It’s Complicated: The Relationship Between Local and National Conflicts

Mediation strategies that integrate local initiatives are essential to preventing and ending violent conflict and building peace in a sustainable manner. The key is how to do that.

Outreach event organized by UN Mission in South Sudan. A woman discusses the role of youth, traditional chiefs, women representatives and local officials in promoting peace and stability in Jonglei, 2012. Photo credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

On 4 October, DPPA’s Mediation Support Unit (MSU) published “Engaging at the Local Level: Options for UN Mediators,” a practice note that highlights the implications of local conflicts and mediation processes for national mediation initiatives. There is increasing recognition that mediation strategies that integrate local initiatives are essential to preventing and ending violent conflict and building peace in a sustainable manner.

The practice note describes the multiple ways in which local conflict can impact national peace processes For example, it is possible that parties to a national political process may be implicated in igniting or spurring local conflict for personal or political gain. Conversely, local parties that are not included in national dialogues may be tempted to escalate tensions in order to gain a seat at the national table. All of these scenarios can, if allowed to fester, threaten or even derail a national political process.

There are also positive, national-level gains that can be made from mediation at the local level. Smaller successes can build momentum for larger processes, serving as confidence-building measures and showing that mediation can produce real, tangible results.

As the Note’s authors report,

“The complexity of contemporary conflict requires UN mediators to recognize and evaluate the interconnections between local conflicts and national political processes.”

At a DPPA-convened virtual event launching the note moderated by Florence Mpaayei, a member of the UN DPPA Standby Team of Senior Mediation Advisers, several high-level mediators shared their views on local conflict prevention.

Guang Cong, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General with the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), underscored the point made in the note that the UN was not always best placed to intervene at the local level, given the complexity of mandate and capacity constraints. Broadly speaking, Cong said, the Organization should focus on “hot spots”, such as local conflicts with the highest civilian casualties, as well as those that may impact nationwide processes.

Marie-Joelle Zahar, Professor of Political Science, University of Montreal and Non-Resident Senior Fellow, International Peace Institute (IPI), stressed the importance of local knowledge and trust-building in local mediation efforts, and for sustained engagement with local processes, which can often be difficult to maintain, given the turnover of staff in mission contexts.

Kenneth Gluck, former Deputy Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and Senior Mediation Adviser, pointed out that local interests are rarely just an expression of the national interest. In South Sudan, for example, local disputes over clan grazing rights are literally a matter of life or death. In other words, it’s not just a case of national leaders cynically exploiting local interests — what Gluck calls “top-down manipulation.”

He also cautioned against conflating the drivers of local conflict with those spurring tensions nationwide. “Local conflicts are not just miniature replicas of national disputes,” said Gluck.

The practice note outlines circumstances under which more direct involvement with local conflicts and mediation processes might be strategically relevant for UN mediators working on national political processes. These circumstances are identified alongside a spectrum of options for engagement. The note further includes a set of questions that may serve to better understand and engage with local conflict. To download a copy of the practice note, click here.

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The online magazine of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs