Countering Intractability

Louis Kriesberg

October 2003

Conflicts are not inherently intractable. There are a multitude of ways for conflict partisans as well as outsiders to prevent, limit, or transform intractable conflicts. No single approach works for all scenarios; certain policies are effective in some circumstances, but not in others.

Efforts to mitigate and transform an intractable conflict are not always successful; indeed they are risky and sometimes even counterproductive. And though caution in the face of such risks is advisable, a fearful and tentative approach may itself contribute to the failure of an intervention. Certainly, good judgment and good planning is required in executing any of the policies discussed here. Thus, a solid understanding of the particularities of the case, along with a careful mapping of all the options available, helps one to determine which policies and actions, and in what combinations, will be the most effective.

In this essay we look at policy options available to disputants -- who have primary responsibility for their conflict's course -- as well as those open to intervenors. Policies at each stage of conflict intractability are discussed.

Preventive Policies

Some policies exist that actually counter intractable conflict before the occurrence of contentious actions that move adversaries toward intractability. Likewise, certain policies work to prevent escalation of a low-intensity intractable conflict.

Disputant Policies

Members of each of the opposing sides in a conflict can do much to prevent it from becoming intractable. One fundamental approach is to foster democratic institutions. Democracy, insofar as it provides a significant degree of political equality and of individual and group freedom, tends to reduce grievances. Moreover, it provides legitimate mechanisms of expression which help channel the inevitable conflicts of social relations into acceptable forms so that they do not escalate destructively and become intractable.

Another general approach is to foster common identities and interests, sometimes by developing goals whose attainment would solve shared problems, such as overcoming economic backwardness or environmental degradation. Of course, this policy can be used negatively to intensify a different conflict. For example, class, political, regional, or ethnic identities may be subordinated to national identity, as leaders strive to rally support against an external enemy. Indeed, government leaders may undertake or escalate an external conflict as a way of sustaining support for themselves.

At times, efforts to promote a shared identity, however genuine, may be experienced by some as a form of domination imposed by a ruling ethnic or political group. That occurs if the identity is characterized in narrow terms giving primacy to one language, religion, or ethnicity. Ethno-nationalism or religious nationalism, as propagated in Sri Lanka for example, can generate an intractable conflict. Much depends, then, on the content and context of the identity being promoted.

Other preventive policies can be used to manage particularly contentious issues as they arise. Policies introduced early in response to emerging demands for greater political or economic rights may effectively prevent an intractable conflict from developing. This seems to have worked in Malaysia, where, in the 1960s, the Malays and the indigenous peoples, known as Bumiputra, tended to be poor, less educated, and more engaged in traditional occupations compared with the non-Bumiputra minorities, such as the Chinese.[1] In May 1969, large scale ethnic riots erupted and these resulted in agreements among the leaders of the major ethnic communities to institute preferential ethnic policies of affirmative action.

Such efforts also have risks. The disadvantaged people's expectations, having been raised, may not be satisfied. Once they gain some concessions, they might believe they can obtain more. On the other hand, the side that has made concessions may come to feel they are paying a high price for their generosity, and a backlash results.

Intermediary policies

Government or intergovernmental organization (IGO) officials can provide economic, social, and political assistance that is extremely helpful in averting the development of intractable conflicts. The High commissioner on National Minorities with the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe,[2] has contributed to many activities that have helped reduce tensions and construct institutions that provide solutions to potentially grave conflicts relating to minority groups.[3] These have included establishing round tables, councils and other venues at which dialogue is conducted between representatives of both majority and minority parties, as well as helping to develop standards for minority participation in public life and recommendations about linguistic and educational rights for minorities. Under certain circumstances, such documents help parties to reach agreements, as with Hungary and Romania's Treaty on Understanding, Co-operation and Good Neighborliness, concluded in Timisoara on September 16, 1996.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also can pursue a variety of preventive policies.[4] At the local and national level, NGOs provide relationship networks that help prevent outbreaks of violence from escalating into large-scale riots. For example, transnational NGOs provide an avenue for the exchange of information between people in countries whose governments are in an adversarial relationship. Such information may avert or limit the escalation of intractable conflicts.

