Beyond the Class: Reflection on Mediating Self-Determination Conflicts

Faculty of Law - Common Law Section
Experiential Learning
Public and International Affairs
The following story was written by 2L Common Law student, Robin M. Kelly (J.D./M.A. Candidate 2024) as part of the series BEYOND THE CLASS. The series shares first-hand accounts of experiential learning opportunities and op-eds written by our students.

Exactly 62 years after the UN General Assembly’s resolution 1514 (XV) upheld the right to self-determination for countries and peoples under colonial rule, a group of experts gathered in London (UK) to discuss how mediation can play a role in peacefully resolving self-determination conflicts around the world. The London-based international peacebuilding NGO Conciliation Resources (CR) and the Tokyo-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF) led an expert consultation that facilitated connections across borders and disciplines. I accompanied Prof. John Packer – Neuberger-Jesin Professor of International Conflict Resolution and Special Advisor to CR on this three-year project. I assisted the organisers as conference note-taker.  

The conference created connections across sectors that work on self-determination and mediation to share common experiences and analyse how mediation is changing as self-determination-based conflicts shift. The basic impetus for the meeting and project follows from previous work by CR and Prof. Packer that observed the essential problem and its recurrent challenges.  Moreover, it is rooted in the fact that one-quarter of the world’s population live in situations of violent conflict with half of the known conflicts involving self-determination claims. Amongst discussions on how to lay the groundwork for successful mediations in self-determination conflicts, the experts emphasised issues of freedom and participation often underlining the importance of dealing with past wrongs and psycho-social aspects while keeping the focus on finding a peaceful modus vivendi. Reconciling past wrongs with future planning helps to build mutual trust and shared interest, increasing the chances of a lasting settlement.  

In dynamic discussions, the attendees analysed creative methods of addressing self-determination claims in a variety of contexts and different stages of conflict. These conversations featured a range of perspectives thanks to in-puts from experts coming from or directly engaged in, among others, Georgia/Abkhazia, Mali, South Sudan, Kashmir, Yemen, southern Thailand, Cyprus, the Basque Country and Cataluña alongside practitioners from international organizations and experts in subject-matter fields (like power-sharing) related to self-determination. The lively discussions continued outside the structured conference into the group’s dinners and breaks. Some of the main ideas were to bring more attention to building possible conflict resolution scenarios through inclusive mechanisms and methods for sharing information on options and opportunities to create flexible self-determination settlement agreements – whether “external” (i.e. resulting in independent States) or “internal” (i.e. manifesting various autonomous or self-governance arrangements within an existing State). 

This was just the start of a long-term project for developing key outputs for mediation in self-determination contexts. The conference was part of a three-year process where CR and SPF are seeking to develop and promote materials and know-how to assist practitioners and those faced with self-determination conflicts to identify key issues and negotiate and implement creative ways of addressing issues to achieve sustainable peace and development. The conference will help inform the focus and design of activities in years 2 and 3 of the project. Some initial focuses are on how “future thinking” can help frame situations and move mediation or, more generally, peace processes forward including ways to use digital tools to analyse complex situations and design mediations in self-determination conflicts.  

Attending the London conference broadened my understanding of self-determination, its variations and complexity, as well as the challenges in building peace through the practice of international peace mediation. As a student in the combined program for a Master of Arts (International Affairs) from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University and a Juris Doctor (JD) from the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa, the experience in London offered me a special opportunity to see how concepts and actors I have studied inter-act in such important contemporary issues. Because my Masters program is specialized in diplomacy and foreign policy, I have focused in much of my education on how legal tools are used in diplomacy to build peace; two of my research projects focused on legal tools to address self-determination in the case of Western Sahara and in another ongoing project I work with Prof. Packer examining breaches of the Genocide Convention by Myanmar against the Rohingya minority (a case now before the International Court of Justice).  

The London conference on self-determination developed my understanding of the many perspectives and issues that arise in mediating such conflicts and introduced me to a remarkable array of experts and other actors. It also helped me to understand how to build an interdisciplinary approach to work towards solutions that would be otherwise impossible if negotiations were pigeonholed to one subject matter. I will carry this experience, together with lessons learned and nuanced perspectives, into my future career.