International Conflict Analysis

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The prevalence of conflict at any level of society, be it among individuals, organizations, states et cetera, is unavoidable. As a premise to his argument for the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes posits that the natural condition of man is “a condition of war of everyone against everyone”1. Extrapolating from his premise, it is arguable that conflict is inherent to man’s nature. Given that conflict is inevitable, it is then necessary to manage conflict to ensure survival. According to Jacob Bercowitch et al, conflict can be managed by any of these means: the use of either physical or psychological force; through negotiations; or, the involvement of parties external to the conflict either in the utilization of legal norms or in a non binding manner2.

Mediation as a conflict management technique falls in the last category. William Zartman and Saadia Touval suggest the definition of mediation to be “a mode of negotiation in which a third party helps the parties find a solution which they cannot find by themselves.”3 The definition is broad and encompasses a wide range of third party involvement. Jacob Bercovitch distinguishes mediation from other forms of third party involvement as follows:

1) Mediation must be invited by the parties in conflict; that is, the parties are not forced to accept mediation

2) Mediation aims to “change, affect or influence their [disputants’] perceptions or behaviour”; that is, mediation do not attempt to enforce a settlement

3) Mediation does not employ force, as opposed to armed intervention

4) Mediation does not enforce a resolution4 through the invocation of legal norms, unlike arbitration5

Mediation is thus concerned with the achievement of a compromise that will be accepted by all parties through facilitating information exchange and negotiation. How the disputants would arrive at such a compromise cannot be strictly defined as the nature of mediation and a mediator’s role adapt to the circumstances surrounding each conflict.

To even begin to assess the success of mediation, it is first pertinent to define what “success” means. Marieke Kleiboer points out that it is extremely difficult to access and evaluate the outcomes of the mediation process because there is no fixed standard used for evaluation6. He suggests that mediation efforts could be considered successful if

1) there is an “improvement of the premediation state of the conflict7”

2) the settlement met the original objectives of all parties concerned

3) the mediation efforts resolve the “underlying roots of their conflict”.

Each mode of assessment relates to the time frame in which one chooses to evaluate. As Grieg rightfully points out, a distinction must be made between the short term aims and the long term goals of a mediation attempt, e.g. whether or not short term prevention of violence without resolution of causes of conflict could be considered a form of success for a mediation attempt. As a simplification, the paper shall assume that a mediation attempt would be considered successful if it brings about an improvement in relations and encourages the disputants to come to a permanent settlement.

Kleiboer provides a summary of factors affecting mediation outcome8 but the primary concern of this paper is on the time of entry for mediation. Chester A. Crocker et al argue that timing is crucial to any mediation attempt, and in certain circumstances, even more important than the choice of mediator9. Michael Grieg suggests that “Some points in time are more favourable for mediation success than others and results from the concatenation of contextual factors that encourage movement towards more cooperative behaviour by disputants.” He calls these points in time, “ripe moments of conflict”10.

The implication is that mediation has a better chance of succeeding when applied at these “moments of opportunity” in the development of a conflict than any other time. This supposition naturally begets the next question, when are these “ripe” moments? In the early stages or mid stages of a conflict? This paper argues that for mediation to have a better chance of success, the third party should intervene when the disputants come to realize that a mediated peace yields greater benefits than continuing the conflict. This realization usually comes when mediation becomes the policy of last resort. Thus mediation should best be attempted in the middle of the conflict.

The issue of when to mediate is of much debate. Frank Edmead and Inis Claude both believe that the third party should involve itself early in the stages of conflict11. Their perceived function of mediation is not only to achieve a compromise between the disputants but also to ensure that the conflict does not escalate past a certain point. The intention of early mediation, therefore, is to nip the conflict in the bud and to allow disputants to cut their losses, avoiding the high human costs often associated with the maturing of the conflict.

These scholars argue that mediation attempts will be more successful when initiated early as both parties will be more amenable to conciliation. Claude suggests that intervening early in the life cycle of the conflict avoids “the formulation of positions which will be embarrassing to abandon and the exchange of insults which it would become difficult to expunge.12” As a conflict develops, the positions of each disputant often become more uncompromising, and the ingrained perceptions of the “other” impede the mediation process. The causes of conflict also have a tendency to become more complicated in the course of a conflict. In many cases of protracted conflict, what has started out as a territorial or ethnic conflict can take on many other dimensions such as economic disputes, displacement of persons or even over past grievances. Once conflict permeate through all levels of society, mediation becomes difficult as compromises are harder to reach. Thus mediation will have a better chance of succeeding if it begins before the positions of the disputants hardened.

This hypothesis is disputed. A key reservation is that at an early stage, the disputants may not find sufficient compellation to agree to the mediated compromise, and may in fact use mediation as a means to buy time while accumulating resources to continue violence on the ground. The lack of compellation may be because the disputants have yet to exhaust all other policy options such as direct negotiations13 (as opposed to mediated negotiations), or the disputants are not convinced as yet that an unilateral action cannot bring about a more beneficial outcome. Due to the reluctance of the disputants to mediate at this juncture, even if the third party enter the picture early, it may still find the need to deliberately “ripen” the conflict through the assertion of power, extending incentives et cetera in order to coax parties to arrive at a compromise. 14

William Zartman, Jacob Bercovitch and Ben Mor suggest then, that mediation efforts have a better rate of success only when initiated later in the life cycle of the conflict as disputants will be more inclined to work towards a compromise with the mediator’s aid at this stage. Firstly, disputants may be unable to continue the conflict due to conflict fatigue. As the conflict wears on, both parties incur increasing losses and it will reach a point when the losses outweigh the potential benefits that conflict can achieve. The strain on the infrastructure and resources, that is, fatigue will persuade disputants to seek alternative policies. Cooperative strategies then become more attractive than conflictual policies, adding incentive to reach a mediated outcome. Secondly, disputants have come to realize that they cannot unilaterally change the status quo. Conflict fatigue is itself not sufficient condition for “ripeness”: a party may persist in conflict despite huge losses so long as the opponent is losing more. Thus, Zartman argues that conditions are ripe for mediation when both parties face a “hurting stalemate” 15, that is, a situation where neither side could meet their aims unilaterally and both were incurring costs without a chance of gain.

In this consideration then, mediation is more likely to be successful if it is adopted as a policy of last resort by the disputants, and the mediated outcome is deemed to be more favourable than the continuation of conflict. It is also pertinent to consider the mediator’s role. Mediators tend to take interest in a conflict only towards the middle of the conflict, because the implications and repercussions will only be clearer in the later developments. A mediator may become interested only when the conflict threatens regional stability, its own strategic and economic interests, or when the conflict offers a means by which its influence can be extended16. The case of Sudan is interesting in this regard: atrocities within the state have been ongoing for a fairly long period of time, but it has only just captured the interest of the international community particular the hegemonic United States. The high human costs were precisely what necessitated intervention and mediation.

In addition, Pricen also argues that the control that a mediator can exercise over the mediator process and on disputants increase as the conflict wears on. He states that

With respect to the intermediary-disputant relationship then, the later the intermediary enters, the greater the intermediary’s bargaining power, and hence, the greater its procedural power over the disputant. 17

His hypothesis relies on the fact that the disputants have no other alternatives to turn to and thus the mediator is their best means of securing the most beneficial compromise. This relationship between the disputants and the intermediary is important because the greater the control the intermediary possess, the better it can persuade the disputants to work towards a compromise; and in fact, the more willing the mediator would be to undertake the risk of intervention. If the reverse is true, the mediator can be disregarded, defeating the purpose of mediation.

The second hypothesis that mediation in the middle of the conflict has a greater chance of success is more persuasive when one considers the case of mediation in Cambodia. Cambodia was torn by internal strife between the rival political factions not long after independence, most notably between the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot and the Khmer Republic supported by the US and led by Lon Nol. The strife became more complicated and took on an international dimension when Vietnam invaded the country in 1978 and installed a government led by Hun Sen. Not only were the Cambodian political groups fighting among themselves, they were also opposing the Vietnamese de facto occupation. 18

Early mediation began in the 1980s with separate efforts by the United Nations, ASEAN, Japan and France. The negotiations did not tackle the problem of the rivaling factions and addressed instead the ending of the Vietnamese occupation. However, the negotiations could only bring about definition of the issues without moving towards a compromise between Vietnam and Cambodia. Military engagement continued throughout the mediating efforts, as the factions still derived much external support: Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge by China and Thailand; the royalists and non-communists by the United States and other ASEAN countries; and Hun Sen’s government by Vietnam and the Soviets19. Moreover, international events in this period convinced Vietnam that it could change the status quo unilaterally. The invasion of Afghanistan showed the Soviet backed government holding out against international pressure led by United States, a possible analogy for Vietnam’s own invasion. Tiananmen also provided the opportunity of direct negotiations with China, hitherto the greatest supporter of Khmer Rouge. 20

Mediation at a later stage of the conflict reaped better results. It was only in 1991, did all parties have the incentive to accede to mediated peace. The withdrawal of Soviet support for Vietnam changed the circumstances, as Hun Sen was aware that without Soviet aid, Vietnam could not sustain its involvement, leaving his government with no support. Moreover Vietnam was lured by the benefits of restoring ties with China and the US, especially with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The rapprochement between Vietnam and China also threatened the Khmer Rouge. The playing field was leveled as each side feared that the patron state of the other would not disengage, thus making mediated peace a “less risky alternative.21” Conflict fatigue on part of the Cambodians also necessitated a return to normalcy. Under a combination of circumstances, the 1991 Peace Settlement was reached, leading ultimately to the elections in Cambodia in 1993.

Cambodia made a case in point that in the initial stages of conflict, the situation is yet volatile and susceptible to changes, making it difficult for the mediation process. Often, the disputants find the incentive to enter into negotiations with a margin of advantage and will thus ensue in the conflict even as the negotiations take place. Conflict fatigue eventually wears this incentive and resistance down. Importantly the case highlights the fact that external support for the disputants often has a huge role to play in the success of negotiations. Considering that there is a broad trend that external support tends to wane over time, especially when the patron can no longer reap substantial benefits or in fact incur losses, it bears to argue that mediation process will be less hampered later in the conflict cycle.

Although this paper proposes that mediation efforts be introduced only later in a conflict, mediators still have to answer the question: How late? Zartman proposes the plateau, “hurting stalemate”, as a mark of a conducive time period, but in reality, these windows of opportunity are very difficult to pinpoint. Even if mediation is initiated within this time frame, it is not a guarantee of success. Despite the importance this paper has placed on the time of entrance, timing is but one of the many factors influencing the success of mediating efforts. The choice of mediators, the nature of dispute, the relationship between the disputants, et cetera: each of these factors have an equally, if not more, important role to play in securing the success of mediation attempts. As it is, it is impossible to build a model or set for behaviour for mediators to undertake to guarantee success. As it is, this paper has but touch on one aspect of mediation and its influence on mediation outcome- it is a long way yet from becoming a set solution to conflict resolution.

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