William L. Ury

February 2005

Destructive conflict does not just break out but escalates through different stages from tension to overt conflict to violence. By watching carefully, the witness can detect warning signals, which, if acted on, can prevent escalation of conflict and even save lives. A witness can also speak up to persuade the parties to cease fighting and sound the alarm to call the attention of other thirdsiders who can intervene as mediators, peacekeepers, or other witnesses.

Watch out for early warning signs

Early warning signals appear most clearly to those of us immediately around the disputants. In the days leading up to the fatal shooting of five students at a Jonesboro, Arkansas, school in March 1998, 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11-year-old Andrew Golden made their intentions clear to those around them. "I have a lot of killing to do," one of them remarked to a schoolmate. If that was not enough, one of them threatened a fellow student with a knife the day before the killing. Tragically, their friends and schoolmates did not pass on the information to those who might have headed off the impending massacre.

Jannie Botes, of the University of Baltimore, talks about the important and often-ignored role of informal third parties in conflicts of all types, tractable and intractable.

On the largest scale as well, destructive conflict is often predictable. The war in Yugoslavia, for instance, was widely foreseen by analysts. And Saddam Hussein's 1991 "surprise" invasion of Kuwait should have come as no surprise. Here was a leader who had ruthlessly killed anyone who stood in his way, who had dropped chemical bombs on Kurdish villages in his own country, and who had previously attacked another neighbor, Iran, 10 years earlier. If any more warning were necessary, Hussein ominously advanced his troops to the Kuwaiti border and left them there for a full week before invading. Unfortunately, the world ignored all these warning signals. Instead, during the decade before the invasion, it showered Hussein with advanced weaponry, and during the weeks before, it gave him mixed signals as to how it would react.

As a professional field, early warning remains in its infancy but it is progressing. Police forces, which have traditionally aimed at arresting violent offenders after the fact, now develop "threat assessment" techniques to identify potential perpetrators the damage is done. They have discovered that offenders typically have a traceable history of problems, disputes, and failures. Once they identify a person at risk of using violence, they can usually manage him or her by working with family, friends, neighbors, social service staff, and courts -- in other words, by mobilizing the Third Side.

On the scale of nations, researchers are developing sets of indices which can help spot emerging ethnic conflict before it breaks out into violence. When human rights violations intensify, refugee flows increase, and governments turn more oppressive and unstable, ethnic war grows more likely. Humanitarian agencies, national governments, the United Nations, and conflict resolution groups are beginning to pool their knowledge, thus creating an effective early warning network.

Jannie Botes, a South African at the University of Baltimore, observes that media mediation takes place "a million times a day all over the world," but people don't recognize it or its importance.

Go on patrol

As witnesses, we need not limit ourselves to watching; more actively, we can go on patrol. When two days of racial fighting in 1997 set off rumors of violent revenge at one middle school in Florida, United Colors, a student group formed earlier to counter racism and violence, started patrolling the halls and urged the principal to ban book bags and backpacks until fears about weapons died down. It worked. In thousands of violence-plagued schools across America, teachers and parents have come to rely on student groups like United Colors to help keep the peace by patrolling campuses and reporting incidents. "The heart of the philosophy is watching out for each other and helping each other, reporting crime because it's the right thing to do," says the founder of Miami-based Youth Crime Watch of America.

At a neighborhood level, the Guardian Angels perform much the same role. Unarmed young people, they patrol the streets of many American cities in order to prevent robberies and violence. In Bloomington, Indiana, a group called "Moms on Patrol" walks the streets with cellular phones, looking out for dangerous gang activity, and reporting it to the police. On the global level, U.N. peacekeeping forces, armed only for self-defense, patrol hotspots around the world.

The act of witnessing alone can often help prevent violence. During the Central American wars of the 1980s, church groups from North America and Europe went to "bear witness," spending time in villages threatened by paramilitary groups or the army. Similarly, during the violent transition to majority rule in South Africa, citizens from local peace committees, both white and black, would stay with people whose lives had been threatened.

Speak out

"When there is gang warfare," explains Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans, "we call (gang) members in for an open session with representatives from the District Attorney's office, the probation officers, social-service workers and neighborhood ministers and say, 'Look, the community is telling you that the violence has got to stop. If it doesn't, the whole system here is going to indict you, sentence you and send you to prison.' " Witnesses, in other words, need not limit themselves to watching; they can speak up to persuade the parties to cease fighting.

Jannie Botes, a South African journalist and Baltimore-based conflict resolution scholar, says journalists need to understand how their coverage affects conflicts, and that they are essentially parties, too, when they start covering conflicts.

In the former Yugoslavia, a group of U.N. peacekeepers were asked to describe their job. "It is ninety percent negotiation," they chorused. They explained how they spent most of their time trying to induce warring parties to withdraw to the agreed-upon lines, to respect the cease-fire, and not to shoot when provoked by a hothead on the other side or when someone's cow wandered over the line. The same opportunity to speak up against destructive conflict is available to each of us in the daily conflicts around us. "One of the kids from my class and a kid I didn't know were fighting," says 6-year-old Jimmy Ellison, newly trained in conflict resolution, "until I told them, 'Maybe you guys should quit fighting, work the problem out together, and then play.' " It worked.

Get help fast

The witness sounds the alarm to call the attention of other thirdsiders, who can then intervene as peacekeepers, mediators, or other witnesses. In contrast to what happened at the Arkansas school, a student who brought a knife to a New York school using a violence prevention program was quickly reported by another student. School officials immediately confiscated the knife and suspended the student; only through a mediated agreement involving the community was he allowed to reenter the school.

One major reason why the incidence of street violence is so low in Japan is the widespread participation of citizens as witnesses who report problems to the policeman stationed in the neighborhood. The lesson is catching on in the United States, where police forces are learning that, in order to reduce violence, they too must draw on local communities for information, early warning, and support. Called community policing, this approach is credited with decreasing violent crime all the way from New York City to Hawaii. In Spokane, Washington, for example, an armed robber, called the "Bad Tooth Bandit" after his poor dental work, was nabbed nine blocks from the crime scene because the neighborhood immediately called in reports to the police substation. "The police are moving away from a 'we do it for you' approach to where 'we're working with you,' explains Boston police captain Robert Dunford. "This requires citizens' taking responsibility."

The media play a key role in sounding the alarm. Their reporting alerts thirdsiders around the world. When an artillery shell landed in a Sarajevo marketplace in February 1994, the world community saw the televised images of innocents slain, public revulsion was voiced, and governments hitherto reluctant to act were spurred into action. NATO bombers threatened to destroy Serb artillery in the hills overlooking Sarajevo and the artillery attacks ceased for months. Just in the course of doing their jobs, media professionals serve as the eyes and ears of the Third Side.


[1] This essay is reprinted, with permission from Bill Ury, from www.thirdside.org. A few minor changes were made to fit this space, most importantly, links to other related essays in the knowledge base and formatting changes. Our thanks to Bill Ury for allowing us to use this.

Use the following to cite this article:
Ury, William L.. "Witnesses." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: February 2005 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/witnesses>.

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