FEATURE | 15 Jun 2023

How do you negotiate peace?

An interview with Luxshi Vimalarajah

Conference room with chairs and tables in a circle Photo © Berghof Foundation

Our Senior Mediation and Development Advisor served as a peace mediator in various conflicts. In this interview, she shares how the work is done.


From the wars in Ukraine and Syria to the conflict in Sudan: many conflicts seem insolvable. Luxshi Vimalarajah's job is to mediate in exactly these kinds of conflicts and to talk to all actors involved.

This interview was first published in the German newspaper Reutlinger General-Anzeiger. Read the full interview in German (paywall).

Reutlinger General-Anzeiger (GEA): Ms Vimalarajah, you negotiate in international conflicts. How does that happen? Does a conflict party simply call the Berghof Foundation and ask for mediation support?

Luxshi Vimalarajah: Usually it is not warring parties themselves, but people they trust or international organisations or governments. First contact with us usually happens against the background of an imminent change of course; when conflict parties are exploring what exit options are available to end war. Most of the time, they do not call us, but contact us by email or via the messenger Signal. We then invite the conflict parties to our office in Berlin or meet at a neutral meeting place to find out how serious the request is. When we at the Berghof Foundation are asked whether we can mediate in a conflict or offer negotiation support, we first need to assess whether we have the staff with the relevant expertise. Then we do a comprehensive conflict analysis. We check who the conflict parties and their backgrounds are, and whether the people in question have a mandate to negotiate. We need to check if there is the backing of the conflict parties, and serious will to explore political options out of the conflict. Otherwise it is useless. We also check to what extent the Berghof Foundation is a suitable fit. We are not always the best choice in every context.

We prepare the ground. Our work is complimentary to mediation efforts by states.

GEA: Why is the Berghof Foundation needed at all? We know that it is mostly states that act as mediators in conflicts.

LV: It is often difficult for states to send their own mediators. In international conflicts, they frequently have decided previously on sanctions or other punitive measures against the parties to the conflict. Hence, their mediators are not seen as impartial. Moreover, states fear legitimising the behaviour of a conflict party by talking to them directly, particularly when it comes to organisations that are on the terror list. That is why it is easier for us as a non-governmental organisation to mediate, especially in the pre-negotiation phase before the public negotiations take place. We prepare the ground. Our work is complimentary to mediation efforts by states.

GEA: How does such a negotiation look like?

LV: It is not possible to give a general answer. There is no one negotiation. It is a multi-stage process. There are negotiations in which the conflict parties do not sit face to face until the peace agreement is officially signed. In order to be able to start peace negotiations at all, certain preconditions are required. Negotiations are always a voluntary process that the conflict parties and also the mediator can leave at any time. A lot also happens before the parties come together. It is important that everyone understands what they are getting into. Therefore, we specifically prepare the different parties before they enter negotiations so that they do not lose their orientation and negotiation security during the process. In the pre-negotiation phase, which we call "talks about talks", we invest much in confidence building. This is necessary to be able to start the real negotiation phase. Our work then usually takes the form of shuttle mediation. We go back and forth between the conflict parties. But this is not just a messenger service. We mediators have to do translation work. If one party has a position, we try to present it in such a way that the parties can find common ground. We try to find possible openings between the parties so that we can build on it. For example, if Party A is prepared to talk about Z, then we say: "Party A offers Z. In our eyes, this signifies already a concession in the following points…"

GEA: You also negotiate with people who have committed the worst war crimes. How do you manage that?

LV: A mediator must be impartial or multi-partial. With so much suffering and massive human rights violations, it is sometimes difficult to be impartial. In a war, there are ultimately no “saints”. In Sri Lanka, I negotiated with the LTTE (the non-state military organisation Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, ed.), later classified as a terrorist organisation, which also used child soldiers. But the Sri Lankan government had also committed human rights violations, such as genocidal warfare against the Tamil minority, for whose independence the LTTE was fighting.

GEA: And how do you personally manage when you have to negotiate with war criminals?

LV: Unfortunately, peace mediators are often faced with war criminals of different shades. It is also a personal decision of a mediator whether he/she is able or willing to mediate in a particular conflict. Of course, I find out who I am working with beforehand and try to understand the underlying motives of my counterpart. What happened that could lead to such inhuman behaviour? And yet, it has happened to me that I had second thoughts during a mediation. I simply could not shake hands with a commander. My very core objected to shaking hands with that person. However, since this happened in an Asian country, there were other ways of greeting. So I got away with it.

GEA: Do you follow certain principles when you negotiate?

LV: Firstly, we follow the same principle as the UN, namely that for crimes against humanity amnesty is non-negotiable. However, it often happens that people wanted under an international arrest warrant want to talk about amnesty first before they talk about peace negotiations. We explain that we cannot talk about that. We also follow a rules-based approach. As already mentioned, the negotiation must be voluntary. Moreover, the negotiating parties enter into a confidentiality agreement and I expect a certain level of commitment. If the things we negotiate are not implemented, I don't have to mediate further. Then there is another clear ground rule: the prohibition of dehumanisation. We never discuss who committed the greater crimes; nor do we decide on a historical truth. That happens after the resolution of the violent conflict. And that a society must do for itself.

Peace must be prepared, especially during times of war.

GEA: In order to solve conflicts such as the Ukraine war, do you also have to negotiate with people like Putin?

LV: If an actor is in a key position to put an end to the conflict, if that person can make or break peace agreements, then we have to talk to him. Of course, this does not mean that we elevate that person. Their actions must be sanctioned. Nevertheless, we need these persons to end the war.

GEA: What conditions would be needed to negotiate peace in Ukraine?

LV: I would like to quote my colleague Jonathan Powell, former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair. He negotiated in the Northern Ireland conflict, which was considered insolvable at the time. He recently said: "Even the most intractable conflicts have to be resolved through negotiation." Negotiations, however, often can only yield results when both parties are trapped in a hurting stalemate. That is, when the cost of continuing the war is too high for both sides. As long as one side feels it can win the war militarily, there will be no serious peace negotiations, only partial negotiations on certain dossiers to alleviate the humanitarian situation – for example, prisoner´s exchange. In my opinion, the toolbox of civil conflict management has not yet been fully exhausted.

GEA: What do you mean?

LV: We have had success in mediating even intractable and complex conflicts. We have gained experience from the post-war period and during the Cold War with instruments of civil conflict management, including early warning, de-escalation, confidence building. It seems to me that these learnings have not been fully utilised so far. Peace must be prepared, especially during times of war. I see a lack of sobriety and foresight in current politics. I do not mean that security policy should be neglected, but rather that we should additionally pursue other strategies with the same rigour. We know from other transition processes that political change is sustainable and has more legitimacy when it is triggered from within. For this, we need to reach out to civil society in Russia by ensuring exchanges in research, sports and culture. We need more cooperation, communication, understanding and persuasion. This cannot be achieved through isolation.

This interview was first published in the German newspaper Reutlinger General-Anzeiger. Read the full interview in German (paywall).

Media contact

Florian Lüdtke
Media and Communications Manager
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