- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

One of the least controversial provisions adopted at the recent United Nations Summit in New York was also one of the most promising — in fact, it could help end some of the world’s deadliest armed conflicts.

World leaders endorsed plans by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to strengthen the United Nations as an honest broker of peace accords. The Summit’s call for enhanced U.N. mediation and “good offices” capabilities is a recognition of the critical role often played by impartial third parties, including the U.N., in forging peace settlements around the world. Third parties can be especially helpful when years — even decades — of killing have bred depths of hatred that simply cannot be bridged without outsiders helping adversaries build communication and trust.

The pursuit of peace is an often hesitant dance. Experience has shown it can take three to tango.

At any given time, the U.N. secretary-general has dozens of special envoys deployed worldwide, providing good offices on his behalf. Though they are active today in places like Iraq, the Middle East and the conflict-ridden regions of Africa. Their role is not limited to trying to stop wars. Good offices are used for other peaceful ends — to free hostages, for example, or resolve border disputes and electoral or intercommunal controversies before they turn violent.

Third-party mediation is an increasingly crowded field, with governments, regional and nongovernmental organizations, as well as some well-known individuals getting involved. The United Nations has no monopoly. However, the U.N. — representing, as it does, the international community most broadly — can provide the task unparalleled legitimacy.

U.N. mediators helped forge seminal peace agreements in Cambodia, El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1990s, ending some of the most horrendous contemporary conflicts.

Fast-forwarding to the more recent past, it was a senior U.N. envoy, shuttling across deep ethnic and political divides, Lakhdar Brahimi, who was instrumental in establishing the transitional government and the political road map that has guided Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.

In some cases, the secretary-general gets personally involved — as when Kofi Annan’s discreet good offices helped to avert fighting between Nigeria and Cameroon over an oil-rich peninsula claimed by both.

In other cases, as in Sudan today, the U.N. can lend support and expertise to other international players leading a peacemaking effort. The historic agreement this year to end two decades of bloodshed between North and South must be followed by success in the African Union-brokered peace talks aimed at stopping the atrocities in Darfur.

Though it can claim some notable contributions by some highly-gifted diplomats, U.N. peacemaking needs enhancement. Envoys should be deployed with more than their guts, guile and personal experience. The organization needs, for example, to develop an in-house base of knowledge about peacemaking, and a better system for selecting and training mediators for the challenges they will face in the field.

With the World Summit behind us, work can now begin on turning its broad endorsement of strengthened U.N. peacemaking into specific actions. Proposals need to be developed and discussed both within the U.N. Secretariat and with the member states.

A high-level panel of experts commissioned by the secretary-general has proposed that the United Nations build a team of experienced mediators to support its envoys in the field. One could imagine them advising on everything from mediating techniques to how parties can navigate the kinds of excruciating issues — dealing with war crimes, for example — that arise repeatedly in peace negotiations.

The panel also found the peacemaking department within the U.N. (the Department of Political Affairs, which I head) has been grossly underresourced, and should be strengthened, in part, to better support U.N. envoys and mediation in general.

We cannot know when the next opening will arise for U.N. peacemaking. There are a number of longstanding civil wars where third-party mediation may eventually be called for — whether by the U.N. alone or in partnership with others.

We need to be ready when our dance card is called.

Ibrahim A. Gambari is United Nations undersecretary-general for political affairs.

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