Conflict transformation – goes beyond merely seeking to manage conflict?

TransConflict is pleased to present contributions to the third Peacebuilders’ Panel, which is designed to stimulate debate about peacebuilding and conflict transformation.

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The third debate focuses on the principle that:

“3. Conflict transformation goes beyond merely seeking to contain and manage conflict, instead seeking to transform the root causes themselves – or the perceptions of the root causes – of a particular conflict;”

Professor Brian Walker, MBE, Winchester Centre of Religions for Reconciliation and Peace, University of Winchester

Post 9/11 (2001), when nearly 3,000 people were killed in America, the ‘War on Terror’ invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan may be said to be containing and managing conflict. Insomuch as there have been no comparable attacks in the West since, that may be true. Albeit there has been terror and murder, including 191 killed and 1,800 injured in Madrid’s Train Bombings (2004), and 52 dead plus 700 injured, 7/7 in London (2005).

But, has this conflict been transformed, or inflamed? To transform simply means ‘to change the form of…’ (OED), for better, or for worse.

The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) blamed ‘Islamism terrorism’, and recommended the US government ‘offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbors. America and Muslim friends can agree on respect for human dignity and opportunity.’ The Commission continued, ‘that vision of the future should stress life over death: individual educational and economic opportunity’.

Indeed, Lederach, a US director of conflict transforming programs, in Building peace: sustainable reconciliation in divided societies (1997), had had a vision of conflict transformation as a progression from ‘the latent stage, to confrontation, to negotiation, to dynamic, peaceful relationships’. He envisioned ‘an infrastructure for peacebuilding’ that ‘is orientated toward supporting processes of social change’ that would move conflict from cycles of violence to ‘a shared vision of increased interdependence’. Above all he stressed the importance of building relationships.

Is that what the West is doing today? Is it building relationships to transform conflict? As I write the Muslim world is incensed over an undoubtedly blasphemous anti-Islamic film, believed to have been produced in America, whilst the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions continue: meanwhile both US and UK soldiers continue to be killed.

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Mladen Stojadinović, TransConflict Serbia Associate

Conflict is not isolated, it is always embedded in its social environment. In which way and to what degree depends on the type of conflict but, in general, it is both a result and cause of different social processes and patterns. Conflict can not be transformed unless the deep contradictions that are in its roots are addressed and changed.

It is part of the normal living cycle of society that conflicts permanently emerge, but at the same time all conflicts are products of the processes and practices in their environment, and can not be understood correctly if these underlying processes are not reflected upon.

Managing conflicts often means manipulating them – one can rarely manage a conflict, but has to resolve it (or transform it, if possible). Detterence, containment and similar power-and-state based strategies are just restraining and delaying direct violence. At the same time, structural, cultural and other sorts of violence still exist, so the conflict is actually only seemingly pacified and/or frozen.

Crisis management – which is being dealt with by many authors in the sphere of security studies – tends to look at conflicts as something that should be avoided, tempered, muted, but it also leaves room for employing violence once the situation is ripe for a (often unilateral) solution and/or circumstances allow for a quick redistribution of resources on the ground.

Peace studies and the conflict transformation paradigm – which is characterized by giving priority to human needs and rights – refuses the possibility for conflict to be truly resolved without taking into account the human dimension of the problem, i.e. by simply preventing actors from using arms, even for an indefinite period of time.

Conflict could never be transformed only through superficial examination and knowledge, except when it is a pure misunderstanding or flippant dispute. That is because conflict is not just a thing it relates to, or what is it about, but its elements are also present in institutions, norms, customs, and attitudes and behaviour of people who are living with it.

Only when all these psychological and sociological entities become free of violence and delegitimize it, conflict can be transformed and society might give a constructive answer to its development challenges.

Ross Rutherford

As stated in the third principle, conflict transformation must seek to address the underlying causes of conflict rather than the symptomatic violence that arises as a result of unresolved conflict. Breaking-up a fist fight can certainly reduce the likelihood of one or both of the parties getting a bloody nose or going to jail. And in the case where one of the parties is the aggressor, it is a moral good to protect the non-belligerent party. But these two scenarios, as right as they may be, fail to address the cause of the violence, which was born out of the fact that the original conflict was not resolved by peaceful means.

Violence, as a means of settling disputes, is failed conflict resolution. When consensus or agreement cannot be reached on a particular issue and a situation devolves into one of violent conflict, the root causes are no longer of any consequence in the mind of the combatants. There is a “winner” and a “loser” and, in general, the “winner” defines what resolution looks like.

Forcing the losing party to accept the decision of the victor produces an environment where bitterness and hatred grow and fester resulting in the potential of renewed conflict when balances of power swing in the other’s favor. It is therefore incumbent on those who would see conflict transformed to do the hard work of identifying the underlying causes of conflict and developing strategies for bringing the involved parties to the place where those are discussed and resolved. If armed conflict is to be avoided, it will only be when the parties involved genuinely seek to acknowledge differing views and to reach a compromise.

Karen Siembieda, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

Conflict transformation must exist both to resolve conflicts and to keep peace after a resolution. In order to achieve this, both sides must shed their prejudices and look towards their shared interests.

Conflict is almost always seen as a zero sum game by the opposing sides; namely, they see every gain by the other side as a loss to their own. This is always one of the largest hurdles to conflict resolution. In order to transform the conflict, perspectives on resolution have to change. The zero sum game must be converted to a non-zero sum game. In order to do this, both sides must consider resolutions to the conflict that may be out of the box and address the issue in a new way. This means both sides need to find interests that they share. Then progress can be made that expands the negotiations to something larger, from which both sides can gain by breaking the zero sum game mold. Often this means breaking away from each side’s demands and digging deeper into realizing the very interests that drive those demands. Once initial progress can be made on these shared interests trust, can be built and further progress can be made.

Enmification is one of the most damaging ways in which a conflict can persist, even after physical conflict has ended and a resolution has been reached. The most negative aspect of enmification is its self-perpetuating nature. Opposing sides create negative caricatures of one another in order to make it easier to cause pain. As conflict continues, it becomes easier to reinforce these negative stereotypes. The cycle of enmification is one of the most difficult to shed from a conflict, but it may be the most important. This can only be done by creating situations where the two sides can interact without the potential of violence breaking out.

Conflict transformation must happen to truly resolve conflict and create a lasting peace by addressing the underlying interests that drive the conflict and by changing entrenched attitudes.

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Please visit in the coming days for further contributions to this debate!

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