What it is: Mediation is one of several techniques used in conflict resolution. A neutral mediator (or a team of mediators) meets, separately, representatives of all the sides involved in the conflict to learn their points of view. The mediator can then put each point of view to the opposing side/s and discuss possible ways forward towards agreement, or at least a peaceful compromise.
What it means: Mediation, or 'third party intervention', is not new. Many conflicts in history have been settled by the use of go-betweens travelling to and fro between the warring sides, putting each side's argument and trying to reach a satisfactory deal. But that is really only a kind of diplomacy: diplomats represent the disputants, and argue their case. Modern mediators, on the other hand, deliberately don't take sides - though they are on the side of peace. Modern mediators are often trained to do their work. They learn how to handle each step of the difficult process from violent disagreement to a peaceful conclusion. If the conflict breaks out again, the process can be repeated. The mediator is there to make it possible for opponents to talk to each other at a distance. Sometimes the mediator may provide information from outside the conflict that helps one or both sides to make decisions: offers of aid, perhaps, if the conflict is ended, or threats of sanctions if it is not. This is sometimes called 'mediation with muscle'. But the bottom line is that the opposing sides have control, through the mediator, over what happens. Who are the mediators? They may be people from outside the conflicting groups, and so are able to understand each side's point of view with a detached mind. They may be people of the same nationality or ethnicity as the conflicting groups, and so in a position to understand their cultural background and outlook. It's a question of discovering what works best. Mediators in Northern Ireland have been local people from both the Protestant/unionist and the Catholic/nationalist communities. Other conflicts, such as those in Israel and Sri Lanka, have been helped towards agreement by experts from Norway, a country which has made a speciality of this work.
Think about it:
(1) When individuals quarrel, they are often invited to 'talk it through'. Talking, or 'dialogue', is indeed the only way to find solutions, without violence or humiliation. But 'talking it through' is hard to do when people are angry and hurt. However hard one tries to be calm and reasonable, tones of voice and body language can scupper the attempt to patch up the quarrel. It's often more helpful to talk 'through' a third person, who can relay each point of view without the emotional luggage. So what qualities does that third person need?
(2) Conflicts between states or different national/cultural groups can be very different. Sometimes one side attacks another, as in a massacre or genocide. The dispute may be over territory - whose it is, or where the border should be. It could be a quarrel over an idea: for example, the Cold War was fuelled by the American government's fear and hatred of communism as they perceived it. What other kinds of conflict can you think of? And in each case how might the way mediators do their work vary?
(3) The point of mediation is to convey opposing points of view without judgement, but that doesn't mean that mediators are uncritical. A Norwegian facilitator, who worked on the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, has said there are things a mediator can criticise: human rights abuses, lack of democracy, acts of provocation, for example. 'But we would be impartial as regards sympathy, aiming to be a friend to both sides'. But a critic of the Oslo peace process said it was an error of judgement to think that 'years of struggle against oppression and injustice can be put to one side in favour of a fireside chat'. If you were a mediator, how would you manage to remain neutral? How would you point out to one or other side that they were behaving badly, yet not risk their trust in you?