Conflict Resolution Models Across Cultures

Mohammed Abu-Nimer

Professor of Peace and Conflict Resolution at the School of International Service, American University

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 ???).

A: This whole issue of using North American models and approaches of peace building is an issue that I have worked on and written about it since I graduated and began working. One of my first realizations in this field is that you can't go to a non-American context, and take a manual that you have written for a group in Boston, or Fairfax and use it in a rural area in Mindanao or in Sri Lanka or in Bosnia, or in other places. You need to be more open and flexible, as well as in tune to what are the skills and expertise that people you work with bring to the table or the workshop and not really assume that you are starting from zero, but assume the opposite, that people that you are working with are capable of resolving their conflict and that they have the skills that are required for them to resolve as well as improve their relationship.

If you have those few assumptions, flexibility, openness, and the assumption that the people you are working with are capable of helping themselves as well as dealing with the situation then I think that you will rely less and less on a prescriptive manual and approach that are created for business men or people who are in a cooperation setting, like in Getting to Yes or all these books of conflict resolution in the US. This is one of the things that we have learned, you focus on the principles of conflict resolution and peace building and those principles assume that they are basically common to many cultures, including North America. For instance, one of those principles that you work with is the issue of equity and fairness in any process you help to design, or any intervention model you follow that anything you do has to meet the equity and fairness standard of the two parties. Also working with the issue of symmetry, in terms of design of the process, like everyone has to be represented on equal basis, and in a way that everyone has a way to express what they want. You try to use the human needs approach where you would have more generic commonalities of people regardless of their race and culture. All people need security, all people need recognition, and all people need to be respected. When you follow these criteria the issue becomes how different cultures express these issues and then how do you help people negotiate. John Burton calls it "setting the fires" of those basic human needs. That is something you can't bring from Boston, from ICAR, or from American University, you have to use local ways of negotiation.

Another principle that guides our work has to do with the issue of cooperation. We bring into the conflict resolution setting the assumption that instead of distractive competition, if people construct cooperative joint-forums to resolve their problems they will be more effective in saving more human lives and resources in resolving those conflicts. How do you do it in terms of techniques? Whether you use a listening technique from Boston or from Gaza, I think that it is obvious that you shouldn't use the techniques from Boston of talking, listening, and acting in Gaza. You need to be able to allow the Gazan, the Egyptian, and the Philipino to devise, improve, or construct their own ways to achieve listening, or learn the skill of listening, communication, problem solving, or whatever technique that you are trying to teach. It is the same thing for dialogue, which I think is a technique that we all use in dialogue, conflict resolution, negotiation, and mediation. All of these techniques have been used not only in the North American context but every culture around the world has its own techniques in which they conduct dialogue and mediation, and other forms of conflict resolution. Use the local techniques, tools, and ways according to the principles. You don't change the principle by what you do, but you adjust to that local, traditional dispute resolution.

Q: So you do bring your own principles to the local context?

A: Yes, we all bring our own values and our own assumptions into this work. The values and assumption that I shared with you is what you bring in, such as cooperation, symmetry, and the concept of non-violence. Anything that we devise and design has to meet the standard of non-violence. Some of these things you have to make a decision and you bring them in fully aware that you are bringing in this set of values that might contradict what the local culture or the local norms that you are working with are. This is especially true if you work in a war zone area where the norm to resolve the conflict or dispute is violence and you are coming in with a totally contradictory assumption and introducing non-violence. Many of us are not aware that we bring those assumptions. I think that one of the things that I have found helpful is if you lay those assumptions in the beginning of your work with any outside work, by saying these are the principles that guide my work, and the techniques are going to come from you and what I do is to make sure that we are moving according to those principles. That is why sometimes the opposition groups, or the NGOs found our work in terms of international peace building in war zones areas as a transformative as a political tool for change. They find it feasible or possible to use it toward that end.