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Last Updated: 01/16/2009
Mediators Beyond Borders: Pathways to Peace and Reconciliation
Kenneth Cloke

In this timely article, Kenneth Cloke reflects on the potential of mediation to inspire conflict transformation and social development in times of interpersonal as well as international crisis.

Technical aspects of mediation are also discussed, as Cloke draws from his considerable experience in the field, offering practical and accessible advice for the promotion of cooperation and coexistence in our own lives and beyond all borders.

Download the full article here

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words or actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men … and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


While listening to news about the latest disasters from wars to terrorist attacks around the world, I sometimes fantasize about what would happen if, instead of dropping bombs on civilian populations, mediators by the tens of thousands were parachuted into war zones to initiate conversations across battle lines; if, instead of shooting bullets, we organized public dialogues and shot questions at each side; if, instead of mourning the loss of children’s lives by visiting equal or greater losses on the children of the enemy, we became surrogate mourners, turning every lost life into the name of a school, hospital, library, road, or olive grove, dedicated to those who died because we lacked the skills to get along.

I realize these are wishful fantasies, yet within their whimsy lies a startling truth that surfaces when we ask: what would we do after parachuting in once we hit the ground? We can then begin to see that it is possible for us to have an impact, even on the willingness of embittered, intransigent opponents to avoid war and terrorism by building people’s capacity to promote alternative ways of expressing, negotiating, and resolving their differences. I began referring to this idea as “Mediators Beyond Borders.”

What Can Be Done?

It is clear that conflict resolvers, as a profession, have developed the requisite knowledge, skills, and experience to begin thinking and talking about how we might intervene in trouble spots, even in small ways. Within our ranks, we have amassed considerable experience working in diverse countries and cultures, building mediation centers in hostile communities, and training people throughout civil society in conflict resolution techniques.

While we have done so largely as individuals, our field has reached a level of maturity that allows us to now consider how we might make a difference collectively, as a profession. While parachuting mediators into war zones might not be realistic, convening groups of dedicated dispute resolution professionals to work a few weeks a year over several years with opposing sides in international disputes is quite possible.

It seemed likely to me that conflict resolution professionals might be willing to dedicate part of their time and income to such a purpose. Grants might be obtained from foundations and donations from individuals to support these efforts, and costs, in any case would not be excessive. In other words, all that seemed lacking was our resolve, understanding of the dimensions, potential pitfalls, and complexity of the problem, together with a practical, strategic way to begin.

What I Have Learned

For over two and a half decades, I have worked as a mediator and trainer in political disputes, not only in the US, but in the former Soviet Union, helping resolve conflicts among Ukrainians, Georgians, and Russians, and between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. I have worked in conflict resolution in Nicaragua, Pakistan, India, and Ireland, and participated in mediations and dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians, Mexican ranchers and indigenous forest dwellers, and racially divided communities in the US. I have trained people in conflict resolution techniques in Austria, Canada, Cuba, England, the Netherlands, and Puerto Rico, and conducted dialogues on dispute resolution in Brazil, China, India, Japan, Spain, Thailand, and Zimbabwe.

During that time, I have successfully resolved thousands of complex multi-party conflicts, including marital, divorce, family, relational, community, grievance and workplace disputes. I have mediated collective bargaining negotiations, organizational and school conflicts, sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits, and difficult public policy disputes. I have resolved disputes between committed activists and within political advocacy organizations. I have conducted victim-offender and restorative justice mediations, trained tens of thousands of people in dispute resolution, and designed preventative conflict resolution systems for small non-profits and Fortune 100 corporations. And I am not unique in having done these things. Hundreds of my colleagues have had similar experiences. 

As a result of these experiences, I have learned that deeply entrenched social, economic, and political conflicts can be prevented, resolved, transformed, and transcended. Doing so means working collaboratively to design culturally adaptable conflict resolution approaches and integrating them with prejudice reduction, group facilitation, public dialogue, collaborative negotiation, victim-offender mediation, arbitration, community building, and similar methodologies. Simultaneously, it means forming local intervention teams, training indigenous conflict revolutionists, increasing local and global conflict resolution capacity, enlisting support, and training trainers who can provide commitment and continuity to these strategies.

The most effective international projects, in my experience, have been those that extend over decades, with people returning year after year to follow up, learn what worked and what didn’t, and provide fresh information, more advanced techniques, and nuanced advice as circumstances evolve and change. It will undoubtedly take considerable effort and commitment to design and implement such projects. Yet, as conflict has no borders, neither does compassion, or commitment to making a difference. We can only choose whether we will be distant, helpless victims of what we mistakenly regard as other people’s tragedies, or active participants in resolving disputes in our own human family, regardless of where, how, or among whom they are occurring.

Conflict as a Border or Boundary

All conflicts take place between people; that is, at the borders or boundaries that separate individuals, cultures, organizations, and nations. Every conflict can therefore be regarded as creating or reinforcing a border or boundary that divides us, drawing a line of demarcation that separates us into opposing sides, antagonistic positions, alien cultures, foreign experiences, and hostile camps, isolating and alienating us from one another.

Yet every boundary is also a connection, a potentially unifying element, a place where two sides can come together. As a result, we can therefore regard resolution as a consensual crossing of the borders and boundaries that separate us. Non-consensual border crossings are experienced as boundary violations, and may be vigorously resisted. Consensual border crossings, on the other hand, are experienced as acts of empathy and friendship, indicators of love and affection, and precursors to collaboration, problem solving, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Conflict, in this sense, is a chasm cutting us off from our own commonality. It is a fault line isolating us from our estranged family, a schism within wholeness. As a result, conflicts can be prevented, resolved, transformed, and transcended by identifying the boundaries that separate us, and consensually crossing them; by communicating across the internal and external borders we have erected to keep ourselves safe; and by using empathy and compassion to dismantle the sources of opposition to the Other within the Self, and within the systems we have created to defend ourselves from others.

There are two principal reasons for doing so: first, to create positive, enjoyable learning relationships; and second, to solve common problems. While the first is optional, the second is mandatory. The problems we are increasingly forced to confront have no borders, threaten our very survival, and cannot be solved except collaboratively, i.e., by crossing social, economic, political, religious, ethnic, gender, and cultural borders, and by building relationships as a result that allow us to transcend and move beyond them. As discussed in Chapter 1, some of the problems that clearly require us to move beyond borders presently include:

·                 global warming                           •          exhaustion of the oceans

·                 species extinction                        •          decreasing bio-diversity

·                 air and water pollution              •          deforestation

·                 resort to warfare                          •          nuclear proliferation

·                 drug-resistant diseases               •          global pandemics

·                 overuse of fertilizers                   •          loss of arable land

·                 religious intolerance                   •          terrorism

·                 torture                                           •          prejudice and intolerance

·                 genocide                                       •          “ethnic cleansing”

·                 AIDS and bird flu                        •          sexual trafficking and abuse

·                 narcotics smuggling                    •          organized crime

What would it take to successfully mediate these conflicts? If time, money, laws, bureaucracy, expertise, and willingness to participate were not obstacles, what methods and programs might we employ to reduce the bloodshed and return to peace and unity once upheavals subside? What could the United Nations, national governments, or non-governmental organizations do to discourage evil, war, injustice, and terrorism before they begin? [For more on what the United Nations could do, see Chapter 19 of Mediating Dangerously.]

Political conflicts are simultaneously public and private, intellectual and emotional, procedural and structural, preventive and reactive, relational and systemic. Because these disputes are highly complex and multi-layered, successful resolution efforts will need to focus on supporting diverse local collaborative initiatives, and on developing a combination of techniques and approaches democratically, rather than simply importing or blindly imposing US-specific solutions.

Solving any of these problems will not be simple. In the face of such difficulties, it is easy to think: we are so few, so isolated, so imperfect, so poorly prepared, and the problems we face are so vast, universal, multifaceted, and ingrained, how could we possibly make a difference? The real question, however, is: how can we stand by and not try to make a difference, no matter how imperfect our efforts may be?

On a global level, it does not matter whose end of the ship is sinking. We inhabit a planetary island in a vast, expanding universe. As a result, regardless of who created these problems, we are all impacted by them, and have no sustainable option other than to learn to discuss, negotiate, and resolve our conflicts, and prevent them by acting together.

In truth, we already know – not just intellectually, but in our hearts, as human beings and conflict resolvers – that there are many tangible, practical ways we can make a difference, as imperfect as we are. Over the last few decades, we have developed a number of techniques for successfully communicating across much smaller, less defended interpersonal borders and cultural divides, and resolving disputes in families and communities without warfare or coercion. And it is precisely these skills that the world now needs in order to solve its problems.

An Elicitive Approach to Mediating Between Cultures

In order to achieve these goals, it is necessary first to learn how to work humbly, ethically, and respectfully across cultural lines. Cultural differences inevitably exacerbate conflicts, as do prejudices based on nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, personality, and style. It is therefore critical in working beyond borders that we learn ways of communicating, working collaboratively, solving problems, and resolving conflicts within, between, and across cultures that are not our own.

