Lund, Sweden – January 24, 2014
By Jan Oberg*
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The meeting in Geneva about Syria resumes today. It is destined to become a historic failure. Most observers will blame either of the armed Syrian parties – the government or the rebels – for adhering unbendingly to their mutually exclusive positions.
But that isn’t fair. Those who set themselves up as conflict-managers, mediators, negotiators and peace-makers and called the meeting must also take responsibility for its failure. It is the UN, the Arab League and several governments, various NATO countries and Russia (”facilitators” in the following).
This article is about how to achieve a negotiated peace.
Here follow 8 – out of many more – professional criteria that are useful for an evaluation of Geneva. Summary at the end:
1) How well do the facilitators understand what the conflict is about?
It’s about history, suffering, socio-economic crisis, foreign involvement, traumas and constitutional matters; it’s about vicious cycles of violence and arms traders’ profits.
No conflict is only about one top leader and, as we know from Iraq, Libya and elsewhere, conflicts are not solved by that leader leaving the stage. And no conflict is about only two sides, one with all the good people on one side and one with all the evil ones.
Further it is reasonable to say that Syria is a stage for a much larger conflict being played out: the wider Middle East as well as among actors who are competing for power in tomorrow’s world.
2) How was the meeting’s overall purpose and participants decided?
Judging from media reports, there seems to have been more quarrels about who should be there than about a) what should be the focus, b) the frame – Syria, the Middle East, whoever? – and c) who should not be there? With a good conflict diagnosis, it is more easy to determine who should be at the table.
Judging from the media images, it would be desirable if there had been more women and younger people and fewer men close to, or beyond, their best-before age.
3) How were participants consulted before the meeting and what is good timing?
It borders on the bizarre to invite people straight from the battlefield. Before coming to Geneva, there should have been a UN mediated ceasefire followed by comprehensive talks with each party, perhaps then in pairs and, finally – when the facilitators would believe that there were some kind of possibly overlapping views, interests and some kind of building blocks for a peace agreement – then and only then would a meeting like Geneva take place.
4) Assessing the risk and consequences of a failure
Every professional conflict-resolution expert knows that it is only making things worse if parties meet at a table and conclude that it is impossible to deal with ”them” and then go back – not to other types of negotiations but – to the battle field.
Geneva II represents a high-risk methodology that threatens to make everybody worse off. With the set-up, it did not have even a 50% chance to become a success.
5) How well do the facilitators utilise the positive building blocks that may exist?
Geneva II builds on the document from Geneva I in 2012. Almost all its constructive elements have been ignored by the violent parties on the Syrian ground and by many of the governments now in Geneva. In addition, Geneva I was based on the eminent work carried out by Kofi Annan, and his work – by far the best in this conflict up till today – was undermined by leading UN members to such a degree that he resigned a few weeks after Geneva I.
6) How creative are the facilitators?
To help solve conflicts, one must have imagination, be able to see a better future for all – because the parties who are at each others’ throat usually have no time or motivation to think longterm. Conflict mediation and resolution, thus, is a science/profession, yes; but it is also a deeply imaginative endeavour. No conflict can be solved by looking only at the past.
7) How disinterested and impartial are the facilitators of negotiations?
What does ”disinterested” mean here? Simply that no one can be a mediator/facilitator and trusted by all sides if that person or organisation is known to a) be clearly sympathetic with one side against one or more, b) be involved, for instance as a weapons supplier to one side and c) have strong interests in a particular solution to the conflict that satisfies the mediator’s interests more than the needs of those who are in the conflict.
A mediator is soft on people and hard on solving the problem.
Much of what politicians and media call ’conflict management’, ‘negotiations’ and ‘peace-making’ is power politics in disguise.
8. How long will it take to negotiate a peace?
Perhaps a year or two in an elaborate, inclusive (parties and issues) criss-crossing process process. It would involve professionals and other impartial mediators and secure civil society’s inclusion. It takes times for the parties to go home and explain step-by-step to their constituencies and get new mandates. And it must happen without the press being there.
Attempts at quick fixes of a broad and deep conflict – almost unsolvable thanks to those who have weaponised it – is to make a mockery of concerns for life and peace of the people of Syria.
Pro-peace – what if?
There has been enough wars the last 25 years that have failed in terms of their own stated purposes. The world is, in certain respects, therefore moving away from warfare. This makes it increasingly important to critically and professionally evaluate attempts to negotiate peace. Because when they fail too, the parties go back to the killing fields and human suffering accumulates exponentially.
The UN Charter says that peace shall be established by peaceful means (Article 1). Wouldn’t it be both logical and good for all if
• every country allocated funds to educate conflict analysts, mediators and peace-builders?
• students and diplomats alike got to know the theories, principles, values and methods of peace-making, also through simulations such as Model UN?
• peace academies were set up everywhere as defence academies were in the past?
We must learn to use negotiations and other civilian methods before violence breaks out. We must learn to focus on the arms traders, the largest war criminals.
It’s perfectly doable if we want peace and respect human life. And if we equate civilisation with the successive reduction of violence and switch to intelligent, professional peace development.
1. Respect the complexity of complex conflicts.
2. Invite all relevant parties, representatives of the citizens too.
3. Prepare negotiations very carefully and get a ceasefire.
4. Start negotiations only if you have 50% chance of success.
5. Make good use of common interests and positive documents.
6. Use professional skills and creativity, brainstorm a lot.
7. Secure that mediators are truly impartial and disinterested.
8. Understand that it may take years and not a weekend.
These principles have been ignored by the facilitators. Had they used them the chance of peace would have been much better.