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Conflict Transformation

The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace

Ho-Won Jeong

Conflict Transformation. 

In a long-lasting conflict, it is difficult to know when resolution has been achieved because the end of successful negotiation does not necessarily mean the sudden emergence of harmony. Questions remain as to whether an agreement on contentious issues is sufficient to build durable future relations. Indeed, initial agreement on different aspects of problems may not be comprehensive enough to bring about changes in a broad conflict relationship. The expected outcome of conflict resolution may not be realized, as situations beyond the control of the parties have a negative impact on intergroup relations. With changing circumstances and the need for adjustment, the original agreement demands renegotiation. Former adversaries may even abandon the agreement, and the old issues may resurface. In a response to many failed peacemaking processes, an emphasis on conflict transformation touches not only on compromising on a narrow set of issues but also on developing new relationships along with changes in attitudes and psychological orientations.

The term “conflict transformation” has emerged, in part, in an effort to advocate the ethos of conflict resolution as distinguished from management activities that are less concerned with social justice. As the field of conflict studies has evolved, it has been realized that adversarial relationships must become less antagonistic and be manifested less destructively for a more sustainable peace to emerge. More importantly, transformative approaches to conflict draw our attention to such issues as the empowerment of marginalized groups and the fact that most conflicts are asymmetrical; in particular, the outcome of a conflict is often affected by power imbalances. This article examines the definitions of conflict transformation, their conceptual value, and practical applications and reviews features of and conditions for the evolution of conflict relationships and dynamics.

Conflict Dynamics

The process of conflict can be regarded as open-ended, especially when the conflict has no obvious end. In fact, unplanned structural changes may generate new rivalry among groups that are competing for higher sociopolitical status and economic advantage. Old arrangements for the distribution of power and wealth sometimes need to be renegotiated in response to demographic changes, industrialization, modernization, and globalization.

Coercive strategies, such as “bombing for peace,” intended to defeat an enemy fuel further power contests. Not every situation will result in a prompt cessation of armed hostilities, when escalation results in escalating counterforce. The impact of negative conflict dynamics can further polarize adversarial relationships and deepen social divisions based on class, religion, or ethnicity.

Without de-escalation efforts, a conflict can become intractable until one party is victorious and imposes its will on the defeated. The intensity of conflict can be modified by giving up destructive means in the pursuit of one’s objectives, reflecting the willingness to seek negotiated settlement. The first step in making a protracted conflict constructive is to ensure that a zero-sum struggle becomes less intense and that hostilities are reduced. A decrease in violence helps to open more substantive dialogue.

We often know only in retrospect what triggers the transformation of a protracted struggle. The dynamics of relationships continue to evolve before and even after settlement of differences at the negotiating table, because conflict is changeable. For instance, despite the conclusion of two peace accords in the 1990s, Angola slipped back into civil war because the rebel leadership boycotted the elections. In the absence of relational reconciliation, hostilities resurged during Lebanon’s civil war period in the late 1970s and 1980s after years of coexistence among rival ethnic communities. Postconflict relationships need to be based on new or reformed institutions and healing of social wounds inflicted on community members by violence.

The Nature of Transformation

Relationships between parties are affected by the internal and external environments of a conflict system. Various sources of conflict restructure antagonistic relationships; dramatic turns in a long-term struggle can be caused by changes in one of the major adversaries, as when a new leadership departs from a previous regime’s policies. Many civil wars—such as those in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mozambique—where adversaries had support from the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, subsided after the end of the Cold War with the demise of the communist-bloc countries that supported leftist guerillas or governments.

The patterns of interaction in the struggle evolve along with changes in the rules of engagement that influence the understanding of acceptable and unacceptable boundaries of behavior. Rules can be adopted to regulate the conduct of fighting. For instance, the Geneva Convention was developed to reduce cruelty toward enemy combatants. Sometimes, tacit rules emerge without an explicit agreement. Each side can learn how the other side responds in various circumstances and so reduce misunderstandings, and implicit rules may be established without the exchange of explicit messages or the negotiation of agreements. This occurred to some extent in U.S.–Soviet relations during the Cold War.

