Mediators Without Borders: A Proposal to Resolve Political Conflicts

Kenneth Cloke

December 2005

When listening to news about the latest disasters from wars and terrorist attacks around the globe, I sometimes fantasize what would happen if, instead of dropping bombs on civilian populations, mediators by the tens of thousands were parachuted into war zones to create conversations across battle lines; if, instead of shooting bullets, mediators organized public dialogues and shot questions at both sides; and if, instead of mourning the loss of children's lives by visiting equal or greater losses on the children belonging to the other side, mediators became mutual mourners, turning every lost life into the name of a school, hospital, library, road, or olive grove that would be open and dedicated to those who died because we lacked the skills to get along.

"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words or actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I realize this is wishful fantasy, yet within the dream lies a truth: that it is possible for mediators to have an impact on the willingness, even of embittered, intransigent opponents, to participate in war or terrorism, by organizing alternative ways of expressing, negotiating, and resolving their differences. I call this idea "Mediators Without Borders."

What Can Be Done?

It is clear that, as a profession, we have the requisite knowledge, skills, and experience to begin thinking and talking about how we might intervene in trouble spots, even in small ways. Within our ranks, we have amassed considerable experience working in other countries and cultures, building mediation centers in hostile communities, and training people in fairness mean to you?"

• Acknowledge and model respect for cultural differences

• Ask each person to say one thing they are proud of about their culture and why

• If appropriate, ask if there is anything they dislike about their own culture and why

• Ask people in conflict to say what they most appreciate about the other group and why

• Ask them to bring cultural artifacts, such as poems, music or photographs, and share their stories

• Ask each side to identify a common stereotype of their culture, how it feels, and why. Then, describe their culture, showing why the stereotype is inaccurate

• Ask what rituals are used in each culture to end conflict, such as shaking hands, then jointly design a ritual for closure and forgiveness

In order to recover from severe political conflicts such as war and genocide, people in divided communities, including former combatants, need to develop emotional skills to work through their rage and guilt and assuage their grief and loss; communication skills to reduce bias and prejudice and engage in constructive dialogue; heart skills to rebuild empathy and compassion and reach forgiveness and reconciliation; organizing skills to develop interest-based, collaborative leadership and become productive, functional communities again; and conflict resolution and systems design skills to build social systems that can sustainably prevent and resolve future disputes.

Five Strategies for Intervention

There are five fundamental intervention strategies required to deliver these skills. The first is to actively encourage the open expression of the rage and grief stirred up by the conflict in a context that is constructive and oriented to resolution and reconciliation, such as that used by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For example, I have asked hostile racial, religious, or ethnic groups to meet in mixed teams and answer the following questions:

• What is one thing someone said or did that you never, ever want to experience again?

• What is one thing someone said or did that gave you strength or courage, or helped you recover?

• What is one thing that needs to be done so that what happened will never happen again?

• What is one thing you would be willing to do to make sure it happens?

• What is one wish you have for your future relationship, or the relationship between your children?

The second is to dismantle the prejudices and stereotypes of the "enemy" through a combination of bias awareness, storytelling, dialogue, collaborative negotiation, and strategic planning techniques. For example, I have brought antagonistic cross-cultural groups together to perform some of the following exercises:

Reclaiming Pride: Participants state their names, the groups with which they identity, and why they are proud to belong to them, as in "I am a _____, _____, _____ and _____," listing different sources of identity.

What's in a Name? Participants describe the origin and meaning of their names and how they came by them.

Story-Telling: Participants find someone from a different group and tell a story about what it felt like to grow up as a member of their group.

Assessing Group Identity: Participants discuss what they get by identifying with a group, and what they give in return.

Personalizing Discrimination: In twos or dyads, participants describe a time when they felt disrespected or discriminated against for any reason, and compare experiences.

Reframing Stereotypes: Participants in dyads describe the stereotypes and prejudices others have about their group while their partners write down key words, which they later compare and reframe as positives.

Observing Discrimination: In dyads, participants describe a time when they witnessed discrimination against someone else. What did they do? What could they have done? What kept them from doing more?

Owning Prejudice: Participants write down all the prejudicial statements they can think of, analyze and list their common elements, and read them out to the group.

Overcoming Prejudice: In dyads, participants describe a personal prejudice or stereotype they had or have, and what they are doing to overcome it.

Which Minority are You? Participants list all the ways in which they are a minority, report on the total number of ways, and discuss them.

Explaining Prejudice: - Participants in self-same groups identify the prejudices and stereotypes other groups have of them, explain their culture, and answer questions others have about their group, but perhaps were afraid to ask.

A Celebration of Differences: Participants are asked to stand and be applauded for their differences in age, family background, skills, and experiences.

[Based partly on work by the National Coalition Building Institute]

The third intervention strategy is to develop skills within local neighborhoods and communities in group facilitation, public dialogue, strategic planning, collaborative negotiation, and peer mediation. Teams of volunteer mediators could conduct skill-building workshops, not only for professional conflict resolvers, but mixed groups of neighbors, community activists, therapists, clergy, managers, union leaders, judges, attorneys, government officials, and leaders in civil society. For example, in Los Angeles following the "civil unrest" in response to the beating of Rodney King, I helped train Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workers in facilitating community dialogues between hostile racial and ethnic groups and going door-to-door to de-escalate potentially explosive conflicts. Here are some exercises I may use:

Communication and Miscommunication: Participants in self-same groups identify the communications and signals they or other groups don't understand.

