by Catherine Turner
21st September 2021

21 September marks the United Nations’ International Day of Peace. It is a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace through non-violence. The theme for this year, reflecting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on inequalities worldwide, is Recovering Better for an Equitable and Sustainable World. While much focus in global policy terms will rest on the recovery aspect, the extent to which this recovery is equitable will bear on its sustainability. As such, we are called to think creatively about how to transform our world into one which is more equal, inclusive and sustainable.

As the world emerges from the pandemic, tensions over the nature of economic recovery and the extent to which proposed methods address the deep global inequalities that have been laid bare by the pandemic are increasingly apparent. Transforming the world into a more inclusive and sustainable one requires that we think about how to manage these tensions.

UN policy recognises the intrinsic connections between exclusion and conflict. Global regimes such as the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the World Bank’s Pathways for Peace report, for example, all explicitly address the need to empower marginalised populations to participate in decision making. Inclusion for these purposes is defined as ‘the extent and manner in which the views and needs of parties to a conflict and other stakeholders are represented, heard and integrated ….’ Whether it relates to security, to development or to climate change, inclusion requires that those who are affected by particular events should have the opportunity to participate in decision making when it comes to the response. Inclusion in turn makes the outcome more sustainable by reducing dissatisfaction and violence from those who are excluded. As attention turns to global recovery, we must find ways of ensuring equitable access to decision making for those communities who are hardest hit by both economic and, increasingly, environmental shocks. We must also find ways to manage the tensions that are inevitably emerging over how to balance competing economic and public health or environmental concerns.

When it comes to inclusion and sustainability, the importance of engagement has been recognised in policy but less well implemented in practice. One potential way to address this gap is through the use of mediation as a tool for inclusion. Mediation is a process whereby a third party assists parties to a conflict, with their consent, to seek a mutually beneficial solution. Mediation has a long history as a diplomatic activity that is often carried out under the auspices of the United Nations. However, the Sustaining Peace agenda has recognised a much wider role for mediation in the prevention of conflict as well as in its resolution. It is now well recognised that mediation and dialogue can be used to try and prevent conflict from escalating into violence and to manage the effects of conflict. It can also be practised in a number of different ways and by different actors. For example, mediation is used as a tool of humanitarian response, including the negotiation of temporary ceasefires, or resolving conflicts over the delivery of aid. Mediation skills are also widely used to mitigate the impact of conflicts within communities, and to empower traditionally marginalised groups such as women or youth to address conflict.

While mediation is traditionally thought of as falling under the peace and security pillar of UN activities, it has the potential to be much more widely used as a tool of inclusion. In particular, it is an effective tool for creating opportunities for disenfranchised communities to contribute to policy that affects them. This provides a clear mechanism for operationalising broader policy commitments to inclusion. For example, mediators in countries such as Nigeria use community mediation to resolve local disputes within and between communities over land and resources. Supporting these efforts and investing in mediation as a tool of conflict prevention and community empowerment is one way of promoting inclusive and sustainable responses to environmental challenges. It is also a way of creating structured mechanisms for learning from indigenous knowledge and expertise and enabling that knowledge to inform decision making.

Similarly, in the financing of development projects, particularly large infrastructure projects with significant potential community impact, there is a risk that economic and financial decision making will lead to conflict with affected communities. Mediation as a tool can create more equitable channels for communication between communities and governments and financial institutions. This helps to promote inclusive decision making, and also improves the sustainability of projects by addressing at an early stage in the project the risks of conflict or violence that could arise from opposition to the project.

Violent conflict impacts the chances of recovery, adaptation and resilience to shock, whether political, economic or environmental. The value of mediation lies in the fact that it promotes inclusion through its emphasis on communication, on consent and on win-win solutions. Mediation can empower communities to participate in decision making. It provides a mechanism whereby experiential knowledge can feed into national and international policies. It combats exclusion and disenfranchisement that can lead to conflict.

The use of mediation as a tool of conflict prevention and conflict management has expanded vertically in recent years. No longer simply a tool of diplomacy, mediation has been embraced by grassroots civil society and international organisations alike as a means of empowering marginalised populations and mitigating the impact of armed conflict. It is now time for the influence of mediation to extend horizontally to transcend divides and be applied more systemically in new fields where exclusion from decision making is a driver of inequality and conflict.

In short, mediation is a tool to help us make peace with one another.

Catherine Turner is Associate Professor of International Law at Durham University.


Rethinking Peace Mediation coverRethinking Peace Mediation: Challenges of Contemporary Peacemaking Practice edited by Catherine Turner and Martin Wählisch is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £68.00.

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