27 Nov Ambassador Mokhtar Lamani – PART 2: A Practitioner’s Insight on Mediation of International Conflicts
Interview With Ambassador Mokhtar Lamani
The MJDR-RRDM had the privilege of conducting an interview with Ambassador Mokhtar Lamani, a lifetime diplomat with the United Nations who has extensive experience with mediation and negotiation in post-conflict situations throughout the Middle East. This included extensive work in the League of Arab States as special representative in Iraq in 2006-2007, and head of the UN mission in Damascus to end the conflict in Syria from 2012-2014. In both cases he resigned in protest because of the conflicting agenda he found on the ground. These are his insights on his experience followed by advice to future potential mediators and negotiators looking to resolve issues relating to violent conflict and post-war society.
PART 2: A Practitioner’s Insight on Mediation of International Conflicts
You have worked as a mediator in many different international contexts, including the prisoner war exchange between Iraq and Kuwait. How do you factor in cultural differences, like between countries like Iraq and Kuwait, when you are mediating?
In the art of mediation, you learn so many things on the ground and definitely I do strongly believe there’s one condition. If you don’t have that condition you can’t do anything, because when you are mediating, you are just trying to convince people who are talking to bring people together in meetings. The condition that you have to be sure that you have in a conflict is that the people killing each other are tired of doing that. If they are not tired, you are not going to do a lot of things.
I remember, I joined Mr. Brahimi in 1998 in a mission to be part of the Security Council on Afghanistan and we were there and trying to meet the Taliban, the Northern Alliance and everybody to organize a meeting of national reconciliation in Ashgabat. I remember they were not ready because at that time the Afghans themselves because when winter is here everybody was going back to their own villages because it’s very cold and preparing themselves for the melting of the ice. So, we went there before the melting of the ice trying to convince people and I remember during out meeting with the Mullah Omar and we said that “we have to have national reconciliation” and “shame on you, look at what’s happening to your own people” and he said “no, we would like to have national reconciliation, but after having the whole country”. So, if they are not tired and they still have a military solution… it helps you a lot as a mediator.
Then, looking forward, it’s not just in front of you. You have to take all things in consideration because there are so many changes on the ground there, so much suffering. You cannot do it from an office in New York and say “okay, those are the points and you have to implement them”. You arrive to this situation when you work on the ground and see what is the closest way to your own objective, to have national reconciliation, to have peace and to begin a new state in these kinds of areas. Of course, it’s different from one conflict to another conflict, so you have to understand very well the kind of conflict and, from the other side nothing can be done if they don’t want it. Sometimes, in some conflicts, you have only two factions killing each other but sometimes you have hundreds.
Each specific conflict is different from another one, so you have to know it deeply and make proposals accordingly.
What if you have two parties and they are not quite tired of fighting each other? What sort of steps do you take?
It depends. We were talking much more about the experience in Syria and in Iraq, which has another complication. We didn’t mention that these conflicts, if you want to deal with them, have three different levels: local, regional and international.
There are other conflicts that are only local, like civil war in a country where you have a Security Council resolution to intervene there which should be much easier.
When you aware about three levels of a conflict, it means that you have lots of conflicting agendas. You cannot neglect one. You have to be very inclusive and to be sure, for the states that are involved, that there is a real political will to help. Then, you also have to work locally with all of these factions because sometimes they are receiving arms from big countries, so you have to have the goodwill of these big countries to help you to stop feeding the war. With all of these complications sometimes, it’s very hard because we need to make a lot of pressure.
What do you find is the most effective pressure, when you do not have two parties tired of fighting?
That also depends. One of the things I had mentioned in Syria was a weapons embargo because if they know that they are going to receive more sophisticated weapons, that will help them to continue, but when they see that they cannot win, they are tired and it took so long, those are some preconditions that can help you in establishing something which is inclusive for everyone.
Of course, when I’m talking about everybody, it does not include those groups that have an agenda going beyond the border of the country, like Al Qaeda, those that do not want any peace and the only thing is to fight.
In your role as a mediator, what techniques do you use to help one party see the conflict from the other side’s perspective? Is there a good way to do that or is it different in each situation?
As a mediator you have to be very frank and sincere with the people themselves. You don’t have to try to please them because, if that’s your aim, they are going to be very happy at first but after 6 months you will have lots of problems.
In the beginning, if you are not very frank, people will immediately accuse you of supporting the other party, but with time, they will realize that you are there in their interest.
This frankness is demonstrated through dialogue as with the experience I had in Iraq, I had lots of these kinds of problems with some groups sometimes or all of them but with time they realize that my objective is to help the civilians of the country: the kids, the women, to have a peaceful country.
Every mother would like to raise her kids in peace. For that, you need to be very frank with them and with your talks with every single group, you have to concentrate on their own mistakes, not the mistakes of the others. This is the only way.
Some of our readers and members of our editorial board are currently or hopeful to be mediators. What would you recommend to them as they look forward? Are there particular theories they should study? What should they do?
It depends, because mediation can go on for so long sometimes, and there are many different stages.
There is a stage of bringing peace, then reinforcing peace, then after having peace, building the state, which is also very important. It is definitely very important to have everybody on board because you need the help of everybody concerned with the situation. For example, sometimes you need a new constitution, and it’s not bringing the most sophisticated articles in the constitution but those that are going to be strongly respected and succeed the transition.
During the talks for peace in Syria, I myself received a lot of requests from local civil society, women’s groups, and so on. Everybody was suffering. I was very inclusive and the advice I was giving everybody was to concentrate and to be concentrated on the mistakes of the people to make them closer to each other more so than any theory.
If a student or someone is looking to become a mediator, what steps would you suggest to them to go in that direction as an occupation?
Structure, as I mentioned before we are not priests preaching the good word. It doesn’t happen that way. You need structure and the best structure in the world is the UN. You need to have the Security Council behind you because if someone is not respecting the process you will have serious problems and difficulties that cannot be overcome without the structure of the UN.
Look at what was happening in Yemen where the Security Council had the possibility of imposing sanctions or even Chapter 7 interventions. Those are very important tools in your hands. You don’t decide to be a mediator and then try to talk to people that are fighting each other.
Of course, some international personalities are doing that. They have their own foundations, like what President Carter was doing, helping with elections. It’s very helpful and very important, but the first thing you need is to have structure and, if it’s not within the UN then it is these well-founded organizations with expansive resources. To me though, there are so many initiatives and the most beneficial process is to bring them together with the efforts of the UN.
What is the most important quality of an effective mediator and is this specific to international conflicts or all mediators of all types?
You have to be very pragmatic when you are dealing with a conflict, for sure. At the same time, be very firm when it comes to the objectives and to be very clear about the objectives of national reconciliation, about bringing peace, those are the objectives and they are not negotiable. Those are your objectives, and to have in mind what is the closest way to be there.
This depends on the will of the factions that are fighting each other, on the will of the neighbouring countries, of the Security Council, of the international coalitions or whatever. The best way is to be again and again very firm when it comes to your objectives, even when you have convinced the Security Council of those objectives because if you are in the name of the UN, you will be reporting to them and it will help you with what to ask from the Security Council, what to ask from the international community. All of these should be part, in a very inclusive way, of your image about how to work and succeed, and if it’s not working just be frank with them, not just like a civil servant happy to travel home when it’s not working.
Do you think the willingness to be pragmatic and firm apply to mediators in other contexts, such as family or labour disputes? Are those the same characteristics or are they different for those other kinds of mediation?
I never did any family mediation, but understanding the problem very well will help you to establish the priorities and how to deal with it.