ARC Articles

Civil Society And Conflict

by: Professor A. Marco Turk, Esq.
©2010 The Daily Journal Corporation

Normally when we think of mediation we picture two opposing sides sitting down with a trained and experienced independent "neutral" third party to assist the disputing parties in their effort to come to a satisfactory resolution. However, when the dispute is one in the international arena where we find nations or interethnic communities in conflict or post conflict situations, we tend to accept the practice of diplomatic representatives appearing on the scene to convince opposing leaders to do what is desired by the governments who have dispatched the so-called "mediators" to do their bidding. What we hear, see and read about usually is centered on the thoughts, opinions, and actions of these diplomats as dictated by the interests and underlying needs of their employers rather than the interests and underlying needs of the parties in dispute. It is almost as if the parties do not exist, which is reminiscent of the lawyer who characterizes everything in terms of his or her position instead of the client's interests and underlying needs.

In the traditional mediation process between individual disputants most of the time they are considered to be the decision makers concluding what outcome would be best for them. But in the case of international or interethnic conflicts the custom is to allow the political elite to conduct the negotiations and make the decisions mostly ignoring the wishes of the region's civil society (those people on the ground who will bear the ultimate physical, emotional and financial expense resulting from the actions of principal negotiators, and who are the critical element in efforts to implement what the political elite ultimately decide and agree upon).

Notwithstanding the huge stakes, most international negotiators do not appear to possess the special training that one would expect of traditional mediators in disputes involving such areas as commercial, real estate, family, personal injury,employment, entertainment, environmental, intellectual property, legal and medical malpractice, and probate, but to name a few. Yet such negotiators are authorized to speak for untold numbers who have no say in the outcome.

Recently, I was privileged to be selected by the International Crisis Group as one of 50 people worldwide to attend its first global briefing concerning selected high conflict areas around the world. The International Crisis Group provides analysis from the field in an effort to create prescribed policy through advocacy at high levels that "shapes the debate, informs decision-makes and proposes effective strategies for preventing and ending conflicts around the world." Its board of trustees is replete with dignitaries from around the globe, not the least of which is Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations and winner of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, and Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe. International Crisis Group's new president is Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda. Its main offices are in Brussels, Washington D.C., New York, London, and Moscow. Regional offices and field representation are in over 25 different locations in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America.

In 1995, appalled by what they considered to be "the international community's failure to respond effectively to crises in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda," several prominent foreign policy specialists organized to establish International Crisis Group. Field analysis, CrisisWatch monitoring, and advocacy or liaison activities are its main occupation. Public and private partners support its work, including 22 governments (of which the United States is one) and 12 institutional foundations, in addition to individuals, family foundations and corporations. The group claims to be "generally recognized as the world's leading independent, non-partisan source of analysis and advice on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict."

The two-day gathering took place in Brussels where the International Crisis Group is headquartered. Among others, representatives from governments, the European Parliament, industry, institutional foundations, law enforcement, non governmental organizations, the UN, and universities were in attendance. While the detailed presentations by International Crisis Group staff from various areas of the globe and the interactive discussions that followed occasionally referred to civil society, as did the remarks by Louise Arbour, it seemed that no real attempt was made to address the central issue of how the mediation of global conflict and post-conflict disputes can be dealt with from the bottom-up rather than the elite top down approach so that civil society will have a chance to make their voices heard. The emphasis continued to be placed on the activities of the lead actors at the top. The analysis of each area of conflict painted a bleak picture that bode ill for future resolution.

I left the conference feeling appreciation for having been selected to attend but discouraged regarding the potential possibilities for improvement in the conflict areas discussed (the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, North Korea, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Africa, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Balkans and Georgia, Colombia and the Andean Region, Haiti, and the UN). It appeared that yet another important opportunity to consider the wishes of civil society in each location had been missed. On the one hand, there was almost an obligatory reference to civil society but on the other it appeared that a determination to explore that area was absent from the presentations and the discussions that followed. An understanding of civil society's key role in creating protest movements that is non-violent and promoting of subsequent peace processes seemed to be lacking. None of the presenters appeared to acknowledge that uplifting possibilities for reconciliation rest with civil society if only they are given the chance to speak for themselves as the true beneficiaries of successful conflict and post-conflict resolution. Sadly I was not alone in this conclusion.

It is time for the true art of mediation to be applied to international conflict and post-conflict situations in the same manner as those of us do who write, educate, train, practice and advocate for it in the "domestic" arena.

A. Marco Turk is professor and director of the Negotiation, Conflict Resolution, and Peacebuilding Program at Cal State University Dominguez Hills, a mediator for the California Court of Appeal (2nd District), and a member of ARC. His column appears here on the first and third Fridays. He can be reached at

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