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Conflict Prevention Mechanisms: Mediation and Preventive Diplomacy

Feb 17, 2011, 2:39 PM | Article By: Mr. Ousman Sowe

“Mediation and Preventive diplomacy requires patience, tenacity and consistent efforts”

Conflict more often than not occurs due to clash in interest in the relationship between parties, groups, societies or states, either because they are pursuing opposing or incompatible goals. Although sometimes the term war is used as a synonym for conflict, it is more usual to restrict the meaning to a violent conflict involving armed parties.. From this it can be seen that all wars involve organised violence in which troops are mustered, not all conflicts are organised and therefore, conflict cannot be exactly equated with  war. War is only a particular type of conflict. Meanwhile, conflict resoluion includes prevention, management and resolution of conflicts. Preventive Diplomacy and Mediation are part of conflict prevention and management mechanisms used by individuals, states, regional/international organisations and international NGOs alike.

Preventive diplomacy and mediation are instruments of conflict prevention and management that are used by third parties to achieve positive outcomes in conflict situation especially where the parties to the conflict are on their own unable to find a way out.

Mediation is only one way of third party intervention and only one way of resolving national and international conflicts. Mediation is being used increasingly in the management of international conflicts, albeit with varying degrees of success. Today’s conflicts in the post cold war era are dominated by ones that are intrastate in nature with effects on international politics and security. It is therefore clear that a more improved instrument of peaceful conflict management is indeed needed especially in view of the defiance conflicts have put up to sanctions and the use of military force.         

However, in all social systems, be they simple or complex there are essentially three ways of conflict management, which are the use of military force and coercion, bargaining and negotiation or the involvement of a third party herein referred to as mediation. What all these methods aim at, is the restoration of broken relations but there is a fundamental difference between the use of force or coercion (military/threat) and negotiation (bargaining) or mediation as means of conflict management. So what is mediation?


Mediation is a process of restoring broken relationship between individuals, communities, ethic groups or nations with the involvement of a third party. It is a process that begins with the voluntary acceptance by the parties in a conflict of third party assistance with a view to reaching a mutually acceptable solution to their conflict. The third party could be individuals, representatives of states, regional organization or international organization who enter a dispute as a result of their own initiative or in response to a call from the adversaries. Normally mediation is used in the heightened phase of a complex conflict when antagonists are seeking a way to break a stalemate.

From this viewpoint, one can say that mediation is reactive in that it brings disputants to the negotiating table when dislocation in the social set up might have already taken place. In the same vein, mediation, being a part of a complex and continuous set of process, also takes place when the parties have come to accept that pursuing the conflict is unlikely to achieve their goals, but before they have reached the stage of consenting to negotiation.

Thus it occurs when adversaries own conflict management has reached an impasse, and can be quickly successful when they are sufficiently cooperative and ready to do away with the stalemate by initiating some contact and communication.

When disputants are ready to cooperate and communicate, mediation can provide a safe way for the parties to come together and in this way the third party involvement has the potential for the transformation of the conflict into a peaceable situation. As such mediation helps adversaries to gain greater understanding of the issues, interest and values that divide them by putting them in contact with one another, gaining their trust and confidence clarifying issues and formulating agreements.

By assuming such tasks, the mediator is taking up a task that left to the adversaries alone could turn out to be contentious and probably troublesome for the conflictants to carry out themselves.

Preventive Diplomacy 

Similarly preventive diplomacy is a peace making mechanism usually taken to prevent disputes from turning into armed conflict. Other actions type are preventive deployment of peacekeepers in the form of military and/or police personnel; preventive humanitarian action, for example, to manage and resolve a refugee situation in sensitive borders; and preventive peace-building, which itself comprises an array of activities in the political, economic and social fields.

All these early peace making undertakings have the following commonalities and depend on them for decision: they all depend on early warning that the risk of conflict exists; they require information about the causes and likely nature of the potential conflict so that the appropriate preventive action can be identified; and they require the consent of the party or parties within whose jurisdiction the preventive action is to take place. So where one or all parties refuse preventive intervention, peacemaking would proof difficult to do. 

