Negotiation and Empathy

July 7th, 2015 No comments

by Janine Bressmer, Germany/Canada 

IMG_6419In today’s session of the IPSI Bologna Symposium we had the pleasure of meeting and learning from Wilbur Perlot, the Deputy Director of the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch Institute of International Relations. Mr. Perlot, whose expertise includes international and peace negotiation, intercultural communication, and bilateral and multilateral negotiations, provided the participants with insight into International Negotiation and Mediation. Using his extensive knowledge in negotiations, Mr. Perlot combined thrilling anecdotes with practical tools on how to negotiate successfully. During our first day with Mr. Perlot, we were taken through a “simple” ranking exercise, which we soon learned was anything but simple. Some groups chose to abstain entirely based on the moral dilemma of ranking strangers according to their actions; others completed the exercise but chose different ranking criteria only to arrive at an entirely different end result. Leaving the room for lunch, one could feel the tension, uneasiness, and unsettled differences that were created as a result of such a “simple” task.

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Returning with bellies filled with gnocchi and espressos, we debriefed from the ranking exercise. We learned that minorities can play a vital role within negotiations. Details, such as body language, tone, and framing, can also greatly affect the success of any negotiation. Mr. Perlot further accentuated the sensitivity of negotiations by noting that psychology can play a very important role during negotiations to the point of making or breaking the efforts. We learned that tensions during negotiations can not only come from a disagreement on the substance of the negotiation, but also from the psychological cues and processes that take place within the room. The second exercise will have us divided into groups of 6, for which 3 represent Uganda and the other 3 the World Bank. We are required to simulate a negotiation for which each party has demands and goals, which differ from the other party. Meeting with my teammates for the last hour of the day, we discussed our stance and needs, preparing our position and demands within the negotiation set to take place tomorrow.and unsettled differences that were created as a result of such a “simple” task.

It becomes very clear from the past few lectures that as future peacemakers, we must not only master the art of negotiation, conflict diagnosis, and conflict prevention, but also the intangible skills of empathy, compassion, and authenticity. In order to build peace, we must get to know our personalities, find peace within ourselves, and develop empathy towards others who may hold conflicting worldviews. Mr. Perlot emphasized this last point by noting “our interconnected world makes empathy even more important now than 30 years ago”. The dynamics and fluid characteristics of our contemporary world require us to be just as dynamic and fluid in the work we do. It is not only the knowledge and expertise of the IPSI Bologna Class of 2015 – which I must say is inspiring beyond words – that makes us the future of peace, but our interpersonal skills, compassion, and kindness towards another that have the ability to transform conflict and shape the future.

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Discontinuous Shifts

July 6th, 2015 No comments

by Carol Grojean, United States


Crossing the chasm of paradigm shifts can be tough for leaders. In conflict management, how can we help leaders move away from the model of aggression-to-violence-to-win or lose at the expense of the humanity? We are at a time when we have to ask the question – what is more important, humanity or sovereignty. Is the chasm we need to cross one of moving away from the position of self-interest towards a holistic, global-interest of all?

19382482662_3a25678a90_oThis week, at the Bologna Symposium on Conflict Prevention, Resolution and Reconciliation, John and Susan Marks came to talk with us about leadership in conflict. 32 years ago John and Susan started Search for Common Ground ( which has grown today to be the world’s largest conflict prevention organization in over 34 countries around the world. The question they asked us, as have many other speakers during our first week, is what is needed of our world leaders – be those heads of states or children in the Congo – for us to cross this chasm towards a new way of living together in our global world?
Susan opened the session with beautiful Tibetan chimes, known as tingsha, which helped us to awaken our souls and reconnect with the self. A theme we continued throughout the day as we explored how person and role are two different things. The person, self, and who you are as a leader is independent from the role you occupy in your home, work, or other positions in society. Leadership, then, is knowing who you are and your impact on others while in those roles. Sadly, many people want to be good leaders but get caught up in role, and all that comes along with a roles authority, and lose their centered sense of self.

