The resurgence of violence in the Central African Republic this month signals the end of the 2019 Khartoum peace agreement which saw the integration of rebels into an inclusive government. It is also yet another demonstration of the limits of regionally and internationally mediated national-level peace agreements.
Indeed, the increasing fragmentation and “glocalization” of conflicts pose challenges to track-1 peace mediation that the United Nations has traditionally conducted and supported. National and local conflict dynamics influence each other—actors at the local level use national-level conflicts in the pursuit of local objectives, while national (and sometimes transnational) actors instrumentalize local conflicts with often deleterious impacts on civilians. In this context, there has been growing recognition of the importance of local mediation as a complement to national level peace processes.
Even where peace agreements have been signed, they have proven fragile. And local mediation efforts conducted by a variety of different actors have sometimes helped complement track-1 efforts and make peace stick. For example, in Mali, the “Anefis process” helped appease tensions between communities and armed groups of northern Mali following the signing of the 2015 peace agreement. Similarly, the “Diálogos Improbables” (“Unlikely Dialogues”) contributed to reinforcing the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement in Colombia and prevented a slide back into conflict.
Our report studies a number of these local mediation initiatives and offers a typology to think through the opportunities and challenges that they create. Indeed, local mediation means different things to different people. It ranges from intra- or inter-community dialogues and reconciliation efforts, to local ceasefires, humanitarian pauses, and confidence-building measures between conflict parties. It can be more or less formal, and depends not only on the specifics of the context and of the actors involved, but also on the identity of those mediating, whether “insider mediators,” state structures and representatives, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or the UN.
In many instances, local mediation efforts are ad hoc and short-term but they have helped deescalate conflict and alleviate human suffering even if temporarily. They can help prevent or mitigate electoral violence, agro-pastoralist conflicts, or conflicts over natural resources. But local mediation efforts can also help manage and resolve conflicts more durably and support the implementation of peace agreements. In a few cases, they have made it possible to engage proscribed “terrorist” or criminal groups that could not be included in formal peace process.
Our typology maps local initiatives based on two factors: their primary objective (whether to prevent, manage, or resolve local violence) and their relationship to track-1 processes. In some situations, local mediation efforts complement track-1 efforts; they can help open political space, overcome sticking points, foster track-1 inclusiveness, or support the implementation of a national peace agreement. In others, local mediation efforts are parallel or standalone and deal with issues not addressed in formal mediation or with local manifestations of violence not linked to the broader conflict.
While the UN has been involved in a variety of local mediation initiatives over the years, particularly by supporting insider mediators, until recently UN peace operations were not explicitly mandated to address local conflicts and lacked skilled staff and programmatic resources to do so. Increasingly, however, local mediation is explicitly part of the mandate of peacekeeping and special political missions, including in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Darfur, Mali, and South Sudan.
Considering the difficulties facing track-1 peace processes, UN peace operations can play an important role in supporting local mediation initiatives, whether these are separate from, complementary to, or integrated into national processes. In deciding whether and how to engage in these local initiatives, peace operations need to consider four overarching questions.
First, what are local peace processes meant to achieve? Answering this question is critical to determining whether local mediation initiatives will push the overall political process in the right direction. This can ensure that these initiatives do not unwittingly undermine track-1 processes, waste resources, or displace problems elsewhere. Peace operations must also determine whether there is space for them to engage as facilitators or supporters of mediation. This often depends on the nature of their presence in a country, including their mandate and size.
Second, who is or ought to be involved in local mediation processes? The UN needs to assess the benefits of working with local “insider mediators,” who often possess more local knowledge and legitimacy than the UN, but do not always lead more inclusive processes. The UN also needs to determine if and how to involve the state. While bringing the state into local mediation processes can be complicated when the government is part of the problem, it is generally better for UN missions to work with existing state institutions rather than to risk marginalizing or weakening them.
Third, how should the UN organize itself to meaningfully engage in or with local processes? Peace operations should play on their comparative advantages, including their logistical and technical capacity and access to the highest circles of national and international decision-making. They should also coordinate with other UN actors on the ground. This requires UN peace operations and country teams to improve information sharing and integration, missions to better leverage their military components in service of local mediation efforts, and the UN Security Council to use tools such as sanctions in a more politically coherent way. Outside the UN, peace operations need to partner with other external actors, including NGOs. These partnerships can be particularly useful when the mission’s geographic reach is limited or when the local mediation involves politically sensitive actors or cannot involve the host state.
Fourth, how should these local mediation processes be designed, and what implications does this have for how they are—or are not—linked to broader processes? Unlike track-1 processes, local mediation initiatives are often bottom-up and informal. Nonetheless, it is essential for UN missions to attempt to link local and national processes. This requires missions to demonstrate the relevance of local mediation to broader processes, determine whether these processes are “ripe” for resolution, navigate timelines that often do not line up, and consider the impact of each level on the other every step of the way.
While the report does not advocate for UN peace operations to engage more or less in local mediation processes, missions ought to assess whether, when, and how short-term investments in local mediation can contribute to longer-term, sustainable conflict resolution. In each case, they should tailor their role based on informed strategic decisions and appropriate partnerships and as part of a broader effort to strengthen and foster greater coherence in national peace processes.
Arthur Boutellis is a Non-resident senior advisor at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Delphine Mechoulan is a former Senior Policy Analyst at IPI and is currently working as an analyst with the UN. Marie-Joëlle Zahar is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at IPI and Director of the Research Network on Peace Operations and Professor of Political Science at the Universite de Montreal.