NGOs may also engage in activities that directly serve to prevent or limit conflict intractability. Some provide training in conflict resolution methods, while others obtain information and publicize the early signs of human rights violations that may instigate conflict escalations.

Interrupting intractability processes

Even when actions are taken that might send a conflict down the road of intractability, this movement may still be interrupted. In this section, we discuss some of the ways adversaries and intermediaries may halt and even turn back a conflict's course towards intractability.

Disputant Policies

Parties usually enter a conflict with the expectation that it will be short lived. They may act in ways that they think will bring them a quick victory or at least a negotiated agreement that yields much of what they seek. Often, though, they are mistaken, and the course of action they choose results in a series of interactions that generate a protracted and destructive struggle. However, some policies can be pursued that avoid, or at least interrupt, such interactions as they begin.

Though the use of violence often provokes reprisals of violence that enhance a conflict's intractability, each side can act to minimize that tendency. This was the case even after the startlingly violent actions by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), in Chiapas, Mexico, on January 1, 1994.[5] The Mexican government's immediate response to the EZLN's armed uprising was to suppress it militarily. After shots were exchanged with the troops, the Zapatistas disappeared into the jungle pursued by the army. However, by January 12, the President of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, declared a unilateral cease-fire and called on the EZLN to put down its arms and negotiate. Peace talks began on February 21.

From the start, the Zapatista's framed their use of violence so that negotiations were possible, and the Mexican government took that route. Aspects of both the social and political context and of the EZLN strategy contributed to this surprising course of action. For several years, various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had rapidly increased in Mexico as well as regionally and globally, forming worldwide electronic links. Because of this, news of the events in Chiapas spread quickly within and beyond Mexico, facilitating the rapid mobilization of Zapatista supporters who came to Chiapas to oppose the military suppression of the EZLN.

The message of the Zapatistas was articulated with a clarity and rationality that found willing ears around the world. One of the leading figures in communicating the EZLN message, Subcomandante Marcos, analyzed the terrible conditions of indigenous peoples and offered ways of correcting them, writing in a style that delighted and enlightened Mexico City intellectuals. The messages went out on email, disseminated through the global networks of NGOs and placed on websites. Because of this widespread publicity and support for the Zapatistas, the Mexican government decided it was unable to pursue a war aimed at destroying the rebels. They did aim, however, to contain them.

Because of its material and strategic weight, the dominant party in a conflict can prolong negotiations, expecting that the other side will not have the resources to carry on negotiations and maintain their position at the same time. The hope is that the weaker side will eventually give up and dissipate. Unsurprisingly, negotiations between the Mexican government and the EZLN made little progress. By February 1995, the situation had deteriorated following the Mexican army's occupation of territory tacitly accorded to the EZLN. Only after the National Congress intervened did serious negotiations occur, resulting in the Accord of San Andres, signed in February 1996. The Accord included a constitutional agreement to recognize the indigenous peoples' rights of self-determination and autonomy. But afterwards, the government rejected the proposal and again no progress was made. Then, Mexico's ruling political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was defeated in national elections for the first time in 71 years. The Zapatista movement, on the other hand, had not lost its organizational strength and retained transnational sympathy and support.

The new president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, of the National Action Party (PAN), asked the Mexican Congress in December 2000 to act on the Accord. The following March, the EZLN marched to Mexico City and its representatives addressed the Congress. In April, Congress passed an Indigenous Rights Law, but it incorporated only a portion of the Accord; consequently, the Zapatistas and their supporters opposed the Law. The conflict continues, though largely within the political system and its legal constraints.

Dilemmas abound in formulating policies that interrupt the movement toward growing intractability.[6] Policies that resort to coercion and violence, that seek to intimidate the opposition, are sometimes effective, at least in the short run. However, such methods more often fail, and are counterproductive. If attempted by relatively small and weak parties, perhaps out of desperation, such policies provoke reactions that may overwhelm and destroy them.[7] Coercion that is precise and limited, and that is placed in a context allowing for alternative ways of finding a mutual accommodation, have better chances of slowing or stopping a conflict's movement towards intractability. (See Power.)

Policies that embody concessions, however, also have risks. Such policies may placate some members of the opposition, and this may be sufficient to blunt demands for more intimidating coercion, allowing the conflict to be managed using acceptable methods. However, members of the side receiving the concessions may view them as signs of weakness perhaps resulting from their forceful actions; the concessions may then serve to whet their appetite for even greater concessions. The concessions won also can serve as resources to gain further concessions.