John and Susan provided us with some good leadership guidance as we go about our journey:

1. Authentic Leadership – People will respect and trust who you are, not what you are.

2. Leadership for the Whole – Through your authentic self, build out that sacred trust amongst all.

3. Compassionate Leadership – Peace is not the absence of conflict but merely the absence of violence. We are all different people with different backgrounds who carry different stories, be curious and appreciative of the other.

4. Non-judgmental Leadership – Hold a position of none judgement when their views don’t fit your own.

If we all participate in this world with open minds and hearts, we can each participate in our individual way towards conflict prevention everywhere we go and together hold the possibility for an equal and just world for all. As Joseph Campbell put it, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are”.

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How does one quantify peace?

July 6th, 2015 No comments

Leo Lou, China/United States 

How does one quantify peace? What credible databases concerning conflicts, safety, military, or crime statistics should one throw into the mix to construct the “formula for peace”? How do countries get compared and ranked? Steve Killelea, the founder and Executive Chairman of the Institute for Economics and Peace among many other things, accepted the tremendous challenge of answering those questions head on by creating the Global Peace Index (GPI), an attempt to define peace and rank the worlds’ nations’ and regions’ peacefulness. When he came to address the IPSI Bologna Symposium last Thursday, however, I found myself being left with more questions than I began with and reconsidering the concept of peace. What’s the functionality of a ranking on peacefulness? Is it fair to reduce an entire country consisting of many vastly different regions with different political and social realities into a single peace index? Is it fair to move countries down the rank for the escalation of violence triggered by grassroots social uprising just as much as that by genocidal killings?

19350899455_d6e172a42f_oKillelea’s lecture was incredibly informative. The GPI measures peace through a combination of ongoing conflict, societal safety, and militarization. Each category is measured by using data such as deaths from organized conflicts, number of displaced people, homicides, jailed population, and armed service personnel, etc. Having produced the index for the past eight year, IEP analyzes the massive amount of data to produce trends that sheds light on characteristics of the most peaceful countries as well as the economic consequences of conflicts. IEP started the crucial process of making transparent what constitutes a peaceful state. The mere absence of physical conflicts between ethnic, religious, and political groups is only a small part according to the methodology of the GPI. The ability of states to avoid general suffering directly resulted from displacement of populations, incarceration of criminals, and militarization of police forces and armies is equally significant in the equation. Even the accessibility of weapons is a visible yardstick. The breadth and depth of IEP’s definition of peace serves as a reminder for countries on all points of the peacefulness spectrum to focus not just on avoiding visible conflicts and subsequent deaths and injuries, but also on maintaining or improving the sense of security and stability within the society.

Besides the value of the definition, however, I am skeptical of the ranking mechanism. I assume the GPI serves mainly an educated audience, both individuals and organizations, who consults the index to estimate and evaluate risks for visiting, doing business, or running operations in the concerned regions. These individuals and organizations will inevitably think twice about their plans when the country they plan on going to ranks in the bottom five percentile out of more than a hundred and sixty countries. Doesn’t the ranking then, in a way, reinforce the aggravation of negative media coverage? Doesn’t it further drive investors, business people, and non-profits away from participating in the economy, civil society, and diplomacy of these countries and, by doing exactly that, holding them accountable for their actions and shielding potential threats from their citizens? I flew straight from Pakistan, where I spent the last month working on visual narrative storytelling about government accountability and anti-corruption, to Bologna for this symposium. Thus, the utter absence of imminent danger and organized conflicts I experienced during my stay in Pakistan serves as the most recent reminder that, sure, countries like Pakistan are in no way peaceful due to a dysfunctional and largely corrupt government, a barely controlled terrorist organization floating in the rural area, and vast social inequality, but they do possess a reasonable amount of prosperity, livelihood, and urban safety in the majority of areas and communities. Ranking the entire country of Pakistan as the 154th out of 162 countries in peacefulness is a similar practice to portraying only terrorist attacks and religious extremism there in the media. It risks reducing the societies to one single story and eliminating potential opportunities, given the already vast influence the GPI has.

I’m curious to see whether my stance on such ranking mechanisms would change as the symposium develops and my knowledge broadens.


