Beyond stalemate: replacing the vicious with the virtuous circle

What is conflict transformation? How do you begin to approach the mutual hurt of conflict embedded in systems and culture? There are many strands to a challenging and delicate process. Here are some of them

Diana Francis
21 December 2009

from War to Peace logo

Stefanie Kappler’s challenging article, along with Paula Green’s passionate support, brings our debate alive, for which I am delighted and grateful.  

I am puzzled about some of the ideas Stefanie attributes to me. I agree with her view that public participation and the role of civil society cannot be limited to certain categories of people with the ‘right’ ideas. And as I shall argue again, the adoption of nonviolent means of working for change does not in itself make that change desirable. But as I am about to argue in this, my second article, it is precisely because local people are the ones embroiled in and afflicted by conflicts within their society that it is they who need to be primary actors for change there.

Conflicts need to be processed in an inclusive way and one of the catastrophes of the NATO action in Kosovo was that it came in on behalf of one (large) sector of the population and resulted in the ‘cleansing’ or marginalisation of other ethnic groups (as well as occasioning a sharp increase in the deaths of Albanian Kosovars). That was not conflict transformation but its opposite. And of course there is still much to be done in Northern Ireland to establish peace. Indeed peace is never reached once and for all, because nothing is static. Old conflicts are liable to re-emerge and new ones arise. As I have argued elsewhere, the end stage of conflict transformation is an ‘ongoing process of peace maintenance’ and ‘constructive conflict management’.

What I mean by peace is not the stability of a fixed state (which, as I shall argue in a later article, is the goal of pacification rather than peacebuilding). Peace as I mean it is not the absence of conflict. It is an active state or process characterised by the interrelated values of tolerance, fairness, respect, cooperation and kindness. It is an ideal that will never be reached in a pure form. But a society in which these values predominated and were formative of culture and institutions would fairly be called a peaceful society. But now I want to look more closely at some of the things we are talking about when we say ‘conflict transformation’.

Conflict transformation

Destructive social and political conflicts stem from greed, grievance or both. They are likely to be embedded in systems and relationships – social, political and economic – but they are fuelled by the way people think about each other. Cultural norms play a key role. 

Take, for example, the lop-sided and largely hidden gender conflict that in many societies is all too often expressed as violence by men against women. In cultures where such violence is widespread, a high proportion of men think it is right and proper: an expression of their dominance over their wives, who should be subject to their will in all things. These assumptions are supported by the laws of their country, which privilege men’s word over women’s, embody different behavioural expectations for men and women, and sanction discrimination against women in many aspects of life (inheritance, child custody, freedom to travel, freedom of association, sexual rights and more). Through their behaviour men reinforce the cultural norms that gave rise to these laws. Systems, culture and action are mutually perpetuating.  

This is the vicious circle that needs to be replaced by a virtuous one if entrenched conflicts are to be transformed. In any given situation of injustice, habitual violence or damaging conflict, it is first and foremost the people who live in that society who will have to bring about the transformation. This is in line with the principle of self-determination and applies everywhere: in inner-city Britain, pastoral Kenya or the contested territory of Israel/Palestine.

Partnerships between local, national and international NGOs are developed as a way of providing long-term ‘accompaniment’ for people working to transform conflict in their own villages, towns and countries, offering (at their best) encouragement, a different perspective, fresh expertise and both practical and moral support. 

Changing the way people think is the most vital aspect of conflict transformation. One crucial way to do this is to build bridges of communication, debate and even friendship between rival communities, parties or factions. This is done in secret meetings or open dialogue, in village gatherings or far away hotels. Sometimes cross-party structures are created (such as an inter-religious council in a village where religion is a divider) to build and maintain positive relationships and enable people to work together towards common goals.

Setting up dialogue

In tense and violent situations, when feelings are running high, it is not easy to set up any kind of dialogue. To make it happen requires courage, patience, careful communication and delicate judgement. In one past conflict the leader of an armed group was afraid to move out of his camp, for fear of enemies within his own faction. Meanwhile his counterpart in the opposing group thought he was insincere in his commitment to meet and was ready to pull out. The intermediary had to try and keep both leaders committed to talks without divulging the confidential information he had been given. Fortunately he was a local mediator, with intimate knowledge of the different players and the relationship between them. He also had seemingly endless contacts. But sometimes he needed the support of outsiders, whose presence as witnesses gave status to local efforts and encouraged the parties to be on their best behaviour. At certain points it was easier for them to name issues that needed to be addressed and to facilitate tense discussions. At other times they were not wanted. Dignity and free talk required absolute privacy.   

Dialogue is needed not only by those directly involved in a conflict but also by people from different communities who would like to contribute to peace, but who still are wary of each other and find it difficult to talk to each other constructively. Such discussions sometimes take place in workshops. These may start with training, in which participants can choose to focus on case studies from elsewhere until they are ready to tackle their own situation. In Lebanon for instance, on the eve of the fifth and last day of a workshop, one participant asked angrily, ‘Why have we spent four days talking about everything except our own conflict?’ ‘Why indeed?’ was the reply. ‘You have one day left to do it!’

This kind of civil society dialogue can be an opportunity for thinking about ways forward, even while the main protagonists are not ready. Sometimes the people who participate have the ear of the political leadership; at other times their influence is with ‘ordinary citizens’ and can be catalytic in changing public opinion.

Intimate processes

Hearing about the needs and fears of others (even trying to imagine them in a truly empathic way) helps people in conflict to understand what ingredients will be needed in any workable solution. It also has a powerful emotional impact. I remember a group of young leaders in the Balkans who were meeting ‘the other side’ for the first time. They arrived at the venue in a shared bus and had clearly managed to ‘be nice’ to each other on the way. But that niceness was brittle. When, on the following morning, they began to talk to each other about the conflict, they were nervous, and rightly so, since what they had to say was full of blame and anger. But when they told each other about their needs and fears, the anger melted away and was replaced by tears of recognition. From that point the young people were able to think seriously together about the things that needed to change, for all their sakes, and what they could do to bring change about.

These are necessarily intimate processes. Since the numbers of people who can be directly involved in them is small, peacemakers with the relevant skills often use the mass media to give a taste of dialogue to a wider audience. TV journalists from Georgia and Abkhazia, for instance, visited each other’s capitals and interviewed ordinary people on camera. They asked about their experiences of the conflict, past and present, and about their dreams for the future. Then they made a deeply moving film that was broadcast from both cities, and used in public meetings, to stimulate discussion and generate new attitudes. 

Other groups extend their influence by infiltrating the education system. A group of activists in Belgrade (mostly psychologists by training) managed to introduce modules into the primary school curriculum that would teach children about prejudice and how to counter it and enable them to tackle conflict constructively. They also conducted a study of the gender stereotypes promulgated through early readers (where in a high proportion of illustrations men were wearing military uniform). They used their findings to raise awareness in educational circles at home and abroad. 

Creating a peace constituency

It may be that out of sheer weariness, having reached a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’, the leaders in a conflict are ready to make a deal. However, having sold the war to their followers they cannot immediately go over their heads and conclude a peace that (inevitably, if all-out victory has eluded them) falls short of their original aspirations. To conclude a settlement and see it hold, they need to have the public behind them, or their own authority will be called into question. Building public opinion in support of peace, creating a ‘peace constituency’, is a vital role for peacemakers. So, for instance, the churches played a vital role in South Africa, preparing the ground in all communities for a peaceful transition to majority rule.

Popular involvement in a peace process can bring different groups together, give the process momentum and help to keep it going. It can also inject new energy to restart it when it falters and eventually carry it through to settlement. Between 1991 and 1996, Mali struggled to end a civil war. Civil society groups played a vital role in eventually bringing peace. At one stage the government itself called a national conference to discuss the situation and see what could be done. Later, at the President’s invitation, civil society took the lead in peacemaking initiatives and it was inter-community meetings that brought an end to the armed confrontation and laid the foundations for peace.

I have not mentioned here the activities of nonviolent movements for change that are mobilised to confront injustice and demand change. Such movements take the risk of bringing conflict into the open in order to work for its just resolution and they certainly exist – like the land-rights movement in India, where recently a months-long march was undertaken by 25000 of the most marginalised people. Through their sacrificial commitment they scored a spectacular success, with the government acceding to their key demands for a National Land Reform Committee and setting up a new National Council on Land Reform, chaired by the Prime Minister. But movements like this one, or like the desperately courageous peace communities of Colombia (which refuse cooperation with both government or insurgent militias), are not adequately represented or supported in the theory and practice of conflict transformation. I shall discuss this weakness, and others, in following articles. Here I want to acknowledge the courage, skill and tenacity of people around the world who have made conflict transformation work, both in small, local ways and in contributions to large-scale change. Please write in with your comments and stories.


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