Thirteen Fascinating Things I Learnt About Conflict Resolution



“We are going to do a terrible thing to you, we are going to deprive you of an enemy.”

– Georgy Arbatov, Soviet official, addressing his US counterparts at the end of the Cold War.

I have learnt an immeasurable amount about politics, conflicts, reconciliation and democracy since the February 2011 Bahrain crisis began.

Since launching the Bahrain Foundation for Reconciliation and Civil Discourse (BFRCD), I’ve had the privilege of meeting and learning from some remarkable people who’ve worked many years in the field of conflict resolution. I’ve also attended seminars and lectures, and read several books in the field.

Today I want to share some of the key things I’ve learnt. Here goes:

1) Conflict resolution vs. conflict transformation:

As the name implies, conflict resolution is where a conflict is actually resolved. Conflict transformation is where the conflict is transformed from one means to another. For example, in Northern Ireland the conflict had been transformed from a violent one, to one which is dealt with in the Northern Ireland legislative assembly. The politicians still disagree fiercely (with many still having strong sectarian views), but they don’t believe in violence; they follow democratic principles.

2) There two types of peace, negative and positive:

Negative peace is the absence of violence, but the underlining problems are not resolved. Again, Northern Ireland is a good example of negative peace.

3) The three causes of conflicts:

I once had the pleasure of meeting Roelf Meyer, the famed former South African Minister of Constitutional Affairs (though I did not appreciate who he was at the time). He was in Bahrain with a delegation from the NGO The Project on Justice in Times of Transition (now called Beyond conflict)

Mr. Meyer told me that conflicts are usually about one, or more, things. (1) Power, (2) Ethnicity and (3) Religion. In his estimation the Bahrain crisis was a mix of all three elements. I agree 100%.

4) Focus on the facts:

This is a very powerful concept. When people are emotional they jump to conclusions and can interpret things in different ways. Whenever a discussion gets emotional, and people start disagreeing because of their perceptions, bring the conversation back to the facts.

5) It’s all about leadership and relationships:

I love the Oxford Leadership Academy’s definition of leadership. The OLA says that “leadership is about relationships, and the conversation is the relationship.” A former IRA terrorist told me and my BFRCD colleagues during our visit last year “the key to building bridges with the other community is relationships.” He said leadership was required; on the macro level and on the local level.

6) Hate and violence come in easy steps:

Also during our NI trip, a community worker at the East Belfast Mission, told us “If you’re told to avoid someone, it’s a small step to hating them, and it’s just a small step to fighting them.”

7) Timing is as important as substance:

Conflict resolution and reconciliation need time. You cannot rush things.

8) Often the hardest people to convince are your own people:

It’s happened that a leader is willing to negotiate with the other side, and the other side is willing to do the same. But the leader’s followers are not ready, and will derail the peace efforts. They may even depose the leader and replace him or her.

9) Everyone has to leave the negotiation table satisfied:

Of course each side will not get everything they wanted; compromises have to be made. Equally important however is that no one can leave the table feeling like they’ve “lost.” If this happens the peace will not last.

10) You don’t have to agree on the past:

The important thing is on how to deal with it, and start working towards a better future.

11) Justice is not always achievable – for all:

If you look at most countries where there has been intense conflict, even after reconciliation not everyone will be pleased with the outcome. For example, The South African reconciliation model has many critics, and many black South African people feel that justice has not been served.

12) Humans have three basic needs:

We humans have a need to be 1) valued, 2) loved and 3) accepted. If these needs are not met then negative emotions might arise like shame, fear, anger, and hurt. And if they go on for a long time there is a potential for conflict. Read more here about human behaviour and conflict.

13) Three ingredients are needed for post-conflict social reconciliation:

According to Peter Dixon, author of Peacemakers; Building Stability in a Complex World, the three ingredients are:

1. A sense of peace and security, leaving violence behind as a means of solving differences.

2. An element of truth telling is needed, which involves the acknowledgement of past wrongs, and to some extent, construction of a shared understanding of history.

3. There must be some recognition that justice has been done, through punishment of reparation or both.

As far as Bahrain is concerned, I think it’s fair to say that no one is happy with the situation here, but there is very little agreement on the cause of the problems, and of course the solution.

The only solution is dialogue. The dialogue must be sincere, and all sides must be prepared to make compromises and sacrifices.

Keep hope alive my friend!

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