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“Diplomats are like lovers”, said US President Woodrow Wilson. “They must have the proper surroundings.” Wilson’s words rung true when, in March 2007, negotiations to end Northern Ireland’s decades-long Troubles came to a standstill because of the shape of a table.

“The Unionists wanted a square one, to sit opposite each other to show they were enemies, and the Republicans wanted a round table to show they were equals,” recalls Jonathan Powell, then Tony Blair’s chief of staff. “In the end someone suggested a diamond-shaped table so at the apex they were both opposite and next to each other.” It did the trick. The leaders met for the first time and were snapped by the world’s media.

In a negotiator’s world, small things are big things. Several of history’s great breakthroughs took place off piste, with gulps of fresh air or crackling fires. Powell who now works for the Geneva-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue thinks face-to-face visits on the opposition’s home turf are essential – whether it’s a jungle camp in the Philippines or a semi-detached house in Derry.

“Venue is very important,” he says from his offices in London’s Dover Street, “particularly when you’re dealing with an insurgent movement. You can’t just ask them to a nice InterContinental hotel somewhere.” Indeed, one of Powell’s first encounters with Sinn Féin was a clandestine visit to west Belfast in 1997. “I got picked up in a black taxi by two guys with shaved heads,” he says. “They drove me round and round in circles and then dropped me at a neat little house. And there was [Sinn Féin number two] Martin McGuinness. We didn’t make any breakthroughs but it inspired confidence.”

Igor Korchilov, who served as Mikhail Gorbachev’s interpreteur during the heady days of the Cold War, recalls a moment in Geneva when official delegation -to-delegation meetings had got nowhere. “Reagan invited Gorbachev for a private, tête-à-tête in a boat-house overlooking the lake and it was then, during what can only be described as an intimate moment by the burning fireplace, that they made real progress.”

It is often the profound differences in cultural outlook that scupper a deal but sometimes it takes an etymologist to spot them. The linguistic historian Raymond Cohen says that cultural and historical connotations of words can profoundly affect a negotiation. For instance, in Farsi, Turkish and Arabic there is no direct translation for the English word “compromise”. Cohen even argues that the notion of the “spirit of compromise” is a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon concept. “The point is that mutual sacrifice is not seen as something desirable in and of itself,” he writes in his paper Middle Eastern Negotiation Lexicon. “The very idea of ‘a concession’ in Middle Eastern languages is often synonymous with surrender.”

Iran is one country where often the test of an agreement is whether it can be presented as a victory both for the nation and Islam. “Last year’s nuclear research reactor deal [over shipping enriched uranium] in Geneva is a case in point,” says John Limbert, a former Iranian hostage from the 1979 American Embassy siege and author of Negotiating Iran: Wrestling with the Ghost of History. “That should have been easy,” he says. “The two parties reached an agreement. But it all fell to pieces. Ahmadinejad said in subsequent speeches, ‘Look, this deal was a good deal for us. But the other side spoke about it in a way that hurt our pride.’”

A successful negotiator has to look past histrionics and focus on the issue. “Any American looking at pulling up a chair with Iran will have to accept that his counterpart is likely to believe the CIA planned September 11,” says Limbert, “It’s there, it’s just a fact. This is what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his circle believe. You have to look past the person and focus on the problem.”

The role of a negotiator demands an arsenal of seemingly contradictory qualities: dogged determination, vision, intuition, and nit-picking attention to detail. He has to be charismatic and invisible. “Ego can often get in the way,” says Powell. “But then again, it can often be the decisive factor. The reason the Northern Ireland peace process worked was because Tony Blair believed the problem could be solved (no one else did) and he believed he could solve it personally. I called it his Messiah complex.” Perhaps a Messiah complex is what’s needed. That, and a pedant’s eye for detail.

01. Pascal Lamy

Position: Director general of the World Trade Organization
What he is negotiating: The Doha Round of world trade talks
Chances of success: Getting close

“The real job description is nowhere,” says Pascal Lamy in his 1930s-era oak-panelled office, thick with cigar smoke, in Geneva’s Parc Barton. “I sometimes have to cajole, I sometimes have to confess, I sometimes have to bang a few heads together. It depends on the people, on the moment, on the state of the world economy. There is no book where you can find the recipe. It’s an art.”

The Paris-born DG of the World Trade Organization (WTO) cannot help calling on culinary metaphors to describe his fiendishly complicated job. As chair of the Doha Round, Lamy is tasked with coordinating the WTO’s 153 members to come to a consensus on a new set of rules for world trade – an epic negotiation that has been running since 2001.

“They decided when they started this round that they wanted a menu with various dishes,” he says. “We have to reduce agricultural subsidies, make the system more development friendly – it’s pretty clear. We’ve been cooking the dishes for the last nine years. The starting point is simple: open trade for the benefit of all.”

But getting an agreement from the WTO’s consensus governance model is anything but simple. “People say ha, ha,” he quips, “Getting a consensus from 153 members who are so diverse. How?”

