Negotiation and Mediation at the UN in the 21st Century

Story by Sarah Tyrrell, tyrrell.s@husky.neu.edu

In the 21st century, where the world is more globalized and interconnected than ever before, cooperation and the promotion of peace in the international community is of the utmost importance. In the Spring semester’s first installment of the Controversial Issues in Security and Resilience Studies Speaker Series, two members of the United Nations Mediation Support Unit (MSU), Julian Davis and Northeastern alum Nana Kharbedia, were invited to campus to discuss important trends in mediation, efforts taken thus far in Syria, and how students can prepare for a future career at the UN.

In terms of mediation and negotiation, the primary service that the UN provides is impartiality. The MSU was established as a means of providing support to any relevant actors in a dispute and enhancing the implementation of peace talks. Kharbedia stated that their job is first and foremost to provide support to the parties in the conflict. They intervene upon request, and are brought in to act as unbiased mediators to promote cooperation and communication in order to arrive at a peaceful solution. Throughout these talks the negotiators serve as “honest brokers” for the nations and actors at play. Their main goals are conflict prevention, early action, and preventative diplomacy. Mediation is a highly complex and delicate process and it is often difficult to reach an agreement while dealing with multiple groups who all want to get their voices heard. The guests used the example of Syria and all of the different actors at play there. There are the various rebel groups, the US and its Allies, Russia and Iran, who each have their own agenda, and Assad who is in a stronger position than ever before and therefore unlikely to negotiate. It is up to the mediators to balance out the loud, and often aggressive, personalities in order to make progress.

During these talks the unit has a range of powers and responsibilities it must take into consideration. They must promote unity within the UN Security Council and keep the great powers at bay. With the Syrian conflict, the peace plan that was drafted had to accommodate Russia and China so it would not be vetoed. However, the opposing positions between the Security Council members have proved detrimental to the efforts made to find a solution. Due to the lack of explicit authority MSU holds, it must often utilize the strategy of quiet diplomacy when working with powerful nations. Kharbedia described this as having the role of the “face-saver” as they must be cautious not to tread on any egos. The mediators must also keep in mind their duty to uphold international norms and standards, which could mean not providing amnesties for war crimes or ensuring the adherence of Resolution 1325, which requires women to be present at peace talks. One of the most useful powers that come with being a part of the United Nations is the power to convene. If the mediators want a talk to occur, the heads of state will show up. However, their willingness to negotiate is not guaranteed.

Davis emphasized the importance of the design of the mediation, which he believes is often more important than its substance. Before engaging with the actors, extensive analysis of the situation must be done, and the analysis must be able to adapt to changes in the conflict. Factors such as who has influence over the parties and who should be invited to the discussion table require careful thought. He also chooses to focus on the prenegotiation phase, as opposed to direct talks, and what is happening on the ground. However, according to Davis this can be difficult as there is often pressure from outside parties, such as NGOs, to rush the negotiations. The final step of the negotiation is implementation, a crucial element of this being the involvement of civil society. The people on the ground are the ones who are being immediately impacted by the conflict, so the solution must focus on how they will be affected.

Kharbedia and Davis ended the discussion by explaining how they got to where they are now and how students can start preparing now for a future career at the UN. Kharbedia highly attributed her success to the two co-ops she completed at the UN during her time here at Northeastern. She said she wouldn’t have been able to go straight to work after graduation without them, especially without a master’s degree. Davis described how he had to start work in a different division and eventually landed in MSU. According to him, nearly all entry level positions require some experience so it is crucial to get on the ground as much as possible and get as much experience as one can in their field of interest. They also both stressed the importance of language skills and how they help make a candidate stand out. Kharbedia herself is from Georgia and is fluent in Georgian, Russian, and English. Davis said the most in demand language skills currently are Russian, French, and Arabic. It is also important to network, be that meeting people who work at the UN or interacting with people in different countries. Though their time in MSU is not without hardships, they both seemed very enthusiastic about their careers and expressed the rewarding nature of work at the UN.