A break in a stalemate can be initiated by one of the parties, but successful de-escalation requires reciprocal action from the other side. In fact, conciliatory gestures can be made to the adversaries despite their initial rejection and continued expression of hostility. In order to move toward de-escalation, each party reciprocates the other’s conciliatory actions. Because de-escalation can be resisted by those whose interests are negatively affected by concessions, effective leadership is essential to garner support for a negotiated settlement.

Transformation of Conflict Dynamics

As conflict emerges, preventive measures can be taken to limit violent escalation. Nonviolent and even noncoercive measures may be used. This can indicate respect for the opponent and the expectation that a mutually acceptable change is feasible. Much depends upon the responsiveness of the target of such efforts. Recognition of the grievances being presented can lead to the discovery of mutually acceptable accommodations. In many recurrent conflicts, systemic, underlying sources of contention are never properly addressed because of the refusal to accept new political arrangements or equitable sharing of power that help guarantee autonomy for ethnic and religious groups.

After a conflict has escalated destructively, remedial transformation of the conflict is more difficult. Transitional steps may be designed to avert continuing violence or threat of violence. Cease-fires, confidence-building measures, the elimination of provocative military postures, and mutual reassurances are helpful in developing trust and enabling antagonistic parties to negotiate substantial agreements. Negotiated settlements made directly or through an intermediary can provide a foundation for cessation of violence and initiation of healing. In a large-scale and protracted social conflict, many sectors of society are involved in social reconstruction.

Since a long-lasting conflict divides societies, a return to the status quo may be neither possible nor desirable. The end-state needs new mutually acceptable rules and institutions. The promotion of mutual understanding aims to overcome adversarial relationships. The development of new attitudes and behavior is a precondition for altered relationships, and a sense of self and other aspects of identity can be modified in an attempt to coexist with other groups that have different worldviews and belief systems. Both systemic and attitudinal changes would prohibit conflict from returning in another form.

Postconflict relationships can focus on the new behavior of members of adversarial communities, rectification of structural injustice, and amicable settlements of future differences within the agreed framework of coexistence. Postconflict reconstruction is supported by economic and social measures that help assure equity for marginalized groups. Interethnic peace is often aided by reconciliation through healing, forgiveness, and mutual acknowledgment of past suffering.

Structural Dimensions

The elimination of injustice requires the analysis not just of superficial differences or grievances but also of underlying causes. The protests by Tibetan monks are a response to economic, political, and cultural oppression since the Chinese occupation in 1950. An existing conflict can be redefined by shedding light on unjust social structures, rather than by simply targeting narrow issues implicated in the manifest struggle.

Since large-scale changes in the sociopolitical system influence the conflict, an underlying aim of conflict resolution is to look beyond the conflict itself to institutional deficiencies. When conflict is embedded in certain aspects of the sociopolitical system, responding to the underlying causes of the conflict often requires larger structural changes. Inclusion of minority groups in a political decision-making process helps to mitigate gross inequalities and injustices built into discriminatory institutions. It takes a long time to produce changes in a protracted conflict caused by economic, sociocultural, or other structural factors. Power imbalances can be overcome by various methods of empowerment such as opportunities for a weaker party to air their grievances through institutional mechanisms.

In a search for more equitable social relations, new institutions must replace the system that perpetuates group hierarchies. Whereas revolution may bring about radical changes through the use of coercion over a short period of time, conflict resolution espouses consensus-based changes. For instance, as relations among the peoples of South Africa were changing, the white minority government in South Africa yielded its power to the black majority through a negotiated process of peaceful settlement. There are many types of communal conflicts, small and large, that cannot be resolved in a framework of structural injustice. In fact, sustainable relationships emerge from genuinely acceptable, self-supporting resolutions to accommodate diverse cultural values and provide opportunities for self-realization. New patterns of relationships need to be anchored in major structural changes in conflict systems.

