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Last Updated: 04/21/2003
Lessons from the "Support Group for Nicaragua"
Frans van Haren and Kristján Guy Burgess

The General Assembly of the UN watched the "establishment of an active group of friendly countries to play a particularly important role in supporting the reactivation of the social development in the country (Nicaragua), which will facilitate the strengthening of its institutional and democratic structures." With the whole world watching how the aftermath of the Iraqi intervention by the US and the UK will pan out, should we be watching how cooperative efforts aided by the UN have worked out elesewhere in recent years?

We are strongly reminded these days about the catastrophes of war. Although many are now focused on the current conflict in Iraq, it is important to remember other conflicts that continue to bring devastation and harm to people all over the world. Millions of innocent people suffer every day the terrible consequences of civil war, and civil war is the right name for it, since nine out of every ten casualties are people that had no intention to harm others, civilians going about their lives as usual when war visits their homes. In that sense there are similarities between civil war and what is now widely described as terrorism, although the root causes are obviously quite different.

Most of the civilians affected by war belong to the vulnerable groups: the young, the elderly, the economically marginalized and women. Those of us that are concentrating on issues of peace and conflict, feel an urgent need to continuously search for and develop new tools to build peace and prevent violent conflict from flaring up or re-emerging.

In this brief we describe a method that was used in one particular case: the establishment of a 'Support Group' to build confidence and prevent conflict to re-erupt in Nicaragua. Its methodology (concentrating on socio-economic issues that should bind rather than divide the nation; engaging all segments of society) is as interesting as its results (diffusing a highly complicated internal antagonistic situation; promoting international confidence in the country's post-conflict years). It is our hope that the lessons learned from this modest example of preventive diplomacy, could provide inspiration on steps that could be taken to find a way forward in complicated situations elsewhere.


Following the end of the Cold War, many conflicts came to an end after the then superpowers stopped financing those factions that were often fighting their proxy wars. Much effort was put into getting warring factions to the negotiation table. Peace accords were agreed on usually as the result of the hard work and the efforts of courageous individuals within or outside the conflicting parties. While some claimed victory, most people more humbly celebrated the end of direct hostilities.

In many cases, however, the real work actually only began when peace agreements were signed. Peaceful conditions had to be kept alive and people had to be helped to get over the consequences of war. Often great effort had to be put into laying the foundations of societies so that conflict would not re-erupt.

None of this was immediately to be expected in Nicaragua in 1995 or 1996, and the consolidation of peace seemed a distant target due to distrust, to socio-economic malaise, to lack of direct foreign investments for reconstruction, to over dependency on foreign aid, and, to a growing difficulty to govern the country from the centre and to the fact that the concept of the rule of law as the indispensable framework for democratic governance had not yet fully matured.

In Nicaragua conflict had been brewing for a big part of the 20th century. Its worst wave came in 1979 when a broad coalition overthrew the dictatorship of the Somoza family that had reigned for decades. Soon afterwards, the leftwing Sandinista movement gained the ideological and political initiative. The country was already divided and the radical land reform programmes enforced by the Sandinistas made confrontation more imminent. Deep internal and external suspicions fuelled an already complicated situation. There was little confidence between those affected by the land reform programmes and those enforcing them. So when the civil war formally came to an end in 1990, and elections were held with surprising results, there was much confidence to be restored in order to keep the fragile peace between the former warring parties and between social groups of different kinds and with different interests.

In 1993, the General Assembly of the United Nations decided to put the exceptional circumstances of Nicaragua on its agenda. Not just peace building was the issue, but the future of a desperately poor country that had to regain both its internal capacity to govern and its international credibility. Nicaragua was a place where veteran fighters were still in arms in remote pockets, refusing to give up their cause, however elusive their goals; where a new government ruled the parliament, but the previous regime ruled the army; where the rule of law could not be upheld all over the country and where it was there were often divisions between and within judicial authorities and enforcement agencies.

The challenge for the Nicaraguan people was to learn how to live peacefully together under the rule of law and democratic governance, a situation quite distinct from what the nation was used to. For these purposes Nicaragua had to be supported by its friends.

