Roundtable on ‘Adaptive Mediation: Coping with Complexity and Uncertainty in Colombia, Mozambique, the Philippines, and Syria’ at the International Studies Association 2022 World Convention


On March 29, 2022, a roundtable titled “Adaptive Mediation: Coping with Complexity and Uncertainty in Colombia, Mozambique, the Philippines, and Syria” was held at the International Studies Association (ISA) 2022 Annual Convention. The theme of this session was related to a recently published volume titled “Adaptive Mediation and Conflict Resolution: Peace-making in Colombia, Mozambique, the Philippines, and Syria” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), edited by Cedric de Coning, a research professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), Muto Ako, an executive senior research fellow at JICA Ogata Sadako Research Institute for Peace and Development (JICA Ogata Research Institute), and Rui Saraiva, a research fellow at JICA Ogata Research Institute. Claiming that standard forms of mediation are unsuitable to successfully address today’s armed conflicts in fragile contexts, the panel introduced adaptive mediation as an alternative method for coping with the uncertain and complex nature of such challenges. The session began by discussing the theoretical tenets of adaptive peacebuilding and then tested the concept against the contemporary case studies of Colombia, Mozambique, the Philippines, and Syria. The panel was chaired by Laurent Goetschel, professor of Political Science at the University of Basel and director of Swisspeace, who provided valuable feedback to the speakers as well as insights into the related discussion. While the convention took place in Nashville, United States, the participants gathered and presented their case studies virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

De Coning began by introducing the concept of adaptive mediation and defining it theoretically. Adaptive mediation is based on the idea that social systems are complex – i.e., emergent, dynamic, and non-linear – and therefore unpredictable. According to de Coning, complexity has three main implications for mediation processes: first, it calls for an iterative process of learning and adaptation in order to make sense of the conflict and realize the best ways to navigate it; second, agreements must be generated by the parties of the conflict themselves rather than being imposed from the outside; and third, to ensure ownership and self-sustainability, the role of the mediator must be limited to process facilitation. He explained that the case studies covered in the edited volume - Colombia, Mozambique, the Philippines, and Syria - showed that adaptive mediation works well in processes where the parties have come to a point where they choose to pursue a negotiated solution. However, when one or more of the parties believe they can achieve their interests with violence, then other forms of mediation need to be employed.

The panel members introduced adaptive mediation as an alternative method for addressing today’s armed conflicts

Lina Penagos, a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Université Gustave Eiffel in France (LIPHA research unit), introduced the topic of adaptive mediation and conflict resolution in Colombia. Penagos claims that Colombia is a prime example of a protracted conflict under complex settings, counting at least 12 mediation processes between 1991 and 2016 involving various non-state armed groups and illegal economies. According to her study, flexibility and adaptiveness in Colombia’s mediation experience were instrumental in generating a matured mediation strategy that achieved substantial results. Local ownership played an essential role in promoting resilient communities and institutions, communitarian bottom-up peacebuilding approaches, and placing victims at the center of the talks. This created trust between the parties in the conflict amidst uncertain conditions, allowing them to reach the overall goal of resilience and self-organization. Penagos ended her presentation with some conclusions about the Colombian mediation experience, particularly the connection between disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR), institutional capacity-building, and bottom-up communitarian participation, representing the coexistence of standard and adaptive mediation practices amidst complexity.

Taniguchi Miyoko, senior advisor on peacebuilding at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) at the time of the convention and currently a professor of international relations and peace studies at Miyazaki Municipal University in Japan, presented her chapter’s findings on the adaptive outsider to insider mediation in the Bangsamoro peace process in the Mindanao region of the Southern Philippines. The Mindanao region is one of Asia’s most complex and protracted conflicts, where a longstanding history of conflict involving local Muslim communities and the central government has existed since the early 1900s. Taniguchi examined the multi-layered mediation architecture of the Mindanao Peace Process and argued that this type of linkage had increased the likelihood of conflict resolution and peacebuilding in Mindanao. According to her, insider mediation efforts combined with external technical, financial, and political support enhanced the insiders’ ownership and self-reliance while promoting self-organization and capacity-building. Specifically, this model was based on impartiality and consensus by both parties, resulting in increased trust and normative pull for conflict resolution efforts. A significant contribution of her argument is that changing the norms in mediation from outsider to insider to develop resilience against conflict and violence can help promote sustainable peace.

Saraiva examined the 2013-2019 peace process in Mozambique, highlighting that adaptive mediation and a nationally owned direct dialogue were essential to reach a new peace agreement. Saraiva pointed out that Mozambique has suffered from recurrent armed conflicts, which have coexisted with several rounds of peace negotiations amidst additional challenges to sustaining peace, such as the emergence of an Islamic insurgency in the Northern province of Cabo Delgado (2017-present). He then examined how three phases of mediation between the FRELIMO-led government and the opposition party RENAMO have produced different outcomes. The first comprised domestic mediation without external process facilitation. The second was based on a standard high-level international mediation structure. The third and final attempt consisted of adaptive mediation as process facilitation of direct dialogue, conducted by a small mediation team. Saraiva noted that the first two attempts failed to produce meaningful or enduring results due to a lack of coordination, flexibility, and contextual specificity. However, the third attempt was successful by the adaptive and context-specific approach that sought process facilitation and the promotion of direct dialogue between the two parties. Overall, adaptive mediation in Mozambique addressed a complex and uncertain environment, essentially leaving the peace negotiations in the hands of Mozambicans and allowing for peace to emerge from within.

Muto introduced the case of mediation efforts amid systemic and domestic constraints in Syria. Specifically, this research examined how external actors got involved in the Syrian conflict and how four UN Special Envoys adapted to the local context while attempting to mediate. Muto argued that systematic and domestic factors produced complexity, making the determined-designed mediation approaches unsuitable, namely through standard high-level international mediation. However, there were different mediation efforts that gave glimpses of what adaptive mediation might look like, including: the development of Geneva Communiqué; focusing on small-scale ceasefires and humanitarian assistance; the initiation of the Constitutional Committee during the Astana talks; valuable activities of international non-governmantal organizations (INGOs); and the platforms to the Special Envoys bringing Syrian civil society contributing to the peace process while strengthening their own networks. When standard high-level international mediation efforts are ineffective, particularly during the stage when the dominant parties in the conflict and the direction of the ceasefire are unclear, the harm caused by the Syrian conflict to the general population can be mitigated through a combination of determined-designed and context-specific adaptive peace operations to support the resilience and self-organization of Syrian society.

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