Module 4 of 8
In Progress

Understanding Conflict

David Katz 18 Feb 2020
A young boy looks through barbed wire at three Uruguayan UN peacekeepers at a refugee camp in Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo. Troops arrived in Bunia under a UN mandate in June 2003, to secure the provincial capital of Ituri province and prepare for a multinational force. The area had been plagued by a wave of recent ethnic killings between two rival tribes: the majority Lendu and the minority Hema.

This lesson will enable you to understand the complexities of conflict, as you are likely to encounter it in a peacekeeping operation.

Most conflicts have a confusing and interconnected web of causes, and involve a network of actors other than the two or more parties immediately implicated in the dispute.

This lesson will offer some tools to help you prepare for any kind of conflict intervention. It will help you to understand the conflict’s root causes, to identify the needs and interests of parties, to understand what role they play in a conflict, and to see how factors like culture and power influence the conflict system.

Key Things to Learn

• Gain a deeper understanding of how conflict functions, what causes it and what possible outcomes it can have
• Gain skills to analyse a conflict and prepare for a conflict intervention
• Understand what stage a conflict is at, so as to prepare an appropriate response
• Learn tools that are applicable to conflict negotiation and mediation

Understanding Conflict

Any successful intervention to change or resolve a conflict requires that you understand clearly what is going on in the conflict, and its root causes. If you are mediating an international conflict, this would be done in detail by a large team of analysts. When facing a confrontation with a colleague, you may make an assessment in five minutes in your head… but the core principles remain the same.

Assessing a Conflict

Whether you are preparing to intervene in a conflict or whether you are a party to a negotiation (for instance, you are negotiating the release of UN soldiers being held hostage), if you want to have an impact on the conflict you need to make an assessment of the conflict – and if you are planning a significant intervention, you need a deeper understanding of the conflict.

Conflict analysis is part of the preparation for resolving a conflict. Analysing a conflict means coming to terms with the history of the conflict (the story), looking at relationships between parties and understanding their historical and cultural context, and understanding some of the root causes. This analysis will help you to:

  • get an understanding of who the parties are, and how they function – and some insights on how best to get them to work together. It will also give you some insights on how to deal with significant parties who may be outside the formal mediation process;
  • tell which aspects of the conflict need attention, what causes them and how to address them; and
  • start drawing up a conflict map and potential options for settlement. Even though the mediator does not determine the outcome of a negotiation process, they should have an idea of where resolution of a conflict may potentially be found.

Once you have a conflict map, it is also important to assess what stage a conflict is at – is it in the process of escalation, or is it a full-blown crisis? This will inform us of the appropriate action to take, and who should take it.

Narrative of the Conflict

You can’t make a meaningful intervention in a conflict if you don’t know what has happened. The narrative should provide:

  • a factual account of what has happened;
  • background and context; and
  • a timeline of events.

Bear in mind that this story is likely to be highly contested by the parties to the conflict – with each having their own version of what has happened.  These differences will actually help to highlight the parties’ interests and the root causes of the conflict. Be careful not to compromise your neutrality by showing support for one party’s version of events. Spend as much time as possible talking to parties, including parties other than the primary parties involved in the conflict, and doing background research.

And if you’re facing a crisis?

You are a company commander. One of your soldiers has been ‘arrested’ by villagers, having accused him of raping a local girl, and if he is held overnight you fear he may be killed.

Now is not the time for in-depth conflict analysis, but how do you intervene? Your rules of engagement prohibit the use of force.

Such crises are commonplace on a peace mission. However, before acting, you always make an assessment, even a rapid intuitive one based on apparent information learned through your senses.

This lesson is designed to give you a framework. You may conduct your ‘analysis’ in a matter of seconds, but it is best carried out according to a framework, and by asking the right questions. Once you have learned it, challenge yourself to analyse a conflict you have faced in the past, using the model, in under one minute. Surprised at the results?

The Parties

List all of the possible parties to the conflict – including those that seem less important. Parties should then be placed in a framework that identifies how they are involved in the conflict. Links should be drawn between the parties to identify their relationships, and their common and opposing interests.

Root Causes

The Circle of Conflict tool can be used to identify the root causes of a conflict. All of the potential root causes in each sector must be identified. When analysing root causes, it is important to consider the involvement of all parties, not just the primary parties. Getting this information is going to take substantial research – including talking to the parties (if possible) and consulting experts. Obviously, this level of detailed preparation will only be indicated in situations where extensive negotiations or mediation are at stake.

