“Usually politicians check themselves when they have a microphone in front of them and privately tell someone else what they really think. In Venezuela it’s the other way around: what you say privately to a politician is amplified with a microphone in front of you. We offer no guarantee of discretion.” Every now and then, a senior Venezuelan politician uses this anecdote to try to explain some of the reasons that make it so difficult to negotiate a solution to the institutional crisis in the Latin American country. Recalling this, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt nods and doesn’t try to hide a smile as she looks at Idun Tvedt, deputy head of the ministry’s Peace and Reconciliation Department. Through their different roles, both have experienced, among other things, the complexity of Venezuelan politics: They are part of the most discreet actor in the recent peace processes around the world: This is how Norway conducts its peace diplomacy.
Norway’s first involvement in an international peace process took place in Guatemala in the 1990s at the request of civil society groups. Although this first intervention was met with “many, many failures,” it formed the basis on which Norway’s peace diplomacy was built. After Guatemala came negotiations between Israel and Palestine, followed by Sudan, Mali, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Venezuela… It is estimated that about 120 Norwegian diplomats have participated in at least 40 peace processes around the world, including those that include a special process department with 16 people that was founded 20 years ago and functions as a kind of elite unit for peace and reconciliation. “We don’t travel the world looking for conflict or pressuring parties [to negotiate]but when we are approached and we see that we are able, we share our acquired facilitation knowledge,” says Huitfeldt.
Enable, not mediate: Huitfeldt emphasized the distinction several times during the recent conversation in Mexico City in front of the lake in Chapultepec Park. A few hours from there, Norway has just held a retreat for conflict resolution experts. And even closer to the forested park south of the city, a Norwegian team is part of talks between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), Latin America’s last active guerrilla group. A previous negotiation in Colombia involving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is one of Norwegian diplomacy’s greatest successes, which Huitfeldt highlights, perhaps because it was so complicated. “We spoke to all parties to the conflict, including those we condemn. It was controversial at the time that we did it with the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas or the FARC ourselves. We could be criticized for that, but we believe that it is the only way to resolve a conflict.”
Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt with Idun Tvedt, Deputy Director of the Norwegian Government’s Peace and Reconciliation Department. Hector Guerrero
Huitfeldt structures Norway’s work around four ideas: “The first is that we have to be discreet: we don’t tend to appear in the media. If the parties want to say something, they can, but we can only do so if they disagree with us. That turns out to be an exception,” she jokes. “Impartiality is a fundamental principle for us as moderators. We don’t pressure; We are a small country, with a small army and a small economy, we cannot force them to cooperate! What we can do is facilitate conversations and try to understand what solutions we can suggest. Peace can only be achieved if the parties are willing to work towards a political solution.” However, Norway’s impartiality in negotiations does not imply neutrality, for example in the case of the Taliban. “We cannot be neutral on issues like women’s and children’s rights.”
One of the clearest examples of the advances that this discretion and impartiality can achieve was in Venezuela. Norway was one of the few full-fledged democracies not to recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president in 2019, a gamble that stumbled the world’s great powers. “If we had done that, we would not have been able to take on the moderator role,” says Tvedt.
The only case where Norway’s impartiality has proved a chimera so far is in Ukraine. “We can not [facilitate talks]because we have a border with Russia,” says Huitfeldt, who adds that Oslo has provided military support to Ukraine, the first time Norway has supplied arms in a conflict since it did so in Cuba in the face of Fidel Castro’s advance . “Defending Ukraine against invasion and the global consequences of the war require our attention; If desired, we can support Ukraine with our experience in peace and reconciliation,” she says.
Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) wave white peace flags during a memorial ceremony commemorating the completion of the disarmament process. Fernando Vergara (AP)
Patience is an equally important part of Norwegian diplomacy. The peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC has dragged on for at least a decade: first came the phase of secret talks, then the negotiating table in Havana, and finally the implementation of the agreement. Norway was present at every stage. “Patience is another key. It must be clear to the parties that Norway will be there in good times and in bad: they have to trust us.” This can mean years of back and forth, scanning the terrain and the parties involved and making sure, as the two diplomats emphasize, who these parties represent and whether or not they are legitimate representatives – something that becomes incredibly complex when one examines who the interlocutors of an armed guerrilla group are.
After explaining Norway’s evolution in peace processes and the lessons learned over the years, Huitfeldt makes a point that she believes is key to explaining how it was possible to get this far: “It is more likely that failure occurs as success,” she says. Tvedt complements this observation with an optimistic note: “Conflicts are becoming more complex, but there is also more demand for mediation; most eventually end up at the negotiating table. Even if the efforts have proved insufficient, they will not have been in vain. They may have increased the chances of a later peaceful solution. And in the meantime, they may have saved thousands of lives.”
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