Summary of "Taming Intractable Conflicts: Mediation in the Hardest Cases"

Summary of

Taming Intractable Conflicts: Mediation in the Hardest Cases

By Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall

Summary written by Eric Brahm, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Crocker, Chester A., Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall. Taming Intractable Conflicts: Mediation in the Hardest Cases. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2004.

Written from the mediator's perspective, this volume argues that intractable conflicts can be amenable to mediation. Arguing a laissez-faire approach to intractable conflict is problematic for ethical and practical reasons, the authors seek a well-thought out, strategic approach for mediators to engage these situations. The trick for the mediator is identifying what conflicts it pays to become involved in, how to go about it, and when. Crocker et al. explore some limitations and pitfalls for mediators and go on to suggest how they may most effectively contribute at different stages of the conflict.

The first section of the volume explores the context in which mediation takes place. One chapter examines the motives and interests of powerful states in taking on a mediator role. Focusing on humanitarian, strategic, and regional security/governance motives, it provides examples of domestic and external pressures which can be brought to bear to get states involved. From there, they examine situations in which conflicts do not attract attention of third parties. The fact of having been "forgotten" or ignored often helps to make the conflict intractable. Where a conflict has attracted little attention, one of the foremost obstacles to entering into mediation is a sheer lack of knowledge. Here, they argue, is a more effective role for small states, NGOs, and IGOs to play. The challenge is to coordinate efforts amongst the various third parties. They proceed to discuss environmental constraints mediators face: the mediator's personal situation, the institutional structure and political context in which he/she operates, as well as the context of the conflict itself. These factors, too, are significant in any assessment of the likelihood of successful intervention into a conflict.

The second section examines the best tactics for mediators at each point in their engagement. A new mediator with the attributes to get the attention of the antagonists is one of the few entry points available to move a conflict in a productive direction. Before entering into the conflict, Crocker et al. provide a checklist of information the mediatior needs to know about the conflict and discusses mediator capacities necessary to increase the likelihood of success.

They then discuss how a mediator should best respond when there is the inevitable setback. Particularly if he/she has significant external support, a viable option is to "hang on," to press ahead through the troubles. When this is not possible, it may be best to "hunker down," try to defend the progress that has been made, and wait patiently for a new opportunity. This, too, has risks, as antagonists may turn on the mediator. Finally, there are instances where the best strategy is to "bail out." Depending on circumstances, this may be done in different forms (e.g. gradual withdrawal vs. throwing in the towel) with different consequences for the future. They also provide a range of examples of negotiating tactics a mediator can use in circumstances where it appears all sides prefer violence. The next chapter provides a checklist to aid the mediator in bringing the sides to some form of settlement. Important points to keep in mind include: defend good options, anticipate destructive negotiating behavior, isolate spoilers, contemplate tools for transforming the post-settlement landscape, maintain support of one's backers, and pay attention to timing. Of final concern is to ensure the settlement lasts. Mediators are just as important here, as they must work to create mechanisms to actively involve all parties in the post-settlement phase, as well as maintaining interest on the part of the international community. The authors also urge mediators not to dismiss coercive measures out of hand. Aside from reaching out to domestic and international actors, they also urge mediators to reach down to address the need of local grassroots constituencies in order to nurture the settlement.