A Look Behind Closed Doors: Interview with Mark Freeman

A Look Behind Closed Doors: Interview with Mark Freeman

. 10 min read

Mark Freeman is the founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Integrated Transitions, which aims to integrate the fragmented disciplines of transitional justice to strengthen peace, democracy, and human rights. Published by Cambridge University Press in 2019, his most recent book Negotiating Transitional Justice details the art and science behind the Columbian peace negotiations that began in 2012.

What motivated you to found the Institute for Integrated Transitions, and what is the organization’s main intervention in peace processes worldwide?

The Institute for Integrated Transitions was set up at the onset of the Arab Spring. It was very much motivated by the idea of creating a think tank that would make easy and accessible key lessons about negotiations––and in particular transitions––available in the context of the Arab Spring, and more generally, to countries that might be emerging from conflict or authoritarian rule.

Another key motivation for setting up the Institute was that the world of international support for countries that might be entering transitions or seeking to enter into transitions is very siloed and very specialized. If you want to know about elections, there’s a whole host of organizations and think tanks that can help with that. If you want to know about disarmament or inclusive economic growth, again there are lots of organizations. But there wasn't an organization that tried to bring the best available knowledge within and across these different areas. A basic lesson of the transitions that had occurred in other regions of the world is that if you don't take up a holistic view, a multidisciplinary view, then the risks increase that you'll be blind in an area that could threaten the whole transition very quickly.

We sought to assemble a group of experts that could enable civil leaders, political leaders, and others to think about the most important lessons from the field then develop their own local responses. In the process of building the Institute, what became clear to us very quickly is that negotiation as a topic was as important as transition. Even when a transition begins, it is in a sense the beginning of a whole series of negotiations within society—horizontally between different major groups in society, about their future, and also a vertical conversation between state actors and citizens about the direction of the country. We set up with a focus on transitions, but very quickly realized that in order to do this work well, we would need to specialize and have expertise equally in negotiations and transitions.

Have you noticed any standard sequence or pattern that conflicts and negotiations follow?

Let me maybe give a slightly longer response to just set up how I think about negotiations in my work, because I've been doing this for 25 years or so. Over that period, you learn things that help you structure your own work better with every new experience.

The first thing I’d mention is that there are a set of structural conditions that either facilitate or complicate the possibility of a negotiation to succeed. There's a concept that was developed a long time ago about the ripeness of a conflict for a settlement. Sometimes the conditions exist in a way that makes a conflict ripe for settlement, and other times they don't, and there's a whole set of variables that will determine what the minimal conditions are. There's not a maximal thing.

One of those obviously is a sense of recognition by the key conflict actors that their best option, or their least worst option, is to settle. But that’s only a minimal starting point, and one of the things that we focus on in our work is what's called process design. So even if you have a reasonably good, minimal set of structural conditions in terms of the subjective perceptions of the conflict actors about the utility of settlement, then there has to also be a lot of thought put into the design of a process within which settlement can actually occur.

It's not enough that there might be a willingness on the part of the conflict actors, which is not a static thing. I mean, it's going to evolve. Sometimes parties begin with a willingness and then events change on the ground, and one or both or all the parties may change their calculations and decide actually, “We don't think that settlement is as useful for us as we did six months ago.” But for the possibility of settlement to exist, you have to design a format, a framework, a process within which settlement is more likely than not to occur. That’s called process design, and it’s probably the most under-theorized, underdeveloped aspect of peace processes.

If you do that really well, it doesn't guarantee that you'll reach a settlement, but it increases the chances that you will. And by contrast, if that's underdeveloped or designed in the wrong way, you can essentially ruin the opportunity that may have existed under a better structure. You could basically waste the ripeness conditions that maybe existed at one point simply because the design of the structure or the format of the process wasn't sufficiently conducive for the substantive issues to be resolved.

What was the most challenging or intractable conflict that you’ve worked on? Why was it so challenging to negotiate?

I can't say that there's one in particular that stands out as the most intractable. These are iterative processes in the sense that they have peaks and valleys, ups and downs. Sometimes you can have a very promising start, and then things fall apart unexpectedly for any number of possible reasons.

A current case that we're working on which remains difficult is Venezuela, where there is no civil war or armed conflict, but there is a profound political conflict between the government and a group of opposition parties. We continue to do a lot of work that tries to produce conditions for a political settlement to be achieved, in part to avoid the risk of some kind of very deeply violent conflict. It's not that there isn't violence taking place already in Venezuela, but I don't think anyone would characterize it as a civil war or an armed conflict in the typical way that those terms might be understood. But there is a risk all the time present of [outright armed conflict] in our view. And what we've been working towards for the last few years, are the conditions for a political settlement to occur, and there was an exploratory process that we assisted in developing. And we've tried to provide support to that.

Sometimes, it's also important to highlight for your readers that sometimes there are efforts to achieve peace that are secret, secret in the sense that the public is unaware that there is a process underway in which the disputing parties are trying to assess whether there's the possibility of a negotiated settlement. Not all processes are known to the public. That was also the case in Venezuela. Often, preceding a public phase, public in the sense of publicly known peace process or political settlement process, there's an exploratory phase, which almost always will be secret, so that the parties can test each other out, explore together whether there's a basis for settlement, whether they agree on the core issues in dispute, et cetera.

The main point here is to say that these are dimensions of a process which I think probably the average person doesn't really think about. The average person would think about a peace negotiation once it's announced at some level, but they may not appreciate all of the effort, sometimes for years, often for years, that takes place behind the cameras, behind the scenes to build this.