How indeed? Lamy starts by building small, often informal, negotiating circles of key players, which expand and merge as a deal takes shape. “These kitchens of activity are chaired by an ambassador, a head chef,” he says. “Lots of kitchens, lots of chefs, and I have to make sure that they cook something that resembles the menu the big bosses who initiated this negotiation have ordered. I am a kind of cook’s choreographer.”

It helps that Lamy was once a trade negotiator himself. “When you’ve been sitting on one side of the fence you know the rules of the game,” he says, “I’m not negotiating but I have to be in all their boots. It’s about authority, personal credibility and neutrality.”

It’s also about technical savvy. Lamy’s trick is to bone up on details and keep the upper hand. “I have to absorb a lot of information and be extremely well-versed technically. My credibility is such that I have to know more than they do.”

Ultimately, Lamy has to bring about the impossible: to persuade countries to compromise or act against their national interests to drive through change. “Each and every one of our members inevitably tries to maximise the benefits and minimise the costs – they want a good deal,” he says, “The secret weapon, which I have to use extremely carefully, is confronting people with a compromise that they could not cook by themselves but that they will have difficulty refusing.”

He’s hopeful that 2011 will see a conclusion to the round. “It’s never been as near to conclusion as now. It’s like a restaurant, except in this case only my chefs are the ones who know when the whole thing will be ready. At the end of the day it’s the head of state’s responsibility for saying ‘I will go to my parliament and make sure it floats’. None of them want to go back and be slapped back by [their premier], you know, ‘We don’t like your meal’. We have to get it right.”

02. Andrew Mwangura

Position: Head of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme, Kenya
What he is negotiating: Release of crew held by Somali pirates
Chances of success: Strong, with ransoms

“There were two hijacks this week,” says Andrew Mwangura, who runs the Seafarer’s Assistance Programme in Mombasa. “It’s a multinational crew. I’ve been dealing with family members and shipping companies. My first priority is for the welfare of the seamen. It might be providing reading material or medicine. Or it might be helping to secure their release.”

Since the surge in piracy in the Indian Ocean, Mwangura has become a lynchpin for negotiation and release of crew held hostage by Somali pirates. When a ship is seized he is often the first to know. “I’m called by the Navy, a ship owner, a family member or some- one from the trade unions,” he says. “We use our contacts to find out what the demands are. We open up the channels.” Mwangura never engages in military action or ransom drops. “Our mission is to talk,” he says. This may involve dealing directly with pirates.

“We have no enemies,” he says. “Once a man puts his gun down he’s not a criminal. You have to listen to both sides, keep quiet and ask questions. Every man should be treated as equal, so we will meet, shake hands, sit down, have some water and keep a smile on our faces. This is how you build bridges.”

03. Saeb Erakat

Position: Chief Palestinian negotiator
What he is negotiating: Middle East peace deal
Chances of success: Slim to none

“The most difficult time is when you begin,” says Saeb Erakat in his office in Ramallah. “My method has always been to go into the room and tell the Israelis, ‘Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.’ Come with creative ideas. Don’t play games. Just present your interests.”

No one knows more about the slings and arrows of the negotiating table than Erakat. The British and US-educated academic pulled up a chair at the Madrid conference in 1991 and has not stopped. He’s been involved in the Oslo accords in 1995, the 2001 Camp David meetings and the 2007 Annapolis conference. He now heads up the PLO delegation in the revived Fatah-Israeli Middle East peace talks.

“This has been the most difficult period we’ve passed through,” he admits. “With Mr Netanyahu there was an insistence that we start from scratch. That was tough.”

“I feel that every time I sit at the negotiation table 10 million Palestinians are sitting with me. When I look at my Israeli counterpart I feel there are seven million Israelis across the table,” he says. “This conflict is personal. It has so many elements: religion, psychology, history, nationalism, land – it’s all there.”

He has seen the other side change – there’s far less moral lecturing and histrionics in the room, he says. “The most important thing to me is that the other side of the table should not feel I’m there to score points. I’m there to get a win-win situation that will save lives. It is my job to let them know I am there in good faith.”

Despite the recent impasse over Netanyahu’s settlement building programme, Erakat believes peace is in sight. “It’s a matter of time now. The moment that both sides see that it’s cheaper for them to negotiate for five years than exchange bullets for five minutes we will have peace. Peace is doable and we will do it.”

04. Padre Dario Echeverri

Position: Secretary general, National Conciliation Commission of the Roman Catholic Church, Colombia
What he is negotiating: Release of hostages held by rebel groups
Chances of success: Good, once they start talking

Dario Echeverri remembers the afternoon seven years ago when he received an unexpected call from the then Colombian president, Álvaro Uribe. “The president said: ‘Father, I need your help’,” recalls Echeverri. “We have a big problem. Seven foreigners have been taken hostage. I’m appointing you as the government’s official facilitator to negotiate their release.” The European backpackers were on a hiking trip in Colombia’s remote Sierra Nevada mountains when they were abducted by guerrillas from the country’s second-largest leftist rebel group, the National Liberal Army (ELN).

Echeverri mediated between a hard-line president who refused to make concessions and a veteran rebel commander who didn’t want to give up hostages he planned to use as bargaining chips.

