Support Mechanisms: Multilateral, Multi-level, and Mushrooming
Support Mechanisms: Multilateral, Multi-level, and Mushrooming
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
Op-Ed / Global 14 minutes

Support Mechanisms: Multilateral, Multi-level, and Mushrooming

The idea that “peace processes must be well-supported politically, technically and financially”, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated in the introduction to the UN Guidance for Effective Mediation, is something of a truism. Certainly, no one would ever advocate poor political technical or financial support to a peace process. But the appearance of mediation support as a dedicated activity, along with formal mechanisms to pursue it, is a relatively recent development with significant implications for the work of multilateral envoys.

The establishment of support mechanisms represents a shift in the manner in which peacemaking is conceived and conducted. While this is welcome, the institutional capacity to provide effective support has not yet caught up with the collective aspiration to offer it. In some cases, senior envoys may resist the idea of support outside their trusted staff, grounded in the confidence that they have been engaged for their lifetime experience and authority, and no further expertise or training is required. In others, resource constraints present a problem. Elsewhere, there may be an open door to mediation support and the resources available to provide it - the negotiation of the Libreville agreement on the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2013 for example - while the underlying conditions for a durable settlement are not present. Even when effective support is provided, it may have a limited causal impact on the outcome.

The establishment of a Mediation Support Unit (MSU) within the UN led to rapid understanding of the utility of a standing support structure for good offices, conflict prevention and the mediation efforts of an envoy. Regional organizations have sought to improve their capacity to support envoys with technical expertise and comparative experience, drawing on others like the UN, EU and sometimes non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help them.

Individual governments and NGOs have also developed their own support mechanisms, frequently with a disposition to extend support to others as well. The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, or HD Centre, established its Mediation Support Unit in 2007; Swisspeace and the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich, established the Mediation Support Project in 2005; more recently in September 2015, the United States, in a Presidential Memorandum that represented the first guidance on support to UN peace operations in two decades, made a clear commitment to support for conflict prevention and mediation. This work is informed by a growing body of guidance, guidelines, training and other materials, as a well as a healthy degree of cross-fertilization among peace processes on issues such as constitutional reform, national dialogues and the inclusion of gender perspectives.


Mediators and envoys have long relied on a combination of a small, unified team and the capacity to call on specialist knowledge from outside when appropriate. But for many years the process to assemble both was surprisingly ad hoc. Even successful negotiations conducted from inside the United Nations, such as those on El Salvador, Guatemala and East Timor during the 1990s, were largely dependent on the personal contacts and initiative of the envoys and their small teams, rather than any additional institutional support. A long-running project developed by the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) sought to preserve and pass on the lessons gleaned from the experiences of envoys and representatives of the Secretary-General, but there was little follow-through in making use of them in any operational sense.

In recognition of the growing disconnect between the demand for UN mediation and the resources devoted to it, the report of the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change observed in 2004 that “mediators and negotiators need adequate support”. Two years later, the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA) established the first Mediation Support Unit. It took shape quite slowly amidst considerable skepticism amongst some envoys who were its potential beneficiaries.

Attention to mediation and the legitimacy of mediation support received a boost in 2009 with the publication of a report to the General Assembly by the Secretary-General on “enhancing mediation and its support activities”. This report advocated the need for “systematic preparation” for mediation, and called for UN mediators to have at their disposal “a reasonable level of operational support”. In addition to political analysis, this support was described as including: “(a) experts on the design and management of mediation, facilitation and national dialogue processes; (b) thematic experts from specialized partners within the United Nations system, as well as external experts — on issues such as security arrangements, constitution-making, elections, power-sharing, the rule of law, human rights, refugees and internally displaced persons, gender, child protection, transitional justice, and wealth-sharing; (c) flexible funding arrangements; and (d) versatile administrative and logistics options for different situations”.

The report further stressed the need for closer partnerships with regional and sub-regional organizations and other mediation actors, noting that DPA “should be ready to offer its support to mediation partners, assist in building their mediation capacity, and exchange lessons learned and best practice”.


The UN’s Mediation Support Unit has as its primary “clients” the envoys and representatives of the UN Secretary-General. But it has also developed as a global asset, available to the mediation efforts of Member States, regional and sub-regional organizations and other partners through the delivery of services in three main areas: technical and operational support for peace processes; capacity-building; and guidance development, lessons learned and best practices in the area of mediation.

The MSU’s technical and operational support usually takes the form of assistance in the development of strategies and advice on thematic issues. These include security arrangements (ceasefires, DDR and SSR), constitution-making, power-sharing, natural resources (wealth-sharing), and gender and social inclusion. The MSU also develops mediation guidance, and captures lessons learned and best practices for mediators and their teams. One recent example was guidance on natural resources and conflict, jointly developed by DPA and the UN Environment Programme. Capacity-building and training on mediation and negotiation techniques and skills, strategy development, and process design is offered to UN mediators and envoys in widely varying configurations. Even within the UN, some envoys draw on the MSU a great deal, while others hardly at all.

