Module 3 of 8
In Progress

What is Conflict?

David Katz 17 Feb 2020
Rebel soldiers from Liberia’s main rebel faction, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Development (LURD), sit in the back of a pickup truck cheering a ceasefire on 5 August 2003 in Monrovia, Liberia.

Conflict is both something in which we all have extensive experience, and also something of which we are generally afraid and have few skills.

We will look at definitions of conflict from a number of different perspectives.

Normally we think of conflict as something that should be removed as quickly as possible. This lesson will introduce positive aspects to conflict, and help us to begin thinking about how conflict can be used constructively to bring growth, awareness and change to our lives, or the situations we have been tasked to manage.

Key Things to Learn

• Have a deeper understanding of what conflict is and how it works
• See the value in conflict – how it can transform and bring about change in a positive way, if handled appropriately
• Exchange ideas and share experiences with other participants in a training, or co-workers on your team

What is Conflict?

At one level, we are all very familiar with conflict. Conflict is generally viewed as an undesirable negative force in society, to be eradicated as we come across it. And yet, conflict can also be a painful, or uncomfortable, stage of a system undergoing a process of change, and offers the potential to transform and bring about positive growth, if handled appropriately.

Throughout our lives, we all become experienced in dealing with conflict (even if that means avoiding it at all cost). All human beings experience conflict as a large part of our human existence.

  • Conflict involves people: it is a state of human interaction between two or more parties (or even two or more parts of ourselves). 
  • Conflict is a state of human interaction where there is disharmony
  • It emerges when parties compete over perceived or actual goals, values or interests.
  • It occurs when parties confront each other with opposing actions and counter-actions. 
  • It is an indicator that something is changing, has changed or needs to change.

Conflict Definitions

  • Conflict is a state of human interaction where there is disharmony or a perceived divergence of interests, needs or goals.
  • Conflict is a form of competitive behaviour between people or groups. It occurs when two or more people compete over perceived or actual incompatible goals or limited resources (Boulding, 1962, cited in CDR, 1986: 2).
  • A social conflict exists when two or more persons or groups manifest the belief that they have incompatible objectives (Kreisberg, 1988: 2).
  • Conflict is an outgrowth of the diversity that characterises our thoughts, our attitudes, our beliefs, our perceptions, and our social systems and structures. It is as much a part of our existence as is evolution (Weeks, 1994: 7).

But is thinking of conflict analytically, as a theoretical construct, the only way to think of conflict? Our rich cultural traditions have, through the ages, handed down wisdom and insight in the form of metaphor, story or myth. These parables offer us a ‘sense of knowing’ – they resonate at a non-intellectual level, and yet we somehow feel ‘connected’ with the truths they contain. In the process of training future peacekeepers how to handle conflict, we have asked them to give us some metaphors that describe what conflict is for them. These are their responses (and we’ve left some empty spaces to fill in some of your personal metaphors).

Types and Levels of Conflict

We encounter different levels of conflict – from interpersonal through to intergroup and interstate conflict. How does this play out in a peacekeeping environment? Here are some levels of conflict that you may experience on a typical peacekeeping mission.

Inner Conflict

Internal conflict is something that we continue to face on an ongoing basis around difficult decisions, for example, having to do things because of our jobs that we do not like or with which we do not necessarily agree; having to get along with people we find difficult; or dealing with the isolation and separation from loved ones while on a mission.

The challenges and stresses of the peace mission environment may exacerbate aspects of your own internal conflict, and that is something to expect and for which to prepare. Many of the tools presented in this online course also apply to dealing with inner conflict – in fact, internal conflict could be seen as a conflict between different parties within, or different parts of, ourselves.

Interpersonal Conflict

Life on a peacekeeping mission mirrors what you experience in normal social life, and the same type of intra-office conflicts can occur as one would expect in any normal work situation. In fact, the peacekeeping context can be especially susceptible to intra-office conflict, because it is a highly dynamic environment. The situation is typically quite tense, often dangerous, mostly multicultural and multilingual. There is a high turnover of personnel and everything is temporary (your office location may change, your boss may change, the name of your unit and its location within the larger structure may change, everybody is on short-term contracts, etc.).

This highly dynamic situation causes a strange microsocial system, where there are few incentives for investing in long-term social stability. There are thus few external social control mechanisms (peer pressure, codes of conduct, etc.), and everyone is more dependent on themselves to maintain acceptable social behaviour. 

In this environment, people working in the same office may have conflicts over how to carry out a task (often culturally influenced), or they may compete for positions. Because structures of authority are often unclear (positions may remain vacant for months, and someone from a lower level of seniority may be appointed to act in that position), there is more room for open competition over and/or rejection of management. Or people may compete for tasks that are perceived to be the most prestigious (that would bring them into contact with senior managers such as the SRSG, or that may result in travel – either internal, i.e. into the field if the persons are at the HQ, or perhaps even internationally, i.e. to a training course or meeting outside the mission area).