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Building bridges for peace

July 3rd, 2015 No comments

by Shagufta Hayat, Pakistan

19354891511_f6f83acded_oParticipants coming from diverse backgrounds, origins and cultures widen the message of coming together for a cause, to understand and respect each other’s norms, values and traditions. In a larger perspective this enables us to share our efforts and to lead the messages of peace among ourselves.

As we gather together here, to learn new skills and share our experiences of peace making processes, it is our realization that the basic cause of conflict is misinformation and fear of threat from another party be at individual level or at a collective level or as a nation. Somehow, everyone believes he/she is the victim.

We had a lecture with Dr. Terrence Hopmann (Professor of International relations; Director of the Conflict Management Program, Johns Hopkins University SAIS, IPSI). He talked about prevention of Inter/Intra state conflict & the role of International actors.

His emphasis was on the crucial role played by multiple organizations, particularly those that are working as peacemakers and mediators. The idea of building bridges sparked in my mind the need for such organizations to focus on confidence building measures, find the common ground and create an environment based on mutual interest where conflicting or disputed areas can be gradually reached out.

Just after the initial sessions, I am getting familiar with the symposium concept!

Dr. Hopmann’s session ended with the participants eagerly participating and keen to see the proactive role of different organizations like UN-led missions including peace keeping missions, forces, civil societies stakeholders, peace activists, academia, bureaucrats, politicians and policy makers, media, and the military, given that peace building is not  an isolated effort but a range of efforts at multiple levels, from grass root to policy making levels.

There is a strong urge in societies to have spaces available to share, learn and de-learn the discourse for a peaceful and prosperous society. In this modern age of complex conflicts around the globe it is very important to engage different audiences, especially the youth, and encourage them to acquire skills so that they too can play an active role both as individuals and as leaders in peacemaking.

Last but not least, we eagerly hope to live what Mahatma Ghandhi said, that is, “We must be the change we wish to see”.

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Embracing complexity

July 2nd, 2015 No comments

IMG_5956by Ben Collard, Australia

Today we heard from the Bologna Symposium’s keynote speaker, Lieutenant-General (retd.) Roméo Dallaire. The General is a former Artillery officer, a position that encompasses a variety of roles, the primary one being the deployment and coordination of the most destructive elements of any military, namely artillery, heavy weapons, Naval gunfire and air support. However, combined with this destructive role is one of the most constructive roles: in recent years gunners have been deployed in civil military liaison teams, working within communities, engaging with civilians and conducting needs assessments within those communities by directly interacting with those most detrimentally effected by violent conflict. These dual roles serve to highlight the evolution of conflict management, yet these assets are only deployed once fighting has begun. It was encouraging to hear the General highlight the lack of attention given to preventative measures and the need to diversify our approaches to conflict in ways that result in attempts to avoid the escalation of conflict. All too often, the causes of conflict are ignored as symptoms are met with violent responses.

Paramount on Dallaire’s list of concerns were the blurred lines around who is responsible for strategy and tactics in peace operations. The limited scope of those who are responsible for strategy results in protracted conflicts and increasing violence. Once again, it was encouraging to hear someone as influential as the General say aloud that a focus on the fight is obscuring the path to peace. However, as long as domestic politics continues to shape foreign policy, where election cycles dictate action/inaction and only immediate political needs are met, it is difficult to see a path forward in affecting long term change. Later in the day Professor Zartman talked of the importance of conflict in democracies, yet when a two party system is represented by supposedly opposing sides that largely agree, it leaves little room for alternate messaging.


On the ground, at a tactical level, it was also reassuring to hear the General describe the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to conflict prevention. I’ve long held aspirations to be part of a ready reaction force of sorts, consisting of security experts, anthropologists, historians, psychologists, etc. combined with local representatives, which could be formed based on the conflict situation  and deployed at a moment’s notice. As the General said, the stated reasoning may not be conflict prevention but it does allow for greater access and understanding in conflicts. This, combined with greater cooperation with NGOs, would allow for a more extensive and inclusive de-escalation attempt and we would be able to identify short and long term goals for peace. He also stated the importance of the involvement of women in the process, which leads to increased operational capability and the challenging of institutionalised thought. The ability to identify the source of the rage in a conflict and, as Professor Zartman said, the positions and interests (what people really want) of conflict actors, helps to facilitate solutions, not solve them. These are steps in the right direction for preventative measures: they are inclusive, they allow for the representation of all affected actors, and therefore, they lead to longer lasting solutions.

