Interethnic riots had broken out when a nationalist leader stepped out in front of a group of members of his own ethnic group, as they grew angry and prepared to go and physically confront the “other side” in the streets of their city. This leader stood his ground, calmly but firmly faced his own people, and persuaded them not to commit violence against the other group. Later he said that he would not have even thought of doing so if not for the interethnic dialogue process he had gone through earlier. That dialogue process had changed his relationship with members of his own group as well as with members of the other group. “He still had conflict with members of the other group but the nature of that conflict had changed.” (Cleven, p. 11).

While that sort of shift is inspiring, Erik Cleven says it can only come from the people directly involved in the conflict, not from third party intervenors. Cleven is studying conflict between ethnic groups in Kenya. He’s also been involved in conversations between Serbs and Albanians from Kosovo, between Chechens and Russians, and has consulted with people working in Mexican communities confronting drug violence. In a recent White Paper published by ISCT, available here, he explains why transformative dialogue is needed in these contexts. He says there are three fundamental reasons that transformative dialogue is the thing:

1) Ethically speaking, it’s not appropriate for an intervenor to presume to know what the appropriate goals of the intervention are, as intervenors often do in current peacebuilding frameworks. Cleven points out that even such a noble goal as peace may be less important in some circumstances than the participants’ autonomy — their opportunity to make their own decisions.

If we [as intervenors] bring a framework for peacebuilding to a group of participants, we have already made important decisions about how to view the conflict, how to talk about it and what we ultimately want to do about it, without the involvement of the parties in these decisions. In fact, we are imposing these frameworks on the discussions, something which could result in topics that the participants deem to be important never being discussed, or forcing them to talk about things they do not want to talk about. (Cleven, p. 7)

In short, intervenors who seek to help but who bring their own assumptions about what’s needed interfere with the participants’ fundamental human need for autonomy and agency.

2) Next Cleven observes that an intervenor pushing for change can both endanger participants and foster changes that are not sustainable. He cites the example of the American Civil Rights movement, where important progress was made toward social justice. But the progress that occurred in the 50’s and 60’s may not have been possible in the 20’s and 30’s - it would have been unhelpful and likely dangerous for an intervenor to have pushed protesters toward taking action earlier - the protesters themselves needed to make their own decisions about the risks, the potential benefits, and the other factors that weighed into their decisions about when and how to act. As another example, an intervenor nowadays in Afghanistan might wish for women’s rights to be advanced – as Cleven does himself. But it would be problematic, Cleven says, for him or other intervenors to push women there to take action, as that action could bring great harm to them under current conditions.

3) Further, Cleven asserts that the transformative framework takes the relational aspect of peacebuilding much further by integrating it with the idea of party deliberation and decision-making. He says this framework asks the question “Who needs to talk to whom about what and how?” Asking these questions of the participants leads to more meaningful answers. Cleven goes on to describe what transformation means in the ethno-polical context:

In the context of ethno-political conflict people often experience transformation as they discover new facts and information, see things from a new point of view, gain agency and efficacy for their lives and have the chance to connect with others they would not normally connect with. Often the transformation can be on a personal rather than a community level…

This does not necessarily entail reconciliation. In some cases new patterns of interaction occur across ethnic divides. In other cases, people can retain nationalist attitudes vis-à-vis the other side, but nonetheless change their interaction in positive ways. (Cleven, p. 10-11)

Cleven then explains how an intervenor proceeds in this framework, with constant respect for participants’ autonomy, including especially their choices about when not to participate. Finally, Cleven concludes that while democratization, and human and civil rights, are good things, the decisions to pursue them and how to do so need to be made by the parties themselves, not by third parties. No one but the man who stepped out in front of his own group and persuaded them not to do violence was in a position to do that.

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by Dan Simon

Dan Simon teaches and practices transformative mediation in St. Paul, MN. He also writes the blog at The Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation.