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<xTITLE>Mediator As International Peacemaker? </xTITLE>

Mediator As International Peacemaker?

by Charles B. Parselle
December 2006 Charles B. Parselle
Language is a distinction between humans and animals; we are also far more violent. Animals don’t misunderstand each other as much as we do. If, as seems likely, a connection exists between language and violence, then considerations of language have a place in the field of conflict resolution.

It is sometimes said, ‘The devil is in the details.’ This is a variant of ‘God is in the details,’ attributed to Flaubert, Michelangelo and others. Other variants include 'Governing is in the details,’ and 'Truth, if it exists, is in the details.’ There are other things to be found in language, for example, lies. Lawyers spend much time learning the power, perils and pitfalls of language. So do politicians, who find refuge in sounding plausible while saying nothing.

Thus one might say the devil resides in language itself, if in the details of language we can variously find the devil, God, truth, lies and nothing.

I mention the possibility of ‘nothing,’ or attenuation of meaning, in language because 751 (and counting) mediators from 37 countries have now signed the ‘Mediators’ Statement’ developed at the recent ‘Senior Mediators’ Conference’ in Keystone, Colorado, at which the following was released:

"There comes a time when even mediators will speak up. Mediators are normally quiet, priding themselves on their impartiality and neutrality. Now, however, over 75 of the world's leading mediators have "had enough" and have signed a statement urging that community, national and global leaders engage effective negotiation and mediation approaches."

Here is the text that Statement: ‘Given that the world is confronted with real and perceived threats from several international arenas we, the undersigned, urge that citizens of our nations insist their elected and appointed government officials immediately engage in honest, direct and unconditional negotiations with all authorities and powers who can resolve these pending crises in ways that are equitable and practical for all concerned without sacrifice to national sovereignty or security. As citizens of the world and as professional negotiators and mediators we urge that proven conflict resolution processes be employed now.’

I haven’t signed the statement because the wording troubles me. It troubles me because it seems to fall into the fifth category. With trepidation, given the fame and forensic skills of some of the signatories, I would like to comment and ask questions in hope of stimulating discussion.

One: Why is now the time for even mediators to speak up? It sounds as though mediators are an exceedingly special group who pride themselves on keeping quiet (why?), but what does professional impartiality in a private mediation setting have to do with speaking publicly about world events? And why has now become the right time?

Two: The phrase “real and perceived threats from several international arenas,” suggests that the authors mean to direct our attention to confrontations such as the conflict in Iraq, the threat from al Qaedr, the Kashmir conflict, the nuclear ambitions of ‘dear leader’ in north Korea, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the mass killings in Darfur, Sudan, to name a handful. These conflicts are long-standing and deep-rooted. What do the senior mediators suggest be done? Well, they urge that: “citizens of our nations insist…on immediate negotiations.”

The assumption that no negotiations are currently happening is doubtful, but if it were true, it is not clear that means exist by which citizens of our nations could exert immediate insistence even if they all thought it a good idea? What is meant by “our nations?” Do U. S. citizens have the requisite capacity? We only get to vote once every couple of years and then we are hardly unanimous, but at least the U.S. is a democracy, unlike North Korea or Syria, not to mention non-State groups like Al Qaedr or Hezbollah.

Three: The statement urges that these immediate negotiations be “honest, direct and unconditional….” The use of the word “honest,” though it sounds nice, is reminiscent of the way in which judicial bodies like to make rules requiring that parties engage in “bona fide” negotiations. Such a requirement is generally unenforceable even in a controlled legal environment.

Four: Even less appealing is the use of unconditional to qualify ‘negotiations.’ What is meant by that word “unconditional?” How is it even possible to enter into an unconditional negotiation? Does this mean the negotiators promise never to leave without achieving a result? What result? Negotiating parties have different objectives and always reserve their options; that is part of their leverage. Does the Statement mean unconditional preliminary negotiations, for example, concerning identity of participants, matters to be discussed, or whether one side will renounce the use of violence before negotiations begin? Yet such preconditions are often critical. The word sounds good but one wonders what it means in the context in which it is used here.