The Parties

  • Get information from the parties themselves wherever possible.
  • If primary conflicting parties are not accessible, then experts who seem to know the parties should be approached.
  • Several different people on different sides need to be spoken to in order to get a variety of perspectives, and to cross-check accounts.
  • Direct observation of behaviour can also be used and, in some cases, the preferences (positions and needs, or interests) of parties can be inferred.

Background and Context

All conflicts have a context within which they happen, and usually a history. 

The conflict situation will be impacted by:

  • the personalities and personal perspectives of the individuals involved; and
  • the social, cultural, political, economic, and/or religious context within which the conflict is set.

The context can affect the interests, position, power, rights, feelings of, and outside pressures on, the parties.

Tools for Identifying and Analysing the Parties

Here is a process you could use to identify parties and their interrelationships.

Sorting the Parties

After brainstorming all the possible parties to the conflict, you will need to sort them to understand how they relate to one another and the conflict. Place them within this framework of concentric circles by deciding whether they are primary, secondary or peripheral to the conflict, as follows:

  • primary parties – those directly involved; the people who you need in the room to resolve the conflict;
  • secondary parties – those directly affected by the conflict; those with the ability to destabilise an agreement with which they don’t agree; and
  • peripheral parties – those on the outside, who still have an interest in the outcome of a conflict, and those affected by the conflict (everyone who has a stake in its outcome).
Source: V. Gounden, ACCORD.

The ‘Unimportant’ Parties

The peripheral parties – those outside the circle – may not seem significant to the negotiation process, but they are very important to bear in mind.

They can have a marked positive or negative impact on your progress in the negotiation – for instance, by supporting the other side, or by providing your side or the mediator with resources.

Real World Perspective

Identifying the parties individually, clearly separating them out, and placing them in this framework, or social network, will greatly assist to establish the relationships between the primary parties and the rest.

This analysis may prove to be a ‘reality check’ for parties who have unrealistic expectations of the outcome of a negotiation process, or an unrealistic assessment of their own BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement – a tool for assessing the strength of parties in negotiation, and for evaluating any potential agreement against a party’s options outside the negotiation).

The victims of a conflict are also parties to a conflict, and should be considered in your analysis – normally, they would be considered secondary parties.

Causes of Conflict

Ask the protagonists to any conflict what its causes are and you will get a multitude of different answers. Conflict is a complex phenomenon, and its causes are sometimes deep rooted and long term, much like the roots of a tree that extend deep into the ground.

All conflicts are ultimately a matter of competing interests. Each party sitting around a negotiation table will have a number of needs or interests motivating them, or underpinning the positions that they take in the conflict. These interests may be for security, food or shelter, for health care, for money or power, for the needs of a broad base of supporters, or for the narrow interests of those taking part in the negotiation process.

When you look at the parties in a conflict negotiation, try to look ‘behind’ their positions or demands to understand their needs or interests. This will give you some insight into the real driving forces behind what they are saying. It will also give you some idea of what conditions need to be met for the conflict to be resolved favourably.

But how do we understand these causes of the conflict in more depth? How do we make sense of those ‘hidden’ causes of the conflict, and what can we do with them? The Circle of Conflict on the next page is a useful tool to deepen our understanding of a conflict.

The Circle of Conflict

The Circle of Conflict is a tool to assist in identifying the causes of a conflict. A common misconception is that a conflict should have one cause, or fit in one segment of the circle. Most conflicts will actually have causes in every sector of the circle – although some sectors will tend to dominate.

By asking questions (such as those on the opposite page), you can tell if there is an aspect of the conflict that is caused by relationship or information issues, for example. It may, however, be structural issues that prevent each side from exploring and fulfilling their interests without experiencing conflict with each other.

Stages of a Conflict

There are usually distinct phases of a conflict, but these might not always be in the same order. Moving from one stage to the next is not always the result of a single event or factor. These stages are usually present in a conflict: A conflict may not move smoothly through these phases, and a single conflict, especially one that takes place over a long period of time, may have several episodes of escalation and de-escalation. A conflict that was apparently settled may also flare up again, and go through another cycle of escalation, de-escalation and settlement.

Source: This model is an adaptation of Michael S. Lund’s ‘Life history of a conflict’ model (Lund, 1996: 38).

