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Understanding Conflict


Handling conflict 3: short-term settlements
When a conflict has reached the stage of deadlock, the task of interveners is to establish trust with the leaders of both sides and to gain their confidence. Leaders are encouraged to talk to neutral consultants in conflict management, freely, frankly and in private. As a result they may be prepared to consider mediation.

The task of mediators is to set up a situation in which a settlement can be discussed. Perhaps surprisingly, it's been found that non-neutral mediators can be as effective as neutral ones; what matters is that they are skilled.

Official representatives of national or global powers may also intervene. They may offer inducements to both sides, such as financial aid, to persuade them to abandon violence; or they may make threats, such as economic sanctions, to get the same result.

Some conflicts 'go to arbitration'. This means that the dispute is studied by an independent individual or group, who act like a judge in a law court: they decide how the conflict can be fairly and justly settled, and the conflicting sides may be bound by law to accept the terms.

Once again, however, although the underlying causes of the conflict may have been defined, they haven't been dealt with. Settlements and ceasefires may be achieved, but they are quite likely to collapse. Ceasefires in particular give all the sides a chance to rest and re-arm to fight another day. But they can also provide a period in which more long-term solutions can be discussed.

DISCUSSION/Q/Action. What kind of skills do you think mediators and arbitrators ought to have? What do you think might be needed to win the confidence of the warring leaders? Choose a conflict and try to find out how it was settled - were problems dealt with, or were more outbreaks stored up for the future?

Handling conflict 4: long-term solutions
When the conflict has reached the stage when the disputants are ready to look at other options than violence, real negotiations can begin. They need to be carefully prepared for. The confidence of both sides must be gained, so that they not only come to the negotiation table but are willing to co-operate when they get there. Another step is making sure that skilled interveners are in place throughout the war zone, to help locally in bringing the violence to an end. Links between the people involved in the peace process and the people in power must be made firm and steady. This period is a tense one: there are always risks that violence will escalate again. The problems that caused the conflict have not gone away, and now they are aggravated by feelings of vengeance and anger created by the destructiveness of the war.

Once negotiations are under way, what do they need to achieve?

DISCUSSION/Q. What is your answer to that question?
There are indeed many answers, all valuable contributions to peace-building. There are perhaps four that ought to appear in any list:
1. The root causes of the conflict must be understood and plans made to do something about them.
2. Leaders and people on all sides must be sure that the peace process is 'theirs', not other people's ideas and wishes imposed on them.
3. A realistic and practical timetable for winding down the conflict needs to be agreed by everyone involved.
4. Everyone must be committed to making the peace process work.

The interveners' work isn't over yet. Where there are difficulties, they can talk to the leaders, clarifying important issues and acting as a link between them (and between them and local leaders) if communications break down. Other experts can, and increasingly do, set up organised 'problem-solving workshops' to help all sides to understand the conflict, the various points of view, and consider a whole raft of possible solutions. Advanced problem-solving means looking at the conflict and its solutions in the light of human needs - a perspective that helps the combatants to come together in a joint effort to put things right. This begins with patiently establishing the aims that they can share.

Culture can be defined as 'the total range of beliefs, values, ideas and activities of a group of people with shared traditions'. The importance of culture is enormous. Culture conditions people's understanding and perception of language, behaviour and events - which means that cultural differences can lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. In some parts of the world, a cultural approach to conflict resolution is often more successful than any other. In these cases, interveners and peace-builders look for cultural lines of communication that already exist and send messages of problem-solving, nonviolence and hope along them. In other parts of the world, conflict solving is best helped by mediators from within the conflict, who already have the trust of their own group and understanding of the prevailing culture. The aim is never to suppress cultural differences, but to build on them towards a nonviolent future that benefits everyone.

DISCUSSION. Time to look again at a conflict of which you know personally. Talk about how the search for long-term solutions, rather than short-term settlements, can bring combatants together with a common interest in basic needs. If you were a mediator, what would you do?

Handling conflict 5: guidelines
1. Creating peace, like conflict, like life, is a process. It takes time. Building trust between people at war with each other takes time, and it may need to be very gradual indeed. Every small step towards trust-building is of value for future peace.

2. When people start talking to each other about ending the conflict, this too is the start of a process. Nothing can be solved overnight. So first it's a good idea to talk about talking: Where shall we talk? What about? In what order? Ideas from all sides should be promised a hearing.

3. Destructive conflicts make destructive changes. The destructive changes made to a society in conflict need to be understood, acknowledged and mended before the process towards a lasting peace can advance.

4. If a conflict is to be lastingly resolved, constructive social changes may be needed to make sure that everyone is treated fairly and justly.

DISCUSSION/Q. You may have guidelines of your own to suggest, arising from your own study of conflict. Let us know what they are, and we will make sure they are shared.

Handling conflict 6: looking ahead
We've already said that there aren't yet enough skilled interveners, mediators, negotiators, peace-builders at work to help groups at war to solve their problems. There's another problem: those who are already at work are not yet a fully co-ordinated organisation. There are many different peace-building groups, many different approaches, and many different timescales. Variety is a good thing, but the experience and knowledge needs to be shared. A coherent overall network with good communications is needed so that everyone knows what everyone else is doing and the work isn't duplicated unnecessarily.

This is where the idea of coalition comes in. A coalition is an alliance of people or groups working together for a shared purpose. Political coalitions quickly encounter problems, because every member wants to lead. But social coalitions aren't interested in power: they work for the common good of everyone.

If the different groups, institutions and individuals already working for the peaceful resolution of conflict form coalitions, then a peace-building network begins to take shape. Where there is a strong network of strong relationships, war is less likely to recur. It means a coalition of interveners too: members of this young and exciting profession have a lot to communicate and a lot to learn from each other, all round the world. As they do, a 'culture of peace' can begin to grow and spread, crossing all boundaries and enriching all lives.


underlying causes of conflict
life-cycle of a conflict
understanding peace
handling conflict short term
handling conflict long term


see also:
- nonviolence
- pacifism



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