It is not conflict that is the problem, it is the method by which we resolve our differences. By Martin Griffiths

I am grateful that I had the chance to mediate the Basque conflict. I decided to do this for a very simple reason: I wanted to know and to help resolve a conflict close to home. I wanted to understand that conflict and its mad obsessions are just as present in Europe as in further parts of the world. 

Mediation is often as much about patience as it is about mediating. My experience with the Basque conflict was no exception. It took some time to find a role and to build a certain level of trust with the Basque secessionists. But after a year of patience I met the man I had been waiting for - the leader of the secessionist movement. First we only spent a day together, then we worked together for several months. I remember our encounters fondly, as I learned much more from him than he did from me. We are exactly the same age, we are both Europeans. We share certain values and passions, such as the absolute importance of family. Yet where he has spent a life in the shadows waging war; I have passed my years learning the variations of conflict and how best to limit its awful damage. 

The neutral mediator

At one of our first meetings this very different man told me something rather profound:  He told me that my job as a mediator was to have no views on the Basque future. I was there to ensure due process and a fair negotiation. He had a word for all this: 'coherence'. He told us that to be 'coherent' we needed to be disinterested in the content of the negotiations. We wanted peace; but we could not influence how this was going to happen. In fact, I am forever grateful to this man who took the time to teach me how to be a mediator. And who could have been better placed than someone whose life had all been about conflict.

The mediator has, at the very heart of his work, a dilemma. He or she is almost always impelled by a strong belief in peace and its capacity to resolve all the differences which are a necessary part of our lives. It is not conflict that is the problem, it is the method by which we resolve our differences. And killing someone is always an inefficient way to manage those differences.  

Dilemmas of a mediator

A mediator comes with a strong moral sense.  And in my case, this has always been overlaid by the humanitarian experience that has shaped my life.  But, as my Basque friend reminded me, this must not extend to a judgment on the outcome of a particular conflict. In a negotiation, I must remain scrupulously neutral. 

However, this is easier said than done for a number of reasons. Firstly, the mediator is bound to have a view as to which outcome is more likely to meet the aspirations of the people and thus have a better chance of surviving (this is known as 'sustainability' of an agreement). Secondly, the mediator cannot in all honesty abstain from a moral reaction to the excesses of those he counsels and mediates.

I worked in Syria in 2012 and witnessed first-hand atrocities committed by the Syrian Government. I condemned them then, and do so now.  I want those responsible to suffer the penalties of the law. I see no moral distinction between peace and justice even if one makes the other harder to reach. But, as a mediator, I must pull off the trick to condemn acts without taking sides. For many, the way to square this circle is by making no comment on pernicious behaviour. This is of course a form of strict neutrality. I personally cannot live like that. I started mediating conflicts out of a humanitarian conviction and I will not be broken by allowing my own humanity to be circumscribed. 

The honest mediator

So what do I do? I am simple about this. I try to be honest. I tell the perpetrators or their sponsors what I feel about their acts, an advantage of the 'humanitarian' approach to mediation.  But I also recognise that I do not have a vote in their future. I am not a Syrian. Even if I am a European I am not a Basque. This is for them to decide and I will do all I can to help them make a fair and lasting decision.  By following this code, I hope my Basque friend would see me as ‘coherent’.