Neutral Fact-Finding

Norman Schultz

November 2003

"Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral." -- Paulo Freire

Pursuing a Fair Decision

Neutral fact-finding (like joint fact-finding) serves as one possible way to resolve a factual dispute. Loosely defined, it is a fact-finding endeavor in which those conducting the investigation are neutral with respect to the conflict at hand. Neutral fact-finding can be employed at many levels, from small (but heated) environmental or community conflicts to large-scale political or international conflicts.

The obvious advantage of employing neutral parties in an attempt to settle a factual dispute is that neutrals are much more likely to be objective, and in being objective they are more likely to discover the real facts. Stakeholders suffer from a conflict of interests, which is the desire to gain profit for themselves conflicting with a duty to discover or embrace the genuine facts. It is difficult for any people who stand to lose or gain from a conflict's outcome to resist employing strategic methods in information gathering and factual analysis, slanting information to suit their own ends. The neutral person, by definition, does not stand to lose or gain anything as a result of taking one side or another. They have no reason to initially favor one set of claims over another. Such a position allows the deciding factors to be what they should be, namely, how solid is the evidence, how well it supports certain conclusions, what facts can be agreed on, and what facts are justifiably in dispute due to uncertainty or lingering unknowns.

When and How to Implement Neutral Fact-Finding

Additional insights into neutral fact finding are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Joint fact-finding is probably the best fact-finding method to use as a means to improve relations between conflict parties.[1] Yet joint fact-finding is not always possible. Some conflicts become too heated, or involve a long history of violence; conflict parties may be too scared to cooperate. Others involve drastic power differentials, such that one group cannot match the resources or expertise of the other. This results in one side having a greater say in the kinds of facts that are collected, skewing the results of the mission in their favor. Still other kinds of conflicts simply do not allow two sides to come together, such as in the case of an internal conflict between members or groups of the same organization. In such cases it may be necessary to enroll the aid of a neutral party.

The United States' 2003-04 Iraqi war over weapons of mass destruction is an excellent example of a conflict unsuited for joint fact-finding. The facts in question involved to what extent Iraq was seeking or if they had obtained weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and, therefore, to what extent they were in violation of treaties. The hostile history between the two nations, their differing ideologies regarding political matters, their mutual distrust, the vast power and resource differential, and cultural barriers preclude any possibility of working together, making joint fact-finding impossible.

Yet each side clearly stood to gain from holding its respective position: for Iraq , the position that they did not have WMDs and for the United States that Iraq did have them and was, therefore, in violation of treaty.[2] So there was reason to be skeptical of each side's claims. Understandably, the U.N. was playing the role of a neutral fact-finding body via their weapons inspection team made up of members from many countries and, importantly, lead by an inspector that has no connections to either Iraq or the United States. The international community was much more likely to trust the findings of the U.N. than either country on its own.[3]

Neutral Fact Finding Steps

Once it is decided that the most appropriate method for settling (or at least improving) a factual debate is to implement a neutral fact-finding endeavor, the right neutral people must be found, establishing that they are in fact neutral, specifically that they have no stake in the outcome. Where this is difficult, it may at least be possible to ensure that the body of fact-finders as a whole is neutral by bringing in diverse experts (as is the case with the international body of U.N. weapons inspectors). It must also be determined that candidates have the right kind of expertise for the task. Where scientific or technical knowledge is uncertain, or where there are differing opinions among experts in the field, choosing the right set of experts can be challenging. In the interest of fairness it may be necessary to employ experts that represent differing positions. In other cases, it may be desirable to employ experts that agree.

Where possible, it is desirable to employ experts with experience in addressing factual debates in conflict situations. There are many opportunities to improve a conflict in the choosing of neutral experts. Experts that have a reputation of being both knowledgeable and fair can greatly influence the thinking and attitudes of conflicting parties. Ones that have the ability to communicate facts in such a way as to build understanding and foster consensus while retaining factual integrity can be invaluable. Even cold, hard facts must be presented in a spirit of diplomacy. In addition, it is vital that neutral fact-finders be "transparent" -- that they reveal their underlying assumptions. All factual inquiries involve certain assumptions, or frameworks, through which data and evidence are collected. If neutral experts reveal these assumptions it is easier to evaluate where they stand in their field, what possible biases they might have, and ultimately just how "neutral" they really are.

It is also necessary to establish certain ground rules as to how the fact-finding efforts will correspond with the conflict management process overall. It will, for example, be necessary to give the neutral fact-finders access to the necessary resources and information relevant to the conflict. This may involve issues of intellectual property or other kinds of sensitive data. This type of access will need to be negotiated in advance of the actual fact-finding work. Also it will be in everyone's best interest to agree to abide by the findings of the process, as long as all are satisfied that the process is fair and the fact-finders are unbiased.

Implementing a neutral fact-finding venture is an attempt to use objective personnel for the purpose of discovering the real facts, rather than using fact-finders who might have a hidden agenda or unconscious bias. How neutral each participant is, or how neutral the body is as a whole, will affect any neutral fact-finding endeavor. Though it is relatively easy to determine material or strategic neutrality, no human being is truly neutral when it comes to values and ethics. Values and ethics shape the way we interpret information, what we pay attention to, and the kinds of evidence we accept. It is hoped that neutral fact-finders feel the importance of being unbiased and objective, as being objective to some degree can be accomplished by sheer effort. Yet, in reality, neutrality is a matter of degree. Once the facts are known, in addition to items that remain in dispute or are uncertain or even unknown, it must then be determined what to do with the facts. Using facts is for mediators, stakeholders, and decision-makers to tackle and is discussed in another essay.

[1] This is discussed in greater detail in Joint Fact-Finding.

[2] Of course, the end result was very detrimental to Iraq, even though they, indeed, may not have had weapons of mass destruction, as they had claimed.

[3] Although in the end it didn't matter, as the United States took matters into its own hands, disregarding both the U.N. findings regarding weapons, and its resolutions regarding actions to be taken. I kept this example in the essay, however, as it is such a good example of a situation in which neutral fact finding should have been superior to joint fact-finding.

Use the following to cite this article:
Schultz, Norman. "Neutral Fact-Finding." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: November 2003 <>.

Additional Resources