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William Ury: Getting to Peace

October 1, 2012

Are you a peace provider, teacher or bridge-builder?  A mediator, arbitrator, equalizer or healer?

Taken from a book review by the Conflict Research Consortium Staff of Getting to Peace: Transforming Conflict at Home, at Work, and in the World, by William Ury (New York: Viking, 1999).

Beyond Intractability website is a wonderful resource for building a commitment to world peace:

Getting to Peace

To say that humans are naturally aggressive is misleading. Humans (and other primates) certainly have the capacity for violent aggression. Yet humans also show a capacity to control aggression. Modern human societies show extreme variations in their rates of violence–as great as a thousand-fold from the most peaceful to the most violent. Ury notes that “the level of variation alone suggests that far more than human nature is at play.”(p. 55) Violence is simply one tactic among many that people may use to handle disputes. Violence is a capacity that humans exercise by choice, rather than an instinct that manifests itself uncontrollably.

Why then did warfare arise in the last 10,000 years? Ury argues that war arose with an increase in population, the relative scarcity of resources, and so a shift to sedentary, agriculture-based societies. Ury notes that “the form of social organization changed from an open network to a relatively closed village.”(p. 65) The agricultural revolution created the first human cities, and a population explosion. Under these new conditions, war begins to make sense. The aggressor stood to gain possession of fixed resources, the value of which outweighed cooperation. Slavery became feasible. With the population boom, people were increasingly expendable. Moving away from the conflict was no longer an option. At the same time, traditional structures for managing conflict were weakened.
This era also saw the invention of human organizations based on coercion and hierarchical power. Power over others becomes a vicious goal; pursued from greed and from the fear that of one does not dominate then they will be oppressed. As Ury describes it, “networks of negotiation turned into pyramids of power.”(p. 70) Rulers are even more compelled by the logic of war, since their personal costs are low (soldiers do the dying) and the potential gains are high.

Ury argues that the conditions of human life are again changing, and changing in ways that make creating peace and ending war more possible. The basic resource of human society is shifting from land to knowledge. Land is a fixed resource, and so invited fixed-pie thinking, emphasis on boundaries and competition. Knowledge is an expandable resource. It increases through being shared, and so invites cooperation and erodes boundaries.

Because modern weapons are relatively cheap and massively destructive, violent conflict is changing from a win-lose proposition, to an all-lose situation. In a nuclear exchange, no one would win; conventional bombs and landmines are little better. Knowledge also offers an alternative to coercion as a source of power. Correspondingly, hierarchical power structures are increasingly being leveled, and replaced with decentralized networks.

People are also increasingly, globally interdependent. Increased interdependence leads to more conflicts, with potentially widespread impacts, and to greater vulnerability. However, “growing vulnerability means greater motivation for the community to take action to prevent harmful conflict.”(p.101) The knowledge revolution creates both the motivation and the tools to resurrect the third side.

Ury sees an increase in the amount and quality of negotiation happening in all areas of human life: negotiations between citizens in democracies, between managers in decentralized business corporations, between spouses in egalitarian marriages. He predicts that “the pyramids of power are collapsing into the time-honored networks of negotiation.”(p. 108)

Preventing, Resolving and Containing Conflicts

Conflict cannot and should not be eliminated, since it is necessary for creating change. Peace requires conflicts be channeled into constructive, cooperative processes. The third side has three basic tasks in channeling conflict. First, it seeks to prevent destructive conflicts from arising by addressing tension early. Second, it seeks to resolve overt conflicts when they do arise. Third, it seeks to contain escalating conflicts. Ury describes ten roles the third side can play.

Three roles are aimed toward conflict prevention. They are the roles of provider, teacher, and bridge-builder. Conflicts often arise when people have unmet needs. Tensions escalate when people lack the skills to defuse them. Strong relationships help prevent conflict.

