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Orchestrating peace

Why should governments deal with troublesome combatants when they can outsource conflict resolution?

Chief negotiators Wiryono Sastrohandoyo (left) of Indonesia and Zaini Abdullah (right) of the rebel Free Aceh Movement shake hands after signing a peace accord in Geneva Dec. 9, 2002, under the watchful eye of the HD Centre's Martin Griffiths (center). (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

GENEVA — The Center for Humanitarian Dialogue is one of a handful of places to go if you want to kick start a negotiating process with pirates in Somalia or a rebel army in Sudan. It is part of a new trend: outsourcing the mediation of hot conflicts, which often involve unsavory characters.

“Others are into peace building,” said Martin Griffiths, a former U.N. assistant secretary general for humanitarian affairs, who has headed the HD Centre since its founding a decade ago. “We are into peace making.”

The organization did much of the ground work that preceded the successful negotiation of a final peace agreement in 2005 between the Indonesian government and GAM separatist rebels in Indonesia’s province of Aceh by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari’s competing NGO, Crisis Management Initiative.

Recently, the group provided former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan with support in his negotiations last year to end rioting in Kenya, and in early May it hosted a trip for local officials from Pakistan’s turbulent North West Frontier Province to meet directly with key U.N. officials and donors in Geneva.

And these days, the HD Centre is involved in at least four mediations that it can’t talk about, and is also consulting on conflict situations in Chad, Darfur, the Philippines, East Timor and Thailand.

The HD Centre, which began operations in August 1999, received an initial impetus from a dilemma that Switzerland faced when its obsession with neutrality had kept it out of both the European Union and the United Nations (It has since joined the U.N., but not the EU).

Switzerland wanted influence in world affairs, but without joining a formal international organization. The solution it chose was to create several think tanks to bring foreign policy debates to Swiss territory. Griffiths was invited, along with a small group of colleagues, to set up a center to take on humanitarian policy issues.

“We all realized,” Griffiths said, “that we didn’t need another policy center. The critical issues were humanitarian access and mediation.” It was a short step from that epiphany to setting up a center to handle conflict mediation.

Griffith’s experience in the U.N. had taught him that the organization was often blocked by politics from taking an action or voicing an analysis, whereas a private NGO, which has no political obligations, could do so easily. By using such an organization, the U.N. and other players could turn to in order to free themselves from restraints imposed by their own constituencies. That became obvious in trying to resolve the decades old conflict over Aceh.

Exxon, an American company, was drilling for oil off the coast of Aceh, which made the U.S. an interested party in the conflict. GAM, the separatist movement, demanded that the U.N. mediate. The Indonesian government in Jakarta, a member of the U.N., adamantly refused to use the body as a negotiator in its own conflict. The HD Centre stepped in as a compromise option.