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Refugees + displacement

Jan Egeland on how to broker the world’s most challenging peace agreements

Mediation is the best way to bring violent conflict to an end. But just what does it take to get warring parties to make peace?

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

Conflict is on the rise. Since the early 2000s, the number of hotspots around the world has been trending upwards. In 2014, the number of conflicts worldwide topped 50 for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union. And if you’re like us, you want to know one thing: How do we make those numbers go down again? What is the best way to end conflict, and have it stay ended?

What academics have found is that overwhelmingly, the best way to put a stop to conflict is by bringing in an unbiased mediator to facilitate negotiations between the warring parties. A study of 434 international crises that occurred between 1918 and 2001 shows that the  probability of formal agreement is more than five times greater when a crisis is mediated than when it is not. But it’s unclear whether conflicts that have been resolved by mediation are more likely to lead to a long-term reduction in tensions, where there’s less chance of a relapse into conflict.

To find out more about what makes effective mediation work, we spoke with Jan Egeland, currently the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council and an advisor to the UN Special Envoy to Syria. Previously, Egeland has served as a mediator in some of the most difficult, intractable conflicts in the world: He facilitated talks between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Sudanese government in Khartoum, the Colombian government and the FARC, the Guatemalan government and the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca guerrillas, and Israel and the PLO during the 1992 Oslo Accords.

Jan Egeland

Egeland shared that the work of a mediator can be divided into three parts. Mediators structure the bargaining by arranging sessions, drafting agendas, providing meeting places, setting deadlines, and managing media relations. They facilitate communication between the parties by ascertaining facts and relaying information. And they recommend concessions, moderate demands, and propose settlements.

Scholars and practitioners acknowledge that there can be substantial risks to mediation. Often, fighting intensifies before talks, as both sides try to come to the table with a greater advantage. Egeland argues that the proliferation of mediation since the fall of the Berlin Wall has generated a buyer’s market for peace talks that he calls “forum shopping.” And in an age of increasingly fragmented, intrastate conflict, it can be hard to know who to engage with: For example, there are currently hundreds of armed rebel groups in Syria. “They can’t all sit at the table,” Engeland says. “There has to be a process of aggregation before we can meaningfully engage.”

There is never a bad time for making efforts for peace. War is always so horrific for the civilian population that it is our moral duty to always work for peace.

Egeland breaks from the consensus among some peace scholars to argue that the international community should always seek to facilitate peace talks.  Where some academics have argued that peace talks will only bear fruit during a stalemate -- conditions known among academics as “ripeness” for peace -- Egeland argues that “there is always an imperative to seek a peaceful conflict resolution, and to seek an end to armed conflict.” However, he caveats, “it’s not like any peace deal is worthy of being realized. It’s very clear that some compromises that may come out of talks may be fundamentally flawed.”

This is the conversation you need to listen to if you want to get into the nitty gritty of how to build a lasting peace. We talk about when it’s appropriate to negotiate with terrorists, why false expectations of a peace dividend can seek peace deals in the implementation stage, and the role small states have to play in negotiations. And Egeland gives us an insider’s view into the secretive 1992 Oslo Accords, the agreement that led to formal recognition between Israel and the PLO.

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Related Reading

The UN and the Race Against Death – The New York Review of Books, Brian Urquhart

I predicted 2018 would offer hope for Syrians  -- but I was painfully wrong –  The Independent, Jan Egeland

‘Ripeness’: The importance of timing in negotiation and conflict resolution –  E-International Relations, William Zartman

As Trump Preps for SIngapore, a Look at Past Summits that Succeeded -- Or Flopped –  The New Yorker, Robin Wright

Conflict Resolution: Wars Without End –  Nature, Dan Jones

Syria Diplomatic Talks: A Timeline –  Al Jazeera

Interested in learning more about what went behind this episode? Check out Airbel's Medium.

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.