Orchestrating peace

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.

A ceasefire was eventually agreed on, but was quickly undercut by elements in the Indonesian army who still thought that they could annihilate remnants of the movement. Griffiths was disappointed, but not especially surprised. “Most conflict resolution work does not arrive at a peace agreement in the short run,” he said. “Much of it is work that will eventually make an agreement possible by building confidence and improving relations.”

The visit by the Pakistani province officials to Geneva is an example. It is clearly too early to mediate directly with Pakistan’s emerging Taliban, but the visit allowed U.N. officials to talk informally with lower-level Pakistani functionaries who work alongside the Taliban on a daily basis. The visit will help conflict resolution experts understand where the challenges and opportunities lie.

In a discussion with a handful of reporters following the Pakistan delegation’s visit to the HD Centre, Zamir Akram, Pakistan’s representative to the U.N. in Geneva, made it clear that he has a number of issues with Washington. When I asked if he thought that President Obama represented change, he snapped back, “We don’t see it. They (the administration) talk about change, but they continue to bomb our territory and to use drones … . If they have managed to kill anyone who matters, they haven’t told us about it.”

As more war lords and guerrilla groups appear on the scene, the need for organizations like the HD Centre to serve as a neutral go-between will increase. As Dennis McNamara, HD Centre’s senior humanitarian adviser, and himself a former U.N. official, observed, “The U.N. has enormous difficulty in dealing with non-state actors, where there is no government to negotiate with.”

Griffiths said that host country Switzerland has provided solid support. “We have had some extremely shady people come here to talk,” he said, “and they have been great about it.”

Griffiths clearly expects the business to expand. “It is remarkable how badly managed most internal conflicts are,” he said. “If countries and armed groups could get sensible advice from people they trust, if we can be part of a movement to make these decisions more sensible, we will do that.” 

The HD Centre’s nearly $20 million annual budget is financed largely by European governments including Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Britain and Switzerland. The U.S. has given money in the past, but that largely stopped during the Bush administration, partly because U.S. actions under President George W. Bush were unacceptable to much of the world. There is also a question of neutrality. “I don’t think that we would want American money for a project involving Pakistan,” said Griffiths, but he added that U.S. funding could be welcome for other programs.

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