Mock Conflict: Participants demonstrate a typical cross-cultural conflict in a fishbowl while observers describe their reactions and volunteers attempt to mediate.

Offensive Remarks: A volunteer starts making an offensive comment while observers coach another volunteer on how to respond.

Observing Cultural Bias: As homework, participants collect examples of bias or prejudice from the media and share them.

Social Change: Participants discuss what they can do to change prejudicial attitudes and behaviors among family, friends, and peers.

Institutional Change: Participants discuss what organizations and institutions can do to counteract prejudice, and what they can do to encourage them to change.

What I Will Do: Participants indicate one thing they learned or will do differently in the future.

The fourth strategy is to encourage forgiveness and reconciliation by creating openhearted communications and direct dialogues between former antagonists. For example, I have asked adversaries to tell the other side what they most need to hear from each other in order for the conflict to be over, to apologize for what they did or did not do to end it, to identify through stories why they can't forgive each other, and what it will cost them and their children to hold on to each of their reasons, to speak to each other from their hearts, or to describe the most important lessons they learned from their conflict.

The fifth strategy consists of institutionalizing these skills so that future conflicts can be resolved without coercion or violence. For example, I have created conflict audit teams to identify the systemic sources of conflict in specific institutions. These teams have then joined with local conflict resolvers to work with popular organizations, government ministries, or political parties to design programs that provide a broad array of conflict resolution alternatives and strategically integrate them across political, economic, and social lines.

A Twelve-Step Program

What follows, then, is a multi-layered twelve-step plan for mediating without borders, and increasing the capacity of hostile communities to prevent, resolve, and recover from conflicts. I offer it in hope that it can be modified to fit local conditions, and used to break the cycle of violence that ultimately impacts us all:

1. Convene a cross-cultural team of experienced trainers

2. Meet with the leaders of hostile factions to secure agreement on a common plan, build trust, and encourage on-going support

3. Interview leaders of opposing groups, sub-groups, and factions, listen empathetically, and clarify cultural mores, interests, goals, and concerns

4. Elicit from each group or culture the methods currently used to resolve disputes and identify ways of supplementing and expanding them

5. Identify a core of volunteers from each group who want to be trained as mediators, facilitators, and trainers.

6. Design a program to elect or select volunteer mediators and facilitators from neighborhoods, workplaces, and key educational, social, religious, cultural, economic, and political organizations

7. Form cross-cultural teams of mediators to design conflict resolution systems, conduct mediations, encourage forgiveness and reconciliation, and arbitrate disputes

8. Train volunteer facilitators in techniques for processing grief and loss, reducing prejudice, facilitating public dialogue, and organizing truth and reconciliation commissions, or similar interventions as needed

9. Form cross-cultural teams of trainers to train others throughout civil society

10. Build on-going popular and institutional support for conflict resolution programs

11. Conduct periodic evaluations, audits, and course corrections to improve capacity and identify where future support may be needed

12. Redesign conflict resolution systems in governments, organizations, and civil society to increase opportunities for early intervention, dialogue, mediation, and negotiation between adversaries

By implementing these steps and modifying them to fit each situation, we can substantially reduce the destructiveness of conflict, war, and terrorism, and create a platform on which deeper social and political changes might take place. By comparison with the long-term costs of conflict, war, and terrorism, the most ambitious program imaginable would be inexpensive and well worth undertaking.

Closing Thoughts

In closing, it is important to realize that it is not theory or technique that are fundamental, but the human lives of people in conflict. When facts contradict theory, it is the facts that should be retained rather than the theory. The central facts in every conflict are the people who experience it. Therefore, the best approach, as Carl Jung wrote, is to "Study your theory; practice your techniques inside out, and when in the presence of a living soul, respond to the soul." To do so, it is necessary for us to travel into the heart of conflict, find its hidden meanings, and use it to guide us to resolution, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

The ultimate aim of conflict resolution is to help us become better, more open-hearted human beings, resolve conflicts in ways that end in forgiveness and reconciliation, and integrate peace with justice on a world-wide scale. While the possibility of doing so may often seem remote, we no longer have a choice. Our capacity to destroy life is steadily increasing alongside our swelling technological prowess. Every day we become more dependent on each other for survival, and more desperately need to learn to resolve our conflicts in order to prevent human and environmental catastrophe.

More importantly, if we cannot learn to resolve our conflicts without war, coercion, grief, and injustice, we will find ourselves unable to survive, either as a species or as a planet. By responding to international conflicts in preventative, heartfelt, and systemic ways, we prepare the groundwork for the next great leap in human history -- the leap into international cooperation and coexistence without war. Through these efforts, we may hope someday to achieve the transformation promised in a pamphlet published by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

Instead of revenge, there will be reconciliation.

Instead of forgetfulness, there will be knowledge and acknowledgement.

Instead of rejection, there will be acceptance by a compassionate state.

Instead of violations of human rights, there will be restoration of the moral order and respect for the rule of law.

Let's make it happen, starting with us.

Use the following to cite this article:
Cloke, Kenneth. "Mediators Without Borders: A Proposal to Resolve Political Conflicts." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: December 2005 <>.

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