Conflict Transformed? The start of a debate

In the first article of her series, Diana Francis reviews the aspirations and achievements of conflict transformers over the past twenty years, and argues that the only realistic response to the global phenomenon of war is to develop ‘nonviolence’ as a just and effective way forward.

Diana Francis
24 November 2009
from War to Peace logo

At the time when the Soviet empire began to break up, I was working with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), a network of local nonviolence activists around the world. We were elated at the astonishing impact of ‘people-power’, which had already shown its strength in the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, amazing the world with images of euphoric crowds blocking tanks and nuns offering flowers to soldiers. Now popular mobilisation had caused or at least precipitated the collapse of an oppressive superpower. Surely now the ability of ordinary people to address tyranny without violence had become an established reality. The arms race would go into reverse and the ‘peace dividend’ would release money for global development.

But soon new, intra-state conflicts multiplied, with ethno-nationalism filling the ideological void that was left in former Soviet countries (such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) as old identities and orthodoxies were abandoned by some and clung onto by others. Though the former Yugoslavia held together for a decade after Tito’s death, the post-Soviet era saw the rise of nationalism there too, under the leadership of Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic, with catastrophic results for the entire region. In Africa the continuing impact of colonialism, of artificial state boundaries and of vested interests in natural resources, along with home-grown violence in response to the greed of elites and destructive tribal allegiances, brought chaos and misery on a grand scale.

My IFOR colleagues and I, along with many others who, like me, had been supporters of liberation struggle, now saw that a perpetual state of turbulence could be damaging to societies and that what for some were ‘just causes’ could from other perspectives appear as inflammatory myths and bigotry. In short, while we retained our commitment to justice as a necessary ingredient of peace, we began to recognise with new clarity the importance of accommodating differences and bringing conflicts (so often in practice destructive) to an end.

In this new context the theory and practice of conflict resolution burgeoned and began to address urgent new problems. For example, what Hugh Miall et al refer to as ‘classical conflict resolution’ had been understood as a process conducted between relatively equal parties who could be persuaded to take each other seriously. But the new, intra-state conflicts were often ‘asymmetrical’. It became clear that where there was a gross structural imbalance, this would have to be addressed first, before any resolution process could be viable. The ‘latent conflict’ of ‘structural violence’ would need to be brought into the open, through the ‘conscientisation’ or awakening and mobilisation of the underdogs, so that they became a force to be reckoned with.

It had become apparent that changing the dynamics of large-scale political conflicts of different kinds and at different stages, replacing violence with constructive action, would involve a wide variety of processes, and actors and institutions at every level of society. The term ‘conflict transformation’ was used to embrace this broadened thinking and the corresponding range of necessary activity.

It has been widely recognised that popular support for peace, a ‘peace constituency’, can be crucial in persuading or enabling politicians to enter into peace agreements and for those agreements to hold (just as the lack of adequate support among Palestinians for the Oslo Accord, exacerbated by the continued expansion of the settlements, led to the rise of Hamas and the intensification of the Middle East crisis). Excellent studies have also been made of the involvement of public participation in negotiation processes for the settlement of conflicts.

The theory also expanded to include what would need to happen once a settlement had been reached and overt violence has come to an end. For instance, it was recognised that reconciliation would necessitate processes for ‘dealing with the past’ (DWP), as well as the building of a just society with a ‘constructive conflict culture’. The practice of developing the theory, in response to experience and its analysis, has been taken seriously in many quarters. There has, in my experience, been no complacency. Yet I believe that there have been serious deficiencies.

While the theory has embraced the notions of constructive conflict, just outcomes and popular involvement, practice has focused more on achieving stability than on removing tyranny, that is on the resolution of conflicts that have reached the stage of open violence and support for recovery from it. The language of ‘basic human needs’, so central to conflict resolution, has continued to predominate, leaving little place for the discourse of liberation, justice and human rights. Correspondingly, the theory and practice of nonviolent resistance and engagement in conflict have remained marginal to the conflict transformation field. If armed conflict is ever to be displaced as the recourse of oppressed groups (as ‘conflict prevention’ would seem to require) this is a serious limitation.