Preventive Diplomacy

In an influential essay, written in 1992, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali put forward his Agenda for Peace. The most desirable and efficient employment of diplomacy, he argued, was to ease tensions before they result into conflict-or if conflict breaks out, to act swiftly to contain it and resolve its underlying causes. He considered that the Secretary-General could perform preventive diplomacy personally or through senior staff or specialized agencies and programmes, by the Security Council or the General Assembly, and by regional organizations or groups in cooperation with the United Nations. "Preventive diplomacy requires measures to create confidence; it needs early warning based on information gathering and informal or formal fact-finding; …"

In this spirit, the General Assembly supported the initiative of the Nicaraguan Government to form a small group of nations to evaluate the country's successes and its problems, and to promote conditions for consensus-building that was deemed necessary for national reconstruction. In resolution 48/161 from 20 December 1993 the Assembly called upon all political groups in Nicaragua to pursue, by means of the national dialogue, their efforts to conclude agreements for the consolidation of the democratic process, reconstruction and national reconciliation. It supported the efforts of the Government of Nicaragua to consolidate peace, and endorsed the provision concerning exceptional circumstances so that the international community and funding agencies might provide their support for rehabilitation, economic and social reconstruction and the strengthening of reconciliation and democracy.

The General Assembly welcomed

    … with interest the initiative by the Government [of Nicaragua] concerning the establishment of an active group of friendly countries to play a particularly important role in supporting the reactivation of the economic and social development of the country, which will facilitate the strengthening of its institutional and democratic structures.
Furthermore it requested the Secretary-General to give his full support to the initiative.

The formation of the "Support Group for Nicaragua"

The Governments of Canada, Spain, Mexico, the Netherlands and Sweden formed on 12 May 1994 the Nicaragua Support Group with the representative of UNDP in Nicaragua, who served as the technical secretariat, and as the delegate of the UN Secretary General.

These were five countries that had a noticeable presence in Nicaragua but were neither major creditors nor had large geopolitical interests - with the arguable exception of Mexico. The Group considered itself to be representative of regions or country associations: three countries guaranteed contact with the EU; one with the Nordic countries, and two "represented" the Americas. Furthermore the Group represented important interests of the donor countries, quite relevant to a country such as Nicaragua with its excessive dependency on external assistance.

Mandate and Strategy of the Group

The Group as an initiative in preventative diplomacy, had a double mandate:

    a) To support Nicaraguans to reach national consensus over the country's political and economic future and
    b) to inform the international community of the advances in Nicaragua.

The essence of its strategy was to identify, in the midst of the political uncertainties that could easily turn the country ungovernable, points of common economic and social interest and use those to open up debate within governing factions and other groups, especially in Managua, to even out political antagonisms. The Group systematically demonstrated an attitude in which solely Nicaraguan interests prevailed, creating a space for dialogue and consensus whenever Nicaraguans so desired. As such it gained considerable confidence in its operational years and obtained convincing convening power in the process.

The strategy and methods of the Group and the integrity of those forming it, made it possible to use direct but non-provocative means of inquiry to search for ways forward for the Nicaraguan people to try to overcome social and structural problems and identify the needs for the international community to support this.

Broad cooperation

To give a broad base to its work, the Group organized a series of encounters with personalities and leaders from different sectors of the Nicaraguan society: agriculture, industry, commerce, the Catholic Church, labour, universities, NGOs, media, local authorities, and political leaders. It also met frequently with representatives of the main donor countries, the Multilateral Financial Organizations and the Government itself. The Group met over sixty times in the two years it was operative. It operated out of Managua and received visits from the UNDP Administrator, the UN Under-Secretary General and UNDP Regional Director. It obtained occasional orientation and feedback from UN headquarters.

All sectors of the Nicaraguan society, including political leaders, recognized that there was a growing credibility crisis in the democratic institutions and in political representatives, which was threatening the national reconstruction process. Throughout the work of the Group, there was continuing reference to the need for the creation of a culture of peace and reconciliation, based on the rule of law, for transparency in the management of public affairs, for tolerance, respect for difference, solidarity, cooperation and participation.

Focus of the Group

Of the many problems facing Nicaragua, the Group decided to strategically focus its attention on themes with extensive political and socio-economic, as well as international ramifications. Through this focus, many related issues could be directly addressed. In fact it "used" these topics to address core issues related to the governance issue of the country. The topics were:

    a) Property
    b) External debt, and
    c) National Development Strategy
At the same time it opened the way to engage in the facilitation of a series of meetings among the four Branches of Government that had entered into a crisis related to constitutional reforms and generated a profound distancing between especially the Executive and Legislative Branches. The crisis, in 1995, was further complicated with the confusion over the legitimacy of two institutions essential for the Republic, the Supreme Court of Justice and the Supreme Electoral Council. As a result of having gained the confidence of all parties involved through its analytical work concentrated on issues of prime importance for Nicaragua, the group managed to create a platform for discussion for these complicated disputes. During this time useful agreements were reached, including the suspension of an internal propaganda war between the various Powers of State.