In real life, no conflict resolves as simply as this bell curve model shows. The de-escalation phase may be much longer than the escalation phase; a conflict may escalate again after appearing to resolve; or a conflict may have numerous mini flare-ups in the process of resolution.

Peace Missions at which Stage of a Conflict?

Most peace operations are established after the signing of a ceasefire to assist the parties to a conflict to implement the agreement, and they are thus, by definition, post-conflict operations that take place during the DE-ESCALATION STAGE. 

However, some are deployed as peace enforcement operations to create stability. For instance, the West African operation in Liberia in 2004 (ECOMIL), was deployed when the situation was still very tense in the midst of the CRISIS STAGE. 

Many others, such as the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) Mali (MINUSMA) or CAR (MINUSCA), have to manage ongoing fighting among some factions.

Sometimes different areas of the same mission are at different stages of a conflict. One can say, for instance, that for most of 2004 and 2005 the eastern part of the DRC (Ituri and the North and South Kivus) was in the CRISIS STAGE, whilst the western part of the DRC was in the SETTLEMENT STAGE. Similarly, one can say that, in 2006, the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) that operated in Southern Sudan was dealing with a situation in the SETTLEMENT STAGE, whilst the African Mission in Sudan (AMIS) that operated in Darfur in western Sudan, at that time, was dealing with a situation that was in a CRISIS STAGE, as violence continued despite ceasefire agreements having been entered into between some of the factions.

Within a given mission, even although the overall situation may be categorised as being in the DE-ESCALATION or SETTLEMENT STAGES, you may find a situation in your specific area of responsibility where there are SIMMERING TENSIONS, for instance, between two rival warlords, each with his own supporters. This situation may ESCALATE into EMERGING CONFLICT or even open CONFRONTATION, and you may have to use various conflict prevention and conflict management techniques to try and prevent the dispute from ESCALATING into violent conflict, or to manage the conflict in such a way that you minimise its consequences on innocent civilians and the peace process as a whole, and to bring it to an end as soon as possible.

Early Warning Signs

Tracking a conflict is important in that it helps you to know:

  • when to respond;
  • what response is needed; and
  • whether a conflict is likely to escalate from simmering tensions to confrontation or crisis, and if early intervention can prevent escalation from happening. This process is known as early warning.

Early warning systems for conflict involve predicting and monitoring the political, social, economic, environmental and military pattern of events in an area of potential conflict, which could lead to an outbreak of conflict. A useful tool is the Continuum of Relationships. It uses behaviour patterns to identify whether a conflict is likely to escalate or erupt in the near future.

Continuum of Relationships

Continuum of Relationships in Peace Missions

The escalating tension among the different political parties and groups leading up to the genocide in Rwanda is a classic example of the Continuum of Relationships. 

During the UN Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR) in 1993 and 1994, the worsening relations between, and increased tensions among, the different political groupings was clear to those in the UN mission. One could trace how former COOPERATION between the Hutu and Tutsi communities changed, especially during the colonial period, into COMPETITION. And how, as a result of the competition for political power, the post-colonial history of Rwanda was punctuated by several periods of ESCALATION, CONFRONTATION and CRISIS, with the 1994 genocide only the latest, but most horrific, of these series of tensions. 

With hindsight, and as a result of the UN experience in Rwanda and elsewhere, and with the insight gained from related research, we can now identify these various stages of increased tension, captured here in the Continuum of Relationships. For each type of relationship, there are various indicators that can assist one with identifying the stages. 

One of the dilemmas of conflict analysis is that one can not predict, as a fixed causal value, that increased tension at one level will necessarily result in violent conflict. For instance, Burundi, Rwanda’s southern neighbour that has a similar ethnic make-up, experienced ethnic tension at almost the same level as in Rwanda, but the conflict in Burundi did not reach the same intensity as that in Rwanda. Although each situation is thus different and needs to be treated on its own merit, the Continuum of Relationships is a useful tool to assist you to identify a conflict system where a dispute is escalating through worsening stages of conflict.

Assessing the Conflict

If you are called in to mediate a conflict – whether at the community level in a peace mission, or at an international level – the first step is to assess the stage of the conflict. The way you approach a mediation, how you structure it, and what contingency plans you make for dealing with developments inside or outside of the actual mediation process, will depend very much on how close the conflict is to crisis. The Continuum of Relationships is an effective tool in this analysis.

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