Conflict Transcence: A Review Essay

Do No Harm: Supporting Local Capacities for Peace Through Aid By Mary Anderson. Cambridge: The Collaborative for Development Action, Inc., 1996. Conflict Transformation By Peaceful Means: The Transcend Method By Johan Galtung. New York: U.N. Disaster Management Training Program, 1997.

By Carl Jacobsen | 1997-09-01 12:00:00

In the 1990s, U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping interventions have increased tenfold, and NGO conflict resolution efforts have expanded even more. Unfortunately, some of the prescriptions that have been put forward for conflict resolution contain disturbing features that are more likely to increase conflict than to reduce it. The Gulf War, the Oslo accords, the Dayton Agreement, and the present wars in the Caucasus all seem to support this conclusion.

Expand the Mandate, Increase the Problems

Before the 1990s, the U.N. mandate was limited to inter-state conflicts in which both parties voluntarily invited in U.N. peacekeepers to monitor a cease-fire when each side was ready to accept it. The dramatic increase in the number of U.N. missions in the '90s became possible only by expanding this mandate to cover intra-state conflicts and ongoing conflicts that had not arrived at a cease-fire. No longer would the peacekeeping forces have to be invited in by the combatants, nor even would the combatants have to approve their intervention. But to change the rules in these directions was to create new problems.

One new problem consisted of defining the criteria for U.N.-sanctioned intervention. When and where should peacekeepers go? Despite the unprecedented increase in their activities, intervention took place in less than half of all similar crises - and not necessarily the worst cases. Why intervene in Somalia and not in neighboring Sudan, where the ongoing civil war was, if that is possible, even more bestial? One easy explanation is that CNN was present in Mogadishu, transmitting images of Audrey Hepburn cuddling a starving, emaciated child. A deeper explanation, however, is that the U.N. lacked a reliable capacity to collect and evaluate intelligence itself, and was therefore forced to use data proffered selectively by its core member states, which they may have collected for self-interested reasons.

Another set of problems concerned the inadequacy of resources for carrying out the U.N.'s new license to intervene. The Security Council's newly enlarged menu of options may have resembled those envisioned by the U.N.'s founders, but the Secretariat's means of implementation did not. Sometimes the dissonance between mandate and means was ludicrous. For example, when the first peacekeepers in Bosnia, faced with emergencies, phoned their superior officers at the U.N. on weekends or after office hours (according to New York time) they found no one on duty. That problem was later solved, but military staffing at headquarters remained inadequate. Some countries such as Norway and Canada were willing to commit stand-by forces as reinforcements, but the more dominant member countries vetoed their offers. These problems were compounded by the U.N.'s fiscal crisis, which was caused by the failure of some countries (especially the U.S.) to pay their assessments. This meant that the funds for peacekeeping missions, already inadequate, had to be covered by drawing from the U.N.'s day-to-day housekeeping accounts. By the mid-1990s, the U.N. could no longer pay for all its peacekeeping interventions and had to delegate this responsibility to the most powerful regional states, whose impartiality could be questioned - notably to NATO, with its US/German dominance; to the CIS, with its Russian dominance; and to the Organization of African Unity, with Nigeria's dominance.

The results have been mixed. The humanitarian aspect of peacekeeping, much expanded, has saved many lives in such disparate settings as Somalia, Bosnia, and Cambodia. Yet in other cases (most notably in Eastern Zaire in 1997, but also in Somalia, Bosnia, and elsewhere) neither the U.N.'s nor NGOs' aid efforts could accomplish more than the combatants would permit. Thus in Somalia, the U.S. tried, but failed, to capture and prosecute a recalcitrant warlord, Mohammed Aideed. A politically embarrassing retreat to a non-partisan posture became a necessary prerequisite for resuming even minimal humanitarian aid activity. The U.N. funded and supervised elections in Cambodia and Angola, but when the electoral losers disregarded the results, there was no effective penalty. When the OSCE was given responsibility for guaranteeing the fairness of elections in Bosnia in 1996, it documented the fraudulence of Izetbegovic's victory - but his "win" was nevertheless confirmed.

Is This "Conflict Resolution"?

Three other examples of tough approaches to "conflict resolution" deserve notice: the brutally swift Gulf War; the Oslo accords that chartered the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations; and the Dayton accord that "ended" the Yugoslav successor wars were all "conflict resolution" efforts prescribed by the U.N.'s dominant power, the USA. In each case they served short- or middle-term U.S. interests but may have jeopardized longer-term considerations. In each case, too, there was considerable manipulation of public opinion in order to win popular consent. For example, before the Gulf War began, two Wall Street public relations firms carried on a campaign to impress on the world Saddam Hussein's (not undeserved) image as an ogre; the Yugoslav wars saw the return of those same public relations firms, now hired by Croatia's government and later Bosnia's Muslim government to focus attention on Serb killings, without paying attention to Croat and Muslim killing fields and camps.1

The public relations campaigns did not just demonize opponents; they also sanitized allies. Thus feudal Saudi and Kuwaiti oligarchs became "democrats" (though the subsequent election in Kuwait enfranchised only six percent of the population - including no women - to vote for a legislature shorn of decision-making powers), and Croatia's President Tudjman became accepted as a "democrat" notwithstanding his embrace of Croatia's Nazi-allied past.

Bending International Laws of Secession

Though the U.N.'s mandate expanded, international law remained as malleable as before - as usual, bending to the will of the great powers. Here too, the new form of "conflict resolution" stimulated violence instead of preventing it. For example, the U.N. followed the Germans in recognizing with undue haste the seceding Yugoslav and Soviet republics. At the same time, it denied dissenting minorities and regions the similar right to secede - reversing previous international laws. (The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 had sanctified European borders as they existed that year - including of course the borders of federal Yugoslavia and the USSR.)

As the socialist bloc broke up, the international community abandoned its rules against secession - yet it would soon reverse itself again, rallying around Canada's position that the right to self-determination was automatic only in colonial contexts, and her fall-back position that if Canada could nevertheless be partitioned, then so could Quebec. When almost 100 percent of Quebec's Cree and Inuit voted to remain in Canada, Quebec's separatists insisted (as had Croatia's, Georgia's, and Azerbaijan's separatists and indeed all the new-state regimes) that they had the right to secede, but that disaffected regions of their new states had no such right. This legal inconsistency brought civil war to Croatia and pitted Trans-Dniester against Moldova, Abkhazia against Georgia, Ossetia against Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh against Azerbaijan. Though these conflicts are now contained by shaky cease-fires, the latter are guaranteed by Russian peacekeepers, they may yet re-ignite.

Realism versus Idealism

The war culture of Europe prescribes "realist" methods of peacekeeping/peacemaking - methods relying on deterrence. This approach has a poor record in terms of peace preservation. It is war-conducive rather than war-preventive. But if the realist approach rests on dangerous folklore, the alternative "idealist" route popular among NGOs (the attempt to nurture islands of peace culture) is pursued with dangerous naiveté that also exacerbates conflict.

NGO and U.N. humanitarian aid often falls victim to local power dynamics. To reach intended recipients, the agencies often have to work through, and thus reinforce, the power status of local warlords, which distorts the intended list of recipients. Attempts to operate independently of local warlords are often taken as a direct threat to their power, prompting attacks which may force aid workers to stop making their deliveries and withdraw.

Idealistic NGO/U.N. activities have also at times been infiltrated and manipulated. In Bosnia, for example, some Red Cross drivers were later identified as CIA operatives. NGO and U.N. vehicles have also been used by both local and outside actors to smuggle arms and other goods. The money associated with aid and humanitarian operations, and the above-local-norm salaries of employees, have been subject to extortion and in other cases have had corrosive negative consequences for the local economy. The task facing proponents of idealist conflict resolution methods is to make their approach workable in situations where realist methods are more often used. Two recent books are worth reading in this connection.

The Lessons of Two Books

Mary Anderson's book, Do No Harm, acknowledges many of the problems identified above and shows how they have sometimes been creatively circumvented. Anderson extracts lessons from 15 case studies of NGOs' work in 14 different conflict-plagued societies. Her prescriptions seem overly theological, however, as well as naively impatient. Like so many other idealists, she does not understand that after inter-communal wars, some separation may be a pre-requisite for eventual reconciliation. (A sullen Germany forced into European Union in 1945 would likely have become a cancer at its core, whereas the confident, rebuilt nation of today is perhaps its strongest pillar and defender. Similarly in Bosnia, to enforce togetherness amidst the cauldron of horrific memories promises only to exacerbate paranoia. Separation, accompanied by development aid, would be more likely to develop new leaders to replace the warriors of the recent past. So also in Afghanistan and other communally-riven conflict zones, where impatient prescriptions may reinforce the legitimacy of warriors.)

The greatest problem for advocates of counter-war culture is their failure to understand the dynamics of local conflicts. Sometimes peace workers unwittingly display premises derived from the very war culture they strive to replace. Do No Harm illustrates this. Anderson excoriates warlords, arms merchants, and profiteers without recognizing that they are sponsored by foreign sources. She does not explore the ramifications of U.S. support for Georgia's then-president, Gamsakhurdia, for Croatia's Tudjman, and for Bosnia's Izetbegovic; or of Russia's support for separatist leaders in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere; or of France's support for the Hutu extremists of Rwanda, who orchestrated our era's worst genocide. She does recognize that aid often worsens conflict, yet does not see the single most important reason for this - namely that aid is usually not distributed according to strict non-partisan norms.

Johan Galtung's book, Conflict Transformation By Peaceful Means, on the other hand, displays a deeper appreciation of these factors. This is Galtung's seminal new U.N. training manual, which teaches non-coercive patience. It recognizes that sometimes there is a need for separation between contending groups (as between contending individuals), and that germs of truth underlie every paranoia. Of course, seeing this reality does not mean sympathizing with paranoia.

This author and Galtung were lecturers and workshop leaders in two reconciliation projects funded by the Norwegian government and the Red Cross in Lillehammer. The first, in September 1996, involved a cross-section of combatants who nurtured hopes of reconciliation. The second, in February 1997, instead stimulated pessimism and fears of renewed warfare - perhaps because it was predominantly one-sided. In any case, the second experience reminded us that what you see matters inordinately, as compared to what you don't see. It matters where you go and whom you meet. When one is steeped in the horrors of only one side, it is easy to blind oneself to the horrors of the other.

Galtung's approach recognizes the need for patience in facilitating true reconciliation. Indeed, the time frame may be too long to satisfy the needs of states and perhaps even NGOs. Galtung avoids aspirations toward absolute solutions (including "peace"), and focuses instead on understanding the root structural and cultural causes of violence. He explores early warning and prevention strategies, conflict transformation, and no-deadline dialogues. He recommends: never insist on face-to-face negotiations between those who are not yet ready for them!

It is ironic that the U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping of the 1990s has reverted to unenlightened pre-Gorbachev approaches. But even if official peacekeeping seems mired in older realism, and if alternative non-governmental efforts also fall prey to the influence and consequences of such constructs, all is not lost. The core ideals of Do No Harm and the recommendations of the Transcend Manual summon us to resolve conflict with creativity.

1. Carl Jacobsen, "Yugoslavia's Wars of Secession and Succession," in his book, The New World Order's Defining Crises: The Clash of Promise and Essence (Aldershot: Dartmouth Pub. Co. 1996).

Professor Jacobsen directs Eurasian Studies at Carleton University.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1997

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1997, page 26. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Carl G. Jacobsen here

Peace Magazine homepage