Quiet mediators in noisy places

From Sudan to Venezuela, honest brokers are bringing a special skill set to ending conflicts. Not all succeed. Yet their quiet force of moral persuasion can be effective.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (R) meets members of Sudan's opposition alliance to mediate in its political crisis in Khartoum, Sudan, June 7.

These are busy days for professional mediators in some of the world’s most dangerous conflicts, from Sudan to Venezuela. You don’t hear much about these globe-trotting interlocutors, however. That is the point. Their skill set includes the humility not to be visible, not to take credit, and not to push solutions on warring parties. The “soft” power of such honest brokers lies mainly in honest listening for shared concerns.

This week, for example, Norway will mediate between the Venezuelan regime of Nicolás Maduro and its main opponent, the internationally recognized president, Juan Guaidó, on neutral turf in Barbados. Norway has a long history in facilitating peace deals, such as the 1993 accords between Israel and Palestinian negotiators. Lately, Norwegian diplomat Dag Nylander was crucial in arranging a 2016 peace agreement that ended Colombia’s long civil conflict. Now his trust-building skills are being tested in Venezuela, where previous mediation efforts by Spain and the Vatican had failed.

Don’t expect to see the face of the self-effacing Mr. Nylander in news photos. A back channel mediator prefers to stay in the background, working behind closed doors to find openings for the parties to discover their own solutions.

In Sudan, which has witnessed seven months of a violent standoff between pro-democracy protesters and a military regime, the role of neutral mediation fell largely to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. He has a Ph.D. in conflict resolution. A tentative deal to restore democracy was reached last week after outside pressure from the United States and Gulf countries. Mr. Abiy has been instrumental in soothing other friction points in Africa.

Last weekend, Germany and Qatar facilitated the first talks between the Taliban and officials of the Afghanistan government. The German envoy to Afghanistan, Markus Potzel, says much of his work is managing expectations and waiting until all parties want to come to an agreement. Peace, he emphasizes, is not merely the absence of conflict. It requires including the views of all parties, narrowing the divide, and then looking for common ground.

Finally, one of the Middle East’s most effective mediators, Oman, joined the challenge to end the Syrian conflict. Its foreign minister made a rare visit to Damascus this week. Oman helped Iran and the U.S. achieve their 2015 nuclear deal.

If mediators rely on force, it is the force of moral persuasion. That includes an ability to convince the parties to examine their own attitudes and actions. Negotiations are not always contentious. They can also be contemplative. Mediators, by their own nature, bring that quality to the table. 

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