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 2: Mediation Behavior

What is it that mediators can actually do in intractable conflicts? Mediators have many resources, strategies and techniques available to them for trying to transform an intractable conflict into a tractable one. Specifically, mediators may use one of the following three strategies in the course of helping to deal with an intractable conflict. They may rely on (a) communication-facilitation strategies, (b) procedural strategies, or (c) directive strategies.

(a) Communication-facilitation strategies describe mediator behavior at the low end of the intervention spectrum. Here a mediator typically adopts a fairly passive role, channeling information to the parties, facilitating cooperation, but exhibiting little control over the more formal process or substance of mediation. This is a very important role in the context of intractable conflicts, where parties in conflict lack direct channels of communication, have different conceptions of the central issues, and/or do not even have the opportunity to explore any options that might benefit both. In such situations, a mediator who can facilitate dialogue and communication, and just carry out information from one to the other, is a prerequisite for an effective process of peacemaking. Norway's intervention in bringing about the Oslo Accords in 1993 is a good example of what we mean by communication-facilitation strategies.

(b) Procedural strategies enable a mediator to bring both parties together, in some neutral environment, where they (i.e., the mediator) exert some control over the conflict management process. Here a mediator may exercise control over timing, issues on the agenda, meeting place and arrangements, media publicity, the distribution of information, and the formality or flexibility of the meetings. A good example of the effective use of procedural strategies is President Carter's control over all aspects of the physical setting at Camp David in 1978.

Procedural strategies give a mediator the opportunity to control aspects of interaction. This is very significant for parties in an intractable conflict who may not have had an opportunity to interact together in any other place save the battlefield. Procedural strategies help to minimize stress and disruption that arise when two or more conflictual parties who have little history of peacemaking get together to deal with their intractable conflict.

(c) Directive strategies are the most powerful form of intervention. Here a mediator works hard to shape the content and nature of a final outcome. This is done by offering each party in conflict incentives, promises of support, or threats of diplomatic sanctions. When a mediator engages in such behavior, the parties are confronted with new resources or the prospect of losing resources. This may change the value they attach to their conflict and produce behavior that is more consonant with the requirements of conflict resolution.

Directive strategies are crucial in any intractable conflict. They allow a mediator to break through a cycle of violence by changing the factors influencing the parties' decision making. By making financial or diplomatic support contingent on co-operation, people who are otherwise opposed to settlement might be persuaded to agree to one. President Carter, for instance, was able to break through both Israeli and Egyptian intransigence at Camp David by promising them both $2 billion each if they would sign a ceasefire agreement. Directive strategies take the form of promises of rewards or threats of withdrawals, if certain agreements are not made or actions are not taken. In either case they are significant in getting parties in an intractable conflict to change their values and behavior.

By Jacob Bercovitch

Read Article—

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.