Friday, 23 November 2012

Conflict resolution in practice

A recent conference at Nipissing University hosted in partnership with CIAAN instigated a discussion into conflict resolution and the possibility of translating individually-based resolution strategies into the context on international armed conflict.

When the subject of conflict resolution and prevention is breached it is often in the context of international armed conflict. A most apt example would be the Gaza conflict--a timely topic on everyone's mind at the moment. A conflict that has raged on for many years, culminating in violent acts, murders, and threats, is certainly one definition of conflict itself. On the other hand, conflict can be far less bloody and yet equally dangerous to the individual. Given this, it is pertinent for us to understand what we mean when we speak of conflict. Further, it incites a need for us to understand how conflicts can be effectively managed in order to not cause more harm.

Conflict, commonly understood, occurs when individuals or parties perceive that, as a consequence of a given disagreement, there is a threat to their needs, interests or concerns. Conflict  then, does not necessarily exclusively pertain to state/international bodies. Rather, conflict is an almost inherent part of the human experience. As such, could it be possible that the tools we use to resolve personal conflicts can be used to resolves ones of an international/transnational nature? More succinctly put: can conflict resolution practices utilized in personal conflict situation translate into an international context?

In the 1970s Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five main styles of dealing with conflict that vary in their degrees of cooperativeness and assertiveness. They argued that people typically have a preferred conflict resolution style. However they also noted that different styles were most useful in different situations. They developed the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) which helps you to identify which style you tend towards when conflict arises.

Thomas and Kilmann's styles are:

Competitive: People who tend towards a competitive style take a firm stand, and know what they want. situations.
Collaborative: People tending towards a collaborative style try to meet the needs of all people involved.
Compromising: People who prefer a compromising style try to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone.
Accommodating: This style indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of the person's own needs.
Avoiding: People tending towards this style seek to evade the conflict entirely.

The idea behind this theory is that once you understand the different styles, you can use them to think about the most appropriate approach (or mixture of approaches) for the situation you're in. You can also think about your own instinctive approach, and learn how you need to change this if necessary.

Ideally you can adopt an approach that meets the situation, resolves the problem, respects people's legitimate interests, and mends damaged working relationships.

This is not the only way to approach conflict resolution, though. Conflict resolution often must be sensitive to culture. In homogenous cultural contexts, successful conflict resolution usually involves fostering communication among disputants, problem solving, and drafting agreements that meet their underlying needs. In these situations, conflict resolvers often talk about finding a mutually satisfying solution for everyone involved. However, in heterogenous cultural context this approach may be ineffective. Indeed, it is still important to find "win-win" solutions but the process of finding that solution is a little more rocky. In these contexts, direct communication between disputants that explicitly addresses the issues at stake in the conflict can be perceived as very rude, making the conflict worse and delaying resolution. Rather, it can make sense to involve religious, tribal or community leaders, communicate difficult truths indirectly through a third party, and make suggestions through narratives and the like. 

Now, the idea that such processes can translate into a broader, international context is contentious. Groups like our partners at CIAAN operate under the assumption that mediatory activities and communication can lead to peaceful resolution in the context of violent conflict, but their results have been mixed. 

It is a question that then must be left open to experience to answer. Mediation certainly seems helpful, and many scholars and practitioners would agree that it preferable to the alternative. This is not to suggest that every intractable conflict can be mediated. Many conflicts may be too intense, the parties too entrenched and the behaviour too violent for any mediator to achieve any desirable outcome. In many cases, a conflict only ceases to become intractable when there is a major systemic change. How then can we distinguish between conflicts that can be mediated and those that cannot? When should mediators enter an intractable conflict?

These questions have been answered in many different ways in the past. Jacob Bercovitch, a professor of international relations in the Political Science Department at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, offers a very helpful list to understand which conflicts can be mediated and when mediators are appropriate, cited below. But this list is certainly not the only perspective offered on the subject. 

We are interested to know what you think on the subject. Is mediation the answer? And, can we use the same tools that we use for personal conflict in the context of international armed conflict? 

1. Mediators can engage in an intractable conflict only after a thorough and complete analysis of the conflict, issues at stake, context and dynamics, parties' grievances, etc. Intractable conflicts are complex and multi-layered. A mediation initiative is more likely to be successful if it is predicated on knowledge and understanding rather than on good intentions only. A good analysis and a thorough understanding of all aspects of the conflict are important prerequisites for successful mediation in intractable conflicts.
2. Mediation must take place at an optimal or ripe moment. Early mediation may be premature and late mediation may face too many obstacles. A ripe moment describes a phase in the life cycle of the conflict where the parties feel exhausted and hurt, or where they may not wish to countenance any further losses and are prepared to commit to a settlement, or at least believe one to be possible. In destructive and escalating conflicts, mediation can have any chance of success only if it can capture a particular moment when the adversaries, for a variety of reasons, appear most amenable to change. Timing of intervention in an intractable conflict is an issue of crucial importance, and one that must be properly assessed by any would be mediator.
3. Given the nature and complexity of intractable conflicts, successful mediation requires a co-ordinated approach between different aspects of intervention. Mediation here requires leverage and resources to nudge the parties toward a settlement, but also acute psychological understanding of the parties' feelings and grievances. The kind of mediation we are talking about here is mediation that is embedded in various disciplinary frameworks, ranging from problem-solving workshops to more traditional diplomatic methods. No one aspect or form of behavior will suffice to turn an intractable conflict around. Diverse and complementary methods, an interdisciplinary focus, and a full range of intervention methods responding to the many concerns and fears of the adversaries, are required to achieve some accommodation between parties in an intractable conflict.
4. Mediating intractable conflicts require commitment, resources, persistence, and experience. Mediators of high rank or prestige are more likely to possess these attributes and thus are more likely to be successful in intractable conflicts. Such mediators have the capacity to appeal directly to the domestic constituency and build up support for some peace agreement. Influential, high ranking or prestigious mediators have more at stake, can marshal more resources, have better information, and can devote more time to an intractable conflict. Such mediators can work toward achieving some visible signs of progress in the short term, and identify steps that need to be taken to deal with the issues of a longer term peace objectives. Influential mediators can work better within the constraints of intractable conflicts, and more likely to elicit accommodative responses from the adversaries.
5. Mediation in intractable conflicts is more likely to be successful when there are recognizable leaders within each party, where the leaders are accepted as legitimate by all concerned, and where they have considerable control over their territory. An intractable conflict between parties with competing leaders and constituents (e.g. Northern Ireland) can prove very difficult to deal with. Where there are recognizable leaders, each from the mainstream of their respective community, and where each embodies the aspirations and expectations of their respective community, provides mediators with individuals who may have a serious impact on official diplomacy. Where there are competing leadership factions, state institutions, and governance capacity are all too uncertain, and the chances of successful mediation decline sharply.
6. Mediation in intractable conflicts is more likely to be effective if there are no sections in each community committed to the continuation of violence. Such parties are usually described as spoilers. Spoilers in such a context have much to lose from a peaceful outcome and much to gain from the continuation of violence. Their presence and activities constitute a major obstacle to any mediation effort.
7. Where an intractable conflict involves a major power, or major powers have interests (vital or otherwise) at stake, it is very unlikely that mediation will be attempted, and if attempted, very unlikely that it will succeed. The involvement of major powers in any capacity in an intractable conflict poses too serious a constraint on any mediation effort. A major power involvement in an intractable conflict provides a clear indication of the difficulty of initiating any form of mediation.

taken from:

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