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The Failure of Mediation Efforts in Lebanon and Ivory Coast

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Last week, two international mediators declared impasse and walked away from the conflicts they were assigned to mediate. In Lebanon, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal attempted to mediate a serious conflict between Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al Hariri and Hezbollah. In the Ivory Coast, Kenyan prime minister Raila Odinga mediated the continuing crisis caused by the presidential election between Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo.

These conflicts are complex and difficult problems. Nevertheless, the failure of these two mediations raises the question: Were these leaders qualified by knowledge, experience, and skill to mediate? Did they represent the very best that could be called to serve? Was it fair to them and to the parties to ask them to serve as mediators?

Mediation requires an entirely different skill set than diplomacy, including the ability to de-escalate high emotions, the ability to remain absolutely neutral and impartial, the ability to recognize and manage cognitive biases that interfere with clear decision-making, the ability to choose which form of negotiation or problem-solving is appropriate in the moment, and a host of other skills that only come with explicit training and deep experience. Would we rather have a mediator with thousands of mediations or just one or two or maybe no mediations serve in these types of conflicts?

The Lebanese Mediation

The gist of the conflict in Lebanon began with the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005. On December 13, 2005, the Lebanese government requested the United Nations to establish a tribunal to try those allegedly responsible for the attack. Pursuant to Security Council resolution 1664 (2006), the United Nations and Lebanon negotiated an agreement on the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The Tribunal is close to issuing indictments for the murder of the former prime minister, and Hezbollah is likely to be indicted.

Saad al Hariri, Rafic Hariri's son, is acting prime minister of Lebanon and leads a coalition government composed of several factions, including Hezbollah. When word of the forthcoming indictments leaked out, Hezbollah demanded that Mr. al Hariri withdraw support for the Tribunal. When he refused, Hezbollah withdrew from the government, creating a crisis that could lead to renewed sectarian violence. Hezbollah claims that the Special Tribunal is an Israeli project and objects to its operations, investigation, and process. Others say that the Special Tribunal will prevent responsible people from escaping accountability with impunity. The conflict presents a classic dilemma in competing notions of justice in a region that has a very different view of the rule of law than the west.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was the chief mediator between Hezbollah and al-Hariri. He has withdrawn as mediator. Who is Saud al-Faisal and what are his qualifications to mediate a complex dispute like this? Was it fair to ask him to mediate, considering his professional background and experience?

Born in Taif, Saudi Arabia in 1941, Prince Saud is the third son of the late King Faisal. He graduated from Princeton University in 1964 with a Bachelor of Science in Economics. He joined the Ministry of Petroleum as an economic consultant and a member of the High Coordination Committee. In 1966, he was assigned to the General Organization for Petroleum and Mineral Resources (Petromin). On February 22, 1970, he was appointed Deputy Governor of Petromin for Planning Affairs. In 1971, he was appointed Deputy Minister, Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources. He was appointed in Foreign Minister in 1975 by King Khalid and is today the world's longest-serving incumbent foreign minister, Prince Saud is well regarded internationally among his peers.

He is obviously a distinguished and experienced diplomat. However, nothing in his experience or background suggests that he had any explicit mediation training, knowledge of conflict dynamics, theoretical and practical knowledge of human behaviors in conflict, or any of the other multi-disciplinary skills and knowledge expected of a modern high level professional mediator. He possesses great diplomatic experience, cultural acceptance, and political saavy. However, those attributes are not sufficient qualifications for serving in a high conflict situation.

The Ivory Coast Mediation

Last year, UN certified elections determined that former prime minister Alassane Ouattara won the presidential election in the Ivory Coast. Defeated president Laurent Gbagbo denied this, claiming he won the election. Mr. Gbagbo has refused to relinquish power and controls the military and police. Mr. Ouattara has been confined to a hotel protected by UN forces. This is a classic African strong man power dispute. Mr. Gbagbo is protecting his power, position, and privilege despite enormous international pressure to step down.

Kenyan prime minister Ralia Odinga was appointed by the African Union to mediate between Messrs. Gbagbo and Ouattara. After several meetings with both sides and no joint sessions with all parties present, he withdrew as mediator. Who is Mr. Odinga, and what are his qualifications to mediate this dispute?

Ralia Odinga became prime minister after a similarly disputed presidential election was mediated by Kofi Anan in early 2008. As far as the public record reveals, Mr. Odinga has never mediated a dispute of any complexity. Mr. Odinga is 65 years old and part of the Kenyan elite ruling class. He is an industrialist, trained as a mechanical engineer in the former East Germany (GDR). He was a dissident Kenyan politician for many years. Similar to Prince Saud, Mr. Odinga has no training in mediation theory, design, or process. His only experience seems to be that he was a party to a mediation conducted by Kofi Anan in 2008 to resolve a similar election problem. As I point out elsewhere (i) , that mediation created more problems than it solved. As a learning experience for Mr. Odina, it was a poor example of mediation. Nevertheless, he was appointed as mediator to the Ivory Coast, and the results were sadly predictable.

The Problem

Mediation as a process for resolving disputes has been around for thousands of years. In the past 25 years, it has grown as a science and professional practice everywhere but in diplomatic relations. Mediation is the dominant process for resolving most disputes in civil society. Mediation has been used to resolve conflicts as complex as can be imagined and where high emotions and intractability dominate the dispute. In international circles, however, mediation is still practiced as an ad hoc adjunct to diplomacy. The only qualification for being a mediator seems to be political or diplomatic stature. Asking a diplomat or world leader to mediate a dispute is somewhat like asking a heart surgeon to perform a colonoscopy. The heart surgeon is highly skilled, but not at performing colonoscopies. Diplomats are highly skilled at representing their nation's interests in negotiations, but that does not make them capable, neutral, and impartial mediators.

The problem is that we can longer afford leave mediation in the hands of diplomats. Although they think they know better, they mostly do not it, and the results show it. Less than 50 percent of the international conflicts mediated in the past 25 years have resulted in lasting peace. Many of the failed mediations have led to escalated violence and in one notable case, Rwanda, genocide. While the underlying conflicts were difficult, we tend to blame the conflict parties or the situation rather than examining the performance of the mediators.

The solution is to recognize the problem then try alternatives. There are many deeply experienced mediators in the world and many more young people are training in mediation. High level, mediation centers are flourishing in Europe, Bahrain, Egypt, Singapore, India, and North America. Organizations such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and Mediators Beyond Borders have deep experience in training, education, and intervention. The diplomatic community can solve the problem of mediation expertise by reaching outside its own comfortable club. Those of us who think the world can do better at peace should demand it.

(i) Chapter 8, Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Can End World Conflict (Prometheus, to be released April, 2011).