Intractable conflicts have been with us for quite some time now. As these conflicts pose a serious threat to international peace and security, we may look at them and ask two basic questions; (1) how and why do they start, and (2) how best to end them? Here, I am concerned with the second issue. Intractable conflicts provide many opportunities for conflict management. Numerous international actors, ranging from private individuals to international organizations have an interest in settling or helping to de-escalate intractable conflicts. The main argument I wish to advance is that of all these efforts, mediation offers the most promising approach to managing intractable conflicts.

How can parties in an intractable conflict manage their difficulties? Parties in such conflicts usually think of violence or coercion as the most appropriate response. Other methods may be available to the parties (e.g. negotiation, recourse to the United Nations, or regional organizations, international adjudication, or asking for an international conference). However, given the nature of their conflict, and entrenched hostility, it would appear that the best approach would be that of mediation.

Part 4: Conditions for Successful Mediations in Intractable Conflicts

Mediation is an effective and useful way of dealing with intractable conflicts. This is not to suggest that every intractable conflict can be mediated. Many conflicts are just too intense, the parties too entrenched and the behaviour just too violent for any mediator to achieve very much. Some intractable conflicts go on and on with little signs of abatement. They cease to become intractable only when there is a major systemic change (e.g. change of leaders, collapse of country, etc.). How then can we distinguish between conflicts that can be mediated and those that cannot? When should mediators enter an intractable conflict, and how can they increase their chances of success?

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 escalatingconflicts, 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.

All these factors provide some guidance on when mediation might make a contribution to intractable conflicts, and when this will be extremely difficult. Surely other factors are present too, factors such as commitment to mediation and willingness to achieve a suitable outcome, desire to stop a cycle of violence, etc. These may be hard to identify and assess, but their presence or absence will surely affect the process and outcome of any mediation effort.


Intractable conflicts are driven by antagonists with a strong sense of identity, grievance of some sort (economic or political), and a desire to useviolence to change the status quo. In places as diverse as Israel, Sudan, Northern Ireland, Congo, Cyprus, Korea, Kashmir, and many others, intractable conflicts are responsible for continued violence and loss of lives. These conflicts threaten regional order and international stability. It is hard to get out of an intractable situation. Hard, but not impossible. There is nothing pre-ordained about the path of any conflict, intractable or otherwise. What I have tried to suggest above is that mediation may offer the prospect of escaping the dilemmas of intractability.

Mediation offers the possibility of a jointly acceptable outcome without giving in on one's core values and beliefs. Under some conditions mediation can actually break through an intractable cycle of violence. The availability of suitable mediators may help to transform an intractable conflict and produce a sustained agreement. For this to happen certain conditions have to be present. When the circumstances are indeed propitious, few processes can do more to reduce intractability of a conflict than a well planned mediation. We should be aware of these conditions and do our best to bring intractable conflicts to an end.

By Jacob Bercovitch

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Jacob Bercovitch is a professor of international relations in the Political Science Department at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He is widely regarded as a leading expert on international mediation, especially in protracted or intractable conflicts that repeatedly erupt into violence. Dr. Bercovitch has written and edited eight books on mediation and conflict resolution, the most recent being Studies in International Mediation (2000, editor) and International Conflict Management: 1945-1995 (1997). He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics.