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Notes from the field: Why intractable conflicts are so hard to mediate

By: Cristiana Lavinia Badulescu, PhD - Managing Director, YPFP Brussels
On March 4, 2020 I had the pleasure to moderate an event organized by Young Professionals in Foreign Policy Brussels on ‘International Mediation in Intractable Conflicts: Breaking an Impasse’ with mediatEUr’s Senior Executive Officer Kathrin Quesada and European Institute of Peace’s Senior Adviser Hilde Johnson. The panel event sought to discuss ways to break the impasse and to improve the mediation practices in intractable conflicts. Following the insightful remarks and lively Q&A, I here provide a closer look at why intractable conflicts prove so difficult to mediate based on my field experience in Baku and Nicosia researching on the Nagorno-Karabakh and Cyprus conflicts.
 
Intractable armed conflicts are broadly defined as being protracted, resisting varied mediation attempts, and presenting occasional and sporadic violent episodes that alternate with periods of relative calm. They involve a mix of tangible and non-tangible issues at stake (e.g. territory, resources, identity) and entail widespread mortality, trauma, injustice, and victimization for the societies involved. The long-lasting conflicts between Israel and Palestine, Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in Cyprus, Tamils and Singhalese in Sri Lanka, and India and Pakistan over Kashmir region are just a few examples.
 
In these settings, the parties tend to mutually dehumanize and even demonize each other, as well as attribute the causes of the sufferings and injustices exclusively to the ‘other’ referred to as being the enemy. Such enemy images contain a strong emotional dislike, reduce empathy, and foster an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Furthermore, traumatic events lived in the past by the parties and inserted into their collective memory lead to a deep sense of collective victimization which further reinforces division and antagonism.
 
Beyond these aspects, the conflict itself becomes part of people’s lives and social practices posing serious implications at all levels. At the micro level, individuals present psychological wounds and a deep sense of injustice, victimization, humiliation; at the meso, the groups and the institutions to which individuals belong operate on a dysfunctional pattern; at the macro level, the concerned societies are refractory to any signal of change, construction in the meaning of reconciliation, or/and of social progress. Therefore, one of the most striking and defining characteristics of intractable conflicts which poses a challenge to researchers, peace practitioners, and other specialists working on the ground, is the way these conflicts reflect far-reaching and deeply ingrained identity, social and psychological strata.
 
These strata accompanying the intrinsic dimension of intractable conflicts contribute to a better understanding of the nature of their intractability, as well as explain why they are so resistant to mediation and ultimately to resolution. A more informed understanding based on these identity, social and psychological strata could reorient and complement the mediation process. For instance, the organization of working groups encompassing political and social elites, centred on the deconstruction and reconstruction of enemy images as well as on dealing with the past could complement the mediation strategies and lead towards more sustainable conflict resolution models.