Archive for June, 2009

A recent paper from the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue reports on the success of mediation in Liberia. It reads, in part:

Liberia’s destruction diverted through dialogue

H.E. Madam Olubanke King-Akerele, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Liberia, thanked those who made sacrifices for peace in Liberia in a statement to mediators in Oslo, Norway on 16 June 2009.

In her speech, which marked the opening of the seventh Oslo forum meeting of conflict mediators from around the world, H.E. King-Akerele highlighted lessons from Liberia’s conflict resolution, or so called peace-making experience. She emphasised the important role of dialogue through negotiation and diplomacy to preserve the nation.

“It soon became clear that the country would self-destruct, and that unless some intervention occurred, there would be catastrophic consequences.” she said

. . .

It is our conviction that the Liberian experience of engagement, cooperation, and understanding is a lesson that is worth learning in future negotiating and peace-making exercises. For unless the people are willing to reconcile and work together, no expertise in negotiation and diplomacy, and no application of force can compel them to accept any peace terms.”

Source: www.hdcentre.org

My concern is whether the lessons – and optimism – there, can be translated into the dire political situation in Sri Lanka. At least one of the variables in the success of mediation, where there has been intense conflict, high levels of fatalities etc, is the political support for the process: Aceh is a prime example of this.

But there’s reason to be less optimistic in Sri Lanka where – as noted in an earlier entry – the government has determined that its military success marks the start of a new phase of political unity “under Buddhism”, which seems to miss the point  of the preceding decades of conflict.

Recent commentary on Groundviews, which is not a radical or partisan site (http://www.groundviews.org) reinforce the enormous challenge of beginning the process of negotiation and mediation – especially the latter given the government’s resistance to international mediation after the conflict. See Visantha Raja on the deadlock – and on the prospect that dire economic and humanitarian crises rather than political will might break the deadlock:


The question: how can the successful lessons of mediation in Aceh and Liberia be translated into wider experience, so that the purely military strategy and success in Sri Lanka is not seen as the preferred option. At the recent Oslo forum on mediation the comment was made:

“This year’s Forum was organised soon after the victory of the Sri Lankan armed forces against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Sinhalese-dominated government of President Mahinda Rajapakse found a military solution to Sri Lanka’s 26-year-old ethnically-driven civil war by defeating the Tamil Tigers and eliminating their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and 18 senior rebel commanders. The choice of military force over mediation and its success was something that haunted the proceedings at the Forum, as it was felt the Sri Lankan experience would encourage other countries and governments to go the same way in tackling rebels.

“There is no doubt that the recent events in Sri Lanka and the increased tendency by countries and governments to employ military force to resolve conflicts has had a dampening effect on peacemakers and all those seeking peaceful solutions to politically-rooted problems. This was evident at the Oslo Forum, with some participants conceding that the failure of the peace effort in Sri Lanka was heartbreaking.”

First published, Tuesday, June 23, 2009 in The News International
Rahimullah Yusufzai


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There’s a nice comment in Peter Adler’s Eye of the Storm Leadership, on the nature of conflicts, how they arise, escalate, and how we have or lose the windows of opportunity to deal with them.

They begin with some actual or impending sense of injury: a grievance, a complaint, a sense –- rightfully or wrongfully — of being victimized. Demands are made. When the offers are rejected, threats, bluffs, and brinkmanship ensue. As the fight escalates, matters move to action. People demonize each other. Communication channels sever. People rely on lawyers, handlers, and press agents. Fights ripple outward with unintended consequences and sometimes surprising revenge effects. Others, with or without an immediate stake in the fight, are swept into the vortex. Coalitions form. Battles become more tactical, heated, and fearful. All the while, there are little punctuations and hesitations, moments when the window of a possible resolution opens and closes. Those are what we are listening and scanning for.

In conflict, we see people at their worst. In resolution and reconciliation, we see them at their best. The core matters — creativity, imagination, and forgiveness – – are possible in every conflict. Don’t be put off or sidetracked by emotional intensity. Down below there are solutions that can be excavated.

p.46 -47 of the print version; p.8-9 of the “Into the Fray” section on the CD version.

There’s both a generic and a cultural element to this:

  1. the first is that it’s astonishingly easy to slide into misperception, misapprehension, and – especially – to adopt the victim role in imagined wrongs; and that we can and need to be watchful for the opportunities to open the doors and windows that have been abruptly closed – though there will be times when this doesn’t work; and
  2. the second is that – in addition to the personal, intrapsychic aspects of how and why we slide into conflicts and real or imagined slights – there will be cultural dimensions as to how such events can be managed, not least involving the preservation of face, the use of intermediaries, to greater or lesser role of social norms, the capacity to sever relationships without great social cost (in those more individualistic worlds), and the role and power of alliances.

The intriguing thing about a statement such as this is how disarmingly simple and obvious it is . . . and yet how impossibly difficult it appears at the time.

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I know this blog is going to stray from the theme of its title, but in this electronic world, boundaries mean less than they used to.

So, if you’re interested in the world of online dispute resolution, have a look at a forthcoming symposium at the Open University of Catalonia, Barcelona:


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Standards and ADR/ODR

One of the conversations that has been going on for nearly as long as the development of “modern” [A]DR concerns the formulation of standards of practice. Initially this took the form of loosely articulated professional ethics, in which a balance was sought between the virtues of flexibility in non-judicial dispute resolution and the perceived need for transparency, consistency, accountability etc. For a restatement of one version on national standards and accreditation, see:


In one branch-line development of dispute resolution – online DR – there are similar moves to establish standards, not least because the free form nature of the online world, the burgeoning development of both online commerce and the resolution of related disputes, and the proliferation of providers of both the human and technological kind.

For discussion of this in the EU, see the European Committee for Standardisation’s deliberations:


Again, the concerns are those that are also at the centre of any conversation about the rule of law and the protection of citizen rights and interests: transparency, accountability, consistency etc. And at the same time this takes account of the pluralist shift in contemporary legal and DR practice, in recognising that rule needs to be balanced with context.

This is also a conversation that has taken place in numerous other professional and provider contexts, as to whether self-regulation is sufficient safeguard; whether the development of international (or at the very least national) norms of professional or sector standards is a necessary mark of the “arrival” of the practice on the professional and global scene (consider advertising, broadcasting standards, codes of ethics of various forms of therapeutic intervention).

One question at the moment: to what extent will such standard (in, say, ODR) take account of or leave space for the regional and local norms of Asian nations?

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A couple of senior and experienced mediators here in Singapore have told me of a breakthrough strategy that has worked well for them in cracking an impasse. One of the mediators – also a senior lawyer and arbitrator – has used this on a number of occasions though both he and my other colleague confess to some slight reservations in using it.

The strategy: when parties are separated by a final gap in their settlement figures, or seem simply unable to arrive at an agreement, though the mediator suspects from caucus comments that agreement is possible, then the mediator suggests “Well, if you can’t arrive at an agreed figure, then at least do it for me (i.e. the mediator)” And it works.

But . . . it works, I suspect, only in some contexts:

  • where a mediator is regarded as having some kind of authority, notwithstanding disclaimers of decision-making authority and role;
  • thus in more stratified or hierarchical societies;
  • where the preservation of “face” is a perceived obstacle to making the final concessions, but “doing it for the mediator” is a way for parties to save face;
  • thus where this request from the mediator in fact adds a further principle or justification, in the process of finding reasons for acting; and
  • in social contexts where exhortations to act in certain ways – being courteous, giving up seats in a bus, being gracious etc – are commonplace.

The print on this photo may be too small but the banner carried by the “lion” reads “It’s kind to move to the rear of the bus so others can board”; and the placard reads “Special Diet: Please feed with acts of kindness.”