At a time when killing has never been easier (think drones), the “ambiguity and complexity” of conflict is often ignored in order to build a narrative of us and them and good vs evil, usually for political purpose, but no conflict  is ever that simple

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“We stumbled into a new era”

July 1st, 2015 No comments

by George A. Stairs, Canada


With that, The Honourable Lt-Gen. (Rtd.) Roméo Dallaire launched into his description of the “New World Disorder,” the state of affairs existing in the post-Cold War world where the previous overarching narratives and modes of conduct could no longer satisfy or prepare analysts or policymakers for the new underlying concerns and realities which began shifting in the 1990s.

And we too, those of us in the Bologna Symposium cohort of 2015, stumbled into the weighty world of conflict management in the 21st century, with the first day of formal lectures in our four week course. Both of the speakers today illustrated the complexities, challenges, and difficulties facing conflict managers and peace-builders, throwing us into the proverbial deep-end of the pool with their lectures.

We began in the morning with the keynote address from Dallaire, who covered varied topics from child soldiers (and of course the work his organization the Child Soldiers Initiative is doing), to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and states’ willingness to intervene, to such wide-ranging subjects as gender considerations in conflict management, the greater role of NGOs in conflict zones, and even futurism. Throughout, he imparted his lesson with all the energy, passion, and candour (not to mention Quebecois humour) that makes him such a well known and electrifying speaker and leader in my own country of Canada (although  I may be betraying my biases here a bit). One major takeaway would of course be that despite the fact that we are now almost a quarter of a century away from the end of the Cold War, the complexities and nuances that characterize this “New World Disorder” have proven to be more enduring than analysts and policy-makers perhaps had previously hoped, and that in his view, we have as of yet not created any hard doctrines to deal with such complexities. Further, the absence of these hard plans or forward thinking is having serious and dire ramifications for conflict zones around the world.

Over lunch, we had a short session from Twitterer extraordinaire Lucas Peña, who told us much about the basics and best practices of using the social-media platform and some of us promptly got to tweeting, as savvier, smarter, tech-users (interestingly this was shortly after Gen. Dallaire posed several questions about the transformative/disruptive nature of new media/technology, including “what if Google goes rogue?”).


In the afternoon, we heard from Prof. William Zartman who also warned of us the deep complexities inherent in this field, and laid out the conceptual underpinnings of conflict, and the management of it. Over the course of his lectures, Prof. Zartman deftly guided us through the heavy, abstract, and certainly challenging concepts framing our understanding of the field, no easy task to be certain, but one that was carried out eloquently and with references both to mythical folktales and his own rich experience working in the field. Prof. Zartman reminded us that we must be humble in pursuing this field, to avoid allowing our own moral valuations of actors in conflict-zones to cloud our judgements, lest we lose out on opportunities to suss out what their interests really are, rather than simply dealing with the position they are portraying.  Of particular interest were his elaborations on the necessity of attempting to derive an understanding of the often misunderstood, what do opposing parties actually want (and do they actually know)? What is power and how much can which actor bring to bear, and when? And above all, what will bring belligerents to the bargaining table.

After both lecturers had finished, they generously gave their time for Q&A sessions, during which my fellow participants in the symposium asked a flurry of pertinent, pointed, and questions, all of which could in themselves constitute another blog post in its entirety (or probably more accurately, lots more). Both Gen. Dallaire and Prof. Zartman responded with in-depth, thought-provoking insights. This proved to be an exciting taste of what is to come in the next few weeks. It was an inspiring and exhilarating experience to realize I’m surrounded by individuals who share my passions and interests.powerful

In elaborating upon his earlier statement on the new era of conflict, Dallaire stated: “We’ve stumbled into something a lot more complicated than we could imagine and worse, we have no idea how to handle it.” It is certainly to be hoped (if I am not being too presumptuous in saying so), that after four weeks of learning from some of the best academics and practitioners in the conflict management and peace-building fields, we might have some of the tools to begin to attempt to address some of the questions and challenges both Gen. Dallaire and Prof. Zartman left us with.

