Association for Conflict Resolution's Blog

3rd European Mediation Conference: The Right Tools at the Right Time

Posted in Uncategorized by alb457 on May 27, 2010

At the third annual European Mediation Conference in Paris, more than 400 professional mediators from roughly 29 countries gathered to take stock of the profession, compare practices, and address the cross-cutting challenges that all nations share in the quest to mitigate conflicts and resolve disputes peacefully and productively.

Our local French hosts set the tone by showing great appreciation for the value of mediation in France and around the world. It is, one speaker noted, “a way of fostering access to justice, law, and a very efficient and quick way for resolving disputes between citizens.” Others talked about the importance of mediation coming from the “heart.”

Indeed, on the first day of this conference, a transport workers’ strike illustrates the overwhelming need for mediation. As one French director of a research and mediation education center noted, in France, “We love disruptions. We love conflict. And faced with conflict, we have the support of a strong tradition in dispute resolution.”

To drive home the point, this speaker shows us a photograph of a seated protester, his back to us, with a sign that says “negotiation kills.” Clearly, while France has recently embraced mediation (as the enthusiastic local attendance at this conference shows), much of the conflict and dispute resolution work done here is still highly adversarial.

Next, the president of the European Mediation Network Initiative (who hails from the Netherlands) noted that in that country, both the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Internal Affairs are actively using mediation processes. Approximately 40,000 cases involving mediation are undertaken there each year, including 10,000 cases referred by the courts. These primarily involve family law and workplace mediation.

This speaker noted that over the next 2 years, the focus for the European mediation community should be on (1) developing the profession and supporting its diversity; (2) ensuring quality assurance (e.g., distinguish a qualified mediator from someone with little training);  (3) implementing Europe’s new mediation directive; and (4) encouraging research and information exchange.

All this set the stage for the most striking points of all, provided by the keynote speaker, Diana Wallis, Vice President of the European Parliament (from the UK) and an experienced litigator.

Her message, in a nutshell: “I truly believe that we do stand at a crossroads, at a threshold. We need new tools, new approaches, mediation should and could have a huge role to play.”

She cites, for example, the devastation suffered by Iceland resulting from the complete collapse of its banking system. This enormous failure opens the door to opportunity—allowing this nation (and perhaps others) to reflect on new ways to better organize society in the future. And there is ample room for mediation to play an important role.

Her comments certainly resonate with our state of affairs in the U.S.:

“The Iceland Prime Minister said, the banks failed us, the regulators failed us, politics failed us, the media failed us, and the free market failed us.

“All those failures. What do you do? Engage in a legal process to find the perpetrators and punish them? It won’t do much good. The money’s gone. So what do you do?

“Search for the reason why things happen, so they don’t happen again—but then learn to work together to move forward.”

At this moment in history, she notes, “Europe and mediation go hand in hand in the sense that Europe is this bundle of people, cultures, diversity, somehow we try to bring this together. Therefore, there should be synergy between Europe and mediation.

“We know that just using black letter law and black letter rules is perhaps a very blunt set of instruments to deal with the problems we face today.”

And she adds that the drive to “harmonize” differences within and between cultures and countries is not always the best way forward, as it tends to paper over important differences and diversity itself. Therefore, she notes, mediation is essential for helping “to admit difference and try to provide answers to difficult questions that individual citizens face in a different way.”

Mediation offers a framework to move nations forward, Wallis says. And she points to a ray of hope—the new coalition government in Great Britain, bringing liberal and conservative forces together for the first time in generations.

Suddenly, Britain has a new 5-year plan, a way of “working together in a consensual way that nobody could ever have believed.

“That’s an incredible change of mindset in my country,” Wallis says.

And she hopes (as do many of us) that it’s something that can be spread elsewhere.

Coming Up Next:

“Mediation as a Profession.”