“Terribly Lonely”: The Psychological Impact of Mediating Violent Conflict

When we think of peace talks, we often picture dispassionate, impassive go-betweens calmly trying to bring often hot-headed adversaries together. But the work of mediation often takes a real toll on peacemakers themselves.

Weapons Neutralized in Bogotá, Colombia as Part of Peace Agreement. UN Photo/Renata Ruiz, 22/8/2017.
Weapons neutralized in Bogotá, Colombia, as part of the 2016 Peace Agreement. Photo credit: UN Photo/Renata Ruiz

“Terribly lonely” — that’s how Staffan de Mistura, the Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara, described the work of mediators in a recent report on the subject. They work in the field, away from colleagues, friends, family and the warmth of home. Their every move is closely watched and documented by the media and by governments, and so they must always convey complete confidence in the process, even when they are plagued by doubts.

As a result, mediators often find themselves under a great deal of psychological pressure. De Mistura acknowledges that as a member of that profession himself — prior to his current post, he was the Secretary-General’s representative in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Southern Lebanon — he has turned to psychologists to inform and support his work.

“There is the danger of creeping post-traumatic stress, which affects the team, yourself and perhaps even your counterparts. You need to have someone to help you to identify that so that you can actually take that into account,” he writes in a recently published study, States of Mind in Conflict (SOMIC): Enhancing a Psychological Understanding of Peace Mediation.

Staffan de Mistura, as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq from 2007–2009, works on reports of the disputed boundaries of northern Iraq. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas, 22 April 2009.

The aim of the study, which was funded by the Swiss government and involved the participation of mediators from within and outside the UN system, is to improve mediators’ understanding of the psychological aspects of peace mediation processes in the types of encounters that occur between conflict parties. What is unique about SOMIC is that it not only focuses on the state of mind of conflict parties, but also on the psychological impact of the mediation processes on the mediators themselves.

Emotions Lie at the Heart of Conflict

“States of mind in conflict are not rational,” said Bruna Seu, a professor at Birkbeck, University of London, UK, and the author of the study, at a recent virtual event hosted by the UN’s Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA). “People are bursting with emotions; they are volatile and unpredictable.” To deal with this, a certain kind of what she describes as “psychological agility” is needed. Without it, mediators may feel ill-equipped to deal with the personal elements — including trauma — that parties to the conflict bring to the table.

Professor Bruna Seu at the launch of the “States of Minds in Conflict” report, 2022. Photo credit: Bruna Seu

Traumatic recitations of violence, atrocity and torture by those exposed to conflict will necessarily have an impact on the mediator. Seu underscores that as a result, they may suffer from insomnia, depression and PTSD. They may also resort to dysfunctional coping strategies in the absence of other outlets. Coupled with this is what Seu calls a culture of “macho bravado” in mediation, where going to a psychologist might be perceived as a sign of weakness.

At the same event, Nicholas Haysom, Special Representative and Head of the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), described mediation as being “like an episode of Squid Game,” the 2021 fictional television series where contestants compete in a game with life-or-death stakes. “For many whose experience of struggle is life on the streets, the bush or in combat, the mediation experience is a terrifying, strange and alien one” where they will be asked to “separate from strong emotional attachments to fundamental ideas, ideas for which friends and relatives have died.”

Nicholas Haysom, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for South Sudan, briefs the Security Council on the situation in Sudan and South Sudan. UN Photo/Manuel Elias, 20/6/22

As a mediation trainer of high-ranking UN officials, he warns them about some of the stresses they will experience on the job. In cases where “indirect talks” or “shuttle diplomacy” takes place — where the parties to the conflict do not get to confront one another directly — mediators are exposed to rage and strong emotional outbursts when a party vents to them in place of the other party. Mediators “absorb” these fierce emotions, but lack support on how to deal with this.

Haysom prefers the term “third party assisted negotiation” to “mediation”, as he says it better reflects the idea that it is owned by all parties to the conflict, rather than the mediator alone. With that in mind, he stresses that a proper appreciation of the psychosocial dimension of mediation as argued by Seu in the report, is needed so that all parties are properly included and understood. For Haysom, incorporating a psychological dimension within the mediation practice does not require that teams employ a psychiatrist, but they must have an awareness of the psychological processes and pressures involved.

The Future of Mediation

Intra-Syrian talks, Geneva, 2017. Photo credit: UN Photo/Violaine Martin

“We are increasingly describing mediators as orchestra conductors rather than brilliant soloists”, says Haysom. This is because the very nature of conflict itself has evolved, making personnel management and resource mobilization among the key attributes of a mediator, rather than simply diplomatic adroitness. Above all, he notes, there is a clear understanding in modern mediation practice that it should always be a consensus-based endeavour that focuses on relationship building. At the same time that notions of conflict are expanding, the nature of mediation is too, and now includes a wider variety of potential players, including civil society, youth and women’s groups, as well as implicating superpowers and neighboring states.

Secretary-General Visits Colombia on Fifth Anniversary of Final Peace Agreement. UN Photo/Esteban Vanega, 23 Nov. 2021.

Today, there is still a tendency to underestimate psychological elements and put the focus firmly on hard, regional politics alone. The two are, in fact, interdependent, and any mediator must be cognizant of that in order to help battle-bruised stakeholders explore the parameters for acceptable compromise.

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Read more about DPPA’s mediation work here: https://dppa.un.org/en/prevention-and-mediation

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