To make contact with Antonio García, the ELN commander, Echeverri visited a jailed warlord. Using a radio and a secret frequency, the imprisoned rebel put Echeverri in contact with the guerrilla commander, who was hiding in the mountains. For six weeks, Echeverri went to the prison more than 10 times to negotiate with García on a crackling radio.

“He was a hard and very inflexible man who swore a lot. A man who was used to talking with a gun in his hand and who didn’t like being contradicted,” says Echeverri. The priest tried to convince the warlord that holding foreign hostages would carry a high political cost.

“I kept telling him, ‘You will be seen as terrorists,’ and he’d reply ‘I don’t give a damn about what Europe thinks’.” The breakthrough came when the rebel commander demanded a public investigation into the plight of Colombia’s indigenous people, overseen by the Church. The Church agreed and the hostages were released after 101 days in captivity.

The Church was shown to be a credible mediator between armed groups and the government. “The Church doesn’t have the political power or money like politicians or the oil companies but we do have a moral power,” says Echeverri.

Throughout Colombia’s 46-year conflict, the Church has been a steadfast presence in conflict-ridden areas. This has allowed priests, like Echeverri, to get close to both the ELN and FARC, the biggest rebel group in Colombia. “The FARC trusts us. They recognise the Church’s humanitarian agenda,” says Echeverri.

Successive governments have appointed numerous peace commissioners and Church negotiators. But the problem, says Echeverri, is that negotiators have their own political interests and have failed to distinguish between pushing for peace talks and getting hostages released. The FARC holds 19 high-profile hostages, some of whom have been captive for more than 11 years.

“Agendas get politicised. At one time, there were 14 government facilitators each with their different and incoherent political agendas,” he says.

Officially the newly elected government of Juan Manuel Santos has adopted an uncompromising stance. The government has reiterated that for peace talks to begin, the guerrillas must first agree to a lasting ceasefire, stop drug trafficking and release all hostages.

But in private, some say the government is keeping informal and backdoor channels of communication open with FARC commanders. For Echeverri, who is also a lawyer, it means his work of building bridges with the rebels continues.

“We have to keep the doors open and build trust with all the powerbrokers and armed actors. The Church has invested a lot of capital over the years. That capital, that groundwork, we can’t just throw away,” he says. “As a priest, I have to sow the seeds of hope.”

05. Tsuneo Nishida

Position: Japan’s permanent representative to the United Nations
What is he negotiating: Disarmament
Chances of success: Bit by bit

In bilateral negotiations “individual personality and leadership and chemistry will count very much”, says Tsuneo Nishida, who recently finished a three-year spell as Japan’s ambassador to Canada. But in his new post as Japan’s new permanent UN representative in New York, Nishida has to deal with a matrix of 191 other negotiating partners.

Nishida, who moved to New York in late August to begin work, has already visited about 45 of his colleagues on courtesy calls, carrying Japan’s flag as the UN’s indefatigable campaigner for disarmament and a nuclear-free world. The country enters each autumn’s General Assembly with a resolution on the subject and then, says Nishida, tries to build a coalition whose success is measured on two criteria: the strength of new content and the number of votes it can win for it. “The effort is to create a majority so that Japanese policy can be more successfully reflected in the debate and resolutions.”

Nishida’s staff begin by circulating a draft resolution, presenting it first to major players (such as the Security Council’s permanent five) and assembling groups of up to 10 like-minded countries. At the same time, Japan takes pains to separate those that might have particular sensitivities and give them individual briefings so they don’t feel blindsided when the text is formally introduced. Then, boosted by the arrival of six specialists from the country’s mission to the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Japanese diplomats amend the text in response to other country’s concerns or demands. The ambassador usually stays back to intervene only in the most contentious cases.

This year, Nishida is appealing to colleagues not to lose the momentum he says the disarmament cause has picked up recently. (He points to a successful spring review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Barack Obama’s sudden swing of US policy, and Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) About 80 per cent of the resolution is likely to be indistinguishable from previous ones but Nishida will judge success at the margins. “With 10, 15 per cent, I’m hoping you can notice the difference,” says the 62-year old career diplomat. “I hope we can say this year was the year of disarmament.”

At the same time, Japan will renew its push for Security Council reform that would boost the council’s membership and break up the permanent-five monopoly at its core. In 2005, Japan joined India, Germany, and Brazil to push for each country to win a permanent seat and simultaneously expand the ranks of non-permanent council members.

Putting together the votes will require negotiations best understood in wholesale, not retail terms. Nishida says Japan’s cause will benefit from strengthened ties with fellow ASEAN members and loyalty from the dozen or so tiny Pacific nations with a vote in the General Assembly. “Whenever I raise my hand,” says Nishida, “almost all those Pacific island countries support us, even without asking about the issue.” (“I’m joking, of course,” he avers quickly, fending off a potential diplomatic incident with Kiribati.)

Reform of the Security Council requires not just a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly but also the avoidance of a veto from one of the permanent five. The “good news” is growing fears within the UN about its relevancy. “This Security Council as of today is not functioning,” he says. “If this situation were to continue, the Security Council and the UN as a whole would be marginalised.”







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