May we be equal to the task.

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Putting Peacebuilding to the Test

August 12th, 2014 Comments off

Zunaira Malik, United States of America

Take thirty six individuals: lawyers, students, and practitioners, train them in transitional justice and pragmatic peacebuilding, and then put them to the test. This has been our life for the past 72 hours. We’ve each been given roles, depicting international or national actors, and a detailed dossier outlining our interests and goals in the building of a transitional government in Beladusham, a fictionalized Syria.

Simulation 2 At the surface, the goal of the simulation appears simple: negotiate with all other parties to create a framework for a post-conflict transitional government that is satisfying for everyone. However, anyone participating would surely tell you otherwise. After spending the first day mapping out the priorities and interests of the different parties involved and building an alliance network, day two was supposed to involve a series of high-level meetings to focus on the finer details of the transitional framework in the areas of security, governance, aid and reformation, and justice. Scheming and backdoor diplomacy were in full mode. Emotions were starting to run high and slowly the halls of Clingendael had transformed into a very small replica of the global political arena.

Simulation 3By high noon, just hours after our first meeting on aid, which had not gone over so well, we found out that the two fighting parties from Beladusham had joined forces without the knowledge of any international parties and had written a preliminary draft of a new constitution. Of course this did not go over well with everyone who had been left out.  The rest of the meetings were cancelled as we tried to grapple with the unthinkable. “How dare they go behind our backs!?” I heard one participant portraying the United States approaching down the hall. Strategic planning turned to outrage and screaming and parties tried to grapple with how quickly the warring parties had decided to become a united front. It was indeed strange to see this reaction take place. Of course peace was our end goal, but that it happened so quickly and without the facilitation of important “key players,” turned off many individuals. Perhaps this is valid insight into the way real world politics work. In the obsession with self-validation and personal interests many international state players take away from the peace building process rather than contribute to it or celebrate it’s progress.

SimulationThere was a moment where I stopped in the middle of my running around to observe all the chaos and screaming and deliberating. The words of Charles Dickens yet again came to my mind “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” We were so busy in trying to be in a hundred places at one time, trying so very hard to figure out how to manipulate the situation to our own advantages that we’d forgotten everything we’d learned. It became easy to discuss numbers and returns, interests and funds, and the people of Beladusham were quickly forgotten. There were no talks of capacity building, nor of reconciliation processes or sustainability, everything was as a macro level, the finer details left to be hashed out later. Of course a peace process is hard to portray entirely in a matter of two and a half days, but then many of these decisions would probably not be any different no matter how much time they were allotted. Many of these decisions are made in the moment, a result of the collision of many factors.

One thing that I heard repeated over and over in the past two days is how much of a struggle it has been for people to stay in role, and prioritize their given national interest with individual interests. It’s made me realize that policies on a national level function like a machine; there really is no room for spontaneous flexibility. And it has rejuvenated my belief that local organizations are able to creatively come up with more sustainable, better solutions. Perhaps Dickens has it right: perhaps we are foolish in thinking that next time we won’t repeat the same mistakes. But the last two days has me thinking how exactly can one navigate the waters of diplomacy and sustainable peace and will the two ever really be compatible or are we just delusioning ourselves?

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Searching the Soul for Peace

August 7th, 2014 Comments off

by Raghda Abu-Shala, Palestine 


When we first arrived at the 2014 IPSI Bologna Symposium each participant was asked to choose one training day to write a blog post reflecting our thoughts on what we had learned. After contemplating my options for a long time, I decided to write about non-violent resistance (assuming that it would be a meaningful topic to focus on). Yet, here I am, writing my way through this blog, realizing that words are much easier than actions.