Exhortation to virtue

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I know that my colleagues Joel and Hwee Hwee have just edited a new book on An Asian Perspective on Mediation (and, for goodness’ sake, I have a couple of chapters in that book), but there’s something that still puzzles us. Here’s the scenario:

  • it’s a fruit market here in Singapore, with mountains of fresh fruit on sale at pretty good prices – better than the supermarket anyway;
  • the fruit – let’s say, lychee and rambutan – are advertised  at the same price per kilo
  • we ask for a mix of around a half kilo of each but the stall holder won’t do it – even though the fruit is piled side by side, the price is the same;
  • we ask why, and he just says he cannot;
  • so we ask if he’ll just grab a random kilo worth of fruit from the adjoining lychee and rambutan piles, but he won’t do it;
  • so we walk away; a perfect lose-lose negotiation.

This is akin to the questions raised in the occasional articles in the Negotiation Journal along the “what would you do if . .. ?” style.


  • how are we to interpret the preference not to make a sale over the – apparently – easy task of bagging fruit on the same stall tray?
  • how are we to indicate our preference for a lesser amount of each fruit (it deteriorates rapidly in the tropics)?

This translates into other spheres of negotiation – including a landlord’s preference to leave a house or apartment empty rather than taking the reduced rent that actually reflect current market value for rents.

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“New means of moving information will alter any power structure.”

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

The other track this blog will follow deals with the role of Information Communication Technology and conflict/dispute mitigation. The “civil” track of this concerns online dispute resolution – which is now well-established (more at another time on this). The other track is the “ICT for Peace” line of thinking. And on this I note a relatively recent item on the UNESCO site:

International media professionals adopt Doha Declaration on the Potential of Media: Dialogue, Mutual Understanding and Reconciliation
International media professionals adopt Doha Declaration on the Potential of Media: Dialogue, Mutual Understanding and Reconciliation
04-05-2009 (Doha)
Some 250 media professionals from around the world adopted a declaration emphasizing the importance of media in communicating across cultural differences at the close of a two-day international conference entitled “Potential of Media: Dialogue, Mutual Understanding and Reconciliation” in Doha (Qatar).
The “Doha Declaration on the Potential of Media: Dialogue, Mutual Understanding and Reconciliation”, was one of the major outcomes of the conference on press freedom organized by UNESCO and the Doha Center for Media Freedom in the Qatar city on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2009.

The Declaration stresses that independent and pluralistic media are essential for ensuring transparency, accountability and participation as fundamental elements of good governance and human rights-based development. It furthermore notes that freedom of opinion and expression are essential for free and democratic societies and contribute to a better understanding of and a dialogue among cultures.


See also the link to Sanjana Hattotuwa’s blog in the blog roll on this site. And the web site of the ICT for Peace Foundation, established by Martti Ahtisaari: http://ict4peace.org/

This field is, I guess, also a potential example of the expanding role of non-state agencies in the peace and dialogue process – though states and international agencies are certainly also engaged (of which UNESCO is an example).

One element to bear in mind in relation to both ICT and mediation is that “private” technologies need to be seen also – perhaps more so – in terms of their civic or public contributions. Mediation in the West, for example, has been fostered for its values of private settlement, autonomy, confidentiality, choice and so on; yet in its original homes, mediation served and serves more of a normative, integrative function. The parallel with ICT is possibly this, that ICT does foster narrowcasting, the translation of citizens into consumers whose priority is choice, autonomy and a new technoculture; BUT, that same technology can be seen – and needs to be used – in terms of its capacity to foster engagement, citizenship, civic dialogues:

“In short, the interactive mediaspace offers a new way of understanding civilisation itself, and a new set of good reasons for engaging with civic reality more fully in the face of what are often perceived (or taught) to be the many risks and compromises associated with cooperative behaviour.” [Douglas Rushkoff, “Open Source Democracy: How Online Communication is Changing Offline Politics” (from www.demos.uk 16]

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