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Conflict-mitigation -
Lessons and challenges


Dr. Jan Oberg, TFF director

Honorary doctor of Soka University, Tokyo



Printed in SGI Quarterly in an edited a slightly shortened version.
The Soka Gakkai International Magazine, Number 26, October 2001


Conflict-management and -prevention are international buzz-words of the post-Cold War era. Several hundred new so-called non-governmental organisations, NGOs, have emerged while older ones have re-oriented themselves toward conflict-"management." Governments and inter-governmental organisations have been busy setting up units for conflict-prevention. Universities and other organisations have flooded the market with books and reports on how to handle what is often, with gross simplification, called domestic and ethnic conflicts.

But: what have we learned about conflict these last ten years? Has all this lead to a more peaceful world? If not, what are the challenges ahead?

In 1991 when TFF teams started doing fieldwork in all parts of former Yugoslavia, there were only a handful of similar independent, small groups around and only a tiny fraction of them with a scholarly basis. We were devoted to four aims: diagnosing the conflicts, doing mitigation and mediation, peace education and skills training and, back home, serving as an information centre to the media, to public debate and decision-makers who cared to listen. 

The Foundation had decided to act like the doctor who jumps from laboratory research and begins to diagnose and treat patients. We thought it would be good for ourselves and for peace research if we moved out of the secluded and safe academic world of institutes, conference hotels and libraries and explored some almost existential questions: Can our peace research theories be applied in the real world? Can we be of help to those using violence and to those suffering from it? Can we help people and governments see the advantages of non-violence? Can we stay impartial and attack the problems rather than the people who do bad things to each other when we get closer to cruelties committed?

In short, it was quite an experiment when our multidisciplinary team drove into Balkan war zones without number plates, invitation and accreditation, but with bullet-proof jackets and quite some knowledge about the region. We negotiated our way through checkpoints on all sides in the local conflicts as well as to the offices of high-level decision-makers. It was "learning by doing."

The main inspiration was Gandhian, our main concept that of mitigation: not for a moment did TFF believe that we, concerned outsiders and visitors, would know what was the best solution for the local parties. We only wanted to listen, facilitate, sow non-violent ideas and meet face-to-face with all sides and at all levels to help them, if possible, find their own solutions. After all, they must live there with the solutions when we foreigners leave. This small-scale, principled intervention was, to put it crudely, the opposite of what government diplomats practised in the Balkans and elsewhere ever since.


Some of many lessons learnt

After some fifty missions to conflict regions such as the Balkans, Caucasus and Burundi, we have gathered some experience and learnt some lessons. They can be divided into framework conditions (A) and more local, methodological lessons (B). As head of TFF's conflict-mitigation team, I would emphasise the following in particular &endash; each actually worth a longer argument but simply listed here for the reader's own deliberation:


A) Framework conditions

o Essentially, these are not ethnic conflicts. Ethnicity is a war-psychological lever which, based on real historical injustices and traumas, is used by politico-military elites who ignite and conduct wars for their own power purposes, often in collusion with each other and against their own nation.

- The root causes and the structures of the interlocking conflicts are complex and manifold. One important aspect is socio-economic deprivation, the feeling of having no future and, thus, seeing war as an opportunity. One-factor explanations of complex conflicts will lead to conflict-locking and more violence.

- Westerners seem to see conflicts as rooted only in (evil) individuals. Truth is that conflicts are also about structures, situations and collective aspirations and traumas as well as about culturally based perceptions of history. Before people are condemned, we should at least try to understand why they act violently - if only to learn how to prevent violence tomorrow.

- Whole groups are never guilty of atrocities; individuals are and they can be found on all sides.

- The large majority of citizens do not want war, extremists of various kinds do. They are the only ones who benefit.

- There are always at least two wars fought simultaneously: that on the ground and that in the media combined with propaganda, psychological warfare and public deception. The two interact but offer surprisingly different images.

- The international "community" is a euphemism for a handful of Western leaders. They have in no case been neutral, impartial mediators but have consistently, in time and space, been parties to the conflict. Thus:

- International conflict-management has become an integral part of leading countries' interest policies, geo-strategic aims and globalisation or, to put it crudely, imperialism in disguise. The influence of intelligence agencies, such as the CIA, MI6 and BND and private mercenary companies in "peace" missions is increasing but virtually unnoticed in the press.

- It's a myth that, on the one hand, there are some "primitive" people who fight each other in a region and, on the other, a noble international "community" that works altruistically for peace. In both a historical and contemporary perspective, big power are parties to the conflict and/or use one or more local parties as their proxies.

- Conflict-management has become a vehicle for changes in the international order. For instance, the United Nations is the organisation that comes closest to the term "international community" but it has been systematically sidelined while NATO, which lost its raison d'etre with the end of the Cold War, quickly was given new "peace" missions.


B) Local and methodological lessons

- The independent, professional conflict mitigator must be aware of the above framework conditions. He or she will, in all likelihood, be critical to what government agencies do in these regions. Speaking out may mean loss of funding from governments (TFF lost its annual organisational grant from the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs because of its effective production and dissemination of peaceful alternatives, since 1992, to NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia) as well as mainstream media marginalisation. Not speaking out may mean that you end up being Near- and not Non-governmental and become complicit in government-induced structural, direct or cultural violence.

- We must listen to all sides and suppress our own sympathies and antipathies. It is essential to respect equally all sides' perceptions and suffering. The same principles must be applied to essentially similar situations.

- It is much more important to have dialogues and be constructive than to moralise and criticise. A prime minister will not listen to your peace ideas if you start with attacks on him or his government's policies.

- No conflict has only two parties and each party has conflicting groups inside it. Black and white images are gross simplifications.

- One must be open with all sides. Tell A that you dialogued with his enemies last week &endash; but do not tell A who said what on the other side.

- Don't accept payment or privileges from any party, including Western conflict (mis)managers.

- Don't get involved unless you are ready and able to stay committed for quite some time. Visiting a conflict region for a few hours or days shows contempt for people's suffering; come back repeatedly and build trust.

- Always identify the peace and reconciliation traditions and actors that can be found in any society. While the media and governments focus on warlords, build alliances with the peace lords, with local groups and, in particular, with women and youth.

- Read all about the place, its culture, people and history before you go - and forget it and listen with an open heart when you do your fact-finding.

- Do not try to get credit for being the one that gets the parties to the negotiation table; it is much more important to help build trust and positive images of the future behind the scenes.

- Do not expect to see big or quick results from your work. Be happy if a few participants in your seminar decide to take some new steps or a decision-maker takes a serious interest in your proposal. Harvest what you sow with people, not with organisations - and certainly not with governments or actors such as NATO or ministries of foreign affairs.

- Remember that peace work is a Sisyphus-like task and that, according to Camus, Sisyphus was a happy man. Remember also that it takes one minute to cut down a hundred-year old tree with a chain saw. Working for peace by, for and with people is the slowest process of all, while war is swift, dramatic and attracts attention.

- When you work for violence-prevention and non-violent conflict-resolution the locals are not your only target group. You and your organisation are tiny parts of a huge civilisational counter-flow, in a world still programmed for all kinds of violence. Thus, it is imperative that you think, speak and act as a peace worker according to the Gandhian advice, "we must be the change we wish to see."

- Criticise any actor, including your own government, who uses violence when other means are clearly available. It is a myth that there is a just or "good" violence that combats unjust and "evil" violence. Take the consequences of saying this aloud. I see all other positions as a slippery slope for a peace worker. Fundamentalist? Yes!



The challenges ahead

I believe that new field-oriented peace and conflict research efforts must emerge. Since the 1950s, academic peace research has quite successfully institutionalised itself as university departments and state-related and/or -financed institutes. The price has been an overall de-radicalisation compared with the 1960s-1980s. Constructive research into the causes of peace and the potentials of non-violence have, little by little, given way to quite mainstream themes and values. Funding structures decide more than the researcher wants to admit.

Secondly, peace education and down-to-earth training cannot be overemphasised. Imagine that every child, youth, diplomat, journalist and decision-maker would receive at least a one-week course in the basics of conflict diagnosis, conflict psychology, resolution and mediation. Imagine that citizens would learn as much about handling conflicts and peace as we learn about computers or train before we obtain a driving license. We need peace academies, peace ministries. We need peace and conflict journalism and not only war reporting. We need entertainment, history books and manuals related to non-violence. We need to understand peaceful society and its root causes and not only study the causes of war and arms dynamics. Some of it is emerging, but much too slow to put a brake on militarism.

The world needs much more research into the deeply human aspects of conflicts, into existential questions such as: why do human beings continue to use violence when it leads to so little good compared with the vast potential of non-violence? How shall we understand violent deeds and violent doers? What brings people to hate and to stop hating? What can we learn from people who did forgive and achieved reconciliation with their former foes?

But for such research and education there is only a tiny fraction available of the billions of dollars allocated world-wide to war-related research. NATO's core budget just for administration is 47 times that of the whole OSCE budget, while its member countries spend approximately $430 billion on defence, which is 215,000 times the OSCE budget. The entire budget of the UN equals the turnover of the fitness industry in the U.S.

If peace and genuine conflict-resolution rose on the agendas of parliaments, researchers as well as in public education and democratic debate around the world, we would witness an era of revolutionary change. We would finally see a world in which peace with peaceful means became the norm, the basic value of civilisation and international relations, a sign of strength and statesmanship. And we would ask ourselves, embarrassed, why we did not protest when NATO generals in camouflage uniforms monopolised "peace" back in 1999 in Kosovo and in Macedonia in 2001.



Cross-civilisational dialogue about peace work in the field

I recently spent a couple of months travelling in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi and Buddha in India, while also working with exiled Tibetan youth in Dharamsala. I took buses and trains between Gandhi's ashrams and the historical places related to his life as well as visited Sarnath, Bodghaya (oh, that bodhi tree!) and Rajgir. Something that before had been only vaguely felt became clear to me.

After ten years as a peace worker in conflict zones, I have learnt that the West needs assistance from other civilisations and that its cultural paradigm cannot be the leader on behalf of the rest. Globalisation must imply also a confluence of philosophies, methods and skills of many cultures and intellectual as well as spiritual schools.

There is no one right definition of peace or one right way of solving all conflicts those espoused by Gandhi that "there is no road to peace, peace is the road" and by Buddha, that the only thing we need to kill is the will to kill. In other words, there is one wrong way to try to create peace, namely to seek peace by violent means.

Thus, we need more inter-cultural dialogues and cross-civilisational teams in peace research and in the world's conflict zones. The West may be good at Grand Peace and peace from above based on treaties, foreign interventions and material dimensions &endash; in short, external peace. But Western conflict-management seems to lack competence in Small Peace, peace from below, domestic peace lord intervention and spiritual dimensions, in short inner peace, reconciliation, forgiveness and other healing.

I honestly do not know how to bridge this gap, but I know it exists. In agreement with Gandhian thinking, I believe we have to be hard on issues and principles and soft on people. The only way of which I can think is for those of us to believe in such inter-cultural conflict- and peace work to build alliances, new networks and experiment together and get out there in the field and see what works and what does not.

TFF is proud to be associated with what we believe is a pioneer tradition rooted also in temples, monasteries and ashrams: being small, independent of governments, voluntary and non-profit, based on non-violence and, above all, people-oriented. Tiny as we are, we combine academia with service to victims of violence while also being critical of those who practice "peace" by violent means. Our partners include TRANSCEND spearheaded by another friend of SGI, Johan Galtung. We work with Buddhists, Gandhians, Quakers and Muslims, with academic people (all with a leg outside academia), as well as many others. Perhaps we are a kind of sangha with websites and email networks as virtual sanghas? It feels good to know we are not alone.

We would love to participate in future development of new peace coalitions with SGI, in the field when the bullets fly or, preferably, before they do. A gathering of all principled non-violent, voluntary and non-profit organisations in a multi-cultural network, with a capacity to get to conflict regions swiftly and do effective violence-prevention, would be a formidable force for peace. It would be an alternative to the violence accepted by governments and the new (sadly) near-governmental organisations which arrive sponsored by governments and corporate funds, like vultures, after governments, local and international, have ravaged whole societies.

A globalised peace requires alternatives to the present government and near-governmental type of conflict-management. It should go hand in hand with multi-disciplinary research and educational efforts which embody the values of the future, rather than the past. I believe we can be the change we wish to see.

August 2001


We at TFF want to express our sincere gratitude to President Ikeda and SGI for the support TFF has received, 1996-2001. Without it we would not have been able to achieve what is described above.




© TFF & the author 2001  


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