Roots of Conflict

William Steubner

Executive Director, Alliance for International Conflict Prevention and Resolution

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Bill Steubner, where do you work and what do you do?

A: I am the executive director of a relatively new group, an umbrella group for conflict resolution NGOs, it is called the Alliance for International Conflict Prevention and Resolution. Because that is such a mouthful we just call it the Alliance.

Q: I wanted to ask you about some thoughts on what questions people should be asking when they are assessing a conflict situation?

A: Of course every situation is different. My experience has been primarily in Latin America and the Balkans. Most recently my work has been in the Balkans, and there, frankly, people didn't ask questions they just listened to very simplistic ideas. They listened to people that said, "These people have been fighting for hundreds of year, and it is an intractable conflict." They listened to people that said, "It is a religious war." Ultimately they decided that it is just to complicated and said, "We can't figure it out." I think the most important thing is to come to a real understanding of the conflict and of the people, because it takes people and what really motivates them to have a violent conflict. Too often that is not what we do. We jump in and say that there is conflict here because there is no democracy, so lets have an election because elections equate to democracy; which is really nonsense. I think what we have to realize is that every situation is different, and every situation in it's own way is complex. It takes real studying, real analysis, and really trying to get to know the people. That is the first step.


Can you tell me what the important question is? And you can tell me why you think that question is important.

A: I have brought this up many times with practitioners in the field. We tend to keep asking on the negative side, "Why is there conflict?" Then looking at that and saying, "How do we eliminate those factors that are causing violent conflict to bring peace?" What we seem to forget in almost every society, and the Balkans included, is the vast majority of history shows that people are not in violent conflict. One way or another they come to an accommodation. I think that is very important, and one of things that we ought to be doing is looking back to the periods where there is no conflict, which is usually the majority of the time and say, "Why wasn't there conflict", instead of saying "Why is there conflict?" Maybe there is something we need to get back to, maybe something like in Somalia where you need to get back to this rule of village and tribal elders which had maintained stability in Somalia for hundreds of years. Then along come the war lords and the misuse of humanitarian assistance, which freed more people up for fighting and destroyed the economy and then actually broke down this old system of why there was peace and stability.


Can you give me another example like that? Like Somalia, that is a great illustration.

A: Well, Somalia is a good one. Bosnia is a really good one. What they have in Bosnia is in every twenty to fifty years, not just in Bosnia but in much of the Balkans, they have a tremendous blood letting. It may sound silly, but one of the ways, because it is almost inexplicable, I used to explain it that a dragon lives in the soil in the Balkans and any twenty to fifty years he wakes up hungry and he gluts himself on blood. Once he is full he goes back to sleep for another twenty to fifty years. I think what conflict resolution people should be doing is look at those periods when he was asleep and say, "We don't have to put him asleep again how do we kill him? What are the root causes that don't cause violent conflict all the time but occasionally flare up and then you have horrible organized conflict?"