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Conflict Management As If
Human Beings Mattered.

Can We Learn to Do Better Than We Did in Kosovo?



By Jan Oberg

TFF co-founder & director



This article was commissioned by the editors of World Bank Institute Journal "Development Outreach" and written in August 1999. I was asked to write a thought-provoking piece. Whether it is, only the readers can judge. But the editors of Development Outreach seem to have thought it reached a bit too far ...It would read so much better if "edited" down to two text bits boxed inside articles by other authors; they also threw in another full article so that, unfortunately, there was no space available for all my contribution.

Below find the full article. The blue sections are those printed by the World Bank Institute Journal. Judge for yourself why this "editing" was done and what they didn't want to print. And remember they said it wasn't censorship.



Deficient diagnosis, failed conflict-resolution


A conflict is a problem that arises out of incompatible expectations, needs or values among two or more actors. The sine qua non of effective conflict-mitigation (-resolution or -transformation) is comprehensive analysis of the root causes (diagnosis) of that problem. Without it, interventions to 'manage' or help solve somebody else's conflict will invariable fail - as will surgery on a patient by a doctor who doesn't know the diagnosis. Violence is usually not the root problem, but a consequence of maltreated, ignored or otherwise non-resolved conflicts.*

There is a tendency - perhaps pronounced in Western culture - to locate conflict and violence (the two are not identical) in actors only. Thus, conflict is often defined as a good guy being attacked or quarreling with an evil guy about one object such as land, rights, resources, etc. Many thus believe that conflict-resolution is about punishing the designated bad guy, rewarding his counterpart after which things will be fine and, unfortunately, believe that when they have looked at the parties' behavior only (on TV) and not at their needs and fears and when they have apportioned guilt and blame - then they have the key to the solution.

Unfortunately, all this is 'conflict illiteracy' - a recipe for failure: conflicts are not only rooted in individuals (although, of course, acted out by and through them) but also in structures, circumstances and trends - in the "Karma." No conflict has only two parties; most actor behavior display shades of gray rather than black and white and, last but not least, making "evil" the root cause is much too imprecise to serve as a diagnosis (as it is to say that a disease is caused by demons in the body). In addition, it begs the philosophical question: what drives humans to do inhuman things to each other?


The Case of Kosovo

What was (is) the conflict - the problems that lead to the violence - in Kosovo all about? It is not human rights violations or ethnic cleansing; they are symptoms of deeper lying problems which, unfortunately, were never addressed by leading decision-makers in the international community.** As in so many other conflicts there is a history going decades, if not centuries, back in time. There was economic maldevelopment, there were constitutional conflict, political and specific Yugo-structural features. And there were extremely complex regional dimensions involving neighboring countries.

Albanians feel that historic fate has split their nation in three, in Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo. Serbs equally legitimately see the province as an integral part of Serbia's and Yugoslavia's time and space. Educated people on both sides can make excellent points and both have credible views and perfectly legitimate concerns. Objectively, Albanians and Serbs are more different in terms of lifestyle, religion, language, social structure and values than any other pair of larger national groups in ex-Yugoslavia and perceive the other, to quite an extent, as "lower." Segregation and polarization was traditionally deeper here than in, say, Bosnia and Croatia. Lack of trust and a remarkable amount of fear characterized their relations through decades.

Kosovo was the poorest area in Europe. As late as in the early 1990s, the socioeconomic situation was characterized by figures such as these: if the GNP of Kosovo is set at 100, Slovenia (1984) had 766, Serbia without Voivodina and Kosovo 375, Macedonia 249 - and the income gap between the richer and poorer republics and peoples in Tito's Yugoslavia began to increase rapidly in the 1980s. Structurally more advantaged republics such as Croatia and Slovenia paid considerable parts of their profits to the federal redistribution mechanism, but much of it ended up in corrupted pockets, showplace extravagant public buildings and in land purchases in Macedonia - little left for productive investments in Kosovo.

Depending on the definition, at least 55 per cent of those seeking work were unemployed; illiteracy passed 20 per cent and perhaps as many as 400,000 kids were out of the regular schools; over 40 per cent of the people had no access to tap water, only 28 per cent lived in areas with a sewage system.

