There is nothing that can be more compelling than preventing human suffering and bloodshed.
In today’s world when images of the devastating humanitarian impact of war and communal conflict invade our living rooms and its financial costs affect even those who are sitting far away in armchairs, the imperative on policy-makers to prevent conflict and bloodshed is greater than ever. Policy-makers are beginning to realise that preventing conflict is perhaps not just the humanitarian thing to do but also the politically and economically prudent thing to do.
These days, when crisis threatens, there is an array of conflict management tools and strategies that can be employed by those seeking to prevent political tensions and conflict from erupting or escalating. The use of third-party mediation techniques has long been recognised as an effective means of resolving disputes in domestic and commercial contexts. However, the use of ‘Good Offices’, the use of one’s legitimate stature, to act as an impartial third party to help prevent or resolve disputes in the international realm is a fairly new trend in the current international system.
Established as a legitimate practice by the pioneering efforts of United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, Good Offices initiatives are currently undertaken by many leaders of international organisations. Today it is a flagship programme at the Commonwealth Secretariat where the Secretary-General uses his Good Offices himself, through his envoys or senior Secretariat officials, to defuse political tensions and prevent conflict by helping people to resolve their differences through dialogue, persuasion and moral authority. These efforts are undertaken as a commitment to the most vulnerable – from the smallest and weakest states, to the ‘smallest and weakest’ people: women, young people and those on the margins of societies.
The intention is simply to get the parties talking, engaging in meaningful dialogue, and helping them to reach viable and sustainable solutions involving both the people and their governments. Often, though, that is easier said than done. A Good Offices effort requires empathy and patience, political will, innovative solutions that are in keeping with the times and the needs of each situation, and the resources to sustain the effort after an agreement has been reached.
The Commonwealth is in a unique position to undertake the Good Offices efforts within its membership for several reasons. First, the Commonwealth is a values-based organisation. These timeless values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law, human rights and sustainable development have been adopted, reaffirmed and advanced by heads of government in various communiqués and declarations.
Second, the Commonwealth is a member-driven organisation. The Secretary-General’s Good Offices efforts have been recognised as valuable to member states. Heads of government have endorsed that he continues to conduct these activities and have assured him that he has their support. Such activities take place at the request or concurrence of the government in question.
Third, the Secretary-General’s Good Offices role depends highly on the trust that his office engenders because it is impartial and discreet. Commonwealth members appreciate the Secretary General’s Good Offices efforts because he neither takes sides nor attracts public attention to his endeavours.
Finally, the Commonwealth has the capacity to ensure the sustainability of conflict resolution efforts by supporting the country with the appropriate technical assistance programmes after a political agreement has been reached. In this regard, the Commonwealth Secretariat has been viewed as a significant, skilled and trusted partner, and its assistance has always been well received by the parties concerned.
However, the Commonwealth’s Good Offices efforts also face some significant challenges. Three of these, with which it constantly has to do battle, are:
- how to engage the parties when they themselves do not want or see the need for change
- how to publicly demonstrate that the Commonwealth is a values-based organisation and yet be seen to be working with even the most repressive of governments as partners, and
- how to maintain the discretion and confidentiality of Good Offices initiatives and still safeguard its image in the media and among all Commonwealth citizens.
The Commonwealth always maintains an extended hand to all who are willing to engage in dialogue. This it does no matter how misunderstood its actions might be to the public or how alone it might stand in the international community for pursuing Good Offices in some instances. Often the Commonwealth faces criticism from the human rights community and the media because it is not in favour of a ‘naming and shaming’ strategy. Additionally, the Commonwealth does not believe that it is appropriate or effective to conduct Good Offices in the public eye. Should either happen, the Commonwealth loses the trust of the parties and is then regarded as an adversary rather than as a partner. Hence, engaging in Good Offices requires not only empathy and patience but also an unwavering commitment to the end goal and the common good.
The skills needed for Good Offices are no ordinary ones and there are differing views about them. Are these skills that can be honed and perfected? Or is it an art that is dependent on instinctive individual talent? Most Good Offices efforts take place in highly charged political environments and at senior political levels. Therefore, the conduct of Good Offices requires skills that are both professional and intuitive in nature. Professionalism allows the Secretariat to learn from past efforts, develop new mediation techniques, form strategic partnerships and engage only after a thorough analysis of the situation and a well-conceived plan of action has been developed.
On the other hand, intuition is required to understand the points of view of each party, formulate unique solutions and calibrate messages carefully so they can have an impact even on the most hardened of politicians. Most importantly, intuition is needed to instinctively draw on the right word, use the right touch or display the right emotion to persuade the parties to change their positions or make a compromise.