Apart from the importance of acceptability by the parties for third party involvement, another important consideration is timing. It is crucial that the potential conflict is ripe for the preventive action proposed. Timing is also an important consideration in peacemaking and peace-keeping. The prevention, management and resolution of a conflict can be likened to the prevention, control and cure of disease. If treatment is given at an inappropriate time in the evolution of a disease, it is very likely the sick would not improve, and the credibility of both the treatment (peacemaking) and the physician (mediator/third party) who prescribed it is compromised.

In undertaking preventive diplomacy there is the use of diplomatic means to persuade parties in conflict against the use of force and herd them in the direction of a negotiated peaceful settlement of their dispute. In the process the types of approaches and undertakings for the sole aim of preventive purposes, such as diplomatic peace-keeping, humanitarian aid and peace-building, have their role in creating conditions for successful peacemaking, and implementing and consolidating the negotiated settlement for peace.

Mediator’s Objectives?

Principally the third parties work on two basic objectives: (l) to manage the potential conflicts by seeking an area in which everyone could cooperate, (2) to develop confidence building measures or processes so that the various claimants would be comfortable with one another, thus providing a conducive atmosphere for the solution of their conflict/disputes. To this end efforts are directed towards achieving the transformation of the habit of confrontation into a habit of cooperation.  Therefore, it is important to find a common denominator, no matter how slow the process may be or how small was the result at the beginning.

The pre-conditions for successful mediation and preventive diplomacy: 

Realization by the parties to the disputes that the outbreak of armed conflict will not settle any disputes, nor will it bring benefits to either parties, and is in fact inimical to the interests of all.

The parties must develop the political will to settle their disputes peacefully and to take measures to prevent conflict. The parties may be moving in this direction, but much more needs to be done to encourage them to do so.

The parties should refrain from unhelpful or provocative acts, and should try to shift public opinion from support for a “hard line” to a more accommodating stance based on the need for co-operation. 

Preventive diplomacy should be undertaken by all parties who have an interest in the solution of the problems, either regionally or internationally and importantly doing so by taking into account all interests.

What is to be avoided /needs doing.

Where they are involved as third parties, larger countries undertaking mediation and preventive diplomacy should be mindful of the views about them, and take steps to ensure that they are not perceived to be domineering or bullying.

It is necessary to broaden participation in cooperative programs and to increase the areas of cooperation. If the benefits are seen to be mutual, the chance of success is all the greater. The approach should be inclusive rather than exclusive. The countries of the affected region could pursue their national interests within context; pursuit of regional interests is to be also pursued taking on board the national interests of individual countries.

Major external powers, wherever possible and practicable, should loose no opportunity to support the development of constructive atmosphere for peace, stability and progress. Countries in the region should exercise preventive diplomacy by preventing dispute from becoming open-armed conflict or by preventing a conflict from spreading or aggravating.

Countries in the region could develop various fora for dialogue, either bilateral or multilateral, formal or informal, sometimes referred to as multi-tract diplomacy. The various fora for dialogue should hopefully in the end be able to produce a set of agreement for the mutual benefits of all. .

Countries could pursue various avenues of peaceful settlement of disputes, either through negotiation, bilateral if the disputes are bilateral or multilateral if the disputes are multilateral.


The objective in this discourse has been to provide a perspective that is rooted in an understanding of what preventive diplomacy and mediation means and their usefulness as conflict prevention and peacemaking mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Though they may not provide magic wands to conflicts, because reaching peace is not quick or so easy as there are fundamental challenges that are to be dealt with, which might require time and determination, their use nonetheless will continue to be relevant. Conflict resolution is like aiming at an unstable and moving target. Hitting such a target (resolving) depends factors that might not entirely be within the control of the mediator even though he may have well founded reasons and motivations. Nonetheless, it is possible and the obstacles have to be overcome and the opportunities harnessed. Mediation and preventive diplomacy initiatives therefore should not be held back by constrains for these are inherent in almost all conflicts. Mediators can of course withdraw, but no, because mediation and preventive diplomacy requires patience, tenacity and consistent efforts .After all the “peacemaker gets two thirds of the blows”.     

Mr. Ousman Sowe, author holds, a Bachelor of Arts Degree  in International Development Studies – UEP, Masters Degree in International Relations/Conflict Studies, Dept. of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK. Research interest and experiences in international and regional peace and conflict issues, transnational existing and emerging development opportunities and challenges, functioning of regional, continental and international institutions etc.