Transformation of Asymmetric Relations

The weaker party in a relationship is less able to achieve effects that they desire. An oppressive party often wants to impose changes on marginalized parties while seeking its own dominance. For instance, the Chinese government has been using the migration of Han nationals to Tibet and Xinjiang to solidify its control over the original inhabitants. In this situation, weaker parties may attempt to depend on moral and spiritual superiority since they have little physical power over their opponent. In their decades-long struggle under Chinese occupation, Tibetans have promoted nonviolent Buddhist culture worldwide to draw attention to their cause.

The raising of consciousness of injustice is essential to the empowerment of a weaker party and the struggle for structural changes. Increased awareness and mobilization of support for a moral cause strengthen the position of an oppressed party before the negotiation of a new relationship. New knowledge about political participation and the social awareness of rights and responsibilities contribute to empowerment in indigenous communities in Bolivia and other parts of Latin America.

Political mobilization of a marginalized party is needed to confront an oppressive party before moving on to negotiation and mediation. Nonviolent struggle and education can be adopted as a main strategy to overcome the intransigence of a powerful party. India achieved independence through civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent resistance organized by Mohandas Gandhi beginning before World War II, but nonviolent struggle in such countries as China and Burma faces difficulties because the oppressive regimes suppress all protest.

While indigenous culture can be used to enhance the solidarity of a weaker party in a power-imbalanced conflict, public awareness of injustice in an oppressive party’s society can lead to social and political movements designed to pressure government officials to stop atrocities. Oppressed parties themselves can take initiatives to transform an unjust system, but the struggle needs to be supported by a public that shows sympathy to the victims in their struggle. In response to the brutal military rule in Burma and to the Sudanese government’s engagement in genocide in Darfur, many international NGOs began to campaign to protect the lives of victims by demanding that their governments impose economic sanctions on the oppressive regimes.

In asymmetric conflicts, unjust social relationships based on racial or other types of discrimination need to be replaced with more egalitarian ones. Unbalanced power relations are an obstacle to equitable solutions to a conflict; efforts to change the status quo may further escalate the struggle by mobilizing sympathizers with one’s own cause. To counter an imbalance in power, the victims of oppression must take the moral high ground in order to transform the asymmetric relationship. The broad social and economic changes stem from a long-term vision and persistence.

Methods of Transformation

Personal, relational, and system transformations affect conflict dynamics differently. Methods for changing relationship dynamics may focus on improved understanding through the exchange of viewpoints. Transformative mediation, analytical problem solving, dialogue, and collaborative learning are all designed to achieve attitudinal changes and perhaps also behavioral changes. While immediate attitudinal changes may be accomplished in a short time with dramatic conciliatory gestures, structural transformations may require the long-term redistribution of wealth and decision-making power.

The cessation of violence is the most essential step toward any normalized relationship. In civil war, peace monitors may be deployed to mitigate the abuse of civilian populations by government and rebel forces. Intervention is based ethically on the need to protect civilians from violence. The tasks of official diplomacy include the dispatch of special envoys and fact-finding missions to cool off confrontations that may evolve into humanitarian disasters.

When parties fail to work out differences by themselves, a third party may intervene. The efforts to settle conflict may start with nonofficial facilitation, mediation, and arbitration. At the initial stage of contact between long-term adversaries, shuttle diplomacy helps facilitate the exchange of viewpoints. Transformative resolution is an attempt at collaborative problem solving; these efforts are supported by research, training, and educational programs that provide not only analysis but also consultation. Negotiation assisted by international mediators may focus on a search for shared interests and on the collaborative exploration of solutions to problems.