Five: The statement goes on to urge that these negotiations be conducted “with all authorities and powers who can resolve these pending crises…” Doesn’t this statement beg the question? Who are these crisis-resolvers; where have they been hiding, and who will identify them? Many pending crises have defied attempts of generations of leaders. Who can now be said to have the ability to resolve them, and who is going to undertake the daunting task of identifying these people before negotiation is even commenced? The Mediators’ Statement assumes the conditions for its own success, namely that there are people out there who have the ability to resolve these pending crises, if only ‘we’ can get ‘them’ to engage in “honest, direct and unconditional negotiations.” These are large assumptions.

Six: The statement goes on to require that the negotiations be conducted “in ways that are equitable and practical for all concerned without sacrifice to national sovereignty or security.” Well, that is the entire ballgame. Who is to decide? Who among the Sunnis and the Shias of Iraq is to decide what is equitable? Isn’t that what they are killing each other about? And what about the Kurds? Their security might require a sacrifice of someone else’s sovereignty, but would that be practical? Since most of these pending crises are all about sovereignty and security, who is to achieve results that fulfill the Statement’s potentially mutually exclusive requirements. The difficulty I have with the Statement is it contains its own ideal outcome within the terms set forth in the statement itself, making it self-fulfilling, but do its terms correspond with the world we live in?

Seven: In a final burst of optimism, the signatories to the statement, who describe themselves as ‘citizens of the world and professional negotiators and mediators’ urge: “that proven conflict resolution processes be employed now.” This is quite a statement. Can anyone actually claim ‘world citizenry,’ given what the word citizen means? It assumes that what is wrong with the world is that “proven conflict resolution processes” have not until now been employed. It seems to suggest that mediators have discovered the secret of resolving the world’s conflicts. It assumes a great deal, yet I can’t help wondering, if someone asked me to mediate between China and the Tibetans, how would I rate compared with the Dalai Lama who has devoted his life to it? Aren’t we overreaching to urge someone like him to get some ‘proven conflict resolution processes’ under his belt?

I readily acknowledge that those who have drafted and signed the Statement have made a start which one hopes may be continued. This article though expressing difficulties with the language of the Statement, is not intended as criticism of the impulse to extend the reach of mediation. Yet one wonders if mediation, as an incipient profession, is quite ready to become engaged. As mediators, we generally only mediate with people who have agreed to mediate. We never mediate with people who are trying to kill us, and these ‘pending crises’ all involve deadly violence. If war is a continuation of diplomacy by other means, then surely the corollary is that negotiation is war waged with kisses, and often such kisses come wrapped in bullets. Are we quite sure that the ‘proven conflict resolution processes’ we have learned to use in the context mostly of litigated cases and community disputes, will so readily transfer to the arena of real and bloody international conflicts and civil wars?


Admitted to practice law in California and England, Charles Parselle is a founding partner of Centers for Excellence in Dispute Resolution - CEDRS.COM - and a sought-after ADR professional. An experienced litigator, he enjoys the confidence of both plaintiff and defense bars as a gifted facilitator of dispute resolution. He obtained his law degree from Oxford University. He has been in law practice in California since 1983. He writes and speaks frequently on dispute resolution, and teaches mediation internationally for the Institute of Conflict Management. He has also served as general counsel to a multi-national organization, and as general counsel to an Australian company specializing in the sale of high-tech security equipment, and as general counsel to an entertainment company in Los Angeles, California, concentrating on intellectual property and employment issues. He is a member of the State Bar of California, the Bar of England and Wales, the Federal District Court mediation panel for the southern district of California, the 2nd District Appellate Court Mediation panel, Beverly Hills Bar Association, San Fernando Valley Bar Association, Southern California Mediation Association, British American Bar Association. Born in southern Africa, brought up in England, educated in Australia and U.K., resident of California, he brings an international perspective to the ADR process.

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