The Lost Art of Peacemaking

By David Harland

For 20 years after the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, most armed conflicts were resolved by agreement — with life-saving results. No longer. The United Nations, in particular, has almost lost an art it once mastered.

The UN led the way ending wars from Lebanon to Liberia, Croatia to Cambodia. Its diplomacy was personalised, discreet, neutral and deeply informed. Others played a role too: the US brokered peace in Bosnia (1995) and Northern Ireland (1998); the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) mediated an end to violence in Aceh, Indonesia (2002 & 2005).

Yet since 2008, the number of successful mediations has declined.[i] Failures are stacking up — Sri Lanka, Libya, South Sudan, Yemen, Syria. Non-UN actors have scored some successes, but they cannot replace the UN.

Why the decline? Structural reasons are key. The world’s most powerful countries are mired in geopolitical wrangling — Russia with the West, China with the US. Proxy wars, in Syria, Ukraine and Somalia, are back. Conflicts are more atomised. The “Twitter revolutions” in the Arab world and beyond challenge peacemakers with their proliferation of players and agendas.[ii] “Internationalised internal conflicts” have surged,[iii] as jihadis use technology to recruit foreign fighters and transboundary trafficking to resource operations.[iv]

Also important, however, is the erosion of the UN’s peacebroking skills. Four missing factors stand out:

1. Political independence: the good faith of the UN’s mediation efforts has been under increasing strain since the mid-1990s.

2. Open approach: the UN’s appetite to engage all parties to the conflict has waned, reducing inclusion and openness.

3. Discretion: UN mediations, previously often secret, are now less discreet, owing to politics and technology.

4. Agility: earlier UN envoys had a small staff, but today’s “special political missions” include numerous advisers, each with a budget and interests to pursue.[v]

The UN-led “Geneva process” on Syria, for example, involves no substantial participation by the Syrian government or the leading Kurdish party.[vi] Its Special Envoy is under constant media scrutiny; its mediation process is mired by a plethora of players.[vii]

The UN retains an important global mandate to reduce armed conflict. But more than ever, there is a role for third parties. Their operating principles are simple: remain open-minded on outcomes, gain the trust of all parties, engage every player critical to peace, operate below the radar, and stay nimble — ready to pivot quickly from unofficial to official, discreet to inclusive in the search for peace.[viii]

*This is a summary version of an article published by HD in 2018. To access the full article and complete list of references, please visit:

[i] Stina Högbladh, Peace Agreements 1975–2011: Updating the UCDP Peace Agreement Dataset, Uppsala Conflict Data Program, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, 2011.

[ii] Kristin M. Bakke, Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham & Lee J. M. Seymour, A Plague of Initials: Fragmentation, Cohesion, and Infighting in Civil Wars, Perspectives on Politics, 10 (2), 2012, pp. 265–283.

[iii] United Nations, World Bank, Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict, World Bank, 2018.

[iv] James Cockayne, Hidden Power: The Strategic Logic of Organized Crime, Hurst & Company Limited, 2016.

[v] Report of the High-level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, Uniting our Strengths for PeacePolitics, Partnership and People, United Nations, June 2015, p. viii.

[vi] Action Group for Syria, Final Communiqué of the Action Group for Syria (Geneva Communiqué), June 2012.

[vii] Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Sieges and Ceasefires in Syria’s Civil War: Lessons Learned as Regional Players Undermine New Approach by UN Mediator, German Institute for International and Security Affairs [Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik], SWP comments, May 2015.

[viii] See, for example, with reference to Tunisia: Tatiana Monney & Jorge Valladares Molleda (Eds.), Dialogues on Voluntary Codes of Conduct for Political Parties in Elections, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International IDEA, 2017, pp. 108–111.

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

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David Harland has been HD’s Executive Director since 2011. David
previously worked for the United Nations, including in Bosnia, Kosovo,
Haiti and Timor Leste, including as acting head of government. He was
author of the UN Secretary-General’s landmark report on the Fall of
Srebrenica. He currently serves on the United Nations Secretary-General’s
High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation, was Chair of the World Economic
Forum conflict prevention council and was adjunct professor at the Johns
Hopkins School of Advanced International Affairs (SAIS). David has
published widely on the issues surrounding conflict and international
relations, in the New York Times and elsewhere. Earlier, he was a
Teaching Fellow at Harvard University’s Department of Government,
where he taught Chinese politics. David has a Master’s degree from
Harvard University and a doctorate from the Fletcher School of Law and
Diplomacy at Tufts University, as well as a graduate diploma from Beijing
University. His graduate research was on compliance with public
international law, and on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. David
is from New Zealand. He is married to Tanja, and they have one daughter.

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