While I was listening to Mr. Jack Duvall (the President and Founding Director of The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict) speak about nonviolent resistance in civil society, its history, and practices around the world, I was thinking of all the innocent people who suffer violence, discrimination, and injustice for so long.

I live in the Gaza Strip. No one can imagine how difficult it is for me to write about nonviolent change while my country (Palestine) is going through a horrible war. While I am here in Bologna learning from the ICNC team, my thoughts are wondering how my family back in Gaza is doing. Are they safe? Is the bombing happening around them? How will I find Gaza when I am back? Will it be so destroyed I would not recognize anything? Will my favorite places be wiped out as it has happened before? Will I find that little cafeteria on the Gaza beach destroyed or will it still be there for me for a few more summers to come? Most importantly, will I find my family there in Gaza safe and sound, waiting for me? I pray for their safety every moment of every day and I am scared to receive news, at any moment, about them gone with one of the hateful attacks! The mere thought makes the blood freeze in my veins…

More than 20 days have passed since the offensive started and it does not seem like the diplomatic solution is progressing. The people of Gaza are stuck in a war between Israel and Hamas. Every time professor Mary King spoke about Mahatma Ghandi’s nonviolent movement for peace, the peace movement in South Africa, the four decades of interaction between African American and Indian independence using peaceful methods, I found it difficult not to shift my thoughts back to lost colleagues and mourned friends who have lost their lives and/or their entire families simply because they lived in Gaza and have no place to hide.
There is no sanctuary in Gaza; there are no bunkers or safe havens. The airstrikes that killed my friends were not necessarily targeting them specifically. My friends were killed because the Gaza Strip has a high population density—4,505 people per km² populated by 1.6 million people –half of them children living in a 365 km² area. The rocket targeting your building will not ask if you are a terrorist or not.

Sometimes, it is difficult to have peacefully-oriented thoughts amongst all this frustration and sadness. However, having suffered from the exact same situation my entire life, I am convinced deep in my heart that peace and only peace is the solution for a better life for our future generations. This will not be achieved through violence. Both parties have tried violence for more years than I care to count and the cycle of hatred is getting longer while a peaceful solution is becoming more elusive.

Nevertheless, I have found in my heart the strength to work on recruiting nonviolent methods to reach peace. This is despite the suffering of my people and the ugliest faces of oppression and violence. Regardless of all the frustration I feel, there is still hope, and it is not too late. We can still secure a better future for our children and give them an independent peaceful Palestine through nonviolent resistance.
As David Hume (1748) said, “people, for the sake of order, abandon their native liberty.” and I believe that, for the sake of our liberty and peace, we can also abandon our need for revenge. We owe at least this much to the memory of our beloved fallen ones.

The question is: will this very remarkable IPSI 2014 group of participants make peace one day?

The 2014 IPSI Bologna graduating class.

The 2014 IPSI Bologna graduating class.

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Experiences in Knowledge and Training

August 6th, 2014 Comments off

by Mojdeh Abtahi, Iran

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We concluded the second week of the 2014 Bologna Symposium with Clingendael Institute Deputy Director Wilbur Perlot as well as Alvaro de Soto, a career diplomat who has held senior positions at the UN for 25 years under Secretary Generals Prez de Cuellar, Boutros Ghali, and Kofi Annan. We were privileged to listen to each of the speakers’ extraordinary experiences and information as well as objective lessons.

Beyond the very useful discussions on the different types of negotiation, Wilbur shared with us his precious experiences training diplomats from different countries. The session was extremely useful for the participants in how to succeed in an international negotiation.

Wilbur’s training combined workshops, examples, simulations, case studies and role-plays. We took part in an extraordinary negotiation simulation on the status of Kosovo. Following this


simulation we debriefed what we learned through discussion, self-assessments, culture, planning, and perception tools. I have learned a lot about negotiations and how to communicate during a negotiation in a real situation. Perlot delivered his job with passion and energy so well that all of us were cheered.

