On Mediation of Peace Talks and Importance of Women Representation: Interview with Anette Weber

How to mediate peace talks during civil wars? What is the role of external actors during such initiatives? Why it is important to include women into peace negotiations? Find answers to these questions and many more in our new interview with Anette Weber, Senior Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, who was a panelist at our last year conference Reaching Out to the Other: Overcoming Intercultural Conflicts.

I would like to start with a question on the very concept of conflict mediation. Could you explain how you understand the concept, how it is done in practice and why you think it is important?

My understanding of a mediator’s role in the conflict is that of a facilitator. You shouldn’t have your own agenda and you shouldn’t come with a thought-through deal. That’s a negotiation. During mediation, you’re more or less a sounding board for the parties of the conflict, so they might be for the first time able to listen to each other and to understand that they have different interests.

That is hard for academics or people with expertise, because you always think that we know better than the conflict parties. But it should be the other way around. You listen to the grievances and you don’t take sides. I don’t think a person can ever be neutral, but you have to be impartial in the talks.

You’re not saying to actor A: “You’re so right, let’s get rid of that government.” Or to actor B: “The opposition are in fact terrorists.” Or even “Let’s agree that we need to establish a liberal democratic regime.” You paraphrase what they said in their grievances and you make them understand that you did listen. Then the next step is that the two sides actually listen to what the other is saying, either through the mediator or directly. That by itself is a huge step which you can build on. It sounds easy, but it is super complicated. And extremely important.

If the people understand that the other party is and will remain there, even if they don’t agree on political interests, that is where the mediation could lead very smoothly into a political process. How this is done, if it is, that is not up to the mediator.

This also leads to a much bigger question - how far is it possible from an outside perspective to transform a conflict? Be it militarily or on a civilian basis. I think our expectations are often too high. We feel that we can handle a conflict or even completely stop it. I don’t think that should be our expectation. Rather, we should start by investigating if there is an interest in the group of the aggressors to at least have a talk; and then go from there.

Mediation is much cheaper and more potentially successful than military engagement. When people ask me about the success of a particular mediation, my response would always be “Show me the success of a military intervention”. Even if you stop a war by using force for a while, you have still not dealt with its root causes; you have not dealt with the political and the social damage, or the economic damage, and in fact you are most likely to trigger more problems. Just look at any intervention in the past 15 years.

Can I ask you about mediation initiatives that you have been involved in recently? What was your role there?

I have two main roles. I work as an analyst and government advisor on all countries in East Africa. Besides that, I am engaged in a couple of different projects; during the facilitation between 2014 and 2018 I was advising a mediation process supported by the African Union and the Berghof Foundation in the Darfur conflict and the conflict on the border between North and South Sudan. We spoke with the actors - the armed opposition, the political oppositions, the civil society, and the government - and tried to find out about whatever they were ready to discuss.

Do they have an interest in approaching each other? The government tried to set up a national dialogue, and the armed opposition and the non-armed opposition had different interests in engaging in this. In our first meeting four years ago, we had all of the actors together; there were 80 to 100 people in the room. They are all in opposition to the government, but they don’t have a unified position. You have the communists, you have the Ba’ath Party and many others and they need to realize what they want to achieve as the opposition vis-à-vis the government. After that you go for facilitation. At the end, we succeeded in having a more unified positioning of political interests on the part of the opposition, including the armed groups.

In order to do that, you also have to do your homework in terms of understanding where the different parties are coming from. What are their interests? What about the other context? For example, if you are in the dry season, it’s basically fighting season. The interest might not be to sit and talk. There is always a lull in the rainy season, because they can’t fight, so they have time to talk. These kinds of issues are important to consider. The other thing is who has what type of equipment. If you have light equipment you can still fight even in the rainy season. Then of course there is the understanding of “What are the bigger questions?” I mean, does the armed opposition have an interest in transforming itself one day into a political opposition? Or are they benefiting politically or economically from war as it is?

For the government it could be a reason to engage, because they want to have a normalisation. In the case of Sudan, for example, it was clear that on the part of the Sudanese government, after the International Criminal Court had an arrest warrant out against the president and some of the people in his cabinet, there was a willingness to engage. Also, the economic situation in Sudan is quite dire, so they had an interest in normalising; they had an interest in being taken out of the rogue state category. None of this is really your business if you are a mediator; it is just a context. What you want in the mediation is really to stop the violence or, for example, gain humanitarian access.

I also noticed that you wrote on feminist perspectives on peace mediation. Why do you think this particular perspective is important to take into account, both theoretically, if you wish, and then practically?

The first response is that representation matters. If you are not represented, your interests are not on the table. What I am not saying is that there is a unified women’s perspective on conflict, or that there is an inherent peacefulness in women’s perspective and that women could be the better mediators and that they could bring peace. This is a very gendered perspective and a quite awful take on how decision-making is supposed to be. Male decision-makers can be super irresponsible, start a conflict and then say, “You women, make it nice now, that is your job.” That is not my position. There is a great variety in how war and conflicts in general affect people. Of course, not all women are victims. You have female fighters; you have mothers sending their sons to the frontline; you have, you know, girlfriends saying: “If you’re not going, then you’re not my man.” Therefore, there is not one group that is called women, who are affected by violence and conflict.

However, women often have responsibility for others. I remember the first time I went to Darfur to do a report for Amnesty International. It was called “Rape as a Weapon of War”. But what was shocking to me was how women were using themselves to protect others. When the Janjaweed militia attacked, they sent the men away and diverted the attention of the attackers, so the men would not be attacked. Then they had to take the kids, the elderly, and even the cooking material, and run. How crazy is that? You send the abled men away, so they won’t be shot, but you take all that responsibility and become a target? To me that was such a cruel picture of how much effect the war has on women, and specifically, again, none of these women have ever had a say in deciding how the conflict is going to end. This is why you need representation of those who are bearing the brunt of war, who might be less interested in the continuation of violence and whose voice and reasoning we should take into account in any implementation of a potential peace deal.

This does not mean one should choose two or three women and put them at the negotiation table when the peace deal is signed. It really is critical to have a representation at all levels – during all negotiations. How can you do that from outside? I’m not sure it’s possible, but I think one should not be quiet about it. When you look at the effect of the feminist foreign policy that the Swedes practiced during their UN Security Council presidency, the interesting thing is not that they promoted more women; the interesting part is the change in the process – that they spoke against all-male panels, or that they required paying attention to gender in reports. That changes a lot, because people become more aware of the importance of representation. Once again, conflicts have impact on everyone in the country, yet during most of the negotiations, we hear mostly the position of a tiny fraction of society. What we as mediators can do here is to try to open them up to wider representation and stress the need for wider representation.

IIR intern Floris Van Doorn helped with the transcription of the interview.

The interview took place during the conference Reaching Out to the Other: Overcoming Intercultural Conflicts. To learn more about this year conference titled Intercultural Dialogue and Prevention of Violence, which be held on 7th November, 2019 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, follow the link here.

Annete Weber is Senior Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Berlin, Germany. More about Annette Weber here.