The region had the highest birth rate and the highest infant mortality rate in Europe; more than 50 per cent of the citizens were below 20, the average age being 24 years of age. Albanians made up 67 per cent of the population in the province in 1961 (they also lived elsewhere in former Yugoslavia, some say 100.000 in Belgrade alone), they appear to have risen to about 90 per cent in the 1990s. Population pressure, better economic opportunities elsewhere and harassment caused many to work abroad; Albanian sources maintained in 1992 that around 450.000 Albanians left between 1975 and 1991. Serbs made up 24 per cent of the province's population in 1961, down to an estimated 8-9 per cent in the early 1990s. Some Serbs left because they were harassed or their land bought by Albanians while the majority left because of the ever deteriorating economic situation. (Statistics are manifestly unreliable, the last reliable census is from 1981 and the Albanians have refused to participate in any later census).

Naturally, all this was fertile ground for human dissatisfaction, mutual blaming, fear and violence. If dealt with in a conflict-professional manner and in time - let's say 1992-93 - the Serb-Albanian war since February 1998, NATOs misguided humanism (and missiles) as well as Serb and Albanian ethnic cleansing could, undoubtedly, have been avoided.


The international community - a party to the conflict, too

One of the discourse's problematic domain assumption seems to be that more highly developed countries intervene for the good of a higher, noble cause to stop somebody's violent struggle about a lesser, evil cause. But in most cases, the international community was and is a party to these conflicts; they have national, strategic, economic, or 'civilizing' interests or reasons and they play roles as, say, arms traders and peddlers for influence in politics, security and intelligence.

Furthermore, the Western-based global economy display persistent, aggravating features of maldevelopment (overdevelopment causally related to underdevelopment) resulting in poverty and alienation for millions - another fertile ground for nationalism, fundamentalism, frustration, violence and aggression. Contemporary conflict regions are shaped by a history of foreign interventions, wars, border changes and 'scrambles' for power among leading Western nations - none of which is stated here to diminish the responsibility of leaders and groups for wars fought in their countries.

In an ever more integrated 'global village' the distinction between "them egoist war makers" and "we altruist peacemakers" is nothing but a convenient myth in the hands of powers that be - much helped, of course, by the "present-ism" of our age: fixation on the present, disregard for the past, electronics over printed media, image(making) over words, superficial rather than in-depth coverage of events over trends - and ever increasing conglomeration of media power and concomitant marketisation of news and 'stories.'


It's cost-effective to invest in the human dimensions

The human, or existential, dimensions of conflict is another factor sadly overlooked by diplomats, by the media and by more or less self-appointed conflict-'managers.' Catchword are: identity, self-assertion, hopes about the future and fear: fear of past deeds that hang on in the present, and fear about what the future may bring. Fear - much more than evil - may help us understand why (good) people can do bad things. And frustration because of non-addressed conflicts/problems. Psycho-social dynamics follow the entire conflict 'wheel' from the stage of early warning to that of reconstruction and reconciliation.

How come we so often talk about restoring peace after wars' hurt and harm without paying attention to the human aspects of conflicts in general and that of forgiveness and reconciliation in particular? Take a look at Bosnia and Croatia since 1995, look at Kosovo now, or Somalia, or...Have people really held out their arms or said 'I forgive you'? Come together in trust? Have they learnt how to deal with the past, not in order to forget it or to blame each other, but to acknowledge what happened and find ways to avoid it ever happening again? Can that even be said about South Africa? It is easy to repair houses and infrastructure, it's easy to throw money around and talk about human rights.

But what if people deep down keep on hating each other? Will they ever be happy and at peace with themselves? Will their children? What kind of society will it be if we cannot also, so to speak, repair souls and help create tolerance, co-existence, even cooperation and love?

We need to make forgiveness and reconciliation a central objective: in research and studies, in training and education and, above all, we should empower every civilian and military - and every international organisation engaged in war-torn societies - to work for it with the locals. In short, the world needs a new attention to the human and non-material dimension and a transfer of peace-making resources from the military to the civilian society and organisations.

Intellectual and financial investments into finding solutions to the enigmas of human violence and human reconciliation through dialogue and conflict-resolution could well prove to be the most cost-efficient violence-prevention mechanism. But then, we must admit, there are powerful elite interests who benefit from more rather than less violence in human and global affairs; the grotesque global imbalance between military investments and investments in satisfying the basic needs of the most underprivileged bear witness to this and would justify a new kind of humanitarian intervention quite different from that conducted with military might in selected cases.


Forgiveness and reconciliation - can souls be 'reconstructed'?

There are many definitions of it, but forgiveness can be understood an individual moral act of freeing oneself from the burden of hate and the right to revenge. Reconciliation takes at least two and aims at achieving something constructive out of a dark, hurtful past. It does not mean forgetting, it means remembering the past in order to live normally, or more fully, in the future. None of it can be achieved by money, by weapons or by legal measures, and it goes far deeper than human rights training.

