On Monday, 27 February 2012, students of Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi’s workshop on Conflict Resolution (myself included) traveled to the Palais des Nations in Geneva to commence a three-day study visit on conflict, post conflict and crisis emergency situations. Under the auspices of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and its Executive Director, Dr. Carlos Lopes, we were given a unique opportunity to engage in discussions with representatives of UN conflict resolution mechanisms and other actors involved in peace processes. Each representative presented the role their organization played in conflict resolution, provided concrete examples of the many challenges involved, and concluded with an interactive discussion with students.
On our first day we had the honor of meeting Mr. Kofi Annan, currently UN Special Envoy to Syria. Drawing from Nigeria, Timor-Leste and Kenya, Mr. Annan stressed that no two crises are ever the same. A successful mediation depends on the protagonists, their attitudes, the skills of the mediator, and luck. A mediator must understand the real issues involved, consider the root causes, and avoid entering the process with preconceived ideas. Civil society plays a crucial role in ensuring that peace agreements are implemented, with Mr. Annan noting, “where leaders fail to lead, the people can make them follow”.
Swiss Ambassador Ruch then spoke to us about Switzerland’s role in resolving conflicts, emphasizing the importance of its neutrality, in particular in relation to garnering trust in mediation efforts. Speaking of human rights officers in the field, Mr. Alizadeh of OHCHR explained that ‘protection’ is their primary objective, and ‘trust’ of authorities as well as victims and their families, the means to reach this objective. In closing, Mr. Crisp and his colleagues of UNHCR found that preservation of humanitarian space, protection of the right to asylum, dealing with new emergencies such as in the Sahel, South Sudan and Syria, and coordinating humanitarian efforts in crises were the main challenges facing UNHCR today.
We began the second day with a session by Dr. Neussl of OCHA who discussed its role in building comprehensive strategies in crises, bringing together the various clusters of humanitarian action. Ms. Riedy and Mr. Karambizi of UNITAR elaborated on its initiatives in peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding capacity building. A discussion then followed with Mr. Ojeda of the ICRC on the practical application of neutrality and impartiality during conflicts, particularly in relation to ensuring humanitarian access and space in which to operate. Ms. Wahlström of UNISDR stressed the need for taking preventive measures and national data collection in order to manage and reduce risks of disasters on the short, medium and long term. Providing us with a look at the role of NGOs in resolving conflicts, Dr. Papagianni of HD Center for Humanitarian Dialogue described how NGOs can compliment formal conflict resolution processes, are not constrained by political considerations and can thus deploy quickly. She did recognize, however, that NGOs have little leverage, fewer resources and could potentially crowd and thereby undermine peace processes. In rounding up our discussions for the day, WHO’s Mr. Zouiten touched on the narrowing of humanitarian space in which the UN can operate. The UN’s neutrality is increasingly being challenged in conflict situations, narrowing the humanitarian space in which to operate. Fortunately the WHO, Mr. Zouiten argues, is often distinguished from the UN on the ground, despite its inherent connection.
Mr. Hyde of IOM started proceedings on Wednesday, examining the complexities of migratory assistance, in particular reference to IOM initiatives in Libya. Mr. Pisano of the UNITAR Operational Satellite Applications Programme gave a colorful presentation on the growing possibilities in using commercial technology to map humanitarian crises in real-time and in so doing limit atrocious behavior. Ambassador Minty of South Africa then followed and spoke of nuclear weapons issues, the benefits of the African Peer Review Mechanism, and how inclusive discussions not condemnations are the best means to resolve conflicts. In closing our three-day visit, Mr. Weber of Interpeace highlighted the benefits of ‘participatory action research’ and local ownership of the process, two main aspects Interpeace incorporates into its conflict resolution practices.
In conclusion, the visit to Geneva was a resounding success. It has been a truly insightful, memorable and thought-provoking experience. On behalf of the class, I would like to extend our deepest gratitude to the tireless efforts of Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, Dr. Charles Tenenbaum, Dr. Carlos Lopes and Dr. Brook Boyer, and to the many individuals that took the time to speak to us. They all provided us with an experience we have learned a great deal from and will not soon forget.
Contributed by Ruben Brouwer.