Despite Good Intentions

Ethnic conflicts are often mediated by less than impartial third parties in the New World Order

By Garth Katner | 1992-09-01 12:00:00

It will take more than good intentions if negotiations are to replace military force as the principal means of international conflict resolution. Ill-considered efforts and half-measures usually do more harm than good. On the periphery of Europe alone, some of the most long-standing civil and national conflicts have been given new life by the retreat of communism.

Three conflicts and the efforts to resolve them serve to illustrate the dilemmas of negotiation. These are the Middle East peace conference which began on 30 October 1991; the Yugoslav peace talks which have continued sporadically at The Hague since 7 September 1991; and the three Strand talks conducted on the future government of Northern Ireland from l7 June to 3 July 1991. These show the challenges of mediating the conflicts of others.

These three ethnic conflicts have attracted diverse forms of intervention. Since 1948 various powers have become involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict by providing political, economic, and military assistance to one party or another. In the Yugoslav civil war, intervention has primarily taken the form of mediation from a dizzying array of states and international organizations. By contrast, intervention in Northern Ireland has been limited primarily to Britain and since 1967 has fluctuated between armed intervention and mediation.


In all three situations mediators have intervened in order to advance their own particular interests. For instance, both the European Community (E.C.) and the U.N. would gain by resolving the Yugoslav civil war. It would prove their effectiveness and justify their existence, whereas the repeated breakdown of ceasefires has the opposite effect. Germany, because of its large Slovene and Croat émigré community and its fear of an increasing number of refugees, called early for the recognition of Slovene and Croat independence and the isolation of Serbia and its allies. France and Britain, on the other hand, facing their own nationalistic problems and loath to set a precedent for other ethnic conflicts throughout central Europe, favored instead the economic and political isolation of all five republics. Such cross-purposes prevented the E.C. from accepting the break-up of Yugoslavia until 15 January 1992 and made it appear to be a vacillating and incompetent mediator.

The opponents may also use mediators to pursue their own interests. This is especially apparent in the case of the four Catholic and Protestant parties in Northern Ireland. They preferred to negotiate through the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, expecting that Brooke, as the intermediary, would guarantee more favorable terms than if they negotiated directly with each other.

Finally, mediation can be used to erode the mediator's support for the adversary. This has become important for the Arab states now that their traditional sponsor-the Soviet Union-has ceased to exist. They, as well as the Israelis, have attempted to convince the U.S. that they are fully committed to the current peace process while accusing one another of intransigence. Actually, each has stalled, while blaming their slow pace on the other, to bring down U.S. condemnation on the heads of their adversaries.


Mediators need not be perceived as impartial. In each of the three situations the mediators have had a particular bias toward one side or another, of which the adversaries were well aware. However, this has not prevented the less-favored side from accepting the mediator. Quite the contrary, it is the opportunity for reducing this bias which increases the attractiveness of the mediator.

Throughout the negotiations preceding the current Middle East talks in Madrid, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker found it necessary to provide incentives for the Arabs that alienated the Israelis. Despite Israeli protests and threats to boycott the talks, Baker allowed the inclusion of Palestinians with PLO ties in the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

Equally important are the tactical calculations of the moment. As with the mediator each side is often more interested in how intervention can serve their most immediate interests.

For example, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic has tolerated the E.C. and U.N. mediation, not because he expects to obtain concessions from the breakaway republics, but because negotiations will allow the consolidation of Croatian territory captured by Serbia. The U. N. has deployed an international peacekeeping force along the Serb-Croat battle lines giving Serbia de facto control of captured Croatian territory. Although this remains intolerable to Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian president, it is the price he has paid for E.C. recognition of this republic's independence and the lifting of economic sanctions against it and Slovenia.

The mediator's ability to persuade opponents to accept compromises depends upon the effective use of material resources. Using the carrot along with the stick can nevertheless prove difficult. The mediator must balance between maintaining the good will of each side with the need to apply pressure to win concessions. Promoting concessions through incentives is often more effective than pressure alone. However, the opponent that believes itself to be disadvantaged in this situation may withdraw its acceptance.

In 1979, the U.S. successfully over-came Egyptian and Israeli objections to a peace treaty, in part by guaranteeing high levels of future economic and military aid to both. However; the mediators in the three cases examined here have yet to use this strategy. While the lavish effort of the U.S. has preserved the treaty, it has also established the precedent of buying an agreement in future negotiations. This will not always work.

Ideally, incentives enable both sides to benefit from mediation. This can be likened to enlarging the pie to make the agreement attractive.

Situational factors become important in pressuring adversaries to compromise. The combination of a highly uncomfortable environment with a military stalemate is particularly encouraging for successful mediation. For example, the Palestinians on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip have been exhausted after four years of the Intifada. The Arab states have grudgingly acknowledged the military deadlock which assures Israel's existence. Israel faces economic and political turmoil from the continuing state of war and its policies in the occupied territories.

When such pressures are absent, mediation quickly fails. The early victories of Serbian guerrillas and the federal army made them unwilling to take the E.C. sponsored ceasefires seriously. Put on the defensive, Croatia had little choice but to fight. But Croatian forces began to push back the federal army in October and November of 1991. Germany then renewed export credits for Croatia and Slovenia while severing transport links with Serbia and the federal army. This only encouraged hostilities.


The goals set by the mediators themselves have important bearing on the choices for success. Concessions are unlikely on issues believed by adversaries to affect core national values. Milosevic still asserts that armed conflict is preferable to the "national and biological destruction of the Serbian people."

The federal army will therefore not abandon ethnic Serbians in either Croatia or Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Narrowly defined issues prove easier to resolve. Peter Brooke has rejected the possibility of a comprehensive peace process in Northern Ireland, instead working toward merely exploring "new and different ways of governing the province." The U.S. also is using this strategy in the Middle East. The issues of land rights and Palestinian self-determination have been whittled down by a series of planned, interim stages. The final status of Jerusalem has been left for last by unanimous agreement.

Nevertheless, seemingly insoluble issues must one day be discussed. Resolution will then depend on a reordering of national priorities by the adversaries themselves. None of the three conflicts discussed here is likely to be resolved soon. Leaders who talk of peace at the negotiating table may have little influence on those who are fighting on the battlefields. Even if sincere, their opponents among their own people may accuse them of making too many compromises with the enemy.

Mediation cannot alter the basic attitudes of hate and mistrust. An evolution of attitudes is the only possible remedy. This can come only through small agreements that seek to resolve even smaller issues. Ceasefires, peace plans, and other confidence-building measures are the tools available to the mediators of the next world order. Intentions may or may not be good but these three conflicts demonstrate that the road to the next world order does most certainly lead through Hell.

Garth Katner is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1992

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1992, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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