In addition to its own staff, the MSU is home to the Standby Team of Mediation Experts, who are based in their home countries and can be deployed anywhere in the world within 72 hours. It maintains a mediation roster of senior mediators, operational-level mediators and technical-level experts who are available to be hired as consultants on a longer-term basis, either by the UN or other actors. Finally, the MSU has developed partnerships with a network of NGOs and academic institutions that can be called upon to provide expertise in support of mediation, facilitation and dialogue - again, either by the UN or by others.

A steady rise in the engagement of the MSU speaks eloquently to growing acceptance of the utility of mediation support. Deployments have included support to UN envoys working on Syria, in the Great Lakes, and in the negotiations between Guyana and Venezuela, to peace processes taking place in contexts where UN peacekeeping operations are present, such as the CAR and Mali, as well as to processes such as the Kampala talks between the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the M23 rebels, led by other actors. In an interesting example of variegated support, during 2013 and 2014 the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Yemen drew on both the MSU and external experts as well as political and diplomatic support provided by the Gulf Cooperation Council, EU and five permanent members of the Security Council in the “Group of 10”.


The perceived success of the MSU has been one of the factors encouraging regional organizations to develop their own capacities for envoy support. This has taken place to a somewhat uneven extent, reflecting the different levels of peacemaking activity within regional and sub-regional organizations (ASEAN’s limited involvement in regional peacemaking means no envoys and therefore no support mechanisms), as well as the distinct level of resources they can draw upon. In some cases organizations have pursued separate units, mirroring the MSU within the UN: the EU has a Mediation Support Team; the OSCE and Commonwealth established a dedicated Conflict Prevention Centre and Good Offices Section respectively. Others, including the Organization of American States and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, have sought to build capacity within existing structures.

In 2009 the African Union (AU) launched a two-year “Plan of Action to Build the AU’s Mediation Capacity”, with the backing of the UN and non-governmental mediation support actors who joined forces in an AU Partner Group to avoid duplication in their efforts. The plan foresaw a training curriculum that was developed by the AU in collaboration with the South Africa-based civil society organisation ACCORD and the Crisis Management Institute of Finland. Efforts were bolstered by desk-to-desk, lessons-learned exercises organized by the UN MSU. The HD Centre facilitated the development of Standard Operating Procedures to help define the support the AU Commission is expected to extend to its mediation teams and envoys in the field and helped produce a three-volume handbook for AU practitioners on managing peace processes.

Progress in building the AU’s support mechanisms has, however, been disappointingly slow. Some Member States’ perception that an independent institutional capacity within the AU Comission might threaten their interests limited the resources they were prepared to commit. Consequently, its mediation support capacity remained embedded in its conflict management division, and the support arrangements available for AU envoys something of a mixed bag. Former President Thabo Mbeki, as Chairperson of the High Level Implementation Panel for Sudan and South Sudan, could draw on around fifteen experts, some seconded from the World Bank or governments. Former President Alpha Konare, Chairperson of the High Level Panel for Egypt, had four or five experts, while other envoys generally have more skeletal teams. The high level of most envoys means that they receive no formal training, and the literature, tools, management skills and knowledge developed in recent years are still quite scarcely used. A recent decision that the Peace and Security Department will host a new mediation support unit should help introduce a more consistent use of expertise and resources.

Sub-regional organizations in Africa have prioritized the creation of standing mediation support divisions or units. But the pressures of other work and a lack of resources have meant that they have also taken shape quite slowly. In February 2010 the ECOWAS Commission decided to establish a Mediation Facilitation Division, but progress in putting it in place – it was only formally constituted in 2015 - was painfully slow. In the interim, ECOWAS was adept in finding support from other sources, including the UN Office in West Africa, the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding, and the HD Centre. Meanwhile, in 2012 the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) established a small Mediation Support Unit (this had also been under discussion since 2010). The Southern African Development Community took steps in the same direction in 2014, operationalizing mediation, conflict prevention and preventative diplomacy structures that had originally been agreed to at a SADC Summit meeting in 2004 (and as the need for support was highlighted by mediation interventions in Lesotho in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2008, and Madagascar in 2009). The IGAD unit was particularly active in the establishment of the office of the Special Envoy for South Sudan, and all IGAD envoys are required to undertake training in mediation skills and conflict resolution prior to deployment. More broadly, however, the integration of these sub-regional capacities with AU structures will likely prove a difficult task.

The European Union has long been an important donor to, and partner in, the mediation work of others, but it has developed its own understanding and approach to mediation only relatively recently. The Concept on Strengthening of EU Mediation and Dialogue Capacities, adopted in 2009, acknowledged the particularity of the EU as a mediation actor: alone among the regional organizations it has no internal mandate, although it does have some internal involvements, such as in Cyprus. The Concept recognised EU Special Representatives (EUSRs), who answer to Member States through the Political and Security Committee, as a mediation resource but also acknowledged the role of other EU actors. The expectation was implicit that the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the Heads of EU delegations would increasingly assume responsibilities in the field of mediation and support to peace processes, not least because of the political role assigned them by the Lisbon treaty. In several contexts, Myanmar and Yemen for example, Heads of Delegation indeed been able to play a positive role.

