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Stefan Wolff – ‘One man and his dog’ Designing and Managing Peace Processes?

By Saskia Kok, on 20 March 2014

Stefan Wolff, Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, spoke at UCL on 27th February 2014.

By Lara McDonald and Saskia Kok 

Professor_Stefan_WolffStefan Wolff took to the floor, assured by Chair Neil Mitchell that as an expert in peace processes he was in a ‘recession free business’. Any preconception the audience may have had that Wolff, as a Professor of International Security, would assume a wholly academic standpoint was quickly dispelled. In recognizing that the process of negotiations is beyond theory, Wolffe argued that observing processes from the outside helps to make the process on the whole more effective. He asserted that his talk would therefore take a practical, not theoretical, perspective and that he would be drawing from his wealth of participant experience in conflicts in Moldova, Iraq and Georgia, to name a few.

Perhaps having caught sight of a few raised eyebrows in the audience, Wolff began to play with the audience: “For the sake of the discussion, let’s pretend there is a science behind peace processes”. There was no doubt that he ultimately intended to undermine his own point, and prove that there, in fact, is no science behind peace processes. However, his contradictions had succeeded in engaging the audience. In line with his scientific approach, Wolff focused strictly on six of the nine dimensions of a peace process and discussed the responsibility of the mediator at each stage in keeping the negotiations moving.

The first hurdle of the peace process is the purpose of the negotiations, whereby conflict parties communicate their individual objectives for the negotiation process to one another. This stage is, according to Wolff, indicative of the real issues which will later surface in the process. The mediator must prove to be innovative at this moment as mediators are forced to take refuge in very vague formulations such as a peaceful future to ensure agreement on a common purpose. Relying on such an ambiguous purpose poses the first challenge to Wolff’s eccentric statement that there is a science behind peace processes.

Wolff proceeded to the next stage of the peace process: the format. The key question considered here was how secretive or public peace negotiations should be. Wolff articulated the example of the Oslo I Accord, the first face-to-face agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the government of Israel. An advantage of private talks, according to Wolff, is that they impose less pressure on the negotiators. However, he also warned that conflict parties might exploit this secrecy and refuse to be held accountable to their citizens. The quality of the mediator most stressed here was that of sensitivity, in particular to the history of the conflict parties.

Wolff recognized that it is often a struggle to decide on which actors should participate in the peace process. He placed more stress on the dreadful repercussions of not having an inclusive enough peace process and illustrated this with the tragic example of the Sudanese government. Wolff detailed how the Sudanese government has deliberately made separate deals with different factions to impede their country’s peace process. The patience of the mediator was crucial here.

It soon became clear, as Wolff began to discuss the agenda of peace processes, that the mediator’s patience needed to be complemented with creativity. Wolff provided some light relief for the audience as he tackled some of the linguistic intricacies of peace processes. After claiming that mediators have to “manipulate” language, Wolff corrected himself by stating they had to be creative with their use of language.

Perhaps the most contentious point of the talk came as Wolff addressed the timetable of peace talks. He stressed that settling on a suitable length for talks was key to their success: too long and momentum would be lost, risking violation of the cease-fire, on the other hand, too short and only a temporary, sub-optimal agreement would be reached. Most importantly, a mediator has to sequence issues so that the most controversial issues are left to the end. However, according to Wolff, the “easy issues”, with which mediators tend to open peace talks are human rights and gender participation. Wolff went on to argue that it is very easy to implement actions in support of these issues as there are many international conventions and “this and that and the other, you just make reference to them”. For the first time, Wolff’s application of science to the peace process made the audience feel somewhat uncomfortable. It was clear that the mediator had to be willing to compromise throughout this process, but surely compromising on such pernicious issues as the violation of human rights and the subjugation of women seemes a step too far.

Possibly sensing he had touched a nerve with some audience members Wolff drew on a light, entertaining anecdote to illustrate the final stage of the peace process: reaching the agreement. Wolff told the story of the final day of the Kirkuk, Iraq negotiations which took place in Berlin. At 4pm on the final day, talks, which had taken years of planning and careful negotiating, were brought to a halt. The German labour union had suddenly called a strike which meant that the negotiating team’s bus driver, being unionised, could not carry on working, plus the secretary needed to lock up to return home. Therefore, the conflict parties were forced then and there to sign the agreement in the hotel lobby. Wolff argued that it was thanks to the German Labour Law that the Kirkuk peace negotiations were brought to an end, and concluded that often it is a ‘combination of a whole lot of accidents’ that bring peace talks to their conclusion.

At times, during the talk, Wolff self-consciously donned the mantle of the Germans. Joking with the audience that he sometimes played with the stereotypical German trait of discipline, to ensure that those involved in the peace talks would arrive promptly: “I have a radio controlled watch and we will all be here tomorrow at 9”. However, perhaps the most insightful moment was when Wolff painted a rather lackluster portrait of himself as “a middle aged white guy from a really rich country who has had a very privileged life”. In taking a moment to view himself from the perspective of the conflict parties, Wolff revealed perhaps the most important quality of the mediator, self-awareness.

The extremely complex cultural context of peace talks and erratic nature of conflict parties demonstrate that peace talks certainly do not abide by theory.  Peace talks rely on specific momentum provided by an innovative, sensitive, patient, creative, self-aware mediator who must to be willing to compromise. Even when all these ingredients are present, peace talks are fragile. Their success relies on a seemingly random mishmash of factors unknown to mediators and academics alike – however, perhaps it is due to the pursuit of this elusive formula that Stefan Wolff and his colleagues will never be out of a job.