To minimize these risks, the appropriate context should be provided. Direct and indirect negotiations can be useful in developing shared understanding about the propriety of the concessions and the trade-offs related to them. These may include back channel official conversations as well as Track II discussions.

Intermediary policies

Since intractability often depends on external support for one or more sides in a conflict, withdrawing that support can interrupt the conflict's escalation and even perpetuation. This is the rationale for arms embargoes, either against one of the contending parties or for a region as a whole. In recent decades, increasing use has been made of various kinds of sanctions, including targeted sanctions, but with only limited success.[8]

Governments and NGOs can also interrupt escalation of a conflict by bringing attention to the conflict's dreadful consequences for civilians. Through the media, they can shine a spotlight on the human impact of a conflict that arouses attention and sometimes intervention. Direct coercive intervention may follow, as was the case in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Undermining institutionalization

Undermining the institutionalization of an intractable conflict is certainly important in preventing its prolongation. Many factors and processes can contribute to this.

Disputant Policies

Some groups within each side often arise to fight against the institutionalization process, and they are sometimes branded as dissidents and traitors. To be effective, some of these groups focus on the self-serving character of some of those leading the fight against the external enemy, but who are failing to wage that fight effectively. They may expose these leaders as profiting from the costly struggle.

Alternatively, as a struggle becomes protracted, some may question the value of continuing. Individuals may express this by physically withdrawing from the struggle. For example, in long wars, some people avoid conscription and some soldiers desert from the military or refuse to fight. Criticism of the continuing engagement in the conflict may become expressed openly by peace movements and demonstrations, and opposition leaders may emerge to provide legitimacy and organization to this voice.[9]

As the idea of what constitutes an acceptable settlement changes, such peace movements can interrupt escalation and hasten a conflict's termination. However, they may also be regarded as counterproductive. They may hearten the other side's resolve and raise their expectations of ultimate victory, thus indirectly prolonging the conflict and/or increasing human suffering. Assessing the consequences of these policies depends greatly on the terms of settlement that the assessor regards as both practical and morally just.

Intermediary policies

External parties can contribute in many ways to undermining the processes that entrench intractability, although this matter has received relatively little attention. External intervention can help provide material options for individuals or groups in one or the other camp that would enable them to give up their position of struggle and subsist by other means. This might be a safe asylum for some or funds to help others procure land for farming. An injection of cash and/or material investment can help create jobs that promise security and a decent living standard.

External actors can also provide information about the costs of the conflict's perpetuation and escalation. The costs to family and community will seem even greater if they are seen as unnecessary or ineffective and if possible solutions based on the experience of others can be envisioned. Constitutional arrangements providing political rights, demobilization safeguards, and economic growth may appear feasible if successfully achieved elsewhere.

Furthermore, programs that educate and inform through meetings between adversaries undermine the polarization that accompanies the institutionalization of conflicts. Finally, the risks of future sanctions imposed on perpetrators of human rights violations may help inhibit such actions that would otherwise exacerbate antagonism and mutual hate.

Transforming Policies

Transformation of an intractable conflict entails appropriate changes in identities, grievances, goals, and means of struggle by members of at least one party in that conflict. Policies fostering such changes can be pursued by the adversary parties as well as by intermediaries.

Disputant Policies

Transformation policies are often preceded by changes in leadership. Whether new leaders are selected to undertake changes or not, they can take a fresh look at the issues and are less bound by the actions of previous leaders. Furthermore, leaders of the opposing side may feel that the new leaders could be responsive to new initiatives.

At any time, a party can make conciliatory gestures or exploratory overtures resulting in a de-escalation of the conflict. Such overtures are often made carefully so as to avoid seeming weak and thus inviting raised demands. One set of ways to move cautiously is to use unofficial channels or intermediaries. Unofficial, or Track Two channels give greater depth to the transformation process.[10] They provide opportunities for relations to develop and knowledge to be acquired that help to change each side's conceptions of the other as well as themselves. Finally, unofficial channels can reframe relations so that grievances and/or goals are more flexible.