To (re)build peace in post-war society is no simple project. Word and concepts are deceptive. "Re-build", to take one example, suggests that something that was destroyed can be re-created.

This may apply to buildings or some other physical structures, but not easily to social, psychological and mental structures. Memories of what the war brought cannot be eradicated; and the prewar social situation cannot be re-established when people have died, populations moved and families split. Reconstructing war-torn societies means reconstructing: 1) human beings, soul and bodies, 2) social structure, 3) culture, and 4) environment.

But across them all, there is one thing to be not re-constructed but cultivated for the first time: 5) a peace culture of reconciliation, repentance, forgiveness, respect, healing &emdash; of collectively and individually acting out the sorrow, of learning to live with it and simultaneously move towards a vision of peaceful existence, either together or as good neighbors.


Who could learn from whom?

One may indeed wonder whether we Westerners are more oriented toward a peace built on the sword, legality, mechanics and external implanting of economic, political and human rights conditions for peace - whereas other cultures may search for peace rather in the direction of trying to be at peace with oneself, come to terms with the evil that has been, and use your local cultural rituals and traditions to facilitate forgiveness and reconciliation? In short, that the rich West goes for more or less interventionist quick-fix peace packages where people come last, while other cultures and religions put people and non-material dimensions first and know that real peace has to come from within the individual and the social fabric.

Be this as it may, Westerner conflict-managers who intervene around the globe would do wise - and build confidence - if they asked first: what can we learn here about peace? Peace-making by dialogue require respect and may take more time but lasts longer than standardized, imposed, quick-fix peace plans which per definition ignores the human, existential dimensions.


Imagination and good will can produce alternatives

Let's imagine that we establish regional institutes (or "centres" or "academies") for reconciliation in regions where conflicts have historically occurred frequently and risk is high that they will also in the future. Reconciliation could cover basically what happens from the moment a cease fire agreement is signed up to peaceful life, normalization and socioeconomic development once again takes place &emdash; but with special emphasis on the human dimensions of post-war reconstruction.

For instance, we need more research on successful peace agreements and conflict-resolution processes, taking stock of the human experience, field studies of countries that have successfully learned to live with a painful past &emdash; lessons learned from old and contemporary history. We need systematic studies of the noble art of saying "I am sorry" &emdash; e.g. repentance, forgiveness, respect, healing, a collective acting out of sorrow and traumas and how to simultaneously move towards a vision of peaceful existence, either together or as good neighbors; and we need to "target" children and youth for long term violence-prevention - which in many cases means different schools, teaching materials and history books.

We need to think of memorials for all victims and all sides (as in Okinawa), books, religious places, theater performances, exhibitions - mourning and remembrance is essential. We need truth and reconciliation committees, for sure, but also future workshops. And we need to expand facilities and improve methods for therapy such as empowerment of survivors; reinstating self control; rejection of relations of dominance and submission - locally and internationally. People must be offered a chance for spiritual regeneration, developing a broad attachment to others, and work for the reconstruction of a narrative of history and the trauma and for constructive integration of it into memory. The list is endless!

While the international community is prepared to fight wars within hours, it seems virtually unprepared fighting for peace. But to summarize, there are new insights and tools from research and experience that would help us all deal with big and small conflicts in a more humane manner: 1) much more sophisticated, professional conflict-understanding, 2) an awareness of our own role as parties to the conflict rather than neutral mediators, 3) a new focus on the human-existential dimensions through the conflict wheel, and 4) true human forgiveness and reconciliation is imperative is we want to prevent future violence and create peace.

Early warning, early listening and early action with these few elements in mind could probably work miracles. Neither violence nor peace is completely hereditary, it is also something we learn. So learning, teaching and working for peace - peace understood as conflict-management with the least amount of violence in all human affairs, big and small, and vis-a-vis Nature - is possible. And a challenge for us all tomorrow, next year, next century. In short, now and here.



*) We do not speak of conflict-prevention; conflicts are part of our lives, points for learning and maturing. What we must learn is to handle conflicts intelligently, in ever less violent ways - i.e. violence-prevention.

**) International community is a euphemistic term. In reality, the global/international society or system is not a (human) community but highly fragmented; in the Kosovo crisis less than 10 per cent of the member countries of the United Nations - or rather a handful of leaders in them - took all the essential decisions, claiming to do so in the name of all.


August 1999



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