Governments turn to NGOs as proxy conflict negotiators | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 08.07.2011
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Governments turn to NGOs as proxy conflict negotiators

State actors are increasingly turning to private organizations to broker peace deals in the world's conflict zones as governments look for ways to avoid the risks associated with direct involvement in mediation.

Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip

Governments are loath to deal directly with groups like Hamas

Just as private contractors and proxy armies have provided governments with the necessary distance to become involved militarily in international conflicts which could have been inflamed through state intervention, so nations are increasingly turning to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to manage their peace negotiations in the world's war zones.

Governments and organizations such as the United Nations are finding that their direct involvement in conflict resolution can be detrimental to the peace process they are eager to promote. Groups involved in conflicts may be suspicious of state actors and their possible agendas while within the international community itself, potential peace negotiators may find themselves shackled by allegiances and conflicts of interest.

Powerful nations like the US are becoming less inclined to get involved in every spat that occurs around the world. Others fear the implications of directly negotiating in dialogue with groups which allies may have labelled terrorist organizations.

A section of the US Patriot Act with international reach has outlawed "material support" to designated terrorist groups, including "expert advice or assistance" which could include mediation. This has also tempered the desire of some actors to get involved with peace negotiations.

In an attempt to break the cycle of suspicion which sometimes paralyses negotiations between groups such as the Taliban or Tamil Tigers and the governments they oppose, NGOs are being used more and more as impartial intermediaries.

"Since the end of the Cold War, the role of NGOs in international conflict resolution has become an established and important feature of a negotiations system that is adapting to the extraordinary challenges of state failures, state formation, and state cooperation," Professor Andrea Bartoli, dean of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in Virginia, told Deutsche Welle.

Trust-worthy and impartial

Most of the NGOs currently involved in conflict resolution on behalf of international actors have the advantage that they have worked in the areas of aid distribution, reconstruction and disaster relief in many of the countries in which they are being asked to engage in the peace process. As a result, they enjoy a relationship with the warring parties based on a certain level of trust and impartiality.

Free Aceh Movement members display weapon and flag, Aceh Besar, Indonesia

Negotiations over Aceh in Indonesia were very difficult

"We identify the parties in a conflict and approach one side, usually the rebel side first, and offer to negotiate. We can then go to the opposing government and say 'we can bring your enemies to the table in a third-party country.' Regardless of their public stance, most governments are willing to do this," Andrew Marshall, senior advisor for mediation at Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), a Finnish independent non-profit organization, told Deutsche Welle.

Marshall added that CMI is also approached by governments with interests in promoting peace in a region to enter negotiations but this is rare. Sometimes, the warring parties themselves make contact and ask for help.

Such is the belief that private mediation is the way forward in conflict resolution that government departments are willing to invest heavily in organizations which can carry out there peace negotiations for them.

Necessary state involvement

The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is one of the most active in this field, hosting the annual Oslo Forum Network of Mediators where professional peace negotiators meet to discuss current conflicts and allocating 535.5 million Norwegian krone ($100m, 69m euros) a year to conflict-resolving NGOs.

"It's nice to be able to say that we have our own funding which we've generated ourselves as this helps to retain the impartiality that parties rely on," Marshall said.

A sheet of one dollar bills

US funding can sometimes undermine NGO impartiality

"But money has to come from somewhere and sometimes it comes from governments," he added. "Some government funding - from countries regarded as 'the good guys' - is acceptable to warring parties. However, funding from countries like the US can be problematic because some parties can question a NGO's impartiality based on suspicions toward the United States."

HD, formed by British diplomat and former UN assistant secretary-general Martin Griffiths in 1999, has a mixed record in the field; its 2002 brokered ceasefire between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh independence group lasted only six months.

However, its negotiations between the Nepalese regime and opposing Maoist guerrillas eventually led to the successful India-brokered peace agreement in 2006 and it was instrumental in brokering the power-sharing agreement which brought an end to the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007.

HD's record highlights both the advantages and disadvantages of using private mediation organizations in conflict resolution. It also shows that NGOs are usually brought into entrenched conflicts where drawn-out stalemates and reticent actors make long-term successes difficult to attain.

No political baggage

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan

Dealing with the Taliban and others can be risky for nations

Private organizations come to the negotiating table without the political baggage that prevents many state actors from opening a dialogue with warring factions such as the fear of recriminations from dealing directly with groups seen as enemies by some.

"The advantages of organizations like HD are that we're dispensible and invisible," HD's Executive Director David Harland told Deutsche Welle. "For state actors involved in negotiating with their enemies the cost to talking to such groups can be very high, especially if things go wrong. Governments also run the risk of giving these groups status and legitimacy by talking to them."

"All our work, at least at first is confidential," he added. "If things pan out, all well and good - someone, probably not us, will get the credit. But if the talks don't go anywhere or the attempts at mediation fail, the cost for an NGO is much less than for a government."

However Harland added that there were also disadvantages. The NGOs' lack of incentives in their arsenal also makes it easy for the parties involved to just walk away.

Lack of carrot and stick

Forces loyal to presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara

Despite public stances, warring parties often actively seek talks

"State actors come in with big 'carrots' like aid and other offers of assistance and they also have big 'sticks' like sanctions, threats of tribunals and even military action," he said. "We don't have any of that. We could be close to sealing a peace deal and one or the other side could pull out and there's very little we could do about it."

"The only stick we have is to walk away - which can actually work because if you’ve been engaged in negotiations, the parties involved want to make it work. But this is not something you want to use very often," Andrew Marshall said.

Despite the disadvantages associated with using private mediators, experts believe that NGO contributions to international conflict resolution will continue and expand in the future.

"Three important developments have occurred that will ensure the continued prominence of NGO involvement in peace processes," said Professor Bartoli. "The proliferation of activist governments seeking to be involved in international peace-building initiatives, the proliferation of NGOs, and the growing number of credible and legitimate former heads of democratic states who are willingly engaging in peace- building work."

Bartoli says these developments provide options that were unthinkable only 15 years ago.

"Such a diverse convening of thought has failed to exist in the past, but the careful management of this new marketplace may provide dynamic possibilities for the mediation and resolution of future violent conflicts."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

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