Conflict Over Management

The head of office (P4) is going on leave, and one of the three P3s in the office (Rogers, Nkuhlu and Ndiri) will be appointed Officer-in-Charge (OIC) in her absence. The one P3 (Rogers) has acted as OIC in the past when the P4 has been away, and expects to be appointed as OIC. However, a new P3 (Ndiri) has joined the office since the last time the P4 has been away, and as the P4 has more confidence in the leadership abilities and experience of Ndiri, she appoints him as OIC.

Rogers is disappointed and furious, and decides not to cooperate with Ndiri. In fact, Rogers actively undermines Ndiri and complains to everyone that is willing to listen that Ndiri has only been appointed as OIC because the P4 and the OIC are of the same gender/race/religion or language group.

Conflict Over Opportunity

An office head informs her staff that there is an opportunity for one person to attend an ACCORD Civilian Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding Course in Durban, South Africa, in two months’ time. This results in fierce competition among some of the staff, who would like to be chosen for this training opportunity and the foreign travel. They constantly compete amongst each other for tasks that may put them in a position to impress their manager, and some try to discredit their colleagues.

When Sanchez is selected, the other staff who thought they had a chance are very disappointed, and one of them tells everybody that Sanchez has only been selected because she has used a friend in the office of the SRSG, who is from the same country as she is, to put pressure on her boss to select her for the position. The other staff in the office believe this story, and everyone shuns Sanchez before her departure and for months after her return.

Intergroup Conflict

This is the level of conflict between interpersonal conflict and conflict that occurs on a national or international level. It can include any kind of conflict, such as conflict between the military, police and civilian components of a mission, or between aid organisations working in the peace mission. Conflict within a community, or between factions in one geographical area that doesn’t necessarily impact on the national conflict, would also fall under this level.

Civil-Military Conflict

One of the factors that complicates peace operations is the large number of different organisations and institutions that work alongside one another. These organisations have different mandates and operating cultures, and this often creates tension among them. For example, an NGO based in Goma (DRC) is driving three trucks from Goma to Bukavu to deliver shelter items to an IDP camp. On the way they come under attack by unknown gunmen, but two trucks manage to escape and reach Bukavu. In Bukavu they report the incident to the UN. The UN peacekeeping force sends a platoon to investigate the incident and to search for the missing truck, but the commander of the peacekeepers in Bukavu is furious with the head of the NGO. He argues that they should have informed the UN before they left Goma, so that the UN peacekeepers could have provided them with an escort. The NGO argues that they are an independent humanitarian actor and that they prefer not to make use of military escorts. The commander argues that the NGO only wants to cooperate with the military when they are in trouble.

Community Conflict

Two neighbouring villages near the town of Rumbeck in Sudan have been in conflict over their allegiance to the local chief. One of the villages wants to break away and create their own chieftaincy. They argue that they originate from another clan that was forced to move into their present location two generations ago, and that they are therefore not part of the same clan system as their neighbouring village. They should thus have the right to have their own chief. The existing chief in the neighbouring village claims that his ancestors allowed the people from the neighbouring village to settle on their land, on the condition that they accept the authority of their chief. He argues that, if they want to appoint their own chief, they have to move off their land.

This dispute has been going on for years, but seems to have worsened during recent months. Over the past weekend, a soccer match between youths from the two villages ended violently, and one boy died. There are now rumours that the village of the boy that has been killed is planning to attack the other village. You are the local UN Civil Affairs officer, and you realise that if this situation is not resolved, the violence is likely to spiral out of control.

Fear of Conflict

Most people are terrified of conflict, and would rather avoid it – they deal with it only as a last resort. To be an effective mediator or conflict intervener in a peace mission, you will have to learn to accept conflict and deal with your own internal apprehension around conflict. A first step is to learn to deal with conflicts in your own life. This will help you to be neutral when assisting other people with their conflicts.

Intra-/Interstate Conflict

The main focus of the peacekeeping mission is to manage conflict between the warring parties within the state (intrastate) or between states (interstate). You may not be at a senior level of command on the mission, and may feel that you personally have no direct impact on the outcome of the conflict, beyond fulfilling your role in the mission. Sometimes, however, a local or regional issue can impact the course of the conflict nationally, as the following example shows.

Post-Conflict Elections

The first post-conflict election in Sedonia is critical for the future stability of the country. There was no clear winner in the first round of the presidential elections, and there is now going to be a run-off between the two frontrunners. Both candidates have booked the same stadium in one of the provincial towns for a major political rally this coming Saturday. Apparently the person responsible for the bookings accepted a booking from the Freedom-All Party on Monday. He was sick on Tuesday and a colleague of his, unaware of the Freedom-All Party booking, accepted a booking from the National Congress Party. The error was discovered on Wednesday when both parties paid deposits for the hiring of the stadium. However, as both camps have already announced their rallies and spent money on printing posters and on radio and newspaper advertisements, neither is willing to change their plans. 

The double booking has snowballed into a major stand-off between the two parties, and the national police and AU mission are concerned that it may lead to violent clashes between the supporters of the two sides, if it is not resolved soon. You are the electoral advisor in the AU Mission in Sedonia, and you have been asked to meet with the two parties to try and resolve the situation.

Supporters of President Joseph Kabila parade down the main boulevard of the capital, Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, October 2006.

