Conflict Transformation

William Ury

Director of the Global Negotiation Project, Program on Negotiation, Harvard Law School

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: Well one thing I'll just say, in the 25 years I've worked at the situation just looking for the toughest, most intractable conflicts, I've seen nothing that convinces me that conflict cannot be transformed. It takes time; it's the hardest thing you can do. It may take more time than in a Western conception of time; it might take 20 or 30 or 40 years, but I've seen remarkable turnarounds. I was a witness in part to what happened in South Africa, and I remember going there back in the '80s when people around the world -- and there universally -- thought this place was headed to civil war for as long as anyone could imagine. I was a witness to what happened in Northern Ireland. And there are a half-dozen other places around the world where things like this are happening right now in Sri Lanka. Also witness to what happened when the Soviet Union fell. I remember a group of historians gathered together in the early '80s, who were asked to estimate what they thought would be the causalities of the fall of the Soviet Empire. And the lowest estimate was in the many-millions and the highest was in the tens-of-millions. Just judging from history and the fall of the Russian Empire.

Q: In the sense that anarchy will ensue...

A: Anarchy, and civil wars, and power struggles, and so on. And you had a lot of conflicts, in the thousands, in the transition there. And so, not to speak of larger historical examples, like over the last 50 years watching what's happened between France and Germany, which may be one of the most intractable conflicts on the face of the planet. I mean Europe, if you think about it, Europe - take a long historical tour - Europe was the epicenter of war for the last millennium; Western Europe in particular. And now if you think about war in Western Europe it almost seems to people it almost seems unthinkable. And that's a shift in 60 years, from a place - I mean, if you took Europe in 1944 - torn by war, genocide, starvation, human rights abuse, dictatorships - then you take Europe 2004 it's not a paradise, but the shift has been amazing. And one of the questions to imagine is, imagine the world in 60 years hence, in 2064, the world right now has all those problems: war, genocide, starvation, human rights abuse, all of them, inequities between rich and poor - why can't we do the same thing?