Negotiations in Intractable Conflicts

Ron Fisher

Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution, School of International Service, American University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Our sense was that the traditional methods of conflict management were not only ineffective but in some ways may be making things worse.

For example, there are two sides in an intractable conflict that negotiate with a lot of frustration and failure. What they have done to each other in the negotiations becomes another issue in the intractable conflict. I have worked a lot on Cyprus and it is a very good example of that. The intention was to see if there was some way that through a combination of different third party interventions, some tend to come more from the official domain and some from unofficial, we might better be able to effectively address intractable violent conflict. The idea was that we might be able to deescalate it with some methods to a point where it is more amiable to other methods. Through this coordinated sequencing of interventions that should be more effective then we were being. So that was the essence of the intention anyway.

Q: And within that model, if I understand it correctly, there are situations where it is more appropriate to have more softer sides of interventions, like consultation or conciliation, where you are looking to find some common interest, and to get some mutual understanding. And then sort of follow into hard line negotiating, mediation, more traditional bargaining type of stuff. My question when I read that is, and listening to your previous answer, what does that actually look like on the ground? Maybe you can contextulize that for me with an example. Also the word "coordination" is tricky because who coordinates how and when and how does the sequencing come and how do you identify the right parts?

A: Well those are very good questions for a lot of reasons, getting at the heart of what we mean by contingency and what goes into it. I think the best way to answer that fairly briefly is that one area of the contingency model really focuses on pre-negotiation work and that is where the softer, unofficial stuff has demonstrated its utility in helping to shift the parties toward serious negotiation. Hopefully being more successful when they get there because what has transferred from the unofficial side. Now that actually happens in two ways.

A lot of people are critical of working at the elite level because they say that it is only part of the picture. It is a central part of the picture; it is integral. Some transfer from a lot of unofficial conflict resolution and peace building work also needs to make its way to radiate in to the public domain, opinion, media, education, you know the whole bit. I don't want to deny that you need both of those levels and all of the ones in between for success...