As I shall argue in a later piece in this series, there is no contradiction between ‘needs’ and ‘rights’. But war as a mechanism for protecting either is disastrously counter-productive, as its track record shows. Displacing war as a supposed means of protection and as a route to justice must be the goal of conflict transformation. For this to be possible, nonviolent forms of achieving legitimate goals (making just provision for human needs) will have to be developed.

There have been important successes in conflict transformation and in my next article I will review the brave and imaginative work that has been done. At the same time, despite the broadening of both theory and practice and the determined efforts of many people and organisations, both local and international, many old conflicts have often proved intractable and violence continues or remains a threat (in Colombia, Georgia, Northern Uganda, Nagorno Karabach, Moldova and the Philippines, to name but a few). And in Sri Lanka, where so much effort has been made by local people and international organisations to bring the decades of violent conflict to a just and durable conclusion, the Tamil Tigers have at last been crushed by government forces, with great harm to civilians and severe repression in all parts of the island, all of which bodes ill for the future.

In addition, new wars have been launched by the very governments that subscribe to the notion of ‘conflict prevention’: first against Serbia (after persistent neglect of the plight of Albanian Kosovars and their decade-long campaign of nonviolent resistance); then against Afghanistan, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the USA; then against Iraq (the purpose claimed for this last war having shifted from ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to ‘regime change’). The aftermath as well as the process of the war against Serbia has been bitter, including the effective formation of a new ‘ethnic state’ – still unrecognised by many countries – with massive US military bases. Iraq is left in ruins and the suffering of ordinary people continues, and the fighting in Afghanistan continues unabated, the lives of most being subject to corrupt, violent and misogynist power.

The Cold War itself has never really ended. New alignments are being formed and the structural relationships between global powers have become more complex, but Russia and the CIS have been isolated by exclusion from a continuing NATO and the proposed US missile defence shield, now shelved, has sharpened their attitude towards the West.

In this context our efforts at conflict transformation can seem puny and our aspirations unreal. Within the community of practitioners, the commitment remains strong but our earlier hopes have given way to an ongoing debate about the causes of our failure to achieve the desired impact on ‘conflict writ large’. Even within the community of practitioners it has been asked whether those of us who work for conflict transformation are ‘just wasting our time’.

Constructive ideas have been put forward for strengthening the impact of our work and we should take these seriously. At the same time we must ask ourselves how it would be possible to bring about large-scale change while the structures, the behaviour and the culture of global militarism continue.

While war and the threat of it remain the dominant model of conflict and the culture of contest prevails, the transformation of large-scale conflicts is likely to remain elusive and local efforts will be subject to catastrophic influences.

The recent debate on openDemocracy about the ‘liberal peace’ – its rationale and deficiencies - while interesting in itself, misses the heart of the matter, which is the need for a fundamental shift in international relations, from the goal of domination to one of cooperation and interdependence. That will be possible only when we transform the global culture that not only permits but glorifies armed violence - framing war, the scourge of humanity, as not only inevitable but heroic.

This new debate over the coming months will provide the time and space to explore the countless ways in which these ideas pervade our culture (most insidiously and importantly through gender), as well as what will be necessary to change them. This is an opportunity for serious and extensive reflection and, through our blog on 50.50, to enlist readers’ help in using it.

The practitioners and theoreticians of conflict transformation, if they are to be true to their calling, must develop analysis and strategy for transforming the global structures and practices of violence, in a process of global demilitarisation that includes minds as well as societies, promoting a very different approach to what is now called ‘foreign policy’ and a new understanding of power. This is what ‘working to scale’ requires. It is the only realistic response to the current global nature of the problem.

In the light of the looming catastrophe of climate change (which for many in the global South has already had deadly consequences); the chronic warfare that is endemic in many regions; the continuing threat of an arms race that could lead to the destruction or our planet; the gross human rights violations and tyranny that characterise many societies, and the cruel misery of the poverty in which millions subsist, positive peace seems light years away.

If we are to survive as a species and to live in any kind of decency, we will need to take a quantum leap forward in genuine civilisation (as against displays of cleverness and wealth). Addressing these issues will be a planetary necessity.

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