Perspectives on conflict resolution
Conflict is manifested through adversarial social action, involving two or more actors with the expression of differences often accompanied by intense hostilities. The conditions of scarcity (for instance, caused by soil degradation or depletion of water in river basins or lakes in Central Africa) and value incompatibilities can become a continuing source of contention. Most significantly, protracted conflict arises from the failure to manage antagonistic relationships. Despite economic difficulties and cultural diversity, South Africa and many other societies have been able to eventually overcome inter-communal rivalries and develop various types of institutions which can renegotiate opposing economic and political interests democratically. In Switzerland, the Netherlands and other advanced democratic countries, regional and cultural divergence has not created social disruptions or armed violence. Indeed, opposing roles and positions have been harmonized and institutionally accommodated without the destruction of the social fabric. In contrast with the coexistence of multi-ethnic communities in Western Europe and North America, religious, language and racial differences have served as a means to rally various rival groups in a struggle for power and territorial gains in many other parts of the world, stretching from the Middle East, Central Asia, the Balkans, and the Caucasus to Latin America. The eruption of uncontrolled violence has cost the loss of many lives, destroyed homes and economic devastation in war-torn societies, most notably Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sri Lanka, and BosniaHerzegovina. In understanding conflict, we need to examine the quality of relationships that reveals the way we relate to each other socially, economically and culturally as well as how political decisions are made. Even though conflict has been treated like an uncontrolled fight in chaotic, lawless societies (as exemplified in Somalia and Afghanistan), differences between opponents can be handled in a non-adversarial manner. In order to establish functional relationships, the solution should be found through negotiated agreements rather than resorting to violent tactics. The opposing positions can be examined for persuasion via verbal arguments. Traditional models of settling diverse interests focus on the management of disagreement and tension within the constraints of the prevailing system. Various dispute resolution mechanisms in communities, corporations, and government agencies have been institutionalized to promote a more rule-governed society by handling complaints arising from employment relations, poor quality of services, claims over property ownership among neighbors, or opposition to development projects. In a more destructive, large-scale conflict, deeper sources of resentment might be related to economic disparities and political oppression. The United Nations, Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, African Union, and other regional organizations have
developed conflict mitigation and management mechanisms ranging from fact-finding missions in the cases of human rights abuses or minority rights violations to good offices (designed for assistance in communication between adversarial states in support of easing tensions). Removing misperceptions of adversaries is regarded as a vital step toward settling differences and institutionalizing a new relationship. Indeed, reduced enemy perceptions play a crucial role in initiating a collaborative process. Minimizing value incompatibilities has to touch upon reconciling a different sense of identity by acknowledging each party’s needs, intrinsic to their survival and maintenance of dignity. Most importantly, the process and outcome of negotiating different values and incompatible interests reflect not only perceptual, subjective differences but also power relations between dominant and subordinate groups. It is essential to shed light on diverse phenomena, extending from group dynamics to structural adjustment in an adversarial social system in order to accommodate the vital interests and needs of those who have been alienated and suffered from injustice. Whereas a complex conflict has many underlying sources (both structural and psychological), it is necessary to define conflict in a specific pattern of interactions between opponents being influenced by identity differences and overarching social relations as well as power asymmetry. One of the primary tasks of conflict resolution is to avert the recurrence of destructive conflict by qualitatively altering antagonistic relationships. Beyond responding to a few manifest, contentious issues, mutually acceptable outcomes stem from finding remedies for power imbalances and inequitable social and economic relations which are often the main source of grievances. The nature of adverse relationships needs to be transformed by supporting consensus on power sharing, enhancement of individual and group well-being as well as a guarantee of security. A large map of conflict formation and transformation can reveal the nature of a struggle as well as the processes for changing psychological perceptions. There are wide differences among conflicts in terms of their scope and group dynamics, as is illustrated by a comparison between the guerrilla warfare in Chechnya and the nonviolent protest against brutal Chinese rule in Tibet. In transforming adversarial relationships, we need to investigate how group processes are linked to structural conditions. Inter-group relations are constrained by a superimposed political structure as well as by internal group dynamics such as rivalry between factions which take different attitudes toward conflict.