For these reasons the Good Offices programme draws on eminent and experienced persons from around the Commonwealth and depends on the political acumen as well as the conflict analysis and mediation skills of its competent staff.
The Commonwealth’s Good Offices activities have generally dealt with non-violent conflict or political difficulties within states.
Successful Commonwealth Good Offices engagements have spurred or supported the development of more democratic constitutional models, inclusive and transparent governance or enhanced political co-operation mechanisms and processes.
At the 2009 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, the President of Maldives openly thanked the Commonwealth Secretariat for its Good Offices engagement in support of the democratic transition in his country. Today, Swaziland is a constitutional monarchy, due in great measure to the efforts of the Commonwealth in the past decade. Such successes could only be achieved because the Commonwealth engages in a quiet and patient way, and collaborates with a range of partners including member states, regional organisations and non-governmental organisations. These partners often bring to bear the necessary leverage and influence to successfully address a situation. Partners also help to ensure the sustainability of political agreements that are reached long after the peacemakers have gone.
While the successes of Commonwealth Good Offices have been recorded in several instances, these achievements are fragile and, more often than not, need to be consolidated and sustained. The Commonwealth is conscious that hard-won progress is easily reversed by those who favour the immediate rewards of personal power rather than the long-term common good of sustainable peace. This possibility is particularly real in countries that are only just emerging from authoritarian traditions.
Through years of experience, those who work for and at the Commonwealth Secretariat have learned that peace is not an event, it is a process (see below). As such, when the Commonwealth engages in Good Offices, it does so for the long haul, not simply to be seen when the media attention is there, but staying until tangible results are attained on the ground.
‘When Secretary-General Don McKinnon appointed me Special Envoy to Guyana, he said I would make only a few visits.
But between 2002 and 2006 I visited Guyana 14 times.’
Sir Paul Reeves (the late) talked about his time as Special Envoy to Guyana
‘The life of a Commonwealth Special Envoy is not predictable. A prolonged political impasse between the two major political parties has scarred the political landscape of Guyana of recent years. In late 2002, following a request from President Bharrat Jagdeo, the Commonwealth Secretary-General appointed me Special Envoy to Guyana.
‘My initial mandate was to promote dialogue between President Jagdeo and the [then] leader of the opposition, Desmond Hoyte.
But I was determined to ensure that such a dialogue did not substitute for, or undermine, the legitimate democratic framework.
I kept on insisting that the parliament had a prime role in the life of Guyana and that dialogue should take place within the parliamentary framework.
‘While I was bringing the two political parties together to talk, I was able to use my role as Special Envoy to encourage debate within Guyana about what democracy really could be. I encouraged people from across the political spectrum to consider afresh the rights and responsibilities of government and opposition.
The political process was prised open, giving new faces a chance to take part. Training in public administration was provided to the Electoral Commission, National Assembly and even the media.
‘There is a new transparency in the way the government works. The defensive attitudes of old are giving way to ways of working that invite citizens to be part of their government. Through persistence and fairness, I came to be accepted as an “honest broker”. I was seen as a source of impartial and respected advice, and was regularly quoted in the media and even in parliamentary debate.
‘I regularly met not only with key figures in government and opposition, but with members of civil society, the protective services, representatives of the international community, and the media. One reporter regularly accused me of interviewing her more than she interviewed me. I travelled widely throughout the country because it was crucial to understand that the concerns of the capital are not necessarily those of the hinterland, and that in order to influence political leaders one must demonstrate a thorough knowledge of their country and society. It would have been easy to have been fobbed off with a “you don’t understand the situation” if I had spent all my time sitting in a Georgetown hotel room.
‘Parliament began to work noticeably better, and the Opposition returned [to take its seats in the assembly]. An inclusive and issuesfocused new political party emerged during the 2006 election runup, offering greater pluralism in political views and new choices for Guyanese voters. A media monitoring unit was set up for the election under the auspices of the Commonwealth, with major media outlets signing up to a media code of conduct and promising not to report statements that incited racial hatred.
‘That the election went so well is a tribute to the patience and hope of ordinary people in Guyana. Their chosen representatives must now live up to the challenge of entrenching peace and achieving the democratic and economic security that Guyana deserves. Although the elections were the most peaceful in 40 years, ongoing distrust, general insecurity, and allegations of politically motivated violence and murder remain major concerns.
The Commonwealth continues to monitor events and provide support and advice to Guyana.’
Sir Paul Reeves passed away on Sunday August 14, 2011. He was a former Governor-General and Archbishop of New Zealand.