Conflict Transformation - Our Interpretation

Conflict Transformation as defined in the tradition of Berghof’s support of peace and peace constituencies rests on four guiding principles. First, war as an instrument of politics and conflict management can and should be overcome. Second, violence can and should be avoided in structures and relationships at all levels of human interaction. Third, all constructive conflict work must address the root causes that fuel conflict. And fourth, all constructive conflict work must empower those who experience conflict to address its causes without recourse to violence. In short, conflict transformation must provide those who experience violence with appropriate and innovative methods and approaches, and assistance by a third party if necessary. Ultimately, this is about changing individual attitudes and addressing the issue of structural reforms. Our vision, then, is to create conditions that allow for conflict to be dealt with in constructive and peaceful ways, i.e. to transform the relations of violence that too frequently define the experience of conflict.

Several terms are used to describe the range of efforts to mitigate conflict, including conflict management, conflict resolution, conflict transformation, conflict prevention, peacebuilding, and so on. In our view, the term ‘conflict transformation’ is the most comprehensive of these, as it encompasses all the activities that influence inter-group conflicts with the aim of promoting sustainable peace and social justice. This understanding pertains to structure- and process-orientated endeavours for crisis prevention, strategies for empowering groups and building communities, conflict management and resolution activities, as well as rehabilitation, reconstruction and reconciliation efforts in post-war situations.

During the last decade, the concept of conflict prevention has become very fashionable in the discourses of peace research and international relations, as well as within international organisations. Approaches and instruments for preventing conflicts have been widely discussed. Based on an ideal-type notion of the dynamics of violent conflict, an adaptive concept of ‘prevention’ emerged that was structured into three distinct phases, each of which required different tools and approaches:

  1. early prevention in order to curtail evolving situations of violent conflict
  2. “last minute” prevention in order to impede horizontal or vertical escalation of already-existing violent conflict
  3. post-conflict activities to prevent the outbreak of further violence after cease-fires and peace agreements.

In contrast, the concept of ‘conflict transformation’ has not gain the same attention. Nevertheless, we are convinced that effective efforts to prevent conflict must include some definition of conflict transformation as a precondition. This means that individuals or groups involved in conflict should be enabled to deal constructively with the causes of conflict and develop strategies which eliminate or overcome these causes. In our interpretation, then, conflict transformation is a generic, comprehensive concept referring to actions that seek to alter the various characteristics and manifestations of conflict by addressing its root causes over the long-term, with the aim to transform negative ways of dealing with conflict into positive, constructive ones. This concept of conflict transformation stresses structural, behavioural and attitudinal aspects of conflict, and refers to both the processes and structures required to move towards ‘just peace’.

Our concept of conflict transformation was elaborated in specific response to one prototype of intra-state conflicts: the ‘protracted social conflict’. This term was first coined by Edward Azar in the late 1970s, and now is widely used to describe long, enduring ethnopolitical conflicts sharing common features. According to Azar, such conflicts have four key characteristics:

Stressing the need for transformation as it relates to protracted social conflicts means that all four constituent aspects must be addressed. For example, the legitimacy of ethnic demands in multi-ethnic political systems has to be acknowledged. Comprehensive concepts of power sharing and state reform are necessary. The roles of international actors and the international community have to be properly assessed and some kind of integration of the violent and painful past will be necessary. Furthermore, the need for transformation is based on the experience that long, enduring bloody conflicts not only take lives, destroy livelihoods and damage social, political and economic infrastructures, but also undermine the overall social capital of the society. Therefore, conflict transformation efforts address a wide range of issues: relief, rehabilitation, resettlement and reconstruction, as well as regaining humanity and working on reconciliation.

Based on this comprehensive understanding of the problem of violent conflict, we thus adopted the term ‘conflict transformation’ as the central concept for the Berghof Handbook.

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