‘Neutral Forums’ potential approach for peace work in South Sudan

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The South Sudanese people and the church have a long history of a ‘people to people’ peace process dating back to the civil war. This was attained through ‘neutral’ and ‘collaborative’ set-ups that opened spaces for dialogue and personal transformation.

walter OCHANDA Passport PhotoBut, what truly is a ‘neutral forum’ or ‘collaborative process’? The term ‘neutral forum’ is normally used to refer to an institution that has a reputation for impartiality, objectivity, and credibility to create a space in which entities can gather together to address issues without the influence of bias.

It is not necessarily a particular place or location, but rather, an entity with the credibility to assure participants that a conversational process will operate in an unbiased space suitable for discussion and deliberation.

Such an entity lends integrity to a conversational process. Institutions such as the church or universities can create an impartial forum for all the different participants and entities to come together to hold conversations on contentious issues.

By providing South Sudanese participants with expertise and capacity to assess, plan, and conduct dialogue sessions, ‘neutral forum’ moderators are experts and know how to structure the processes for ongoing conversations and implementation.

These institutions ensure that the collaborative structures and processes developed and conducted under its guidance are carried out according to principles and ethical codes.

The church has, and continues to be, a ‘neutral forum’ through its ecumenical bodies and secretariat that specialize in holding these conversations.

The church is among a handful of institutions that have managed to maintain a reputation of objectivity in the current polarized political climate in South Sudan, and many times, is uniquely positioned to help leaders address today’s difficult issues.

Other bodies that could serve as potential neutral forums for the conflict in South Sudan are universities and regional bodies such as IGAD. Youth associations, women entities and others can also serve this function at the local levels.

These universities and regional bodies have skilled moderators who can handle all phases of a neutral forum conversation. For example, IGAD has rosters of qualified moderators from which to choose.

But the question is: why are qualified and experienced moderators required for the South Sudan forums?

Moderators play an important role before, during and after a ‘neutral forum’ conversation. The activities undertaken before a neutral forum conversation begin are critically important to the success of any neutral forum conversation process, and deserve as much attention as conducting the neutral forum conversation.

The tasks of a moderator include but are not limited to; conducting the assessment; designing and organizing the neutral forum conversation; creating the climate for conversations; gathering and preparing information; finding and consulting with experts; preparing participants to participate; planning how to engage the broader public; and managing the logistics and expectations of participants.

Once conversations have begun, moderators generally plan and run the meetings and help manage the flow of information to participants. If participants decide to seek advice from experts, moderators can organize and manage a fact-finding process.

They help participants to keep their group members informed. They can serve as liaison to participants but not on the table as individuals with interest in the conversations. And they can assist with drafting consensus documents.

After a ‘neutral forum’ process concludes, moderators often are needed to coordinate implementation and keep it on track. Is this the missing gap in the implementation of Agreement on Resolution of South Sudan Crisis (ARCISS)? Should IGAD have considered tasking one of the three Special Envoys to head Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC)?

The most significant qualification for a moderator is past experience managing ‘neutral forum’ conversations for a public issue, as well as a working knowledge of South Sudan. A thorough grounding in the dynamics of working with multiple stakeholders is necessary.

Subject matter knowledge is key, given that moderators are required to help participants manage and provide technical information. Though it is not essential for moderators be experts on the subject under discussion, a moderator should have enough knowledge so that they don’t slow down communication or get in the way due to lack of understanding of basic terminology.

Their knowledge should informally support the negotiation processes by building trust between the parties-to-conflicts and help them to find ways to overcome obstacles and disagreements.

This intended ‘personal transformation’ creates a more positive environment for both the formal negotiations, as well as initiatives at a lower level, with an overall objective of assisting the South Sudanese people to address the root causes of conflict and to achieve indigenous, locally-owned resolutions.

In the situation in South Sudan, my position is that only South Sudanese stakeholders moderated by South Sudanese should take part in any ‘neutral forum’ conversations. There should be no outsiders – no AU, no IGAD, no EU, no UN, no Troika, no NGOs, no donors, no diplomats, no international partners to be involved in moderation and mediation.

International actors may be invited for the opening and closing sessions only, in order to increase visibility, but they should not remain for the actual forum discussions, not even as observers nor on the side-lines for coffee-break discussions.

If technical input is required, experts may be invited in, only with the consensus of the entire forum to give that input in a particular session, and they have to leave immediately.

Considering that peace does not primarily rest in agreements but rather in the hearts and minds of all people, ‘neutral forum’ conversations have a great potential to lead to sustainable peace in South Sudan.

The author, Walter Ochanda, is an international development specialist.

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