Do-able Peace: A Handbook

The Mediator’s Handbook for Durable Peace, by Evan A. Hoffmann, the Canadian International Institute of Applied Negotiations, Ottawa, 2010.
Reviewed for Peacehawks by Jamie Arbuckle
At only 52 pages, this slim volume will scarcely displace the baton from anyone’s rucksack, but no one proceeding on a mission should leave home without it.

Evan Hoffman is the Executive Director of the Canadian International Institute of Applied Negotiations, a leader in their field of training on and researching into the techniques of mediation and negotiation, especially but not solely for peacekeepers of all brands and stripes. They have also been active in the non-violent management of conflicts and in promoting peace around the world. It detracts not at all from Evan’s own considerable accomplishments to say that he stands on the shoulders of a giant, which for us is a very good description of his father, Ben, whose work we have reviewed elsewhere in this blog.

Evan states his thesis early and clearly: “the balance of power between the parties at the time of mediation does not need to be equal, but a balanced agreement is necessary.” And there you have in a nutshell the major challenge of any mediation process: power is usually unevenly held, which is one of the more common causes of violent conflict. This asymmetry of power, usually accompanied by unequal access to resources, makes it difficult for the lesser to come to the table, while making it (seemingly) unnecessary for the greater to come at all. Only the prospect of a balanced agreement will attract the lesser to the table, and if the process does not iron out the differences, not least of power sharing, any semblance of peace will be an illusion quickly dispelled. It is the aim of Evan’s book to provide a model for durable peace.

Evan is not naïve about the long-term threats to a durable peace, even where the parties will have negotiated effectively and in good faith. Chief among these threats to the peace will be the spoilers: those who do not want peace at all, on any terms. These will be the warlords and the criminals who benefit from violent conflict in ways which have recently and sadly become all too familiar – their capacity to wreck peace and perpetuate violence has been demonstrated repeatedly in instances we need not enumerate here. Aside from saying that these need to be effectively managed, however, we aren’t given much practical advice on just how hard-core spoilers are to be handled. But the overt recognition of the spoilers is important, and is a subject frequently overlooked by the UN, who have often put themselves in the position of trying to implement an unworkable and unsustainable “peace.” Evan’s advice on this is succinct: “Do not implement bad agreements.”

While we admire direct speech, and this is certainly in the spirit of Brahimi, whose report we also greatly admire (1), here we’re not so sure. The Vance Plan of 1992 was certainly seriously flawed, but it did end the fighting between Serbia and Croatia, and it stayed pretty well ended. Dayton (1995) similarly had serious weaknesses, but did end the fighting in Bosnia Hercegovina, and it too has stayed largely quiet since. We remember saying to ourselves in about 1993, something to the effect that if Bosnia could enjoy anything like the Cyprus “peace”, also regarded as seriously flawed but a kind of a peace nevertheless, Bosnia and all Europe would rejoice – and so it has come to pass. Trying to implement Dayton has brought Croatia to the gates of the European Union; trying to spoil it has led the Bosnian Serbs into one blind alley after another. Perhaps any agreement which might stop the killing is worth a try. As Evan says (on page 36), “low levels of violence in the post-agreement phase are not inconsistent with the creation of durable peace, provided that this violence does not escalate into a full resumption of the war.” (italics added) Perhaps we can estimate that the post-agreement violence in the Balkans is of the former type, while post-agreement violence in the Middle East nearly always does signal a resumption of some sort of warfare. The distinction is important, but it is a very fine call, and it may take years and much patience before judgment can be passed. And it is just this sort of patience which neither governments nor media ever seem to have, which is just one reason why we so often get this wrong, as we are, perhaps, about to do in Afghanistan.

One section of the book leads in our opinion into some highly questionable practices for mediators. This is where it is stated (on page 24) that “If it is judged that there is a power imbalance between the parties, then the mediator should take steps to balance the power in order to improve the prospects that a balanced agreement will be reached.” The tactics to achieve this include, inter alia, “urging the less powerful side to take more territory”, and “supporting military interventions which favor the weaker party”. We think immediately of the Middle East, and wonder how long any mediator who tried that would be given to pack. But then we think of Bosnia Hercegovina in 1995, where just this was done:

The imbalance of power among the three communities (Croatia, Serbian and Muslim) was a major stumbling block on the way to Dayton in 1994-5. Franjo Tudjman, the President of Croatia and, like Milosevic for the Bosnian Serbs, the patron of Bosnia Croatians (the Muslims were pretty much entirely on their own), was beginning to flex the muscles of the new army which had been trained for him by an American private military training firm, Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI). The Krajina Serbs, in their Croatian enclaves, had seriously misjudged the balance of power and/or the support they could expect from Belgrade, and were acting as prespoilers, and something had to be done. If the ball were to continue to move towards Dayton, the playing field would have to be leveled, and would have to be seen to be so. Pressed for a go-ahead for military action by the Croatians to clear the Krajina, the last (except for Eastern Slavonia) sizable concentrations of Serbs in Croatia, Holbrooke (in his own words) “told Tudjman that the offensive had great value to the negotiations. It would be much easier to retain at the table what had been won on the battlefields … I urged Tudjman to take Sanksi Most, Prijedor, and Bosanski Nova (all in Northwest Bosnia Hercegovina). If they were captured before we opened negotiations on territory, they would remain under Federation (Croatia and Bosnia Hercegovina) control.”(2) And so in 1995, Croatia unleashed Operations Flash in Western Slavonia in April, and Storm, in the North and South Krajine in August, and at least 170,000 Croatians, ethnic Serbs, were driven from land their forefathers had occupied for almost as long as Europeans had been in North America. Incidentally, four UN peacekeepers were killed and 16 were wounded. (3)

In this case, the “mediator”, Holbrooke, had done just as Evan recommends: he took steps to balance the distribution of power, he urged the less powerful side to take more territory, and he supported military initiatives which favoured the weaker party.

Is this mediation? It is a little hard to imagine that mediation process having continued if this prompting by the “mediator” were known in Belgrade, but it is nearly as hard to imagine that it wasn’t. So somebody wasn’t negotiating in good faith, if indeed anyone was, and the two negotiating partners and the “mediator” all had rather crudely hidden agendas – but this is hardly what this book is about, nor has this sort of table talk anything to do with sound mediation practice. This practice of the mediator leveling the playing field is in our opinion not mediation at all, it is power brokering, and is a typical American practice, which seldom results in a durable peace; in the Middle East and in South Asia it has so far resulted in no peace at all. “Levelling the killing fields”, Sir Douglas Hurd (then British Foreign Secretary) called it. If this book is ever re-issued, this section needs to be re-thought.

And there is something else that might be revisited: later in the book (page 40), Evan reveals the thinking which led him to this highly interventionist role for the mediator: “Because balancing the power between the parties can threaten the mediator’s perceived neutrality, … mediators may need to sacrifice their neutrality.” And here we do definitely disagree. The mediator is in our view like an umpire: less concerned with outcomes than devoted to the rules of a process. While the mediator and the negotiators may have had equal or nearly equal roles in the design of the process and the attendant rules, the content of an agreement is almost entirely the responsibility of the negotiating “partners”. On the other hand, the integrity of the process is the responsibility of the mediator. And, by the way, it is seldom that the long-term implementation of an agreement is the responsibility of the mediator, but is usually that of some other external agency, such as a peacekeeping or enforcement mission.

Evan Hoffmann has produced a model of brevity, while dealing with some bewilderingly complex issues and situations. Some of this needs to be re-thought; we await a second, revised edition. We only wish we had had some such training, or at least a book like this one, when we were, for better or worse, doing this sort of thing for a living.


1. “The Secretariat must tell the Security Council what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear … Security Council mandates, in turn, should reflect the clarity that peacekeeping operations require … “ Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations,, (retrieved 12 September 2010)

2.  Holbrooke, Richard, To End a War,The Modern Library, New York, 1998, page160. Speaking of this, Ivo Daalder (who uses the same chapter title as did Holbrooke in describing these events: “The Western Offensive”), quotes Robert Frasure as saying, “We thought we needed a fundamental reshuffling of the deck.” See Daalder, Ivo, Getting to Dayton: The Making of America’s Bosnia Policy, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, 2000. Page 121-2.

3.  See Arbuckle, James V., The Level Killing Fields of Yugoslavia; An Observer Returns, Pearson Press, Cornwallis, N.S., 1998, pages 1-3.

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