1.3 Conflict management, settlement, resolution and transformation

Many terms are frequently, and almost interchangeably, used in the field of conflict resolution to describe the activities and processes that bring conflict to an end. However, some of these terminological approaches have distinct implications for the outcome of a conflict situation. Here we will briefly examine the four most significant approaches.

Conflict management, like the associated term 'conflict regulation', is often confusingly used as a generic term to cover the whole gamut of positive conflict handling, including settlement and resolution. However, it is used here to refer to the limitation, mitigation and containment of conflict rather than the durable elimination of the causes of conflict.

Conflict management approaches tend to focus more on mitigating or controlling the destructive consequences that emanate from a given conflict than on finding solutions to the underlying issues causing it. Typical conflict management strategies are the use of military force for deterrence or peace-keeping: separating the conflict parties from each other so that they do not keep inflicting harm on each other.

Conflict settlement refers to an approach emphasising the reaching of agreement between the parties through negotiation and bargaining. A settlement, in this definition, means an agreement about the conflict issues that often involves a compromise or some concessions from both sides. Using this approach, neither side may achieve all of their goals, but the disappointment may be offset by the mutuality of the compromise. Third party mediators in settlement-type process often use pressure, inducements and/ or threats in order to compel the conflict parties to agree to a compromise solution.

A settlement is often the quickest solution to a difficult or violent situation. Critics charge, however, that its efficacy is temporary because the underlying relationships and structures that have caused the conflict remain unaddressed. In practice, conflicts that have reached settlements are often re-opened later. The Versailles peace treaty that ended World War I is one example of a settlement which failed to resolve the causes of the conflict. It did bring an end to the open hostilities of the war, but in imposing harsh conditions on a defeated Germany, it laid the seeds of future conflict.

Conflict resolution is a more comprehensive approach based on mutual problem-sharing between the conflict parties. Resolution of a conflict implies that the deep-rooted sources of conflict are addressed, changing behaviour so it is no longer violent, attitudes so they are no longer hostile, and structures so they are no longer exploitative. The term is used to refer both to the process (or the intention) to bring about these changes, and to the completion of the process, so it is difficult to avoid ambiguity about its precise meaning. The process of conflict resolution includes becoming aware of a conflict, diagnosing its nature and applying appropriate methods in order to:

A resolution process is based on the needs of the primary parties to a particular conflict, rather than on the interests or assumptions of the 'resolvers'. This approach is seen to be in clear opposition to traditional notions of power politics. The main objective of this approach is that any conflict should not be viewed as a contest to be won but as a problem to be solved. Box 5 summarises the main differences between the settlement and resolution approaches to conflict.

Box 5: Approaches to conflict

Settlement (compromise) Resolution (cooperation)
Focus: objective issues, short-term Focus: subjective perceptions, long-term
Aim: remove conflict Aim: remove causes of conflict
Third party: imposes solutution, uses power/coercion, underlying needs not important Third party: improves communication, elicits win-win solutions, does not use coercion

Source: Bradford University Website

Conflict Transformation refers to the longer-term and deeper structural dimensions of conflict resolution. Some analysts contend that 'resolution' carries the connotation of bringing conflict to permanent conclusion, negating the possible social value of positively channelled conflict. Generally in this course, we will use conflict resolution as the comprehensive term to encompass various approaches and methods used to handle conflict non-violently at all levels in society, while conflict transformation indicates the deepest level of change in the conflict resolution process.

Transformation is usually used to refer to a specific approach to ameliorating violent conflict which concentrates on the changes needed at many different levels of society in order for peace to take hold in the long term. It would aim to transform a conflict from violence and destruction into a constructive force which produces social change, progressively removing or at least reducing the conditions from which the conflict and violence have arisen. The peace which develops will then be deeply rooted and sustainable. 'Transformation'-type interventions promote non-violent mechanisms that reduce and ultimately eliminate violence, foster structures that meet basic human needs and maximise participation of people in decisions that affect them. Transformation is linked to the idea of peacebuilding discussed below. Typical for a Conflict Transformation approach is:

Process Oriented Conflict transformation is process oriented, not just focused on short term settlement. Conflict transformation is an ongoing, continuous process by which destructive relationships are developed into relationships in which conflicts are durably settled by non-violent means. So rather than run out and away from the treaty-table, conflict transformation associated with a commitment to more long term processes of reconciliation, satisfaction of basic needs and often also democratisation.
Addressing root causes Good conflict resolution includes addressing basic needs, removing underlying structures that cause conflict. (In the security analysis next week we will focus on this in more depth)
Multilevel Conflict transformation also recognises the need to build peace at different levels. This includes the political level, through agreements and economic means, as well as the societal level, where relationships have to be rebuilt, changed and transformed
Multi-Track Conflict transformation recognises that peace is built not only by governments but that many sub-state and supra-state actors play a role. (In week 3 we will focus on Multi-Track Diplomacy).

Coexistence means learning to live together, to accept diversity and implies a positive relationship to each other. Coexistence evolves from a minimum condition of recognising difference and accepting diversity and the mutual recognition of the other to a transformative relationship where communities over time may find appropriate mechanisms and institutions to coalesce and a higher level of meaning.

While conflict management, settlement and resolution are reactive, meaning that they come into motion once conflict has surfaced, conflict prevention tries to anticipate the destructive aspects of the conflict before they arise and attempts to take positive measures to prevent them from occurring. Conflict prevention is concerned with the proliferation of internal conflicts and civil wars within states and wars between people within a state. Conflict transformation is not aimed at eliminating all conflicts that are endemic to human coexistence (and therefore necessary in the course of human evolution), but at the reduction of violence in any point in the conflict cycle.

Some suggestions for further reading on Conflict Resolution