A Mediator’s Reaction to the Invasion of Ukraine

The recent events in Ukraine made me think about mediation in high-level conflicts, and ask myself whether I could maintain equidistance in a case of armed conflict (the exercise is utterly theoretical, though, since independent mediators are very rarely asked to intervene in these situations – most often vested-interest mediators, or world renowned personalities not acting as field professionals are the ones who intervene). The point is that, from the information I’ve got, I see the Ukraine events as a brutal unjustified invasion carried on by the Russian army, and I’d be heartily pleased to see Putin and his acolytes eventually indicted as war criminals. These are gut feelings, though; since only investigations and historical analysis could tell us, perhaps, one day, how things went.

Like most professional mediators, I’m ‘obviously’ neutral-minded when practicing as a mediator. This means that I’ve been trained in, and more or less successfully have been managing so far to remain impartial and equidistant from all the parties involved – i.e. basically treating all conflicting actors on equal footing. Most notably – no matter how disgraceful a party’s position may appear to me. This is particularly important for those who, like me, believe in the regenerating power of dialogue, and the effectiveness of a non-directive, non-judgemental third-party intervention. So, my basic aim is to support (not to push) my ‘clients’ in their efforts to make decisions, and find their way in the midst of a conflict.

Under normal circumstances, the worst that occurs is that I feel more commonalities with one party, and less sympathy for others. In principle, this may affect equidistance; in practice, though, nothing terrible happens – especially thanks to the non-directive general attitude I mentioned above.  High-level conflicts, however, may pose more serious problems, since they often involve some amount of violence. As a consequence somebody feels, or actually is. physically or psychologically harmed – and the mediator may experience sympathy, and antipathy at alarming levels. A war is certainly a high-level conflict, in the sense that security of persons and chattels are put at peril; and every person involved is under severe stress, as are a conspicuous number of indirectly involved spectators. So, a second issue – How to contain violence? – arises, in addition to the equidistance one.

To be honest, in every mediated conflict, episodes of violence may occur. Any confrontation, indeed, appears to include an amount of violence. It can take the form of a simple verbal attack, or transcend into something more physically or psychologically aggressive. What should a mediator do, in this respect? 

Mediation, as we practice it, certainly entails interventions that are peaceful by definition. So direct violence containment by employing coercive means seems out of question. However, mediation seems also ‘naturally’ based on the assumption that certain limits cannot be exceeded. I would say that each party assumes that his/her opponent/s, at the very least cannot employ means that may cause physical, or severe psychological harms. Once those limits are crossed (wherever their acceptable level might be set), there’s simply no place for mediation. It becomes a police business. High-intensity international conflicts seem not to differ, in their basic dynamics, from any other conflicts – the point is that we regretfully lack a supranational police to resort to. Actually, the UN could play this role – but we all know how terribly difficult it would be).

I’ve hinted to the fact that conflict dynamics are more or less the same, irrespective of the magnitude of the conflict itself. Let me explain in more detail how I see it.

We can view conflict as an interaction (either verbal or not) where each subject positions himself according to the other’s positioning, and in a way that is consistent with his narrative. (A narrative being the subjective reality that person is able to construct over any available data, including in particular her past experiences, her present physiological state, and her taken-for-granted cultural assumptions). Positioning is basically a communication event (we’d better talk of events, indeed, since positioning is always changing – so creating a series of communication fragments); and conflict interaction takes the form of a discourse (where various communication acts take place – you might see it as moves and countermoves, if you like, at the most elementary level). Particularly important is, in a conflict interaction, the ‘perlocutionary’ force of a communication act, i.e. its capability to determine effects onto the ‘listener’. This drives his re-positioning, and in turn this latter asks for a ‘speaker’s new positioning. (I’m talking of speaker and listener in a figurative way, of course – so, bombing a target is a communication act, from this perspective, as is the relevant defensive or counteroffensive move). And all this is irrespective of ethical, or legalistic views.

The interactive patterns of interpersonal conflict dynamics may be observed, and are often identical (net of the increased intra-subject complexity) also in inter-group, inter-community, and even inter-nation conflict encounters. With a major difference, though – the multiplication of subjects involved may accelerate the course, and magnify the dimensions of violent episodes. Like a nuclear uncontrolled reaction, violence in these circumstances often becomes so not just a police, rather a crowd control business. Eventually, that thing called war. All this is undeniable, and it also seems unavoidable, considering how despicable we all can be, as humans. 

We know that a third party mediator may intervene in a conflict, either by invitation, or acceptance by the parties involved. What a mediator is expected to do is a matter of large debate: most hope for a change of status to be achieved (end of hostilities, reconciliation, settlement agreements signed, peace treaty made, …); others are happy with something different (a better mutual understanding, a clearer view of the situation that may lead to more appropriate decisions, …). In general, one might say that the mediation raison d’etre consists in providing some help, somehow, to parties otherwise facing each other directly.

I, like many others operating as professional mediators, usually deal with conflicts involving other people by staying in the conflict, being part of it (although from a privileged not directly affected position). What I feel reflects an obvious truth – that even a mediator becomes a subject participating to the conflict dialogue (in the sense seen above). In more abstract terms, one might say that mediation becomes a component of the conflict. So, no wonder conversations can overlap with hostile actions, peace talks may occur in between armed attacks. An utterance at a negotiation table equals a commando raid, or stone-walling between a divorcing couple, to stay on safer terms. Being that conflict is not a status, but rather a process liquidly changing moment by moment, there is of course space for mediation even when bombs are dropped. In other words, as long as the interested parties require, or accept the intervention of a neutral, a neutral may help them dealing with their problems, and confronting each other.

So, coming to the initial point – is there any factor urging a mediator to move from his neutral stance, when things get particularly obnoxious? We are human. I am human. And I’m wondering how my precious equidistance may maintain when its foundations are shaken at the base, by one party exerting an intolerable amount of violence over the other. That is what I’m experiencing these days, while I watch on TV children crying and mothers and elders fleeing under armed attacks. In the end, it’s humanity under attack. Nevertheless, I feel comfortable that, if asked to mediate, I will be able to set aside any judgemental attitude. The fact is that I am aware I know very little of humans and their motivations, and that each party involved may really need a helping hand. Why not give it to her? Moreover, we should never forget that complex organizations (States included) are just conceptual constructions. A conflict dialogue is inevitably carried out by physical persons, each with their own unique characteristics.

As for containment of violence, I fear a mediator can do nothing, apart from withdrawing from his office, or continuing to work in spite of all. It’s simply not his business, and he has no resources to act as a policeman. (This of course applies to professional independent mediators. Others may do better – UN envoys, first of all. Also vested-interest mediators may well represent powerful principals that possess sufficient means to prevent, or stop violence – but this is another story).


Lydia Vanderkaay

Lydia Vanderkaay, MA began as a volunteer mediator at the Center in 2017, and started as a Mediation Specialist Contractor later that year. She currently helps manage the Adult Victim/Offender program. In addition to this, Lydia works as the Assistant Coordinator at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation, whose… MORE

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