A Mediation Support Team (MST) established within the EEAS is loosely modelled on the UN’s MSU. It has a broad remit reflecting the far-ranging reach of EU mediation and mediation support and the complex institutional means by which it is delivered. The team offers operational support; knowledge management and the assessment of lessons learned; training and capacity building; and networking and coordination with partners in the UN, AU, other regional organizations and civil society. Its clients include those EUSRs with facilitation/mediation tasks within their mandates, the top hierarchy of the EEAS involved in mediation efforts (as in the case of the Iran nuclear talks), Heads of EU Delegations as well as EEAS Managing Directors, envoys or advisers who served as facilitators or mediators in a specific context (as in the case of the Great Lakes and Myanmar).

In recognition of the role played by various MEPs as mediators or facilitators of dialogue (as for example the high profile involvement of former Presidents Pat Cox and Alexander Kwásniewski in Ukraine, but also the role of others in Sudan or Myanmar), in 2014, the European Parliament set up the European Parliamentary Mediation Support (EPMS) Service. The EPSM seeks to provide expert professional support for MEPs engaged in conflict prevention, mediation and facilitation efforts within the framework of the EU’s comprehensive mediation strategy.


The challenge of aligning the EU’s engagements is indicative of an increasingly crowded stage of envoys and support structures. As explored elsewhere in this series, competition between multilateral – as well as national and non-governmental – envoys and actors at the political level can be a significant impediment to effective peacemaking. There are, however, grounds for cautious optimism that the prospects for coordination among support mechanisms may be improving.

This optimism is rooted in a number of different developments: first, there is new appreciation within the UN, EU, and other multilateral organizations of the value of partnerships, collaboration and cross-institutional support. The UN MSU, for example, is in 2015 providing support to the OSCE in Ukraine and IGAD in South Sudan. Another positive development is the disposition shown by some institutions and organizations to supply staff to multilateral envoys. A staff member of the HD Centre was among the team of outside experts providing support to the UN’s Special Advisor on Yemen in 2013 and 2014, while Swisspeace has provided in-kind support to the UN including by seconding a staff member to the team of the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy to Western Sahara. Further signs of optimism come from experiments with hybrid support structures, as well as concerted efforts at collaboration within the mediation support community, most vividly illustrated by the formation and development of a Mediation Support Network (MSN).

The MSN was established in September 2008 and met for the first time in Switzerland. It is a global network composed of the UN’s MSU and primarily non-governmental organizations that support mediation in peace negotiations. Over the years its membership has grown to around twenty regionally diverse members. They meet once or twice a year in order to exchange information, explore opportunities for collaboration in joint activities and share analysis of trends and emerging challenges in peace mediation. Although not specifically constituted to provide support to multilateral envoys, this network and the presence within it of a number of hybrid actors (e.g., Swisspeace and the U.S. Institute of Peace) that retain direct ties to their respective governments, as well as others regularly engaged in the support of sub-regional organizations, has improved the exchange of information within the sector and helped break down barriers to more structured coordination.

The EU’s interest in more hybrid structures of mediation support is suggested by both the initiation in January 2014 of a project intended to facilitate EU mediation support to third parties, and the establishment of the European Institute for Peace (EIP). The project “Technical assistance to European resources for mediation support”, or ERMES, is implemented by a consortium of non-governmental mediation support entities able to provide fast and flexible support to international, regional and local actors. The EIP, meanwhile, resembles USIP in its quasi-governmental status, but with a narrower thematic focus. It is conceived as “an independent partner to the European Union and Europe” and pursues mediation, informal dialogue and multi-track diplomacy and acts “as a flexible, external tool in support of EU mediation efforts where the EU has limited freedom to act”.


The mushrooming of support mechanisms is a positive development in the peacemaking field. It has encouraged an understanding of mediation as a professional activity which can benefit from structured and professional support; contributed to the production of a rapidly expanding body of guidelines, guidance and other materials that reflect best practice and lessons learned (or at least identified, as the field is awash with examples of lessons not learned); and put in place the means to deploy high quality expertise and support on a range of issues to those multilateral envoys who request it. As the report of High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, submitted to the Secretary-General in June 2015, suggested, it has also opened up the possibility of dedicated support to help national governments and others address emerging conflict situations.

It is however, premature to declare the emergence of mediation support structures and mechanisms as an unqualified success. Core functions in support of conflict prevention and mediation by the UN are still not funded by the UN’s Regular Budget – a situation the High-Level Independent Panel criticized as “unacceptable”. The building of mediation capacity within some regional and multilateral organisations has met with resistance, institutional rivalries and resource problems. Meanwhile, the profusion of support on offer has not always been adroitly linked to the envoys concerned. And even the best mediation support – whose impact is always difficult to quantify -- cannot be expected to compensate for problems in the appointments of multilateral envoys, the institutional limitations or overcrowding of the political space with which they operate, let alone the more fundamental structural or regional obstacles to settlement seen in many of today’s conflicts.

In sum, mediation support works best when offered to an envoy capably leading a peace process, or at least his or her engagement within it. Such support can be an extremely useful, indeed essential, auxiliary feature of a complex peace process, but it cannot and will not rescue or redeem a process that may be failing for other reasons.

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