A series of agreements are usually needed to make the transition out of an intractable conflict into an enduring relationship -- that is, one that does not fall back into destructive conflict. The early agreements may take the form of confidence building measures. They may be followed by resolutions about how to deal with disagreements and contentious issues. Whatever the agreement, compliance to it is important if further transforming steps are to be taken.

Intermediary policies

Mediation is one way for external parties to help transform seemingly intractable conflicts. It played a vital role in the 1990s transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.S. government acted as the powerful mediator in bringing about the 1991 regional peace conference in Madrid. The Norwegian government played an important facilitating role in the PLO-Israeli negotiations near Oslo, producing the Declaration of Principles in 1993.[11]

Some mediators perform largely facilitative tasks, but these can be critical when done with skill by someone with relevant authority and links to persons with resources. Thus, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell provided many mediating services that contributed greatly to the eventual, and crucial, April 1998 Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.[12] Beginning in 1995 he chaired an international committee making recommendations on the decommissioning (disarming) of underground organizations. In September 1997, he chaired peace negotiations with an extraordinarily wide range of groups represented. Besides chairing these sessions, Mitchell acted as go-between for parties that would not talk to each other directly, helped provide norms for the discussion thus creating a safe space for negotiations, and helped establish rules to reach decisions by significant consensus. In addition, he had access to President Clinton who at times spoke directly to the parties.

Intermediaries can also be important in ensuring compliance to whatever agreements are reached. They can provide monitoring services, resources to compensation for losses, and impose negative sanctions if noncompliance occurs.

Consolidating transformation

Recent events show that agreements that would have previously ended intractable conflicts often unravel and the conflict erupts again. The task of building relations and institutions that avoid such regressions is challenging and requires continued attention, though here I only make a few brief points to illustrate this.[13]

Disputant Policies

A great many peacebuilding policies are discussed in a large variety of sources. They include the establishment, with equal involvement by persons from different sides in the conflict, of institutions to plan and carry out cooperative activities. They include educational programs that foster shared identities and norms of tolerance and mutual respect.

Considerable attention is given to the important role that reconciliation plays in the fundamental transformation of intractable conflicts. Reconciliation is a multidimensional phenomenon, involving many aspects of justice, truth, respect, and security, while each of these dimensions has varying degrees that can change over time.[14]

Intermediary policies

Intermediaries can help provide a context that supports rather than undermines the progress toward stable peace between former enemies. This includes managing related conflicts to minimize their damaging effects, such as refugee flows, economic disruption, and the diffusion of arms and armed fighters.

External actors can also work directly with former adversaries to support their peacebuilding efforts. External governments, IGOs and NGOs can provide useful intellectual, financial, and material resources to help build and sustain effective institutions and programs. The UNESCO program to support the culture of peace is illustrative of this function.


In this essay I have suggested a variety of policies that may be pursued by conflict partisans as well as by external interveners to prevent, interrupt, limit, transform, and end intractable conflicts. This discussion is meant to be suggestive rather than exhaustive.

Clearly, many factors and processes contribute to increasing, as well as reducing, a conflict's intractability. Knowing about them helps provide insight into effective policies that manage and transform intractable conflicts.

I have frequently noted here how various policies may fail to be effective and may even be counterproductive. Meaning well does not ensure doing well. Furthermore, simply ending a conflict may not be the correct objective in the eyes of many people. Consideration of the justice and morality of the terms of agreement is also important.

[1] [Mauzy, 1993 #386]; [Gurr, 2000 #824

[2] Max van der Stoel, the High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM), with the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

[3] van der Stoel, 1999 #1008

[4] Aall, 2001 #986

[5] Ronfeldt, 1998 #905

[6] Kriesberg, 2003 #1003

[7] Gamson, 1990 #179

[8] Cortright, 2002 #998

[9] DeBenedeti, 1990 #114

[10] Davies, 2002 #1010

[11] Kriesberg, 2001 #868


[13] [KACOPWIc ]

[14] Kriesberg, Louis. 2003. Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, 2nd ed. Maryland: Roman & Littlefield Publishers, 329-333.;  Lederach, John Paul. 1997. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace (USIP), 30.

Use the following to cite this article:
Kriesberg, Louis. "Countering Intractability." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <>.

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