As the German government revises its Africa Policy Guidelines, it should revaluate how it approaches conflict mediation. Supporting mediation efforts through the United Nations, regional organisations or NGOs has become the preferred policy option for Germany vis-à-vis African conflicts. This choice not only concerns relations with the neighbouring continent. Whether in Ukraine, Afghanistan or the Western Balkans, “Germany enjoys a worldwide reputation as an honest mediator and broker”, emphasizes Almut Wieland-Karimi, Managing Director of the Centre for International Peace Operations (ZIF). In 2019. the Federal Foreign Office published the Concept for Peace Mediation and emphasized Germany’s specific experience in dealing with conflicts from its own national past. Referring to the “reconciliation with France and Poland”, German authorities consider themselves to be well-positioned to influence the transformation of relationships between former enemies.
This perspective is based on a widely accepted premise in the field of conflict resolution, namely that mediation oriented towards reconciliation is inherently positive. Yet, it might be wise to pay attention to the limits and pitfalls of this approach. Beyond being of theoretical interest, this question is of direct relevance for practitioners and the affected populations – a better understanding of the issue is a sine qua non condition for more efficient interventions.
Is conflict mediation inherently positive?
Most diplomats, practitioners, donors and scholars involved in post-conflict settings underline that mediation is more cost-efficient and produces faster results than other methods of dispute resolution. Beyond this comparative advantage, the positive connotation of mediation is related to the reconciliatory finality, which is often highlighted in the public debate. The objective of most mediation efforts is to enable the passage “from a divided past to a shared future”. However, it seems crucial to raise a question that in no way challenges the intentions of the mediators/reconcilers involved: What if reconciliation is not on the agenda?
Twenty years ago, I was in Paris to interview a Colombian survivor. After a long description of what she had endured, she stopped speaking for a while. We remained silent. She then adopted a lower tone and said: “Don’t touch my hatred. That is the only thing that’s left. They took all I had – except my hatred.” She then started crying. Her sentences remain powerful. They invalidate the premise of most conflict resolution textbooks that define hatred as a strictly “negative” emotion. Emotions are fundamentally ambivalent. They are as such neither positive nor negative. They just “are”. Clearly, the purpose of conflict resolution cannot be to call for hatred, but does it have to conceal it by all means?
Case studies in the Balkans and the African Great Lakes show that the emphasis placed on forgiveness, resilience and reconciliation can actually provoke additional violence. In 2009, Hillary Clinton explained in Kinshasa: “We can go work with people who are willing to forget the past and focus on the future. We are not going to work with people who are looking backwards, because that’s not going to get us where we want to go” (Kinshasa, 11 August 2009). This eagerness to move forward is understandable. However, it does not naturally resonate with those victims who are not ready to take up the challenge, at least not in the short term. In Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Serbia, for instance, reconciliation is described as an “off-the-shelf idea” or even a “dirty word”. The same sentiment is highlighted by a Rwandan survivor who was left alone in her village and slowly replied to some ambitious outsiders: “I can live with them [the killers]. Don’t ask me more. Don’t ask me too much” (Kigali, 7 April 2010). These words reveal that the survivors view the mediator’s presence not necessarily in a positive light but more with ambivalence. It means that in some circumstances, mediators – however well-intentioned – may actually reinforce the anger and prompt conflict escalation.
Should we not mediate at all then?
Although some structural changes can be implemented relatively rapidly after the end of a violent conflict, the same is not true for transforming relationships. If discussions are rushed, there is a strong chance that mediation based on the need to quickly fix things will not only be useless, but also counterproductive. Particularly traumatic events can remain unexpressed for a period of time – a period that clinicians often call “latent”. There do not seem to be any standards for this issue. Nonetheless, case studies indicate that the transformation of the representations that parties have of the past is an ongoing process which does not take years, but generations.
Mediators are neither magicians nor a deus ex machina. It is crucial to not burden them – or the local populations – with unrealistic expectations. Yet, their presence is indispensable for a gradual transformation of the relationships between former adversaries. Stories of disappointments and failures are no excuse for inaction. Past experiences not only show that harm can come from mediations that are insufficiently attuned to the particular circumstances of a conflict; they also remind us that the harm can be infinitely greater in the absence of mediation.
So, the question is not about whether there should be mediation, but rather who is it for? At first glance, the answer is obvious. Mediators undertake to help all parties. Nonetheless, interviews conducted over the years with mediators, policy-makers and experts indicate frequent confusion in this respect. One recurrent premise heard is that mediation never fails. One central argument is systematically repeated: Even if a settlement is not reached, mediation is worthwhile because the parties will have come away knowing more about the dispute and, probably, narrowed down the issues in question at the very least. This argument, however, is disproven by observations made in actual post-war settings. Conflict mediation, even when it leads to settlement, can fail. It does so when it exacerbates political divisions, when it patronizes the most marginalized communities and when it contributes to new patterns of exclusion. In most cases, mediation leads to ambiguous processes that can be perceived as useful and productive for some groups, whereas other groups experience a decline in their well-being.
The faces of the victims, sometimes disfigured, demonstrate the absolute necessity to consider and address their immediate needs. If victims are not properly taken into account, mediators can be tempted to play – unconsciously – a self-gratifying role in a well-known scenario: the saviour who is able to (re)create bonds between a repentant perpetrator and a forgiving victim. This scenario resonates with the Christian narrative of redemption and corresponds to our own need for closure and a happy ending. Yet, it does not coincide with the reality on the ground. On a purely psychological level, in the short term it is highly improbable that survivors will overtly forgive their perpetrators or simply let bygones be bygones. Post-conflict settings are suboptimal situations, characterized by grey zones, tensions, contradictions, paradoxes and dilemmas. From this perspective, any attempt to mediate implies a long-term involvement with issues that are painful and divisive – the opposite of fairy tales.
The current situations in the African Great Lakes and the Balkans remind us that post-war mediation is extremely difficult. It is often inconsistent and ineffective. However, it is not impossible if we adopt a reasonable stance in terms of aims and timing. With patience, determination and humility, we might even recognize people’s right not to reconcile.
Valérie Rosoux is currently Director of Research of the National Fund for Scientific Research (Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique—FNRS, Belgium) and Professor in the School of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Louvain.
On the appropriateness of third parties’ interventions seeking to foster political reconciliation, please see the author’s recent article “How Not to Mediate Conflict” in International Affairs 98.5 (2022).
Responsibility for content, opinions expressed and sources used in the articles and interviews lies with the respective authors.