I have found the most effective approach in developing conflict resolution capacity across diverse cultures is the elicitive, collaborative, democratic methodology best articulated and practiced by Mennonite mediator John Paul Lederach. This method focuses on supplementing rather than replacing indigenous resolution strategies, while simultaneously learning from other cultures and developing improvements in local methods and practices. Here are a few of the techniques I have used to bridge cross-cultural gaps, either between the mediator and the parties, or between the parties themselves:

·                    Take time to warmly welcome both sides. Serve food or drink and break bread together. Ask them to create a culturally appropriate heartfelt context and opening for the conversation they want to have.

·                    Ask each person to clarify who they think you are, or how they define your role, or what they expect of you and the mediation process.

·                    Ask each side to identify the ground rules that will make them feel respected, communicate effectively, and better able to resolve their problems.

·                    Elicit a prioritization of conflicts from each side. What are the words for different kinds of conflict? Which are most serious and which are least? What is commonly done in response to each? Compare similarities and differences between cultures, then do the same for conflict styles and resolution techniques. 

·                    Ask people to rank their available options from war to surrender, and explore the reasons they might choose one over another.

·                    Ask people to state, pantomime, role-play, draw, or script how conflicts are resolved in their culture. To whom do they go to for assistance? What roles do third parties traditionally play? Which techniques do they use when, and why? How do they mediate, forgive, and reconcile? Where do they get stuck and why?

·                    Invite volunteers from opposing cultures to jointly design a culturally inclusive, enriched, multi-layered, comprehensive conflict resolution system to help them avoid future disputes.

·                    Ask each side to meet separately and list the words that describe the communication, negotiation, or conflict style of the opposing culture and, next to it, the words that describe their own. Exchange lists and ask each side to respond. Do the same with conflicting ideas, feelings such as anger, or attitudes toward the issues.

·                    Establish common points of reference by asking someone from each culture to indicate their values, or goals for their relationship with the other culture, or aspirations for the resolution process.

·                    Ask questions like: “What does that mean to you?” “What does the word ‘fairness’ indicate or imply to you?” “Can you give an example?”

·                    Acknowledge and model respect for differences, and ask questions if you are not sure what things mean.

·                    Ask each person to say one thing they are proud of with regard to their culture, ethnicity, or group, and why.

·                    If appropriate, ask if there is anything they dislike about their culture, ethnicity, or group, and why.

·                    Ask groups in conflict to say what they most appreciate about the opposing group or culture and why.

·                    Ask them to bring cultural artifacts, such as poems, music, or artifacts, and share stories that would help an outsider understand and appreciate their culture.

·                    Ask each side to identify a common stereotype regarding their culture, what it feels like, and why. Then ask them to describe what their culture is actually like, why the stereotype is inaccurate, and what they would most like others to know about them.

·                    Ask what rituals are used in each culture to end conflicts or reach forgiveness, such as shaking hands, then design combined or simultaneous rituals for closure and reconciliation.

In many countries that lack significant long-term experience with social, economic, or political democracy, many ancient indigenous tribal or civil societal conflict resolution traditions that originally emphasized collaboration, and democratic, interest-based interactions were gradually supplanted by or subordinated to conformist, competitive, autocratic, power-based processes that relied on directives and hierarchical authority from above, rather than on democratic participation, curiosity, community, and insight from below.

While both of these have proven useful, prevention, resolution, transformation, and transcendence occur more often when ancient interest-based resolution processes can be revived and reintegrated using elicitive techniques. An example is the panchayat system in India and Pakistan, which originally resolved disputes communally, but in many places became dependent on local political leaders who had been hierarchically selected from outside. Another example is palaver, which consists largely of continuous community dialogue, and is still used in parts of Angola, Mozambique, and other countries in Southern Africa. Yet with the rise of large, urban centers, the old techniques have been bypassed, or become institutionalized and less effective in recent years. Yet when revived and combined with modern methodologies, these ancient practices can invigorate the process of dispute resolution and help us all learn from one other.

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As Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution, Kenneth Cloke has served as a mediator, arbitrator, attorney, coach, consultant and trainer. Ken specializes in resolving complex multi-party conflicts which include: community, grievance and workplace disputes, collective bargaining negotiations, organizational and school conflicts, sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits, and public policy disputes. Ken also provides services in designing conflict resolution systems for organizations. He is a nationally recognized speaker and author of many books and journal articles.