• Stefan Szepesi

The Street Cred of Peer Advisors

Peer-to-peer learning on negotiation may be the most innovative way forward for peace processes.


I wrote earlier on the innovative aspects of the Colombia-FARC negotiation process, something that has received too little attention in my view. One of the best process reports is by the International Peace Institute. One innovative aspect that is worth highlighting, and mentioned on the sidelines of the latter report, is that of peer-to-peer negotiation advice provided to the parties. While hiring external experts to advise on specific elements of the negotiation agenda is not uncommon in peace talks, the Colombia peace process stands out in that the parties used external advisors in a much broader and continuous way: to advise on the general strategic approach to the talks themselves and to shadow the negotiation process from start to finish and even beyond.

Peer learning has received very little attention from peace and conflict studies observers

Both the FARC and the Colombian Government brought in experienced practitioners to back up their negotiating teams in various ways.  Spanish lawyer Enrique Santiago, Colombian human rights defender Diego Martínez and Colombian politician Álvaro Leya, amongst others, served as close advisors to the FARC delegation throughout the negotiations. Jonathan Powell, William Ury, Shlomo Ben Ami, and Joaquín Villalobos advised the Colombian government. The curious aspect of the latter team –with experience in peace negotiations ranging from a guerilla fighter in El Salvador to top civil servant in the Northern Ireland Peace talks to Israeli foreign minister– is that they were not so much experts in any technical sense but closer to being actual negotiation peers to the government’s team and the President. They had literally walked in their shoes or those of their opponents. This helped build trust and opens space to discuss unconventional ideas.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the advisors provided for much more than just practical wisdom, but that they opened a space for looking beyond the next political milestone in the process and brainstorming options to seemingly intractable problems.

Areas of advice included amongst others: drafting the ‘constitution’ of the process itself (a clear code of conduct for negotiators from both sides, including barring any press contacts and the size of teams at the table), structuring and sequencing the different phases, taking stock of lessons learned from past negotiations, negotiation techniques and exercises, agenda setting, the pitfalls of and planning for implementation mechanisms, and the extent of gradual engagement of the UN and the wider international community.

Similar to the Guarantor Country diplomats from Norway and Cuba the role of the advisors was never precisely defined, and thus informal, flexible and on-demand. They alternately served as coach, sparring partner (“playing the red team”), provider of ideas, facilitator of brainstorm sessions, or rolodex of global technical expertise. One fitting example in this regard is an exercise undertaken by the government team early on in the process at the suggestion of their advisors. Enrique Santos, the brother of the President and closely involved with the negotiation teams, was asked to prepare and present a fictitious speech that the FARC leadership could give to their rank and file upon signing the final peace agreement. An intriguing example of not only stepping into the other’s shoes, but walking them a few miles along the path.

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