A question of trust: behind the scenes with UN mediators


When it comes to dealing with armed conflict, the eyes of the world often turn to the UN Security Council and members’ attempts, with varying degrees of success, to resolve or prevent bloodshed.

Behind the scenes a team of mediators, overseen by UN political chief Rosemary DiCarlo uses quiet diplomacy in conflict zones across the world to bring warring parties together and make the world a safer place.

DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, is one of the UN’s most senior peace and security officials and often briefs members in the Security Council, delivering UN analysis and recommendations in contrast to sometimes vocal national disagreements concerning key conflict areas such as Syria and Yemen.
Her role and that of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) has changed and grown. Today, it involves policy analysis, diplomatic efforts to prevent conflict starting, overseeing peaceful conduct of elections, and the UN’s field-based political missions.

Mediation is a mainstay and remains crucial. DPPA has a standby team of experienced mediators, who help warring parties to the negotiating table, assist in inter-communal dialogue, provide advice on constitution drafting and security sector reform and, broadly, deal with issues often at the root of conflict.
They work in mission and non-mission settings, including large operations such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where they help promote peace and reconciliation. Because of the sensitive nature of their work, much of what they do remains in the shadows.

At the end of last year DiCarlo she shared some insights regarding the world body’s evolving role in conflict prevention and her hopes and fears for the future.

She explained the UN’s ability to act as an “honest broker”, including safeguarding confidentiality of sensitive negotiations, is vital.

Impartial negotiation

“We approach every situation from an impartial perspective. We go into negotiations impartially and we don’t have a mindset of how something should end: we want people to decide how to move forward. If we can help that through mediation, that’s what we do.

“Our first priority is to build trust with our interlocutors to ensure confidentiality. A lot of what we do is never written about and certainly never disseminated, because our goal is wanting people to come together and feel they have a lasting agreement.

We’ve had instances where we diffused tensions surrounding elections, where a particular leader would like to extend his mandate and we’ve managed discussions and brought parties together. These are difficult situations to overcome in many societies.

“We send experienced diplomats, sometimes a former UN official, or former high-level official from a member state, to lead discussions and to look whether the parties can accept election results or, in some cases, redo certain aspects of an election”.

Since the beginning of his mandate in 2017, current UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, made mediation a key priority and in 2017,set up an 18 member High level Advisory Board on Mediation.

The Board, DiCarlo said has made a tangible difference to the UN’s ability to resolve conflict and helped the inclusion of diverse voices in the peacebuilding process.

“If we see an issue in, say, Latin America, where there are disagreements between government and protesters, or government and opposition, we might ask a member with experience in the region to deploy to help resolve disagreements.

“They also provide guidance and wisdom from past experiences. Many are former leaders of their countries, former foreign ministers or high-level officials and now help mediate a conflict or prevent conflict arising.
“We worked with the advisory board on the inclusion of women and youth in various political processes and, when envoys in the field submit reports to the Secretary-General and the Security Council, they include women and youth in their analysis.

“When we lead a particular peace process or negotiation, we are clear a certain percentage of participants have to be women and they should participate meaningfully. An example is the Syrian Constitutional Committee, where we are working to ensure 30% female participation among 150 members.

“We meet frequently with experts on given issues and it’s useful to have diverse opinions from civil society groups dealing with issues including women’s rights, refugees, displaced persons or others. We make sure to hear their voices when we’re in the field”.
In recent years, the conflict landscape changed, with growing involvement of non-State actors, which impacts on DPPA activities. This is one of many destabilising factors the most significant being the changing climate which DiCarlo described as a “threat multiplier”.

“We see this in Africa, for example, with farmers and herders fighting over land, the displacement of people leading to inter-communal tensions and, in some cases, inter-communal violence. While we seek to reap the benefits of innovation, we know new technologies can be destabilising. So, there are many areas we have to take into account.

“We have to get up to speed on many issues that traditionally weren’t part of what a political department was dealing with. This includes climate, innovation and cyberattacks. These are areas new to us and over the last few years we had to understanding them to take steps and move forward with our work.

When it comes to climate change, as an example, we have a small cell in our policy division working with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), looking at the impact of climate change on security and ways to deal with communities displaced because of climate change and making clear this can be early warning in terms of violence or conflict”.

DiCarlo is confident her department is adapting to the changing demands of global conflict, she is frustrated by the lack of understanding of the contribution DPPA makes to world peace:

“It is hard to listen to member states or individuals questioning the merits of the United Nations when you know you had people in the field working to bring sparring groups together.

“I think there is a concern on the part of some member states and individuals our actions could be perceived as interference in internal affairs. This is not so. First of all, we only go when invited, when people seek our help. We offer help, but we don’t force ourselves on anyone”
DiCarlo also worries the consensus regarding the principles on which the UN was founded, is not as strong as in earlier times.

“There is a sense what worked before, doesn’t work now. There was always a difference of views, but it never manifested in quite the way it does today. As the Secretary-General said, ‘we went from a bi-polar to a unipolar to a multipolar world, which makes things different and more complicated”.

Despite these fears, the UN’s political chief is determined that, by the end of her mandate, she will leave a department with the necessary tools to deal with conflict prevention and conflict.

“The General Assembly has embraced the concept of sustaining peace and looking at the world through a type of prevention lens. I think we have to do that in all our activities right across the UN”.