WINTER 2000/01
Peace Matters index




alchemy of conflict transformation


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- goddesses of peace
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- kid's tv preventing violence
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- peacemaking in Cyprus
- remembering the holocaust
- conflict transformation


Harold Saunders, with long experience in the US government working especially on the Arab-Israeli conflict and later as the Kettering Foundation's Director of International Affairs, here presents a step-by-step approach to organising sustained dialogue in conflict situations. Sustained dialogue is part of a multilevel process for ending violence, changing relationships and building communities with the capacity to resolve differences peacefully.

'The method of sustained dialogue presented here goes beyond traditional approaches to conflict. Formal negotiation and mediation will remain important in the eventual resolution of conflict at official levels. but a larger political approach often needs to precede, undergird or follow these traditional methods. People in the many conflicts that proliferate today, who are often not ready for formal negotiation and mediation, can, however, talk about their differences in systematic dialogue, even with adversaries. When they do, they are acting as human beings - citizens- working together in the political arena outside government to determine whether destructive relationships can be changed... Now we are beginning to see the possibility of adding to governmental channels non-official dialogues that can broaden the range of interaction, sharpen understanding, deepen communication and partly replace adversarial interaction and contests of force as a means of resolving differences.'

Saunders uses the word 'public' in his title in the sense of non-governmental and distinguishes it from forms of formal diplomacy and negotiation. A 'sustained dialogue', however, does not take place in public nor is it reported in the press. What he proposes is, in fact, private meetings of about 12 people representing major but not necessarily all factions of the population in a conflict area. As Saunders notes' The human dimension of conflict must become central to peacemaking and building peaceful societies. Only governments can write peace treaties, but only human beings - citizens outside government - can transform conflictual relationships between people into peaceful relationships. 'These discussions are carried out among the same people over a period of time - several years - with an aim of better understanding the situation and of seeing if there are ways to improve the situations. Suggestions can be passed on to those able to carry out more formal negotiations such as those between government and structured opposition groups.

Thus, the first step is to find and bring together individuals who in some way represent the major social currents of the society but who have made a judgement that a current conflictual situation hurts personal and group interests intolerably and who have a feeling that it may be possible to change the situation.

The practice of such sustained dialogue slowly develops two crucial skills:
'First, learning to talk with rather than at others enables participants in a dialogue to begin experiencing the mutual respect that comes from listening carefully and talking together with increasing openness. Feeling mutual respect gradually opens the door to insight into relationships.

Second, learning a different, more disciplined and purposeful way of thinking and talking together makes it possible for members of a group to find shared interests and shared concern about where a situation is heading. It permits participants to assess the costs of inaction against the costs of trying to change; it permits them to design together steps to change relationships; it permits them to act together... Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take others' concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreement persists. No participant gives up her or his identity, but each recognises enough of the other's valid human claims that he or she will act differently toward the other...As each party takes others' interests, fears, hopes and concerns into account, the parties come to define their interests as what they can live with - not their optimal interests - in order to reach the co-operation with others necessary to achieve what all parties absolutely need.'

Saunders draws his examples from a number of case studies. The most detailed is the Inter-Tajik Dialogue which started in 1993. In August 1991, Tajikistan, along with other former Soviet republics, was granted its independence, although there had not been beforehand a strong movement demanding independence. In fact, most of what is today Tajikistan had been part of what is today Uzbekistan and the ancient seats of Tajik culture, the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, are still within Uzbekistan. Almost immediately after independence, the population of 5.5 million was consumed by a struggle for power and national identity. An unknown number of people have been killed and probably one in seven were displaced. They often took refuge in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia or other states of central Asia. The already weak economy was further jeopardised, and there was a growing danger that other governments would try to manipulate the anarchic situation.

Both among knowledgeable Russians and Americans there was a feeling that something should be done as all Central Asia was in danger of division and violence. Russians could not act alone as their motives were suspect. Likewise, the USA had played a large, if unclear, role in the Afghan conflict which was an important element in the destabilization of the area. However, non-official Americans and Russians together might be able to play a positive role, either of mediation or in facilitating discussions among Tajik groups.

Fortunately, there existed a well-established non-governmental structure for Soviet- USA discussions, the Dartmouth Conference named after the elite American university, Dartmouth, where the first meeting was held. This Dartmouth Conference brought together Soviet and American academics, many of whom had served in government or, as with the Soviet Academy of Science institutes members were permanent advisors to the Soviet government. The Conference was first organised by Norman Cousins, the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, indicating the importance of editors, who are used to seeing the essential thrust in a proposed article, in organising an exchange of ideas. Cousins had been a strong opponent of the testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s and thus was well known to Soviets in the arms control field. He was politically aware, called himself a world citizen, but was not identified with one of the two major American political parties. The Dartmouth Conferences were largely 'off the record' and brought together many of the same Soviets and Americans for nearly 30 years during the Cold War.

War in 1990, there was no longer the same reasons for the Conference to continue, but it could serve as a model of what sustained contacts could accomplish. Thus the Tajik discussions were formally called 'The Inter-Tajik Dialogue within the Framework of the Dartmouth Conference' and had an American and a Russian co-chairman. The Inter-Tajik Dialogue is a good example of not having to start by first finding a framework for talks or a third party sponsor.

The inter-Tajik discussions were difficult. For reasons of personal security, the early discussions could not be held in Tajikistan. Later there were UN-sponsored talks among factions and then formal government-sponsored negotiations in a National Reconciliation Committee. Some of the same people were members of the Inter-Tajik Dialogue and the formal negotiations so that ideas could pass between the groups. In 1997, there was an official peace agreement although there are still tensions and unrest in Tajikistan. The developing civil society has not replaced tribal-regional loyalties, and many political figures continue to have a 'winner take all' attitude. For as Saunders writes 'Peace agreements will not produce peace until they are embedded in a political process for transforming a broadening range of relationships over time- a process planted in the practices of a healthy civil society.'

From the inter-Tajik and other experiences, Saunders sets out a five-stage approach to sustained dialogue which merits close study for those who are involved in such efforts. An analysis of these steps would go beyond the nature of this review. However, many of the steps are closely related to what I call the' alchemy of conflict transformation', the ways in which relationships crystallised by suspicion, contempt, mistrust, fear, hate and indignity can be dissolved and thus transformed into clearer, open vision. Harold Saunders has written an important and useful book.
René Wadlow

A Public Process: Sustained Dialogue to Transform Racism and Ethnic Conflicts. Harold H. Saunders. St Martin's Press.1999


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