Since the beginning of civilization, there have been conflicts between communities, tribes, and countries. These conflicts were caused by, for example, scarcity of resources, cultural differences, or a claim for the same territory. This has not changed. In today’s world, social media and other communication and information technologies have led to an increasing interconnectedness across the globe. Information about ongoing wars and conflicts is spread via news channels and social media posts, reaching individuals on the other side of the planet. Particularly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Palestine escalation have captured Western media in recent months. Those with an interest in international conflicts will have also heard of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the ongoing genocide in Congo, the tensions in the South China Sea between China and Taiwan, the border dispute between India and China, the war in Sudan, and more. Often, these wars and conflicts affect civilians more than the decision-makers and make one wonder how these conflicts are attempted to be solved. This article will give an overview of international conflict resolution, its main methods, and its limits.
A conflict can be defined as a situation in which two or more parties have incompatible goals or values. Conflicts can materialize differently, for instance, as disagreements, border clashes, or war. Conflict resolution refers to the process of solving a conflict, including the mutual acceptance of the continuing existence of each party and the termination of all violent action. It is important to note that the aim of conflict resolution is not necessarily the elimination of all conflicts because a world where everybody has the same goals and values is neither possible nor desirable. The aim is to turn violent situations or situations with the potential for violence into a peaceful process to minimize harm to the affected populations.
An often-forgotten part of conflict resolution is conflict prevention, which is applied in the early stages of a conflict and focuses on preventing violent manifestations. The difficulty in identifying conflicts that have the potential for violence is that the media often only focuses on conflicts that have already escalated to violence. One approach to conflict prevention is early warning, which can be achieved by receiving reports from humanitarian agencies, think tanks, IGOs, or NGOs, which are present in the country and can detect potential signs of emerging violent conflict. For instance, the International Crisis Group monitors more than 70 conflicts and 50 situations that have the potential for violence to keep decision-makers up-to-date and allow them to allocate resources to prevent deadly violence. Another approach to conflict prevention is state building because armed conflict is less likely in states that are able to provide basic services, accountability, and security to their citizens. Otherwise, citizens may seek security or accountability through alternative channels, which could be violent groups. Multiple studies have estimated that the costs of conflict prevention packages are lower than the costs of international responses to violent conflicts. However, conflict prevention is often undervalued by decision-makers because it is difficult to allocate resources or take credit for preventing a situation.
There are multiple methods for international conflict resolution. Firstly, there is negotiation which is when the conflicting parties communicate directly with each other to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. According to Zartman’s ripeness concept, the preconditions for successful initiation of negotiations are when both parties are in a mutually damaging stalemate, see an attractive opportunity to escape the stalemate, and accept each other’s legitimacy. However, this can also be viewed as too passive, and therefore, the international community should urge the conflicting parties to negotiate regardless of ripeness to minimize harm to affected civilians. Peace negotiations are more likely to reach sustainable agreements when civil society organisations and political parties are included in the process. An example of an agreement reached via negotiations is the Iran Nuclear Deal from 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 (USA, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany), which lifted economic sanctions to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons.
Secondly, there is mediation, which is when a neutral third party, also called a mediator, facilitates communication between the conflicting parties and is often used to settle civil wars. This mediator does not make a binding decision for the conflict parties but instead helps them explore their options. The mediator can be an international organisation such as the UN, states, religious organisations, NGOs, or individuals, which are usually former high-level officials. Most mediation efforts have been and are ad hoc but there have been efforts to establish permanent bodies of professionals that can assist with conflict mediation. For instance, there is the UN Mediation Support Unit, which was founded in 2006, and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which is a Geneva-based NGO. It can become problematic when there are multiple entities competing over mediation of a conflict because that can spoil the resolution efforts. Furthermore, contrary to expectations, mediators are not expected to always be neutral. In certain situations, biased mediators can be more effective, particularly government-biased mediators, as they have a government’s trust and can convince it more easily to compromise. Additionally, biased mediators are more interested in a sustainable peace agreement than an agreement for its own sake. An example of mediation was the Sri Lanka civil war between the government of Sri Lanka and the separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2002, where Norway acted as a mediator. A ceasefire agreement was reached.
Thirdly, there is litigation, which is when legal action is taken to solve a conflict. This means that a dispute is settled by an international court or tribunal. An impartial judge makes a binding decision based on the evidence presented by both parties and the applicable law. Penalties such as fines and imprisonment can be used to enforce this decision. For instance, there is the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is concerned with the resolution of conflicts between states, and the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is concerned with prosecuting individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression, and genocide.
Fourthly, there is arbitration, which is when a neutral third party is appointed, also called an arbitrator, and imposes a solution on the conflict parties. Arbitration is a less formal and faster alternative to litigation. Another difference is that this method is typically used to settle disputes privately. The arbitrator’s decision is binding for both parties. The role of the arbitrator is typically performed by a tribunal, as in the case of the Iran-United States Claim Tribunal from 1981, which was established to settle disputes between the two countries after the US froze Iranian assets in response to its embassy employees being arrested in Tehran.
Fifthly, there are economic sanctions, which are used to punish or pressure a country into complying with international demands. Economic sanctions refer to the act of intentionally lowering the trade with a country in order to change its behaviour. Examples are travel bans, freezing of a country’s assets abroad, and trade restrictions. They are often used as an additional measure in international conflict resolution. However, the sanctioning party can also be negatively affected by the sanctions. For instance, many countries that imposed sanctions against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine were facing an oil and gas crisis, while countries such as India or China, which did not impose sanctions, received oil and gas for cheaper prices. In order to prevent a situation like this, there is the option of imposing “secondary sanctions”, which also penalize those countries that continue to trade with the sanctioned country.
The last main method of conflict resolution explained in this article is peacekeeping. The United Nations defines peacekeeping as “an operation involving military personnel, but without enforcement powers, undertaken by the United Nations to help maintain or restore international peace and security in areas of conflict. These operations are voluntary and are based on consent and cooperation. While they involve the use of military personnel, they achieve their objectives not by force of arms” (United Nations, 1990, pp. 4-5). Peacekeeping forces monitor ceasefire agreements in conflict zones. Peacekeeping, similar to imposing economic sanctions, adds another dimension to international conflict resolution, as it does not solely rely on diplomatic efforts. It can also only be used as an additional measure to other conflict resolution efforts because peacekeeping forces are only deployed to conflict zones to stabilize a situation until a sustainable agreement has been reached.
It is important to note that international conflict resolution has its limits. The above-explained methods are not always effective. Daily news show that wars and transnational conflicts have not been eliminated. More often than not, agreements such as ceasefires are reached, only to be broken by one conflicting party again. Additionally, there are many frozen conflicts around the world, where full-scale fighting has stopped but no stable peace agreement has been reached yet, meaning that violence could easily break out again. In conclusion, the current paradigm in international conflict resolution is far from perfect, and more research needs to be done to optimize the current methods and develop new methods.
United Nations. (1990) The Blue Helmets: A review of the United Nations peace-keeping (2nd ed.). New York: United Nations.