Conflict, on both the micro and macro scales, is always
part of human relations and can be used as an engine
for positive change. But there are intractable conflicts
that are mostly destructive and protracted. They cause
great damage and impose high costs (financial, social,
psychological, and environmental) in the countries
directly involved, costs that may spill over into neighboring countries and the international community.
They generate a large flow of refugees and considerable expense in humanitarian aid as well as military
armament. They cause death and create psychological
traumas that are hard to overcome or move beyond.
These conflicts may involve disputes over land,
religion, political independence or autonomy; they
are often related to ethnic, religious, historical, political and economic issues; they can be found in places
such as the Middle East, Kashmir and Sudan. Some
have been resolved peacefully with a lot of hard work,
as in the cases of South Africa and Mozambique.
Many have not.
According to Peter Coleman, a major obstacle to
resolving many intractable conflicts is that they
establish themselves in different spheres of society, shaping people’s system of meanings, creating
an identity for each conflicting group based on the
incompatibility and dehumanization of the other
group, creating narratives that justify hostilities and
victimize the conflict group, and dominating the politics of the countries involved. This jeopardizes the
processes needed for a healthy operational society.
Commerce with other countries is limited by diplomatic rupture between them or by the population
decrease caused by people fleeing the country. Tourism is weakened by the threat of a terrorist attack or
a military assault. Education is degraded as it focuses
almost exclusively on justifying and legitimating the
conflict and ignores critical thinking. Overall, these
conflicts can cause a “sickening” of society, where
its multiple processes work in a limited or faulty way,
reducing social capital and generating social problems.
The conflict creates a dynamic where the stakeholders’ reactions end up highlighting the differences,
creating a positive feedback loop that escalates and
perpetuate the rivalry. This allows the social conflict
to adapt and auto-regulate its processes to compensate for the changes, generating a conflict-sustaining
homeostasis in the social system that makes it very
resistant to change.
THE POSSIBILITY OF TRANSFORMATION
How can we transform conflicts we call intractable,
when the very word means “unmanageable” or
“unstoppable?” First, we should consider whether or
not we believe there is an inherent human tendency
toward cooperation and peace. There are empirical bases and theories in support of that belief,
but there are similar theories supporting belief in
a human inclination to violence. We could take the
actual civil crisis in Burundi or the actions of ISIS as
proof of our egoistic and violent disposition, but on
the other hand, the process that ended apartheid or
the recent negotiations between the FARC and the
government of Colombia could indicate the opposite.
Hannah Arendt redefined the concept of violence
and power. She argued that even though the power
is an end, the violence is only a means. Violence has
an instrumental nature—it can be used, but it can’t
organize a society. The State’s monopoly on violence is not the only factor critical to the existence
of a State, and definitely doesn’t generate its power.
The India of 1930 with Gandhi shows that the control of violence can’t rise above the legitimization of
The anthropologist Douglas Fry argues that, while
violence undoubtedly happens, it’s not predominant
as people assume, and that most people interact in
a non-violent way, even in violent cultures. Based
on his study of the Siroro people in Bolivia and the
Paliyan people in India, he maintains that the human
species has the capability to live in society peacefully, a path that the existence of weapons of mass
destruction requires us to pursue. Fry also distinguishes between aggression and conflict: while the
first is always violent, the last can be violent or not,
and achieve constructive or destructive results.
In the academic community and in the field of
conflict resolution, “intractable conflict” refers to a
conflict that resists its transformation or resolution.
Although this term is already well rooted and clear in
the field of theory, one must be careful about using
it inside the conflictive systems, where the term can
affect the attitudes and behaviors of the conflicting
parties. Intractable conflicts are complex and hard to
manage; they involve multiple aggravating factors,
many of which are not connected to the origins of
the conflict, yet contribute greatly to its perpetua-
Intractable Conflicts and Conflict Transformation—
The Case Of Colombia
About the Author
is Project Coordina-
tor of ProDiálogo
and Chair of Com-
Section of ACR.
He is a graduate
Relations (São Paulo
with a Postgradu-
ate Certificate in
tion for Sustainable
nio Ruiz de Montoya