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 1: What Mediation Is

Mediation is a process of conflict management, related to but distinct from the parties' own negotiations, where those in conflict seek the assistance of, or accept an offer of help from, an outsider (whether an individual, an organization, a group, or a state) to change their perceptions or behavior, and to do so without resorting to physical force or invoking the authority of law. The essential characteristics of mediation are highlighted below:

  1. Mediation is an extension of the parties' own efforts to manage their conflict. Where they fail, a third party (mediator) is called in.
  2. Thus, mediation involves the intervention of an outsider; an individual, a group or an organization into a conflict between two states or other actors.
  3. This intervention is non-coercive, non-violent, and ultimately non-binding.
  4. Mediators enter a conflict, whether internal or international, in order to affect it, change it, resolve it, modify or influence it in some way. Their overriding interest is to reduce violence and achieve a peaceful outcome.
  5. Mediators bring with them, consciously or otherwise, ideas, knowledge, resources, and prestige. These are used throughout the process to advance the cause of conflict resolution.
  6. Mediation is a voluntary form of conflict management. This means the adversaries in an intractable conflict choose whether to begin or continue mediation or not, and they retain their control over the outcome (if not always over the process) of their conflict, as well as their freedom to accept or reject any aspects of the process or the ultimate agreement.
  7. Mediation operates on an ad hoc basis only. Once completed, a mediator departs the arena of the conflict.

All these features make mediation very attractive to parties in an intractable conflict.

Mediation is practiced widely in international relations. It has many advantages that may appeal to parties in a bitter conflict. As described above, it is ad hoc in nature, non-coercive, and voluntary, which makes it less threatening than other possible conflict management options. It is non-evaluative and non-judgmental and it is particularly suited to the reality of international relations, where states and other actors guard their autonomy and independence quite jealously. It offers both parties the prospects of a better outcome without necessarily having any direct meetings with a sworn enemy. It is also a process that leaves the ultimate decision on any outcome to the parties themselves. These aspects of mediation make it a very attractive method for dealing with intractable conflicts.

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. www.beyondintractability.org