Scunning the Barrel: The Success of Third Parties in Reducing Violence

Sitting in a seaside café chatting with a friend he told about an arcane phrase – scunning from the barrel.  What, I asked, did that mean.  He said it comes from Newfoundland seafarers who would send sailors into the barrel atop the mast, who would then scan or scun the horizon.  In particular the watchmen would scun both forward and aft.  Why, you might ask, would they look behind?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to look forward?  Yes, but looking aft, especially at the ship’s wake, not only tells you where you’ve been, but also provides important information on how straight your course.  Sailing ships, not only travel forward, but as the wind presses against the sail they travel leeward as well.  In thinking about the future of third party interventions it’s important to consider both where we have been as well as where we are going.

Violent conflict, despite the daily dose of graphic images from around the world, is at an all-time low.  Robert Ted Gurr and Monty Marshall, Andrew Mack and later Steven Pinker have cataloged the various reasons why violence across the globe has declined.   Even before the decline in violent conflict had been measured military historian John Keegan foreshadowed the illogic of warfare writing: “…the development of nuclear weapons, the logical culmination of the technological trend in the Western way of warfare, and the ultimate denial of the proposition that war was, or might be, a continuation of politics by other means.”  Various reasons for the decline have been put forward, Steven Pinker’s 800 page tomb, the Better Angels of Our Nature, is the latest.   Authors have put forward possible explanations including the empowerment of women, an emerging humanitarian ethic, urbanization, empathy, expanding communication, interdependence, and the rise of the conflict resolution movement.  Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has talked extensively about the successes of the modern conflict resolution movement, and important impact conflict analysis and third party interventions have had on limiting conflict.

Evans believes conflict resolution has played a positive role in reducing the global outbreak of violence. Today’s peacekeeping missions outperform earlier attempts, success outweighs failure.  Lise Howard’s analysis of peacekeeping demonstrates the power of institutional learning in improving the practice.   In a parallel vein the world has become much better at humanitarian intervention; catastrophes don’t seem to spiral out of control in the same fashion they did years ago.  Like Evans I argue that we have also become much better at negotiating the end of conflicts; we are better peacemakers than we used to be.  Today, third parties play a useful and effective role in bringing violent conflicts to an end.

So, who are third parties?  What are their methods?  Finally, what can we do to continue peacemaking’s effectiveness?

Third parties are not principals in the negotiation.  Instead, they are external to the negotiation, but whose role it is to help principals come to some agreement.  More often than not we use such phrases as “mediator”, “facilitator”, or even “good offices” to describe this third party role.  It’s not hard to think of a third party in international affairs.  The United States, for example, played the role of third party mediator in the Camp David Accords.  President Jimmy Carter and his staff not only cajoled and persuaded President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin towards some sort of agreement, but also deployed the considerable resources of the US government to underwrite the peace deal.  Or, you may recall that in 2008 former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as a mediator in conflicts, including his work in Indonesia bringing an end to the conflict in Aceh.  More recently, you may have seen the team of AU mediators in Libya unsuccessfully seeking to end the violence there.   Let me spend a little bit of time differentiating different kinds of third parties.

Third parties may include nation-states such as the United States, Norway or South Africa.  They may also be regional bodies, such as the African Union, or sub-regional bodies such as Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which currently includes Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Uganda.  Both the AU and IGAD have worked on resolving conflicts in Sudan. Coalitions of countries may constitute third parties as well, such as the coalition of Western states (including the US, UK, France, Germany, and Canada) seeking peace and independence in Namibia.  Third parties are not always states, however.  In 1992 the civil war in Mozambique ended with the signing of peace accords, in which the religious Community of Sant’Egidio played a key role of third party.  The conflict in Aceh in Indonesia came to a close through the successive involvement of two NGO’s, the Henri Dunant Centre (later called the Humanitarian Dialogue Centre), and the Crisis Management Initiative, along with support from the European Union, Norway, the US, and Japan.

The motivations for third parties are many.  Of course, third parties get involved out of self-interest.  This is obvious, and not very enlightening, and fails to really explain why states play the third party role.  After all, if self-interest was the sole motivation in determining which states would be third parties, then why aren’t they all acting as third parties?  Something more needs to be said.  States play the role of third party for complex reasons.  They may choose the third party role to uphold the principles of the international community.  (Zartman and Touval, 1996)  Equally, playing the role of third party gives actors access to other key decision makers and interested parties around the globe.  Norway provides a good example.  Norway acted as a third party in the conflict between the Tamal Tigers and the government of Sri Lanka.  Amb. Strommen, Norway’s Ambassador to the US, tells a story of his arrival in Washington after his appointment as the senior diplomat from his government.  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was keen to meet with Strommen and spent most of the time talking with him about the Sri Lanka conflict.  This is highly unusual to have such high level and immediate access.   Amb. Strommen commented that Norway “tries to be useful,” and in so doing not only helps resolve conflicts, but also gains access to decision-makers around the globe.   Many self-interested motivations exist for third party behavior, but one cannot entirely discount altruistic reasons as well.   Staying with the example of Norway, authors of the 2009 Ministry of Foreign Affairs White Paper state:

Norway’s peace and reconciliation policy is an integral part of our long-term, comprehensive security policy. Norway’s efforts to promote peace, reconciliation and development are based on a sense of solidarity and respect for human dignity. Conflicts can be resolved. Norway has the expertise and resources to be able to make a difference in several (but not all) conflict areas, and hence a moral duty to do its part. This is our main motivation.  (Report No. 15 (2008–2009) to the Storting, “Interests, Responsibilities and Opportunities: The Main Features of Norwegian Foreign Policy,” 118)

There are domestic reasons for Norway’s role as a third party as well.  Norway, a Lutheran seafaring nation, has always been outward looking (since the Vikings!).  Domestic opinion embraces and support’s Norway’s role as third party.  Norway is lucky, not only does it value the role of third party, but it has the means to do so.  Of course, some states and NGO’s would gladly play the third party role, but cannot because they lack the resources to do so.  Being a third party can be expensive and state budgets are not infinitely flexible.   A senior Norwegian statesman is said to have suggested to the New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark that New Zealand could be the Norway of Southeast Asia and the Pacific.  While the Kiwi’s embraced the principle, they flinched at the cost.

Politics and geography may conspire to limit what states can do in playing the third party role.  Even with states possessing financial and human resource means to engage in third party activities, the opportunity to use those resources may be severely constrained.  Why was Norway not involved as a third party in the conflict in Northern Ireland?   Was it lacking in the moral fortitude?  No.  Did Norway lack the intellectual and human resources to engage in a peace process similar to the Oslo process?  No.  The fact that Britain and Norway share a border in the North Sea, and that the United States was becoming involved may have been enough to have precluded Norway’s involvement.  Norway has been involved in Guatemala, Sri Lanka, Sudan and the Philippines to name a few.

In examining the motivations of third parties do not overstate the importance of “self-interest” in motivations for playing the third party role at the expense of ignoring these other factors.  Those ‘other factors’ are often the deciding factors!

What methods do third parties use?  Think of third parties as being distributed along a continuum, ranging from less directive (on the left hand side) to more directive towards the parties (on the right hand side).  A list of third party roles might include consultants/advisors, facilitators, mediators and arbitrators.

Third parties who are least directive include consultants and advisors who may simply help parties to a conflict better understand the dynamics of the conflict, or help develop ideas for later inclusion in negotiations.  For example, in the conflict in Bougainville (Papua New Guinea) consultants and advisors from Australia and New Zealand played a central role in helping the Bougainvilleans determine whether or not independence should be included in their negotiating strategy.

Moving from left to right, becoming a little directive, are facilitators.  A facilitator helps to arrange for the process of negotiation, by supplying a venue, arranging meetings, managing travel and other accoutrements of the peace process.  Metaphorically, facilitators grease the wheels for negotiators.  In Sri Lanka the Norwegians facilitated talks between the LTTE and the government, arranging for venues, setting up meeting space and establishing communication channels.   Continuing in the rightward direction along the continuum are mediators.  “Mediation is best thought of as a mode of negotiation in which a third party helps the parties find a solution which they cannot find by themselves.” (Zartman and Touval, 446)  Mediators not only play the role of facilitator, but also help to structure communication, may play devil’s advocate privately with parties, float ideas, and help to reality test proposals.  Ideally, mediators maintain an impartial status, that is to say they are trusted by both parties and are not simply using mediation to further their own ends.  Martti Ahtisaari reflects on his role as mediator in the talks between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement.  He would sometimes demand, almost badger, parties into thinking about their positions.  His role was not merely structuring talks, but he became active in holding both sides to account.  Finally, an arbitrator is one who issues a decision, as if on a court, to the disputing parties, who have agreed prior to arbitration to abide by the arbitrator’s decision.  For example, Yemen and Eritrea dispute sovereignty over the island of Greater Hanish in the Red Sea.  They waged a two day battle over the islands in December 1995, leaving neither the victor.  They agreed to take the border dispute the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which decided in Yemen’s favor.  Arbitration sits at the most directive end of the third party continuum.

The manner in which most third party practices are carried out varies dramatically.  Rarely, if ever, do such practices have internationally agreed definitions.  Arbitration is perhaps the only exception to this, and even with arbitration the way in which it is carried out may vary from one place to another.  Parties may agree to mediation, but may not have a clear idea of what they mean by mediation.  The Norwegian effort in Sri Lanka was commonly referred to by many as mediation.  The Norwegians have been at pains in recent times to emphasize that what they did in Sri Lanka was facilitation, not mediation.   Writing here of mediation or facilitation are ideal types, and may vary dramatically from what occurs in practice.

