Changing spaces of peace dialogues — From formal to informal

Heini Lehtinen
Apr 12, 2020 · 9 min read
United Nations Mission in South Sudan UNMISS, local dialogue, South Sudan, 2019. Photo UNMISS / Eric Kanalstein

Peace mediation is changing as the nature of conflict changes. Miriam Bensky, an advisor on international conflict resolution, weighs in on the potential value of architecture, urban design and strategic design in developing spaces for peace processes.

Text Heini Lehtinen Images United Nations Mission in South Sudan UNMISS, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, European Union External Action Service, Crisis Management Initiative CMI

The field of peace mediation has changed a lot in the last few years, along with the changing nature of conflicts. As conflicts have become more fragmented and complex, so have peace processes.

The most well-known peace agreements of the 1990s, such as the Oslo Peace Accords, were negotiations between high-level senior officials from two clearly defined conflicting parties, mediated by an international high-level envoy.

Today, most peace processes consist of various levels of dialogues, some of which link to official high-level talks, while others take place in parallel. Dialogues have become fairly localised as conflicts are being addressed where they often emerge — on the grassroots and community-level.

Miriam Bensky.

“For example, there are hundreds of different armed groups whose shape and alliances shift rapidly in conflict contexts such as Syria, Afghanistan, or across the Sahel,” conflict resolution advisor Miriam Bensky explains. “This fragmentation means that even though there are occasionally high-level gatherings where the heads of states and–or the heads of main armed groups speak directly, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.”

The sector is also developing ways to deal with emerging threats, such as climate change and conflicts related to access to natural resources. Questions about the role of technology and how cyberspace conflicts can potentially be mediated are also becoming key. The key challenge today is to ensure that peace-making becomes more inclusive, with women at the table and vulnerable groups having a say in their own future.

Having worked for the United Nations, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and in non-governmental organisations, Miriam Bensky has worked both on grassroots peacebuilding as well as international conflict resolution. In her career, she has focused on designing and facilitating various dialogues and diplomatic engagements, and supporting large-scale multilateral peace processes.

“There is often a mosaic of various different dialogue initiatives, which create or support conflict resolution both on the national and regional levels”, she says. “Even if the international news follow the big, official negotiations between, for example, the United States and the Taliban, there are usually many, many parallel, back-door and more informal side dialogues going on in the background.”

“Probably most of the deals are made in those side conversations, not at the official roundtables in fancy conference rooms,” Bensky concludes.

The Gokarna Dialogue meeting, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2012. © Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue

Uncharted territory of the spaces of peace dialogues

Today, there are little or no guidelines in the peace mediation sector about selecting the location or space for a dialogue, or about spatial elements that impact how people in the dialogues feel and behave. Existing practice usually relates to security logistics, with a focus either on discretion — keeping a meeting secret — or formal diplomatic protocol — meaning rules of who sits next to whom and in what order.

However, the location of a peace dialogue as well as its immediate environment and interior arrangements impact how participants feel and perceive other people in the situation. Are there distracting elements in the surroundings of the dialogue? Do the selected space and its surroundings provide a psychologically safe space that contributes to openness, respect and trust?

“The majority of peace dialogues take place in haphazardly chosen, random spaces, wherever is logistically easy, accessible and available,” Miriam Bensky explains. “Most often, that means a non-descript chain hotel with a conference room usually next to an airport in a third country that is easy to travel to and leave. This is the case in the vast majority of working-level and even some high-level dialogues.”

Often the designated meeting space for a dialogue is a conference room in a business hotel, without any windows or daylight, with minimal décor or with very chain-hotel style décor, with people seated around the kind of built-in conference tables that you can’t move. As this type of setting — and resulting ambiance — is very static, the key discussions usually happen outside the formal meetings, in the most random locations.

“Key conversations can happen by chance wherever the parties feel most at ease, whether it be the quiet backroom of a restaurant during a meal, the backseat of a taxi, or in the home of a trusted facilitator,” Bensky tells. “What often happens is that instinctively people tend to want to be mobile. Very often, they go for a walk outside during a break, and that’s when the most interesting talks take place.”

“I guess it is often intuitive for the facilitators and the participants that being somewhere in the fresh air or with a little bit of nature helps you feel more relaxed and open-minded. I think that people are automatically drawn to the outdoors when the indoors isn’t working for them.”

Talks in the framework of the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. European External Action Service, Brussels, Belgium, 2015. Photo European External Action Service

Spaces conducive to formality and informality

Despite the lack of guidelines in selecting a location for peace dialogues or in spatial elements that contribute to a sense of respect, trust or care, facilitators of peace processes often have implicit, intuitive knowledge. Many know by experience what kinds of locations and spaces have contributed to a positive outcome of a dialogue or distracted the dialogue to the extent that it was moved to another space altogether.

“The successful locations that many high-level mediators keep on returning to include some beautiful old wooden villas in retreat locations in Nordic countries or Switzerland,” Bensky describes. “It’s usually a peaceful cottage in the middle of the forest or on a mountain edge, surrounded by trees and green space, and often some water. These buildings are often old family estates with a few grand common spaces, but also several smaller and cosier rooms and nooks that you can retreat to for a tête-à-tête — a private face-to-face meeting.”

