Beyond Ceasefires: Using Private Mediators to Resolve Stalemated Civil Conflicts

Beyond Ceasefires: Using Private Mediators to Resolve Stalemated Civil Conflicts Pixabay

Many civil conflicts around the world are in stalemate, a situation in which neither side is able to win. Current examples include the civil wars in Myanmar, Yemen, and Ethiopia. Stalemated conflicts are of grave global concern. They encumber the governance of the countries where they persist; impair their ability to create a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable future; destabilize neighboring countries and the regions where they occur; and impede urgently needed global action on cross-border challenges such as climate change, human migration, and pandemics. Increased economic, social, and environmental stresses, as well as other emerging conditions, will make conflict—and stalemates—even more likely in the future.

It is urgent that the world develop new approaches to resolve stalemates. One approach that should be considered is the use of private mediators. Private mediators are true neutrals trained in establishing the architecture and protocols required for mediations to be successful. They would be better able than outside governments and multilateral organizations to promote prosperity in the warring country’s post-conflict future, which is critical to achieving settlements that go beyond ceasefires and containment in the countries where stalemates exist.

The availability of advanced weaponry and information technology enables weaker non-governmental belligerents to fight on


Conflicts in stalemate are, by nature, difficult to resolve. The unwillingness of the combatants to back down poses a major impediment to peace. The availability of advanced weaponry and information technology enables weaker non-governmental belligerents to fight on. Another factor making resolution elusive is the involvement of criminal groups, and the politicians that protect them, who benefit from the chaos of conflict. Some stalemates are also proxy conflicts, promoted by foreign powers to achieve what they see as being in their self-interest. These proxy contests often lead to a “continuum of conflict” that resists resolution. And beneath it all, an increasing number of stresses destabilize many countries where stalemates exist, such as shortages of food, water, and natural resources. These stresses, and the resulting economic shortcomings they create, help perpetuate conflict.

The intractability of stalemates, and the uncertainty concerning when they are ripe for resolution, has diminished policymakers’ expectations. The result has been a focus on achieving ceasefires and containing the fighting. Thus, the UN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (“ASEAN”), the African Union, and others, have facilitated or encouraged ceasefires in such places as Myanmar, Kashmir, Korea, the Golan Heights, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. For this they deserve credit, even when the ceasefires they helped achieve or promote did not hold. But the underlying conflicts usually have endured. A different approach that focuses more on the underlying causes of current conflicts, and in addressing the likely reasons fighting would resume, is needed if more than ceasefires and containment are to be achieved.

Focusing on achieving prosperity would better position stalemates for a successful resolution. Economic prosperity and peace are “mutually reinforcing.” Giving combatants and other stakeholders hope that peace will create an economic opportunity for them, their families, and their communities, would open the space needed to do more than pause or contain the fighting. Without such hope, the combatants are likely to continue to fight over what little is left. For this reason, mediators should position the country to attract capital, including foreign direct investment; establish mechanisms and the capacity to control inflation; provide employment; protect the environment; and provide adequate food, housing, education, and healthcare.

Accomplishing these objectives would require several conditions. First, mediators must work with all stakeholders to develop a roadmap for peace that makes clear what everyone’s respective roles and opportunities would be in a post-conflict future. Second, mediations need to include those whose capacity, expertise, and money will be needed to build viable, functioning nation-states. Representatives of civil society, the private sector, religious leaders, domestic and foreign investors, economists, the media, young people, and experts on the country’s future challenges are among those who would need to be involved. Third, parties capable of providing economic assistance need to be included from the outset. Simply put, creating the circumstances where capital can be safely deployed to achieve a sustainable future, and an outline for how that capital will be used, should be the goal.

The question then becomes who can design, convene, and oversee such a process. The government involved in such a conflict is clearly unable to do so. First, it would be a party to the mediation. This would itself create mistrust and call its every move into question. In addition, the warring government is unlikely to be able to assemble the outside experts and financial parties necessary to the process.

Foreign governments are also in a poor position to convene a mediation focused on prosperity. They either have, or would be perceived as having, their own agendas. They also would not be well situated to understand the wide array of domestic stakeholders who would need to be involved, and any efforts to become better informed are unlikely to be welcomed by the government involved in the struggle. They would also face charges of favoritism when selecting private sector participants in the process. And, of course, the government involved in the conflict would be sensitive to concerns about sovereignty, which might circumscribe the process being designed.

Existing peace-making groups, including multilateral organizations and NGOs, would suffer from these same shortcomings. Historically, they have not brought together all the parties needed to achieve long-term economic prosperity. Their focus has been on ceasefires and political accords. When they have gone further, such as in El Salvador and Guatemala, their focus has been to reform political institutions, provide mechanisms for national reconciliation, and enable the consolidation of democracy. These are desirable goals. But while these elements might have the effect of increasing economic opportunity, they fall short of providing a clear path for a country’s future. They are also not in the best position to identify and convene the many groups that are necessary to do so.

All these potential convenors face another, perhaps more debilitating challenge. They are unable to assure the confidentiality necessary for effective mediation. It is essential that all who are involved in the peace process be able to trust that their discussions will be kept completely confidential. Otherwise, the parties will withhold information critical to finding a way forward. But the employees of governments, multilateral organizations, and even NGOs that conduct peace processes owe their first allegiance to their respective organizations. While keeping confidences might not be inconsistent with their some of their official remits, members of these organizations will still have their own internal needs, expectations, and protocols, including an institutional understanding of best practices. Thus, they are unable to provide the participants in mediations the certainty that their confidences will be kept, both during the mediation and in the future. Even the possibility that confidences might be disclosed would inhibit parties from being fully forthcoming.

So, who could do the job? The answer is an international team of private, professional mediators, assembled for the specific task at hand, advised and aided by experts and representatives of the domestic, regional and global stakeholders involved. These mediators would not be part of any organization and would owe allegiance only to the parties and the process. Such a cohort of mediators, acting on a not-for-profit basis and functioning as true neutrals, could design and implement a bespoke process that involves representatives of all parties needed to reach and implement a long-term resolution focused on prosperity. They could do so while maintaining the confidences of all participants both during the mediations and into the future.

Private mediators have facilitated the resolution of countless disputes around the world involving almost every economic, social and scientific sector, including capital markets, trade, construction, transportation, agriculture, energy, healthcare, technology, shipping, and the environment. Major disputes include those regarding the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in New York, the collapse of Enron, environmental damage from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Purdue Pharma’s marketing of opioids, and PG&E’s responsibility for damage caused by the wildfires in California. These and many other matters have resulted in a cohort of private mediators becoming well versed in the complex issues that would be relevant to the creation of a roadmap for the future of the country suffering from a stalemated conflict. These mediators are also accustomed to working with experts on the issues that would be raised by such a mediation, attuned to the role that heuristics play in how people see situations and reach decisions, and skilled in developing the processes and architecture needed to encourage parties to settle their differences.

The advantages such an approach would provide in mediating stalemated conflicts are many. The use of true neutrals who don’t have a personal interest in the outcomes they help facilitate, who serve as confidential go-betweens in attempting to move parties closer together in the effort to reach a resolution, and who can assemble a team of experts that would look to the country’s future development, would allow participants to find a constructive way forward to a future in which they would have a role. Mediators who know the participants’ real needs and red lines are more likely to find such pathways.

The Deepwater Horizon litigation is an example of the complexities private mediators have been called upon to address in facilitating resolution of disputes involving a large number of parties and issues. British Petroleum and the owner of the Deepwater Horizon drill rig, Transocean, among numerous other defendants, were named as defendants in over a hundred lawsuits brought by the United States Federal Government and multiple state governments, and others who suffered direct economic and health related injuries from the spill, including fishermen and seafood processors, hotel operators, restaurants, home and land owners, and a myriad of other businesses and entities. Scientists and other experts were hired by the parties to explain the engineering, health and environmental aspects of the accident and the injuries it allegedly caused. A claims process was established to allocate the billions of dollars set aside by the defendants to compensate those injured by the spill.

How would this approach work when applied to civil conflicts. The current crisis in Myanmar offers an example. The fighting there is evolving into an interminable conflict that is threatening to devastate the country for the foreseeable future. The military junta that overthrew the democratically elected NLD did not expect the resistance to their takeover that has emerged. But they are now aware of the challenge they face in governing a country amid a civil war. Fighting that war makes it impossible for them to focus on what the country will need going forward; to identify and confront the many challenges it will face, including climate change, pandemics, and human migration; and to develop the financial and other resources needed to create a sustainable future. Those opposing the junta face the same existential risks. An estimated 2000 civilians already have been killed. Another 14,000 have been arrested, and 700,000 displaced. And their economic future is bleak. Thus, all concerned need a plan that includes the investments of human and financial capital needed to create a sustainable future for the country.

All combatants in the conflict and those with a stake in the country’s future need a path forward that empowers and equips the people of Myanmar and encourages outside investment. But this will not be possible, at least at the levels necessary, while the conflict continues. Myanmar’s economy has contracted an estimated 13% since 2019. According to the World Bank, it experienced “one of the worst economic contractions in the world” last year. Investor confidence and the business environment is expected to weaken. Said simply, the generals aren’t holding a winning hand as long as the conflict continues. To paraphrase Tacitus, they may ravage the land, usurp all official titles, declare themselves representatives of the people, but making Myanmar a desert will not bring peace. Nor will it bring prosperity.

Designing a roadmap that would help lead Myanmar to a sustainable future will be deeply challenging. Perhaps this is why the United Nations and ASEAN have yet to succeed in commencing a peace process, if only to achieve a ceasefire. But by bringing together expertise concerning all the elements Myanmar would need to succeed, as well as the potential investors necessary for it do so, the country could begin the process of defining a future where its stakeholders have a role. Economic mechanisms to protect private capital might be necessary to encourage investors to take the risk of investing in Myanmar again, but there are creative ways to do so that could be made part of the mediation process.

This same approach could also be used in situations even before conflicts begin. Deploying teams of private mediators could help manage the stresses that can lead to conflict. Competition over fresh water and natural resources, and the competition caused by human migration, would lend themselves to this approach. If the projections concerning these and other issues are accurate, mediation will be essential in managing these and other stresses, and the conflict they create. It might also be useful to involve private mediators in cross border disputes in instances where rebuilding will be a necessary component to achieving a long-lasting peace.

Resolving a stalemate requires more than accomplishing a ceasefire. Peace requires economic prosperity. Private mediators could provide a way to find both.

David L. Carden served as the first resident U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He is the author of Mapping ASEAN: Achieving Peace, Prosperity, and Sustainability in Southeast Asia and has written for Strategic Review, Foreign Policy, Politico, the SAIS Review of International Affairs, the Guardian, and the South China Morning Post, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, among others. He also is a mediator and serves on the Board of the Weinstein International Foundation, which promotes the use of mediation around the world.

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