Mediation expert on Ukraine-Russia negotiations: ‘It’s important to explore the various options’

David Harland, director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, in Geneva, 2 February 2023. (Le Temps/Eddy Mottaz)

Amid Russia’s ongoing invasion, the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue last year brokered an agreement for the free passage of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea. Its director speaks to Swiss newspaper Le Temps about other ongoing projects.

The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) has always preferred to work in the shadows. Yet, in recent years, as one of the world's leading conflict mediation organisations, it has become a success story. Amid faltering international diplomacy,  HD's work proved central in finding an agreement to resume Ukrainian grain exports across the Black Sea – the only deal of its kind to have been struck in the year since the start of the war.

The ceasefire in Libya in 2020 and the peace treaty between Ethiopia and Tigray, signed last November, also bear the mark of the Geneva-based organisation. HD’s director, David Harland, sheds some light on these achievements but also on the risks of a collapse in Europe’s security architecture.

Le Temps: The Black Sea deal established last July, that allowed millions of tonnes of Ukrainian grain to be released into the market, was conceived by one of your colleagues. Will organisations like yours gradually replace dwindling diplomatic efforts?

David Harland: Diplomats today do not have it easy, much less so than during the Cold War. In the absence of a general framework, other forms of diplomacy are indeed needed. One of the problems we face today is that it has become very difficult to talk to people with whom we do not agree. Politicians are under constant scrutiny and forced to be publicly accountable. We enjoy a priceless privilege here in Geneva: unlike diplomats representing states, we can maintain a discreet contact with all actors and meet in a calm and composed manner within a private setting.

Is that how negotiations for the grain deal were conducted?

As early as March, after exploring the possibilities of alleviating the food crisis created by the invasion of Ukraine, we sent a written proposal to UN secretary general António Guterres. We had an idea of what an agreement could look like, and we consulted the leadership of the WTO (World Trade Organization), the African Union and various heads of state, while remaining in contact with Ukraine and Russia. This preparatory work is possible in Switzerland. The Confederation offers us a certain number of privileges and immunities that allow us to operate discreetly, and to work with actors who normally are unable to travel.

The deal also includes a section on the export of Russian ammonia, a key ingredient for the production of fertiliser, but struggles to be implemented. Are you also playing a role there?

Very elaborate discussions are currently taking place on this. The July agreement stated that Russia can export its ammonia, but it did not specify that it must be done via Ukraine. The main export pipeline runs through Ukraine to a port in Odesa. We have to realise that the absence of ammonia (from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) would have a much wider impact than the issue of Ukrainian grain. In 2023, we may find ourselves in a situation where global (agricultural) production would be lower than demand. This has not happened in the last fifty years.

Are the negotiations moving forward?

We have a fairly classic asymmetry of interests here. Ukraine has little to gain from this agreement. Before the war, it received about $100 million a year in taxes from the (ammonia) pipeline. But that is not enough as an incentive. Should the deal be expanded to include other issues, such as a prisoner release? No one can find the formula to resolve the dispute. And unfortunately, the Ukrainian pipeline route runs very close to the front line, which does not make things any easier. Ammonia, as we saw in the (2020 explosion in the) port of Beirut, is a particularly dangerous substance.

Beyond ammonia and grain, is there any prospect for a general settlement between Russia and Ukraine?

There are a number of avenues for agreement on limited issues, including the risk of nuclear contamination. The prospect of a final settlement agreement is an extremely sensitive issue for both sides. Nevertheless, the groundwork must be done ahead of this, and Geneva is a perfect place. Everyone has an excuse to come to Geneva! There are discussions, with both sides, on what the final situation might be. It is very important to explore the various options, and to recognise what each of them will entail when we are close to a negotiated conclusion.

Currently, there is a huge distrust towards Vladimir Putin's Russia. And Russia itself shows no sign of stopping its aggression. Is there room for progress?

In any case, it is impossible to do so publicly. In a context where crimes have been committed and commitments have not been kept, it is very difficult to count on a return of trust. But there is no alternative. Simply hoping that the enemy will disappear is not an option that will bring long-term stability or peace.

We have to imagine a situation where the fighting stops. In any case, there must be a settlement for the following day. The issue of mistrust that you mention is all the more important because, unlike during the Cold War, the elements that built trust, such as disarmament agreements like the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks), Start or Open Skies treaties, have all but disappeared. An entire European security architecture must be rebuilt. It will have to serve as a means to end the war, but may also become the factor that will make it possible to build a certain stability after the conflict.

Far from the outline you provide of a new security architecture, there is a sense that we are in a race to the bottom. A certain number of leaders, including Turkish, French and Israeli, seem to want to place themselves at the centre of the stage for purely domestic political purposes...

The actors will really make themselves known when they think it is time. One of the specificities of this war is that negotiations began very quickly, as early as 28 February in Belarus, and continued until April. But one of the problems was that there was disagreement on how to implement possible measures. On the one hand, this shows that both sides are capable, and even prepared, for a possible settlement. It also shows that more progress is needed. When the time comes, countries behind the opposing parties such as Turkey, France, the United Arab Emirates, India, and Israel, could play a role. But there are others...

You have also worked on establishing humanitarian corridors and exchanging prisoners. The ICRC, which also works on these issues, is being strongly criticised by Ukraine. Can HD help in this area?

You know, the ICRC suffers from the same public expectation for transparency. But it can’t meet these expectations, because of its commitment to confidentiality. Ukraine has thousands of prisoners in Russian hands and the issue is very sensitive in Ukrainian public opinion. Remember that it was the ICRC itself that created HD (in 1999) to be able to carry out its work more calmly.

Does this call into question its current role?

The margins for neutrality, as the ICRC understands it, are increasingly restricted due to a much more polarised and fragmented global setting. If you do something that is seen as positive by one side, the other side will find it unacceptable. If conflict takes place in the future between China and the United States, which I think is quite likely, these issues will be even more pronounced. Many institutions that present themselves as “neutral” are now seen as pro-western in this context, and this will only worsen in our multipolar world.

Switzerland's neutrality is also being questioned. Does this have implications for your work in Geneva?

The fact is that the Russians continue to come to Switzerland, to conduct visible or, sometimes, much less visible diplomacy. Switzerland continues to be an excellent place to have serious negotiations. I would even say that Geneva's role is increasing, given the general polarisation. Other countries could also play a role, but in a more limited way and not at the global level, as is the case here.

What worries you more? The polarisation of the world or its fragmentation?

In the past, we got used to the existence of a whole mechanism to control conflicts. Today this mechanism no longer exists, because of the proliferation of blocs. Even worse, within these blocks, between generations, within families or schools, we are witnessing fragmentation, as well as a move to delegitimise others. There is a general mistrust towards states or interstate institutions, but also towards all public authorities. As a result, two issues are overlapping: the decline of American hegemony and the global dispersion of power, and the erosion of the forces that hold societies together. Adding to this is the deliberate misuse of new technologies, especially by authoritarian countries against democracies. The result is this new tribalism, which has a political expression, but which also has many other dimensions, within societies themselves.

This article originally appeared in French in Le Temps and has been translated into English by Geneva Solutions. Articles from third-party websites are not licensed under Creative Commons and cannot be republished without the media’s consent.