Peace mediation is facing an identity crisis due to the changing global context and the difficulties in achieving sustainable results. To understand the new trends, this dossier analyses the report ‘Italy and Mediation’, which was presented at the Sixth Forum on Peacebuilding, organised by the Peacebuilding Agency in Bologna on 16 and 17 May. In particular, the report outlines the transformation of peace mediation worldwide and the unique role that Italy can play.

The publication comes at a key moment, because, as one of the authors and Head of Research and Policy at the Agenzia per il Peacebuilding, Bernardo Venturi, recalls, “peace mediation has changed considerably in recent years. New actors such as Qatar and Turkey are playing an important role. In this context, many countries have set up support structures for mediation within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with specialised NGOs. This is a path that Italy can also follow”.

Italy and Peace Mediation

The UN crisis

WHO DOES WHAT: Experienced mediators and rising stars

FOCUS 1: What is peace mediation?

FOCUS 2: Mediation at a crossroads: the six emerging trends

Italy and Peace Mediation

According to the report, Italian foreign policy has focused on three main areas: Europe, the Mediterranean and transatlantic relations, although the last decade has seen a growing interest in sub-Saharan Africa. The second element is that “Italy has tended to maintain a convivial approach through its participation in the international community while maintaining or improving its status”.

It should be added that Maeci (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation) has often emphasised the link between political and international economic and commercial interests within the Ministry. According to the agency, this link underlines Italy’s interest in promoting peaceful relations as it trades with all regions of the world. Third, Italy has regularly used diplomacy to promote causes or issues close to its interests or values, always preferring multilateral approaches.

Interestingly, Italy has also experimented with ‘hybrid diplomacy’, which involves combining public and civil institutions. Examples include the Italian government’s support for Catholic charity ‘Comunità di Sant’Egidio’ in the peace process in Mozambique in the 1990s, or the defence of religious freedom at the International Criminal Court.

Overall, Italy has paid limited attention to specific capacity building for peacebuilding and mediation, while devoting resources to certain priorities of the multilateral system. In the past, for example, the Italian government has paid attention to specific issues such as mine clearance and adopted its first national action plans on the Women, Peace and Security Agenda 2020. Neither Maeci nor the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS) has a specific unit dedicated to peacebuilding. Within AICS, peace-related issues do not constitute a particular work area and are addressed, when needed, by the Emergency and Fragile States Unit, following what can be defined as a ‘triple nexus’ approach (understood as linking the three main pillars of international cooperation: humanitarian, development and peacebuilding). At the same time, Maeci does not have a list of international experts on peace and related issues. At the end of 2002, Maeci established a focal point as ‘Coordinator of Mediation Capacity’, implementing one of the recommendations made by the Peacebuilding Agency in its report on Italy and peacebuilding.

Once appointed, the focal point produced internal notes on Italy’s mediation capacity, highlighting strengths and possible directions. Between the end of 2023 and the beginning of 2024, the coordinator established close contacts with Italian civil society organisations and research centres specialising in peacebuilding, to establish a ‘contact group’ and developing greater cooperation between Maeci and non-state actors in the field of peace mediation.

The United Nations crisis

The United Nations faces major challenges in playing a leading role in mediation. Although it has played a leading role in the peace processes of many countries in the past, such as East Timor or Cambodia, the UN is no longer the main institution involved in mediation in many conflicts. The UN has had some high-profile successes in discreet preventive diplomacy, such as the 2015 Nigerian elections or Malawi (2011-12), but has also missed opportunities in conflict-affected countries where the Secretary-General or his Special Envoys attempted mediation and good offices.

For example, the UN continues to lead mediation efforts in the conflicts in Cyprus and Western Sahara but has failed to make progress in either country for decades. In other contexts, such as Ukraine, Syria and Yemen, the UN Secretary-General has tried to play an important role through his good offices. However, he has failed to seize a favourable political moment and many opportunities for the institution to play a role have been missed. At the same time, the UN Secretary-General’s efforts have also been constrained by the divisions that have affected the Security Council over the past decade, as well as by the increasingly polarised nature of political debates (both in the Security Council and the General Assembly) and the loss of legitimacy on the part of traditional global powers such as the United States.