Providers work to enable people to meet their basic needs for safety, respect, well being and freedom. Providers share resources, offer respect, protect and liberate. Provider initiatives include job training; midnight basketball leagues for at-risk youth; Grameen banks which offer small loans to the very poor; shared decision-making between parents and children, or between mangers and workers; and international cooperative security pacts.

Teachers show people alternatives to violence, and help people learn the skills needed to defuse tension and manage conflict. One initiatives to de-legitimate violence brings war veterans to talk to teen-agers. Tolerance and coexistence are increasingly taught in schools, and television shows like Sesame Street model friendship across groups. Through their schools and through peer education, student are learning violence prevention and problem-solving skills.

Bridge-builders foster relationships, communication and cross-cutting ties between groups, either by reaching out personally or by bringing others together. Bridge-building initiatives include dialogue groups and joint projects, ranging from economic ventures to political lobbying to charitable activities.

Mediators, arbitrators, equalizers, and healers work to resolve conflicts. In general, disputants have four ways of trying to resolve disputes. They can try to talk to reconcile their interests. They can appeal for an imposed decision based on their rights. They can engage in a power contest. Or they can try to improve and strengthen their relationship. Mediators help people reconcile their interests by bringing them into negotiations, by facilitating communication, and by helping them search for a solution.

Arbitrators decide a dispute for the opponents. They may be formal judges or simply respected peers. Arbitrators shape their decisions based on the merits of the case, with a strong concern for justice. Arbitrators also encourage the parties to try negotiating to reach their own shared decision.

Equalizers help balance the power between opposed parties, so that they can negotiate a fair and mutual solution. They may intervene to bring the stronger party into negotiations, to establish democratic procedures, or to support nonviolent action. Healers repair injured relationships. They seek to break down psychological walls of hostility and recrimination, and build relations of trust. Healers listen to the aggrieved parties and acknowledge their feelings. Healers encourage people to apologize, and to forgive.

Through the roles of witness, referee, and peacekeeper the third side seeks to contain escalated conflicts. Ury explains that “unresolved conflict escalates because no one is paying attention to the conflict or, even if someone is, because no one sets limits on the fighting, or, lastly, because no one intervenes to provide protection.”(p. 170) Witnesses look for early warning signs of violent conflict, speak out against violence when it occurs, and summon help. Witness-based initiatives include programs to identify potential gang members, neighborhood crime watch programs and citizen patrols, and community policing. Referees establish rules for fair fights, limit offensive weapons and strengthen defenses.

Businesses agree to principles for fair competition. Voter demand that political candidates refrain from excessively negative campaigning. Internationally, states construct arms control and disarmament treaties. Domestically many enact gun control. Switzerland has developed an exclusively defense-oriented military. Individuals may learn non-offensive martial arts, such as Aikido, or simply how to respond to insults with humor. “When the rules are broken and the limits on fighting exceeded, the community needs to employ the minimally forceful measures necessary to stop harmful conflict in its tracks.”(p. 184) This is the job of peacekeepers. Peacekeepers interpose themselves between combatants, restrain or imprison aggressors, and defend victims and the weaker side.

What You Can Do

In conclusion, Ury suggests twelve things that each individual can do to begin to move toward a “co-culture” of coexistence, cooperation, negotiation and peace. First, we can reject pessimistic beliefs about the inevitability of war.

Second, we can each learn some problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. We can then use and share those skills in our daily interactions. Try to mediate your own disputes. Decide which peacebuilding role best suits you and incorporate it into your existing activities. A journalist might make an effort to witness; a teacher could include conflict resolution in his lessons. Volunteer with a peacebuilding program. Be alert for situations that need third side intervention; when you see the need for someone to fill a third side role, fill it, or find someone else to fill it.

Form alliances and work with other third-siders. Recruit your group or organization into playing a stronger third side role. Support third side activities in the broader community and world. Help develop and build new third side initiatives and institutions. Finally, recognize that you are creating a profound social movement toward peaceful human coexistence. Ever the optimist, Ury ends by saying, “because the task of creating a genuine co-culture may take a generation or more, there is no better time for us to begin than now.” (p. 207)

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