Mediation as a Tool


William Ury

Director of the Global Negotiation Project, Program on Negotiation, Harvard Law School

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 ???).

A: The third side says "no" to violence, and "yes" to peaceful ways of dealing with conflict.

Q: Even in the face of perceived injustice?

A: The third side also stands for justice - see, the whole idea of the third side, particularly for those of us in the mediation field who tend to focus on our "tool" -- we've got a hammer, so everything looks like a nail, you know? But it's to realize we're one tool in the toolbox. We're one instrument in the symphony. One of the others is people who stand up for justice, and for example the people who practice non-violence. Sometimes non-violent action is a necessary part of trying to transform a situation. Mediation can't do that - mediation can't transform basic power realities. But non-violent action can equalize the difference between the weak and the poor. There's peacekeepers; you have to deal with the basic power infrastructure as well as the softer forms that rely more on influence, like mediation. You have to deal with the real economic needs of people.

The idea in Venezuela was the whole idea is that the third side is not my idea, it's not anyone's idea - it's the oldest human technology for dealing with differences. I'm an anthropologist, as I mentioned, I've spent a lot of time with indigenous peoples around the world; they all have third side methods, and like the Bushmen in the Kalahari -- when they have a conflict, all the men and the women and the children of the society sit around and sit together in a circle. The third side is actually not a side, it's a circle. They create a container around the conflict. And they talk it out, and maybe it takes two, three, four, five days, and everyone gets engaged. If someone is about to about to use these poison arrows which are absolutely fatal, someone goes and hides the poison arrows out in the bush. Everyone has a role; everyone gets engaged. It's a kind of an emergent phenomenon, self-organizing.

And the mediator is one role around ten or perhaps more roles that need to be played - all of which need to be actively played. The teacher is another one, the bridge-builder, the healer, the referee, the witness, the provider, the peacekeeper, the arbiter - every one of these roles is needed. They constitute a systemic response. That's what's needed - this coalition of active forces from within the society supported by outsiders. That's essentially what we tried to do in a small way in Venezuela, is to work with and identify and empower the third side within Venezuela using whatever resources we had from the outside.