In addition peace processes are often times an amalgam of many third party roles.  Two examples, Bougainville and Mindanao, might illustrate how complex peace processes can be.  In peace process (taking place in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s) over the separatist conflict in Bougainville third party consultants played a useful role in helping parties structure their negotiation positions.  In addition, the New Zealand government played a critical role in facilitating the peace process through the Burnham Agreements. The New Zealand government established a venue and created an environment in which debate and discussion could take place within the Bougainville side.  Likewise, the Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer helped to mediate the date of the referendum over Bougainville’s status in late 2000.  The third parties used at least three different kinds of interventions in ushering the peace process along.  In the example of Mindanao the peace process initiated between the government of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was initiated in 2001. The conflicts in Mindanao, between the GRP and Muslim groups have a long and checkered history.  The process undertaken in 2001 was not without its baggage on both sides.  New to the peace process were the third parties.  One, the government of Malaysia, took the role of mediator.  The role of facilitator was taken by the US Institute of Peace (USIP), a quasi-governmental organization.  Co-ordination between USIP and the Malaysians was often difficult and at times non-existent. (Private communication)   In fact, while USIP termed its third party behavior as facilitation, it was more often than not closer to consultant.  While Malaysia mediated the terms of the peace accord between the MILF and the GRP, USIP contributed by conducting and sponsoring research, and engaging in public education.  On one central issue USIP came closer to that of facilitator when it took up the issue of “ancestral domain” or land rights.  USIP conducted research and provided education seminars for the interlocutors in the negotiation over this issue.  As you can see, however, third party engagement in both conflicts came from multiple providers who utilized various third party behaviors.

Looking towards the future there have been many successes won through third party intervention.  It is important to reflect upon what has been done correctly.  Equally, however some third party interventions do not succeed and it is important to know what went wrong.  Thus far, it is safe to say that most third parties have not been trained in conflict resolution.  They succeed or fail without formal training in negotiation, mediation or facilitation.  Fortunately, many people and institutions are stepping in to begin the processes of building capacity in third party processes.  At the state level Norway, for example, established the “… Section for Peace and Reconciliation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to coordinate … efforts, ensure systematic competence development and provide an interface with organisations [sic] in Norway and abroad that have expertise on and are engaged in peace processes.  (Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, “Norway’s Conflict Resolution Efforts – Are They of any Avail?” House of Literature, Oslo, 11 June 2010) The education sector provides education and training capacity in third party practices which has grown considerably over the years.  The world’s first conflict resolution university degree program started in the mid-1980’s at George Mason University.  Since its inception numerous other similar programs have sprung up around the US, and across the globe.

Most innovations in third party practices have been done on an ad hoc basis, often times unsupported by empirical data.  Great opportunities present themselves as we look towards linking advances in the study of human communication networks, cognitive processes and other subjects with questions in the study of third party processes.   The challenge will be making the all-important link between insights gained through empirical research and their application to everyday practices at the actor level.   Organizations, such as foreign ministries and NGO’s will have to be open to accepting input from the research community if they are to benefit from that work.  For those who care to observe, this is a similar state of affairs that the late Alexander George commented on in his book, Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy, in which he described the chasm that divides international relations scholarship and foreign policy practitioners.

The future of third party processes will be supported by improvements in knowledge management, continued education and training of both parties to conflict and those who would help them out, and encouraging closer and better dialogue between practitioners and researchers.  Of course, better funding, more and better public education and further professionalization of third parties would also likely improve their effectiveness too.

With improved practice comes the payoff.  In this case the payoff comes in shorter wars, and even wars prevented.  Improved practice means more peaceful and just societies.  The consequences of improvements in third party practice are not insignificant.  In twenty years what will scholars write when reflecting upon the state of violence in the world?  One hopes that they will continue to record declines in violence, and I suspect part of that story will be the important role third parties played in helping prevent and resolve conflicts.



George, AlexanderBridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice in Foreign PolicyUnited States Institute of Peace, Washington, 1993

(Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, “Norway’s Conflict Resolution Efforts – Are They of any Avail?” House of Literature, Oslo, 11 June 2010)

Pinker, Steven, Better Angels of Our Nature, Viking Adult, 2011

Report No. 15 (2008–2009) to the Storting, “Interests, Responsibilities and Opportunities: The Main Features of Norwegian Foreign Policy,” 118)

Zartman, I. William and Saadia Touval, “International Mediation in the Post-Cold War Era,” in Managing Global Chaos, eds. Chester Crocker, Fen Hampson and Pamela Aall, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996) p. 445-461.

This entry was posted in conflict resolution, essays, Peace and Conflict, Third party, violence and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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