Impartiality – The Double Edged Sword

An Embassy and Brexit: Case studies in the use of Neutrality and Impartiality – The Double Edged Sword

Watch James South talk about An Embassy and Brexit – Different Sides of the Impartiality Coin in our latest CEDRtalks vlog here.

Fundamental to being an effective third-party neutral is in the name; neutrality or impartiality. These concepts are one of the cornerstones of mediation and something we strongly reinforce during our Mediator Skills Training. This stems from the parties right to determination – the right firstly to settle and secondly on what terms. This principle, in turn, supports the facilitative, process-driven philosophy of mediation whereby mediators act solely as process managers, remaining neutral and refraining from evaluating or opining on terms of settlement.

We are all aware of the dangers of losing impartiality; erosion of trust between sides, stagnated exchanges and the inability of the neutral to affect progress. But, impartiality can be a double-edged sword. Religiously upholding neutrality and not giving parties a sense of where settlement might lie, can, in turn cause frustration and in some instances, actually impede settlement.  As mediators, we need to be alive to that fact that in some instances an excessively impartial approach can be detrimental to achieving settlement. While we cannot overtly declare our support or dislike for a particular party/idea/terms of settlement, we can be active in reality testing any proposals and properly encourage parties to reflect on their proposals.

Two different but related examples of political conflict examples currently being played out on the national and international stage graphically highlight this double-edged nature of neutrality.

An Embassy

The Israeli-Palestinian situation, one of the worlds most complicated and sensitive political conflicts came to yet another bloody head this past week with over 100 Palestinians killed in exchanges with Israeli forces.

Stepping back from this incident and looking at the wider conflict, the international community is agreed that the United States is in a unique position to affect peace between the two sides, by acting as a neutral broker. However, their ability to influence the negotiations and brokering of peace has been significantly reduced following their 2017 decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, thereby recognising it as Israel’s capital. Reversing decades of American policy and contravening international consensus, the move attracted widespread criticism and was perceived by many as an abdication of any remnants of American impartiality in facilitating progress in shaping the region’s future and the resolution of decades of conflict. Palestinian leaders have now rejected the idea of peace talks taking place under US supervision. Looking to the future, the Americans appear, certainly under the current administration to have abdicated their role as mediator between the two sides, with the Palestinians asserting a glaring pro-Israel bias.

Things may have been different if, in exchange for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and an effort to impart some balance, President Trump had extracted from the Israelis concessions on other hotly contested areas such as the continuing expansion of settlements.


Conversely, strictly upholding neutrality can be unhelpful when pursuing resolution. We see this playing out in the current stage of Brexit negotiations where Theresa May continues to try and walk the tightrope between two fractious camps within her own party. On one side she has the ardent Brexiteers championed by influential backbencher Jacob Rees Mogg and senior cabinet members such as Boris Johnson and Liam Fox. On the other, she has the more moderate Brexit supporters and out and out remainers, spearheaded by the Chancellor Philip Hammond and former frontbenchers Amber Rudd and Nikky Morgan. In trying to remain impartial, Theresa May has presided over a government which many point to as being unclear over key issues such as the customs union which has wide-reaching implications for future trade and the Irish border. This, in turn, has hampered the British government’s ability to negotiate effectively with the EU. Accordingly, the longer this approach is sustained by the Prime Minister, the louder the voices calling on her to abandon this approach and to try and give a clearer idea of where a negotiated settlement might lie from the British Government’s perspective and then manage the factions within her party accordingly.

While both of these conflicts are multi-faceted and complex, the current manifestations of them are a clear reminder to mediators that neutrality and impartiality are a fine balance, and excessive use or careless misuse can have a significant impact on the ability of the mediator to facilitate resolution.

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