Moving an intractable conflict toward resolution may require efforts in many forums of critical analysis and negotiation. Elite negotiators may neglect the real necessities of their constituents for the sake of compromise. Individuals, groups, and organizations need to be empowered to negotiate postconflict relationships in nation building and reconciliation. The transitional period in post-Apartheid South Africa greatly benefited not only from the national Truth and Reconciliation Commissions but also from many local peace committees that handled communal disputes.

Facilitation and dialogue can be applied to multiple settings where adversaries are not willing to talk to each other. Local citizens and groups can play a part in transforming and ending conflict. For instance, groups of women peacemakers in violence-torn western African countries met with various militia factions and government leaders and pressured them to lay down arms. Their work contributed eventually to a peaceful transition in Liberia with the election of a woman president. Nonofficial dialogue among opinion makers and influential figures representing adversarial communities can pave the way for official negotiations by informing decision-making elites of a newly developed understanding of the conflict.

Intergroup dialogue in support of reconciliation is increasingly a part of building new relationships. Overcoming trauma, fear, hatred, and other residual emotions is a prerequisite to creating conditions for constructive relations. Social healing processes are often viewed as necessary for not only emotional but also spiritual recovery in a response to grief as well as the promotion of self-esteem. Restorative justice has been advocated to bring dignity to victims as well as to reintegrate offenders into the fabric of society.

Interpersonal relationship transformation can be facilitated by small-group dialogue sessions. In particular, parties can move beyond the status quo after dialogue gradually breaks down prejudice. The major goal of dialogue is to overcome fear and animosity embedded in past conflictual relationships. This is in contrast with negotiations that focus on narrow interests. Debates in such negotiations can be polarized without yielding any insight into the beliefs and interests of the other side. Such processes as facilitated dialogues support mutual understanding. Moments of transition may emerge from newly gained insights and unexpected conciliatory actions.

The leadership’s understanding of the costs of conflict and desires for ending hostile exchanges can help transform societal attitudes and perceptions. Eventually a change in attitudes achieved by contact among members of professional organizations or peace groups needs to be extended beyond the elite to the larger public. In a long-term transformative process, hostile relations can be modified by means of an emphasis on nonviolent settlement of differences.

In divorce or other types of interpersonal dispute, mediation has been advocated as a means of permitting the weaker party to express their views, eventually creating an amicable personal relationship. Therapeutic mediation may be intended to make changes in an abusive personal relationship. In a community conflict where issues are complex and involve multiple stakeholders, facilitative methods of consensus building might be adopted instead of mediation.

Goals of Transformative Approaches

Conflict is often destructive in a social system, especially when it causes psychological and physical suffering through oppression or when it results in atrocities. The most important result of conflict transformation is the removal of structural and psychological conditions that harm human well-being after the end of violent struggles. Conflict management may concentrate on the cessation of hostilities but is inadequate to tackle an oppressive system that is often a cause of grievances. If the goal of conflict resolution is the promotion of social justice, conflict transformation can serve to establish an equitable relationship.

Illustrating the shortcomings of traditional methods of handling conflict within an existing institutional framework, transformative practice signifies the significance of power imbalances. Most conflict practice focuses on perceptual and attitudinal changes, but it lacks analyses of societal or organizational sources of conflict. Formal negotiation and mediation are limited in their ability to uncover remedies to institutional deficiencies. Transformative mediation and an emphasis on restorative justice shed light on changes in the consciousness and character of human beings.

Conflict resolution is based on the premise that the removal of the underlying causes of contention is the ultimate solution to a dispute. A change in the relationship between parties can be accompanied by a change in the recognition of each other’s legitimate needs. However, system change is essential especially when grievances and resentments arise from various institutional characteristics that create division and hierarchy among various groups of people. In addition, the promotion of healing and reconciliation improves the emotional, perceptual, and spiritual aspects of conflict relationships.

[See also De-escalation in Conflict, Theory of; Mediation, Formal; Negotiation, subentries on Multilateral Negotiation and Problem Solving; Reconciliation; Reframing and Restructuring Conflicts; and Social-Psychological Approaches to Peace]


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Ho-Won Jeong