According to its mediation guidelines, the UN should play a leading role, while all other actors should act accordingly and be coordinated by the UN itself. But this rarely happens. On the one hand, the UN is often not perceived as an impartial body; on the other hand, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoys are sometimes not leading figures in terms of regional capacity or expertise, creating opportunities for other actors to take the lead and sideline the UN.

Experienced mediators and rising stars

In the 2000s, various international organisations and states institutionalised different forms of mediation support structures (MSS). There are three categories of MSS: those embedded in foreign ministries, those operating as independent external entities, and those using a hybrid model between these two approaches. The AP report classifies states according to their experience in creating and managing SSMs: seasoned facilitators, rising stars, ‘new’ influencers and newcomers. The experts include Norway and Switzerland, while the rising stars include Finland, Germany, Canada and South Africa.

The ‘new’ influencers are Turkey and Qatar, and it is also important to note that the ‘historical’ European mediators are now looking for synergies with these actors. For example, the United Nations Group of Friends of Mediation was initiated and led by Finland and Turkey, while Switzerland, with its networking skills, has worked with Qatar in several conflicts.

In recent years, other countries have begun to consider whether and how to establish an OSM. Ireland, for example, is a strong supporter of peace mediation to achieve peaceful solutions to conflicts and is aligned with multilateral efforts to support UN involvement in mediation efforts. Another country with an interest in peace processes and mediation is Spain. In 2002, the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs commissioned the Instituto de Estudios sobre Conflictos y Acción Humanitaria to conduct a study on the possibilities for Spain to play a growing role in peace mediation. The study found that Spain has considerable experience in mediation in different crises and contexts. Although it does not yet have an SMS, the country has several non-governmental organisations specialising in peace processes.

Similar to the Spanish path, French institutions and civil society organisations have been reflecting on France’s role in peace mediation in recent years. This reflection has been officially coordinated by the French Development Agency (Agence Française de Développement).

Development. Austria also built on its long tradition of providing platforms for multilateral negotiations and conferences by including the Mediation Facility in the government’s coalition agreement for 2020-2024. Other countries with a growing interest in SSM peace include Belgium and Sweden.

What is peace mediation?

The Charter of the United Nations provides for several peace-building instruments: negotiation, mediation conciliation, arbitration and mechanisms of international law. With regard to Mediation, the United Nations launched the ‘Guide to Effective Mediation’ to promote professional and credible mediation attempts. The Guide defines mediation as a voluntary process “in which a third party assists two or more parties, with their consent, to prevent, manage or resolve a conflict by helping them to reach mutually acceptable agreements”.

In mediation, it is essential to recognise that each conflict has different characteristics, so the mediation process must take into account the specificities of each context, while ensuring local ownership. As the definition and application of mediation varies between contexts and cultures, mediation must be flexible.

Peace agreements are another key concept in peace mediation. They are usually defined as formal, public documents that aim to end a conflict and are drafted after careful preparation, taking into account previous experiences and agreements, as well as extensive discussions with the parties to the conflict. Peace agreements also need to be realistic and precise, taking into account the often changing dynamics in conflict areas, and should set out a clear timetable and responsibilities for the parties involved in the implementation phase.

To address the different aspects of a conflict situation, mediation can take place at different levels: government diplomacy, informal discussions and dialogue between non-state actors, and bottom-up initiatives involving community leaders and civil society organisations. In addition to these levels, multilateral diplomacy is an approach that involves multiple levels of engagement and multiple actors at the same time, going beyond traditional governmental channels. The aim is to create a comprehensive and inclusive process that addresses the root causes of conflict and builds sustainable peace.

Mediation at a crossroads: the six emerging trends

In today’s changing global landscape, the report argues that peace mediation is at a crossroads. Although new approaches and perspectives are emerging to address today’s challenges, they are not yet widespread and fully supported. Six emerging trends deserve particular attention: new mediators are emerging and their overall numbers are increasing; regional organisations are more active in mediation, but with limited impact; non-state actors are gaining more space; the field is becoming more professional and some formal mechanisms to support mediation have been gradually established over the last 10-15 years; the role of the United Nations in peace mediation is declining; some UN norms and principles on mediation are being contested or at least not fully endorsed.