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Mediating for the Mediators

TC alumnus Johnston Barkat is Ombudsman and Mediator for the United Nations
Johnston Barkat (M.Phil., 2001), Assistant Secretary-General for the United Nations Ombudsman & Mediator Services, is used to questions about his title. After all, isn’t the UN, by definition, focused on mediation?
Yes, but it’s also a huge, global organization with employees from almost all of its 192 member states, all of whom bring their own culture into the organization and many of whom work in extremely dangerous circumstances. That all but guarantees a certain measure of internal conflict.
Enter Barkat and his team. “We function as a kind of mini-UN to the UN,” says Barkat, who studied conflict resolution at TC. “We work on location, as an independent, neutral entity, to help employees resolve specific situations, and we recommend to the Secretary-General and General Assembly ways the organization can function more effectively and efficiently.”
On one level, Barkat’s team handles the kinds of issues that might get aired in any corporation—complaints of discrimination or harassment, for example. However, their role becomes much more critical to ensuring that justice is properly served because UN employees do not have access to external courts and so must rely solely on internal courts and tribunals. The Mediation and Ombudsman divisions were created by the General Assembly to enhance the justice system and provide an alternative to these formal venues.
“We parallel the formal system, providing durable and effective dispute resolution and settlements,” Barkat says.
Since taking up his post in April 2008, Barkat has established regional offices to do conflict resolution work in Bangkok, Vienna, Geneva, Nairobi, Santiago, Khartoum [Sudan] and Kinshasa [Democratic Republic of the Congo].
But his office also deals with situations in war-torn countries where UN employees serve in a peacekeeping role.
“UN staff on the ground in these countries deal with violence and refugees, often with very few resources, and their own lives can be caught in the cross-hairs,” Barkat says. “We work with them to provide support and remove obstacles.”
Born in the United States to parents of South Asian descent (his last name, like the current U.S. President’s first one, means “blessing”), Barkat traveled and lived in countries all over the world whenever his father, a psychology professor, went on holiday or sabbatical. He himself majored in psychology, worked as a mediator in the New York state court system, served as President of the International Ombudsman Association, and chaired various conflict resolution committees for the American Bar Association and the Association for Conflict Resolution.
“Teachers College was very instrumental in bringing together two streams of focus in my life,” recalls Barkat, who at TC worked closely with Morton Deutsch, founder of the College’s International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and Gita Steiner-Khamsi, of the Department of International and Transcultural Studies, even as he, too, taught courses in mediation and negotiation. “It helped me integrate my conflict resolution background with my international focus, and it confirmed my social-psychological approach to international conflict. There are other people who do this kind of work only intuitively, but I want to know why some intervention works or why it doesn’t, whether it’s at a personal, group or nation-state level.”
Today, in addition to his UN job, Barkat advises and mentors students through the business school at Pace University, where he has previously taught—which gives him an added appreciation for education’s role on the international level.
“Think about the world we live in, where national boundaries don’t apply as much as they used to, in business or any other arena,” he says. “The complexity of working in international teams and organizations present unique challenges. Universities need to think about reflecting that reality—and not be bashful about it. Because the ones who are will lose out.”

Published Monday, Jun. 8, 2009