And so it's a long way of answering your question, but Venezuela has proven difficult so far, even though there have been multiple attempts. Even in the last three and a half years, there have been multiple processes, some public, some secret, but the core issues in dispute haven't yet lent themselves to a full solution. But we continue to work on it. We're convinced that it is resolvable through negotiation and that [negotiation] is the necessary path the parties have to reach. The country can't become governable and stable and democratic in the absence of the negotiated resolution.

You recently wrote a book on the Colombian peace process called Negotiating Transitional Justice. Based on your experience in that peace process, what do you think its main lessons were?

For sure, one of the key aspects that allowed the negotiation to culminate in a peace agreement was the sophistication of the process design and the methodological rigor that was in evidence while planning it, throughout the exploratory phase which lasted a couple of years, including six months of talks in Havana, Cuba. That's an example of a design choice, to hold the talks outside of Colombia and in particular, in Cuba. There are all kinds of strategic and tactical considerations that led to that choice.

I was more or less based there for a year and a half, which was the period that corresponded to the negotiation of the chapter on victims. They had a six-point agenda which was made public in 2012, but everyone was aware at the time that the hardest issue was going to be the question of victims, achieving the right balance between accountability for past crimes and the need for inclusive political participation by the FARC. To put it in a very simple way, there was a public expectation that the FARC leaders would have some form of legal accountability or it would not be possible to get public support. At the same time, FARC leaders were not going to negotiate any conditions that would make them legally accountable, without their military and political counterparts on the other side also being held to the same standard. It was a very, very delicate issue.

The parties managed to reach what I would call a reasonable settlement. It involves components of truth seeking and truth telling, it involves components of prevention of future violations, it involves a post-conflict justice model that all the parties agreed that they would subject themselves to, something unprecedented for a direct negotiation, and it also had a reparations component for the victims. But I would again underscore that, in the absence of a well-designed process, there was simply no way that that issue could have been resolved. The parties believed in the rules of the process. Even if they didn't trust each other, they trusted the process that they had essentially built together, and that was one of the key enablers of the resolution of this question of how to balance peace and justice.

What are the biggest questions we have yet to address in conflict management and peace negotiation?

I think a lot is known about what constitutes good methodology, even if process design is still underdeveloped, comparatively speaking. Harvard has had a negotiation program for many, many years which tackles questions of negotiation in a very, very broad way. It’s brought some science to negotiation that has advanced practice, even if, in my personal opinion, the aspects of how to design a process, including how to design a secret exploratory phase, are massively under considered. It's where we've done a lot of pioneering work as an organization.

What I believe are our new frontiers that we have to confront now are primarily in relation to two key things. One is the untypical actors. I would mention two in particular: the mafia and cartels. These are groups that have no outward political ambitions. Their fundamental goals have to do with self-enrichment. If you think about a country like Mexico, there are over two hundred large organized crime groups operating in different parts of the country with violent crime rates that exceed most countries where there are civil wars taking place. To what extent should we consider negotiation with such groups?

I think it's very difficult to persuade the public to negotiate with such groups. I think part of it has to do with the difficulty of imagining those groups transforming into some new form that society can exist with. One of the premises of negotiating with the FARC in Colombia is that they would transit or transform from an armed, politically motivated group into an unarmed political party, They can transform into something that society is prepared to coexist with, that society could imagine as a natural transit out of war and into peace. They have to become something. But it's very difficult to imagine what the Sinaloa Cartel might become. What would you negotiate them for them to become? These are questions nevertheless that have to be assessed very, very rigorously, and there are negotiations that take place with such groups. Again, they just remain secret, overwhelmingly, because they're politically or publicly unacceptable, until the public can become persuaded that such groups should be the subject of negotiation.

The same goes what we could call deeply religious-inspired groups, not just jihadist groups. Even the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda was notionally motivated by a very deranged belief in the 10 commandments. I mean, it wasn't an Islamic group. It was a Christian fundamentalist group. But again, one of the questions is, is it possible? Is it desirable to negotiate with groups like this? Should negotiation always be off the table or should it also be one of the tools that should be considered in order to reduce or end violence on a massive scale in the public interest? What can or should be negotiated with groups of these sorts?

We're doing work on those issues in our organization precisely because we see them as gaps. If you looked up negotiating with organized crime groups, you'd find there's very, very little written. So we've just conducted a very large set of interviews with people who are willing to go on the record that have actually conducted negotiations with violent organized crime groups, and we're trying to capture the lessons so that we can help advance thinking about that kind of question. We have to actually grapple with these questions because these are growing phenomena. The face of violence is rarely today the typical, politically-motivated armed group in the way that it was for decades during the Cold War in particular, and even for several decades after.

And of course, the final thing is the new kinds of conflict that we can expect related to the climate emergency. There's going to be a level of chaotic violence that I think we can anticipate reasonably, that have to do with the effects of the climate emergency in terms of the movement of people and the conflicts that I think will naturally be created. You can see it in places like Nigeria right now. Even within that country, where there's a certain amount of mobility because of desertification that puts pressure even within and among communities as a result of the effects of the climate crisis. It's trickier because it’s less organized.

But I think this is going to be a major, major challenge. I believe personally that the art and science of negotiation has a lot to offer, but it's going to require thinking carefully, rigorously, about what is or is not transferable to those specific kinds of conflicts. But nevertheless, it's an unusual situation. It's going to require thinking ahead about useful adaptations of negotiation methodology to apply in an effective way to those kinds of conflicts.

Those are some of the frontier issues that are not even on the horizon. I think they're here already, but we're not ready enough, in my opinion, to apply negotiation techniques and methodologies in an adequate way. We have to move quickly in order to make sure that those adaptations and applications of negotiation science are well suited to those kinds of conflicts and those kinds of groups.