The power of international diplomacy and peace mediation to resolve conflict
The images of the war in Ukraine have shown cities and people being torn apart by war. But behind the scenes, highly skilled peace negotiators like Paul Dziatkowiec are also fighting hard to bring people together for peace.
For 20 years Paul Dziatkowiec has worked in international diplomacy and peace mediation. Some of those years were spent at the high tables of formal diplomacy between governments, others saw him in shadowy hotels and tense backwaters talking with warlords, traffickers, spies, and human rights abusers.
“Sometimes you find yourself with people who have ruined countless lives, even countries,” says Dziatkowiec, who is quietly spoken but a skilful storyteller. “To engage with them, you have to leave your prejudices back in your hotel room, keep an open mind, and sometimes hold your nose. Whether we like it or not, the worst of the worst often hold the key to peace.”
It isn’t easy walking into a room where two aggressive players in a conflict are there to see how far they can push their own interests. A deep knowledge of both sides of the argument is essential. Dziatkowiec and his associates would have spent the previous weeks not just researching the combatants, but talking to local people, diplomats, conflict victims and (trustworthy) journalists to get a sense of the deeper grievances.
While the forces at work in Ukraine are specific, a recurring truth in many other conflicts is that both sides ultimately want similar things: dignity, recognition and respect; jobs for their people; education for their children; and therefore, peace. Still, negotiations can go on for many, frustrating years. But suddenly comes a moment of possibility: a new political dynamic; a new president, a new head of the rebel group who seems a little more constructive.
“Even two or three years before a peace agreement, you might have said, ‘That’s impossible. The situation won’t allow it, the wrong people are in charge.’ But look at Northern Ireland, Colombia, South Africa, many others. Sometimes change comes quickly.”
It's easy to see the influences that led Dziatkowiec to his life’s work.
In 1981, with the Communist Party in Poland about to impose crushing martial law to deal with the ‘Solidarity’ union movement, the then 3-year-old Dziatkowiec was taken by his parents as they fled the country, first spending three months in an Austrian refugee camp before settling in Australia with nothing.
“A lot of our family wanted to but didn’t manage to get out,” Dziatkowiec says. “I was lucky - I had so many great opportunities, because we ended up in Australia.”
Growing up in Canberra, Dziatkowiec went to Brisbane for a bachelor’s degree in international business before spending a year in Austria on an exchange program. At the time, the Balkans war was unfolding, and he found himself less interested in business and more in the mechanics of that conflict. So much so, he came back to Australia to study at the University of Sydney.
Speaking from his now home in Switzerland, Dziatkowiec remembers those years as profoundly formative. “When they handed me that paper on my last day of uni, it capped several years of learning how nations and other international actors deal with one another, and under what rules - or lack thereof.”
When the time came to set a career path, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) was the golden ticket.
It’s fair to say, Dziatkowiec had a rapid rise through the ranks of DFAT. After graduating from the University, he joined literally thousands of others in applying for an entry level position. He made the cut. Later, at just 30 years old, he found himself in a position of real and consequential responsibility.
“Not long after I arrived for a posting in Nairobi, my Ambassador said, ‘I’m traveling for the next two weeks, so you’re the acting Ambassador.’ I’d never done that before and suddenly I was acting Ambassador to several conflict-affected countries - Kenya, Somalia, Rwanda, and a handful of others.”
An Australian citizen had been kidnapped in Somalia, which was really difficult, and there was this growing embassy to manage – it eventually peaked at 70 people. But I enjoyed the challenge.”
Over the course of the three-year posting, Dziatkowiec acted as Ambassador for almost a year dealing with complex issues like piracy, terrorism, various UN engagements, and the environment. In all, Dziatkowiec was with DFAT for 11 years becoming adept at the official practice of diplomacy.
He was a peace monitor after the Bougainville Civil War in Papua New Guinea and, at a time of upheaval in the Middle East, at 25 he was a diplomat to Israel and regularly the acting Representative to the Palestinian Authority, taking in both the Iraq war and the Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada. But it was that later posting in Africa that gave Dziatkowiec himself a sense of his own capabilities and an insight into his real drivers. He realised there that he was fundamentally interested in why people fight – and really always had been.
Made restless by the realisation, Dziatkowiec applied for an opening at a mediation organisation called the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) in Geneva, an international foundation that’s partly funded by governments but holds itself apart as impartial and independent. A lot of what they do is confidential and few of their projects are to be found on their website.
“HD’s work is as fascinating as DFAT’s, but it is like an alternative universe. By necessity secretive, at times seedy, often exhilarating, it gave me the deeper focus I was looking for.”
Moving into mediation has seen Dziatkowiec facilitate dialogue with armed groups, including in Myanmar, Nigeria, and for the last few years in the now war-torn Ukraine. Russia’s recent full-blown invasion came after several years of it supporting pro-Russian separatists in the border region of Donbas. This volatile situation saw Dziatkowiec make up to 35 trips a year to Ukraine itself and other ‘neutral venues’ in Europe and beyond for discreet peace discussions.
One earlier success during the Donbas conflict helped protect the water filtration station that serves the city of Donetsk and surrounding towns. As intensified fighting and COVID movement restrictions threatened to close down the water supplies, Dziatkowiec and his HD team were part of a desperate, ultimately successful effort to prevent this. After some intensive shuttling of messages between key interlocutors, eventually security guarantees were agreed by the peace process actors that enabled the facility to keep working – thus averting a water crisis that could have been disastrous for more than a million people.
Then in February this year, and in the wink of an eye, the stakes for the people of Ukraine became immeasurably higher as Russia unleashed all the horrors of war on large parts of the country. By this time, Dziatkowiec had left HD for a new role at another foundation dedicated to peace, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, where he is now Head of Diplomatic Dialogue.
Knowing many people in Ukraine and feeling the situation very personally, Dziatkowiec wrote to SAM:
“This is a nightmare, beyond words. War is a conscious choice - almost always catastrophic - yet again and again, people decide it's the right option because they value ambition and pride over the lives and futures of countless innocent people.
“Frankly, there are often good reasons why mediators could just give up. But someone has to be there to keep the last flicker of hope alive, and that is often the mediators. They have to buckle down even more, and explore all options for a way out, despite the warmongers seemingly committed to a different, violent, path.
“Here is a truth to consider: most wars are not ended through military victory, but by negotiated settlements.”