In the afternoon, Alvaro de Soto explained the peace process in Latin America. His contribution to the peace process in El Salvador was remarkable. He led the 1990-1991 negotiations that resulted in the peace accords and the reforms to end the country’s 10-year war. He explained the history of the different parties to the conflict, including the Kantadore group in Central America and outlined how they managed to settle down to peace.

Lessons from De Soto’s knowledge of negotiations in the Central American peace process built a clear path for IPSI participants to negotiate and achieve peace.

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The Efficacy of Non-Violent Action

August 6th, 2014 Comments off

by Punya Bagga, India/Canada

As we moved into our third week of the symposium, we were introduced to a form of conflict resolution, or more appropriately, a different way of waging conflict: nonviolent action. Hailing from the nation whose father is credited with coining the terminology associated with the field of nonviolent action, Mahatma Gandhi, I am well aware of the power of movements that have as their only weapon the resilience of the human spirit in the face of oppression.IMG_4890

One of our speakers for the day and a promoter of Gandhian values, Dr. Mary Elizabeth King, entered this sphere at the age of twenty-two as a civil rights activist alongside the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She currently acts as the academic advisor of the International Centre on Nonviolent Action (ICNC). In our lecture, I was surprised to hear nonviolent movements portrayed as strategically planned alternative ways of waging conflict. This notion veers from the typical understanding of a nonviolent movement as a spontaneous eruption of repressed grievances following a random event.

The ease of civilian participation in nonviolent action due to reduced legal and physical risks may provide strength in numbers as masses can be easily mobilized but, the ICNC made clear that this had little bearing on the success of the movement. Civil resistance is inherently asymmetrical in nature and so it is necessary for nonviolent movements to be organized and resilient, having above all a grand strategy that employs diverse tactics of non-violent action (protests, marches, sit-ins, hunger-strikes, boycotts). The movement, moreover, must be developed in such a way that it can be redeveloped if it fails, that is, it must never demobilize completely.

As we delved into the history, successes and methods of waging non-violent action, Dr. King was asked to comment on the applicability of nonviolent action in the conflict between Israel and Hamas which has been flaring up outside of our safe classroom walls. The response caused discomfort in the room when it was suggested that Gazans take advantage of the asymmetrical power dynamic between Hamas and Israel by making use of nonviolent methods (such as hunger-strikes) to gain international sympathy for their cause and hopefully pressure for the cessation of violence. At the time, I was shocked at the proposition of going on a hunger-strike to prove worth to international support; I dare not speak for the emotions of my Gazan colleague who sat next to me. As I struggled through the day trying to come up with a rationale for this suggestion, I was compelled by another colleague, Choloe Chapple, to analyse Dr. King’s comment through the lens of non-violence.

In a grossly asymmetrical conflict, if the weaker party to a conflict chooses to either act violently or not act at all, and a third party (i.e. the international community) chooses silence, then we are left with the dilemma of the stronger party shaping the narrative. The use of violent methods by an organization/group of people that is struggling then justifies increased violence and oppression against that very group to control the struggle at large. Violence begets more violence and, as iterated by Dr. King, the cycle of revenge and retaliation never ends.


Throughout history nonviolent movements have surfaced in the face of acute suffering. It is perhaps too much to ask those who are suffering to pursue this transcendent path of waging conflict, but I cannot deny that there is a huge possibility such action will result in fewer casualties. I would be remiss not to emphasize that non-violent action seldom forms without a simultaneous or previously occurring violent movement with similar interests. However, even if non-violent action is not the golden solution to conflict resolution, we can appreciate that it may be the only bloodless solution we have in transforming the power-dynamic of an asymmetrical conflict– apart from miraculous diplomacy of course.

Additionally, my homeland India may have gained independence thanks in part to Gandhi’s nonviolent efforts, but such action does not always work. India’s 2011 nonviolent anti-corruption movement led by the Gandhi-emulating leader Anna Hazare, who used consistent hunger-strikes rallying around him mass protests involving diverse classes, has mostly fizzled out.

If non-violent action can help shift the power-dynamic, I wonder how it can organize, unify, and strategize to combat structural violence in countries so large, diverse, and ostensibly democratic as India or the United States?

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