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Advancing or Impeding Peace? United Nations Security Council Resolutions and Mediation

16 Jul 2021
By Professor Laurie Nathan
United Nations Mission in South Sudan Civil Affairs Division holds a Conflict Management Forum with Internally Displaced Persons sheltering at Mahad Primary School, held under the theme

United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions on an armed conflict have a profound impact on mediation efforts to end the conflict. Surprisingly, though, the Council has never engaged in a rigorous assessment of whether this impact is positive or negative.

As a result, there is little cumulative knowledge on how best to formulate a resolution so that it heightens rather than reduces the prospects for mediation success. In the context of peacemaking, the crucial point about UNSC resolutions is that they are binding on the mediator, the conflict parties, and all other relevant actors. The mediator is not at liberty to disregard the prescriptions contained in a resolution. As an agent of the organisation that appointed her, she is obliged to heed its instructions.

By way of illustration, UNSC Resolution 2254 (2015) on Syria requests the UN secretary-general, through his good offices and the efforts of his special envoy for Syria, to convene representatives of the Syrian government and opposition to engage in negotiations on a political transition process that leads to a lasting political settlement of the crisis. More specifically, the resolution requires the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution, and free and fair elections within 18 months administered under UN supervision.

All UN mediators working to end the Syrian conflict must adhere to these prescriptions, even if the conflict parties have completely different ideas. There is little space for the parties to agree to a position that differs from the Council’s position. The scholarly literature on international mediation is thus incomplete and misleading when it defines international mediation as a process by which a third-party helps the disputant parties to end their conflict by negotiating a “mutually acceptable agreement.” In reality, it is also necessary for the parties’ agreement to be consistent with the relevant UNSC resolutions.

In recent research funded by the German foreign ministry, I interviewed a number of senior UN mediators and asked them what they found most helpful, and least helpful, in Council resolutions. They stressed that mediators should enjoy a high level of flexibility. The conflict parties, locked in a deadly zero-sum game, always tend to inflexible. It can therefore be extremely unproductive if the mediator herself is inflexible because of her mandate from the Council.

Mediators generally prefer Council resolutions to be minimalist with respect to the desired outcome of the peace process. The resolutions should definitely avoid declaring winners and losers – by stipulating, for example, that a president or government must vacate office. During the Libyan civil war in 2011, for example, the UNSC authorised the use of force against the regime of President Muammar Gaddafi and called for his indictment by the International Criminal Court. When the Council adopts this kind of win-lose  position, it renders mediation unviable. With nothing to gain from mediation, the targeted party feels compelled to fight to the bitter end.

While mediators may prefer minimalist resolutions that afford them flexibility, they also recognise that the UNSC is obliged to take a firm stand in the face of mass atrocities and extreme violence and to demand adherence to international law and norms. The Council is a custodian of fundamental legal and normative prescripts, which include the right to life, respect for human rights, the rule of law, gender equality, and a prohibition on amnesty for war crimes. In situations of armed conflict, Council resolutions are thus inescapably normative and prescriptive.

But to add to the complexity, the resolutions may appear on the surface to be idealist while actually reflecting the realpolitik of global politics. When resolutions are being drafted and negotiated, the Permanent Five (P5) members of the UNSC – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – are intent on promoting their own interests and values. Their respective interests and values are often incompatible. The net result may be a compromise resolution that achieves a consensus among the P5 but is not necessarily in the best interests of the country in conflict. The mediator has no option but to work within the parameters of P5 politics.

The mediators I interviewed identified the following worst-case scenarios with respect to UNSC resolutions: the P5 members are so divided that the Council is unable to issue a resolution; P5 members support different disputant parties in a conflict, precluding unified UN mediation; P5 members back rival peace processes led by different mediating bodies; UNSC resolutions are not revised to reflect new realities in a conflict; and, as noted above, a resolution prescribes a win-lose outcome, effectively discouraging both the favored party and the disfavored party from participating in mediation.

There is no formula for determining the “perfect” content of a UNSC resolution. Each conflict is unique and must be tackled in terms of its own distinctive and evolving dynamics. Consequently, mediation cannot be undertaken in a formulaic or mechanical fashion. It depends on sound political judgement, creativity, flexibility, and responsiveness to the parties. It is therefore essential that the process of drafting and negotiating a UNSC resolution on a given conflict be based on expert mediation advice. The best-case scenario is one where the mediator is able to shape the resolution in light of her assessment of what is most likely to generate progress.

Laurie Nathan (PhD, University of Cape Town) is Professor of the Practice of Mediation and Director of the Mediation Program, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame. He has been a senior mediation adviser to the UN and has published extensively on mediation.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.