In addition to discussing conditions for economic stability and legal security, the Group thus in fact debated extensively issues related to governance and political stability and actively promoted dialogue within the country. In 1996 it assisted in monitoring the electoral process.

The Group concluded later that only by virtue of the prestige and the recognition of its impartiality it had acquired, could it act and survive under the difficult conditions of the protracted constitutional crisis and diffuse its worst consequences.

The Group exercised autonomy and flexibility to set its own agenda, always and solely with the economic and political interests of Nicaragua in mind. In this manner, for example, it actively discussed ways in which to improve the investment climate in the country that had deteriorated as a result of the political instability causing significant, unemployment, chronic poverty, social unrest and growing agitation. In the same spirit, it chose the property problem as an area and cause of great legal tension and uncertainty. This offered an opportunity to begin to work on a problem with "technical" aspects on the one hand, but of, immediate relevance in the political, legal and economic arenas on the other hand. A direct approach would not have been feasible.

In short, socio-economic issues became a rallying point around which political mending became possible.

Assessment of the Group's achievements

It is difficult to measure directly the result of the Group's work because of the intangible nature of its tasks. In the final report, the Group considers its contribution to have been positive in so far as the country's stability was consolidated and the rule of law accepted as the framework for he country's democracy. The Group contributed directly to advance certain major themes in a crucial transition period, where otherwise stagnation could only have deteriorated social and economic progress and thus have threatened the electoral process in 1996. It was able to diffuse the worst tensions during the different difficult moments of constitutional crisis when many feared for the governability of the country. It provided a neutral setting for meetings in which agreements could be reached. It contributed significantly to diminishing the climate of antagonism and brought the notion of common interest closer to the parties.

The Group believed that the Government had expected that the Group would serve its interests. Absolute independence was, however, an essential feature of the Group's work. It had above all Nicaragua's interest in mind which at times was not synonymous with that of its Government. National actors thus accepted the Group as a force that could not be manipulated. This gave it a considerable convening power, enabling it to debate issues with all political actors during its meetings. It also facilitated in this way national dialogue. A new form of consultation was developed in which all participants accepted certain rules of the game that were not previously adhere to.

It promoted the self-confidence of national actors in their roles as protagonists to find their own solutions and to take on commitments. The Group brought to the international community, so crucial for the rehabilitation process of the country, a shared vision and a certain consensus over policies with respect to Nicaragua.

In General Assembly Resolution 51/197 of December 1996, it:

    … expresses its appreciation of the work of the Support Group for Nicaragua (Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden), which, under the coordination of the Secretary-General, is playing an active role in supporting the country's efforts towards economic recovery and social development, particularly with regard to solving the external debt problem and securing investments and new resources that will allow the country's economic and social programmes to continue towards national reconciliation.

The Group prepared to be dissolved when the government of President Chamorro stepped down. The new government (Alemán) did not indicate that it saw a need for the Group to be reinstated.


The establishment and work of the Support Group for Nicaragua in the mid 1990s shows what an impartial, modest diplomatic effort can achieve to ease tensions, create a platform of consensus, take on difficult issues that are heavily disputed in society and disseminate impartial and relevant information to the international community in general and the donor community in particular. Such a group can influence parties by its non-confrontational methods, maintaining ostensibly the interests of the country at the forefront; it can assist countries in need to find their ways forward and create a national and international understanding of what steps are needed for a country to reach its new goals, create a new vision. A main achievement of the Support Group for Nicaragua was that by gaining the confidence of parties to disputes all over the society it could identify common denominators for all. From this the Group helped different parties to lay down the priorities and to set forth rules to be followed in order to solve major points of contention that had been stagnating economic progress and had their negative impact on national governance. The smooth execution of the 1996 elections gave much credit to the work of the Group and led the country forward on its walk to peaceful coexistence of its people.

As any good friend, a support group can help the actors to consolidate their differences; it can tell its friends where they are succeeding and where they are failing. At what moment limits are reached is difficult to foretell, because in the end it is the nation itself that has to take the necessary steps towards conciliation and create its own future.

Frans Van Haren is an Ambassador of the Netherlands; he was member of the Group here described; at present he is Vice rector of the UN mandated University for Peace (UPEACE).

Kristján Guy Burgess is MA of International Peace and Security from King's College London; at present he is a UPEACE graduate student in International Law and the Settlement of Disputes; he is from Iceland.