“Smaller rooms are also needed, because often in mediation processes, the participants will divide up into small working groups trying to resolve one issue at a time. In all dialogue formats, the occasional one-on-one time between and among participants, or with the mediator, will be necessary. Sometimes the mediator also has to ‘shuttle’ between parties in different rooms, if they can’t communicate face-to-face — this is known as shuttle diplomacy. Alternating between different meeting formats also allows the parties to regroup and reflect amongst themselves along the way.”

Spaces like these — retreat locations with nature around — enable both formality and informality. The availability of food is crucial as well, as is the option to go outdoors during a break. Comfort and privacy play big roles as well. In such remote locations, there is no media around, and the participants don’t have to worry that someone is watching every step they take.

“I think that having the feeling of a safe space makes a lot of sense, and that’s what works particularly well.”

“An opposite example could be a conference room in a chain hotel in a big metropolitan city in Asia,” Bensky continues, speaking of her own experience. “The space was very dark and there was no daylight or windows. Even though it was a rather small conference room, there were still microphones. Because the microphones were built-in on the clunky tables, everyone used them, even though we were only ten people in the room.”

“That made it feel extremely, overly formal. Just the physical movement of leaning into the microphone made it very uncomfortable. It just really didn’t work very well.”

Unveiling of a community apology billboard in Zangon, Kaduna State, Nigeria, 2016. © Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue

From physical to digital spaces, human interaction remains

Even though peace processes evolve along with changes in conflicts and threats, looking at historical examples shows that human interaction between enemies has been the same for thousands of years.

“At the end of the day, mediation and dialogues are about bringing people together. It’s a fundamental human meeting and it doesn’t change that much over time,” Bensky states. “There are some interesting questions about how to facilitate that interaction though. That needs to change over time with the changes in the surrounding world.”

One aspect changing the interaction is the use of technology in the processes. Interactions in peace processes increasingly take place on mobile platforms, such as Signal, WhatsApp, Telegram or other more or less secure messaging apps. This brings along questions of protecting the discretion and sensitivities related to the interaction, and how to incorporate the online dialogue with real-life meetings.

“As conflicts are changing and peace dialogues take place in more different types of venues on all levels,” she continues. “I think that’s not only a challenge, but also an opportunity, because there is a lot more flexibility to choose where and how you want to organise the dialogues.”

Cross-disciplinary collaboration for development

To develop the dialogue spaces, Bensky calls for more cross-disciplinary introductions and opportunities to network between professionals working in different sectors. This would be useful for creating more links between the sectors.

Crisis Management Initiative CMI, Aceh peace dialogue, 5th round, Königstedt Manor, Vantaa, Finland, 2005. © Crisis Management Initiative CMI

“It would be great to hear what architects would do to create spaces that stimulate focus, relaxation and trust-building, with a couple of examples of what in spaces distracts or makes people nervous or uncomfortable,” Bensky ponders. “Also, sometimes mediators are stuck with a less-than-ideal conference room in a chain hotel — how could they make it better suited for the dialogues, for example how to manage or modulate the relation of movement, sedentary aspects and going outside. It would also be interesting to bring in the aspect of spatial health, and focus on how spaces impact people’s emotions.”

“Some of the elements that impact people in spaces, such as light, come intuitively to people, but many others don’t. I don’t think that facilitators in peace dialogues think about sound, acoustics, colours, or interior decoration.”

According to Bensky, having a psychologist’s view on the spaces, connecting psychology and architecture, and understanding how spaces impact people’s emotions could be a novel, useful perspective.

“Psychologists would probably approach these things from slightly different perspectives,” she says. “The point about intimacy would also be interesting to explore, how can you create formality or informality when you need them, and what are the pros and cons of each.”

As an example, she proposes compact guidelines for the mediators about spatial elements that impact how people feel and perceive in built environment, and what to think about when choosing and designing a space for a dialogue.

“These could be a user-friendly prompt for thought with questions that a facilitator could ask themselves ahead of a dialogue — a couple of questions and images to spark thinking. Just as a conversation starter,” Bensky suggests. “That could then be developed into something bigger.”

“Also, because there are not that many rules and guides on the spatial matter of the dialogues, there could be opportunities for some quite creative ideas to think about how existing public and private — and maybe even urban — spaces could be used for these kinds of dialogue purposes,” she throws in a challenge to architects, urban designers and designers. •

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Miriam Bensky was speaker at Spaces of Peace — Architecture as Contextual Diplomacy talks in Brussels, Belgium, in November 2019 along with architects Esa Laaksonen and Helena Sandman, and architect and urban designer Bengin Dawod. The conference was organised by design and research office Raven & Wood Agency, The Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux, Embassy of Finland in Belgium and Archinfo Finland. The conference was part of the official programme of Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU.

The interview is a part of ‘Spaces of Peace — Architecture as Contextual Diplomacy,’ a project and a series of talks, articles and interviews by Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Spaces of Peace’ looks into crossovers of design, architecture and conflict resolution in order to find synergy between the sectors.

RWII by Raven & Wood Agency

Thoughts on beauty, spatial health and architectural diplomacy.

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