Conflict Can be Positive

Conflict is often seen as negative. But conflict can: 

  • create an opportunity for balancing the power within a relationship or the wider society, and the reconciliation of people’s legitimate interests;
  • lead to greater self-awareness and understanding, and awareness of diversity and differences between people, organisations and societies;
  • lead to personal, organisational and even systemic growth and development;
  • act as a useful medium for airing and solving problems;
  • allow for different interests to be reconciled; and
  • foster unity within groups.

Why See the Positive Aspects of Conflict?

We should see the positive sides of conflict so that we do not: 

  • avoid dealing with conflict;
  • see conflict only as a battle between incompatible self-interests and desires; and
  • see the conflict in terms of absolute differences. This colours the whole relationship and ignores the healthy, more positive aspects of the relationship.

Conflict is not good or bad – it simply ‘is’. It is a facet of everyday human experience. The natural systems of nature also involve conflict at many different levels – whether it be one animal eating another for survival, or competing for leadership of the herd, which leads to selection of the strongest genes for future generations.

As we observe life, and conflict’s role in growth and change, we become aware that conflict is often necessary. It should not be suppressed, but rather worked with and channelled. However, there is evidence all around us, wherever we are in the world, of the devastating impact of unrestrained or unmanaged conflict. This online course should assist you to play your part in the management and resolution of conflicts as you encounter them in the peacekeeping environment.

The school reconstruction example illustrates the kinds of positive outcomes that can emerge from handling conflict constructively in a peace mission environment.

School Reconstruction

During the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), one of the battalions thought that it may be a good idea to assist the community with the reconstruction of a school in their area of responsibility, which was destroyed during the conflict. They started discussing the idea with the local community, with the intention of ensuring that the community choose which school should be reconstructed. They soon realised that their enquiries had resulted in a dispute between two neighbouring villages over which school should be reconstructed. 

After some time, it transpired that the school reconstruction dispute was actually just a symptom of a long-standing dispute between the two villages, about the utilisation of an area of grazing land that separated them. The peacekeepers decided to assist the community with the reconstruction of both schools, but they asked them to set up a committee, with representatives from both villages, that would manage these and other community projects undertaken with the support of the peacekeepers in future.

Through the process of working together on the school reconstruction project, and later on a bridge reconstruction project, the two villages were able to establish such a positive cooperative relationship that they were eventually able to resolve the grazing dispute as well. The initial heightened tension brought about by the school reconstruction dispute thus generated a process that eventually resolved the underlying dispute.

Crowd Control Incident in East Timor

In one of the 13 districts of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), considerable tension developed between the UN police officers from the West and those from Asia. The Western police officers thought the Asian police officers were not assertive enough when dealing with the local community, whilst the Asian police officers thought that the Western police officers were too aggressive. It all came to a head when they had to deal with an angry crowd.

The Western police officers immediately took the lead, as they usually did, and formed a line that blocked the advance of the crowd. The Western police officers had their hands on their holstered weapons and loudly demanded that the crowd stop their advance. A tense stand-off ensued. The young local men in the front of the crowd were angered by the aggression of the UN police, and felt that to protect their honour and to show that they were not scared, they should challenge the police. Some started picking up stones.

The Asian police officers originated from a neighbouring country and, understanding the local language and culture, were able to read the crowd and realised what was happening. They walked forward, through the line of Western police officers, and started chatting informally with the crowd. They joked and casually tried to find out the grievances of the people. This immediately removed the tension between the police and the crowd.

The Western police officers realised that, through this action, the Asian police officers peacefully resolved a situation that could otherwise have turned violent. After this incident, the relationship between the Western and Asian police officers changed. They recognised that they had different styles or cultures of policing, that each had its own merit, and that the Asian style was better attuned to dealing with the local community in East Timor. Addressing the external conflict thus helped the police to resolve their own internal problems.

How Can We Respond to Conflict?

Resolving conflict through the use of force is always a last resort. Parties to a conflict will generally try to use less ‘costly’ methods to achieve their aims. The Conflict Management Continuum shows a range of options for resolving conflict.

Decisions by the Parties

Informal Discussion

An unstructured process, where parties attempt to resolve their problems on their own (also useful to prepare for formal negotiations).

Negotiation

An informal or formal process, where parties actively talk about their conflict for the purpose of reaching agreement and bringing resolution to their problems.

Mediation

A ‘facilitated negotiation’, where an independent third party helps parties to come to the resolution of their problems, but does not decide on their behalf.

Decision by External Party

Arbitration

Parties jointly commit to a third party making a decision about how to resolve the conflict, which will be binding on all parties. This is often used in industrial or business conflicts.

Adjudication

A legal process, backed up by the power of institution – e.g. a medical board governing doctors, or a court governing society. The ‘adjudicator’ makes a decision for the parties, which is binding on the parties.

Decision by Force

Force

A last resort, and often the most destructive, costly way of resolving conflicts. Use of force can lead to loss of life; destruction of property and the social order; massive financial costs associated with the financing of a war and a peacekeeping intervention; and the loss of trade, resources and functioning economic systems.

Do you understand the differences between these different ways of dealing with conflict?
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