Jump to Content Jump to Main Navigation
Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law [MPEPIL]

Good Offices

Ruth Lapidoth

Diplomacy and consular relations — Foreign relations law — Good offices — Mediation

Published under the auspices of the Max Planck Foundation for International Peace and the Rule of Law under the direction of Rüdiger Wolfrum.

Good offices are a diplomatic means for the settlement of disputes (Diplomacy; Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes ; Judicial Settlement of International Disputes.). Among the mechanisms with a third party intervention, it is the one with the most modest involvement of the third-party. In its classical meaning, it designates the action by a third party who merely encourages the disputing subjects to resume negotiation[s] or helps them to get together. The third party is not supposed to participate in the negotiations.

However, the term is often used in a broader sense, as referring to any non-structured form of assistance given by a third party. Moreover, it is often difficult to say whether the third party has only brought them together or whether it has also helped them to reach a compromise, which would practically mean mediation. This explains why in some documents, good offices and mediation are used as alternatives. Thus, Arts 2 and 3 Conventions for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes ([adopted 29 July 1899, entered into force 4 September 1900] (1898–99) 187 CTS 410; [adopted 18 October 1907, entered into force 26 January 1910] (1907) 205 CTS 233; together, the ‘Hague Conventions’) says:

In case of serious disagreement or dispute, before an appeal to arms, the contracting Powers agree to have recourse, as far as circumstances allow, to the good offices or mediation of one or more friendly Powers…. Powers strangers to the dispute have the right to offer good offices or mediation even during the course of hostilities.

However, not all the provisions of this chapter (named good offices and mediation) deal with both good offices and mediation. Some refer only to mediation, but none deals exclusively with good offices (see also Hague Peace Conferences [1899 and 1907]).
In this entry, only good offices stricto sensu will be examined. A good example is to be found in Art. IX American Treaty on Pacific Settlement (30 UNTS 55; Bogotá Pact [1948]):

The procedure of good offices consists in the attempt by one or more American Governments not parties to the controversy, or by one or more eminent citizens of any American State which is not a party to the controversy, to bring the parties together, so as to make it possible for them to reach an adequate solution between themselves.

The treaty provides further that,
[o]nce the parties have been brought together and have resumed direct negotiations, no further action is to be taken by the states or citizens that have offered their good offices, or accepted an invitation to offer them; they may, however, by agreement between the parties, be present at the negotiations. (Art. X Bogotá Pact)

Several characteristics of good offices should be underlined. As the above quoted texts show, the initiative can come from either the parties to the disputes, from a State, an organization, or an eminent individual, which or who offers help. Good offices always require the consent of the parties to the dispute; the consent is needed for both the application of the procedure and for the identity of the body or person who performs it. The consent can result from a prior commitment (eg, given in a general convention, or can be given ad hoc). Art. 3 Hague Conventions also provide that ‘[t]he exercise of this right [offering good offices] can never be regarded by either of the parties in dispute as an unfriendly act’.

Interestingly, Art. 33 United Nations Charter does not mention good offices among the list of means for the settlement of disputes. Many other conventions, however, refer to it (eg Art. 6 Valletta Principles for Dispute Settlement of the Conference on security and Co-operation in Europe [(8 February1991) (1991) 30 ILM 387]; Rule 98 Rules of Procedure of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights [ACommHPR] [(6 October 1995) (1996) 8 AfrJIntl&Compl 978]; Art. 5 Understanding on Rules and Procedures Governing the Settlement of Disputes [(adopted 15 April 1994, entered into force 1 January 1995) 1869 UNTS 401] of the World Trade Organization [WTO]; Art. 33 (2) UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses [(adopted 21 May 1997, not yet entered into force) (1997) 36 ILM 700]; Art. 11 (2) Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer [(adopted 22 March 1985, entered into force 22 September 1988) 1513 UNTS 324)].

It is more difficult to find actual cases where the mechanism of good offices has been applied. Many of the examples usually quoted were in fact instances of mediation although the title ‘good offices’ was used. This is the case, inter alia, for the good offices missions of the UN Secretary-General. He has been involved in the handling of many disputes, some of them international, others internal (eg in Guatemala, Cyprus, Thailand, Cambodia [Cambodia Conflicts (Kampuchea)], the Suez crisis [Suez Canal], the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88), Yemen, Namibia, Mozambique, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Macedonia). Sometimes he was successful, but not always. It is clear, however, that despite the use of the term ‘good offices’, his involvement was far beyond mere good offices as explained above.

A case of almost pure good offices occurred in 1993, when, due to the good offices of Norway, representatives of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) met secretly in Norway and eventually reached agreement on mutual recognition and on the Oslo process for the settlement of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict (Israel, Occupied Territories ; Israeli Wall Advisory Opinion [Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory]; Jerusalem; Palestine).

In considering what the future may hold for the mechanism of good offices, one cannot avoid the impression that the ‘pure’ good offices has little chance of being used, but the term may flourish since it can be used to designate a flexible mixture of various diplomatic means for the settlement of disputes—good offices stricto sensu, mediation, and fact-finding. It is in this sense that the term has been used with regard to the UN Secretary-General’s informal peacemaking efforts.