough and complete analysis of the conflict, issues at stake, context and dynamics, parties' grievances, etc. Intractable conflicts are complex and multi-layered. A mediation initiative is more likely to be successful if it is predicated on knowledge and understanding rather than on good intentions only. A good analysis and a thorough understanding of all aspects of the conflict are important prerequisites for successful mediation in intractable conflicts.

2. Mediation must take place at an optimal or ripe moment. Early mediation may be premature and late mediation may face too many obstacles. A ripe moment describes a phase in the life cycle of the conflict where the parties feel exhausted and hurt, or where they may not wish to countenance any further losses and are prepared to commit to a settlement, or at least believe one to be possible. In destructive and escalating conflicts, mediation can have any chance of success only if it can capture a particular moment when the adversaries, for a variety of reasons, appear most amenable to change. Timing of intervention in an intractable conflict is an issue of crucial importance, and one that must be properly assessed by any would be mediator.

3. Given the nature and complexity of intractable conflicts, successful mediation requires a co-ordinated approach between different aspects of intervention. Mediation here requires leverage and resources to nudge the parties toward a settlement, but also acute psychological understanding of the parties' feelings and grievances. The kind of mediation we are talking about here is mediation that is embedded in various disciplinary frameworks, ranging from problem-solving workshops to more traditional diplomatic methods. No one aspect or form of behavior will suffice to turn an intractable conflict around. Diverse and complementary methods, an interdisciplinary focus, and a full range of intervention methods responding to the many concerns and fears of the adversaries, are required to achieve some accommodation between parties in an intractable conflict.

4. Mediating intractable conflicts require commitment, resources, persistence, and experience. Mediators of high rank or prestige are more likely to possess these attributes and thus are more likely to be successful in intractable conflicts. Such mediators have the capacity to appeal directly to the domestic constituency and build up support for some peace agreement. Influential, high ranking or prestigious mediators have more at stake, can marshal more resources, have better information, and can devote more time to an intractable conflict. Such mediators can work toward achieving some visible signs of progress in the short term, and identify steps that need to be taken to deal with the issues of a longer term peace objectives. Influential mediators can work better within the constraints of intractable conflicts, and more likely to elicit accommodative responses from the adversaries.

5. Mediation in intractable conflicts is more likely to be successful when there are recognizable leaders within each party, where the leaders are accepted as legitimate by all concerned, and where they have considerable control over their territory. An intractable conflict between parties with competing leaders and constituents (e.g. Northern Ireland) can prove very difficult to deal with. Where there are recognizable leaders, each from the mainstream of their respective community, and where each embodies the aspirations and expectations of their respective community, provides mediators with individuals who may have a serious impact on official diplomacy. Where there are competing leadership factions, state institutions, and governance capacity are all too uncertain, and the chances of successful mediation decline sharply.

6. Mediation in intractable conflicts is more likely to be effective if there are no sections in each community committed to the continuation of violence. Such parties are usually described as spoilers. Spoilers in such a context have much to lose from a peaceful outcome and much to gain from the continuation of violence. Their presence and activities constitute a major obstacle to any mediation effort.

7. Where an intractable conflict involves a major power, or major powers have interests (vital or otherwise) at stake, it is very unlikely that mediation will be attempted, and if attempted, very unlikely that it will succeed. The involvement of major powers in any capacity in an intractable conflict poses too serious a constraint on any mediation effort. A major power involvement in an intractable conflict provides a clear indication of the difficulty of initiating any form of mediation.

All these factors provide some guidance on when mediation might make a contribution to intractable conflicts, and when this will be extremely difficult. Surely other factors are present too, factors such as commitment to mediation and willingness to achieve a suitable outcome, desire to stop a cycle of violence, etc. These may be hard to identify and assess, but their presence or absence will surely affect the process and outcome of any mediation effort.


Intractable conflicts are driven by antagonists with a strong sense of identity, grievance of some sort (economic or political), and a desire to use violence to change the status quo. In places as diverse as Israel, Sudan, Northern Ireland, Congo, Cyprus, Korea, Kashmir, and many others, intractable conflicts are responsible for continued violence and loss of lives. These conflicts threaten regional order and international stability. It is hard to get out of an intractable situation. Hard, but not impossible. There is nothing pre-ordained about the path of any conflict, intractable or otherwise. What I have tried to suggest above is that mediation may offer the prospect of escaping the dilemmas of intractability.

Mediation offers the possibility of a jointly acceptable outcome without giving in on one's core values and beliefs. Under some conditions mediation can actually break through an intractable cycle of violence. The availability of suitable mediators may help to transform an intractable conflict and produce a sustained agreement. For this to happen certain conditions have to be present. When the circumstances are indeed propitious, few processes can do more to reduce intractability of a conflict than a well planned mediation. We should be aware of these conditions and do our best to bring intractable conflicts to an end.

Use the following to cite this article:
Bercovitch, Jacob. "International Mediation and Intractable Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: January 2004 <>.

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