A new approach

August 21, 2019

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The writer is a freelance researcher in peace and security issues.
The writer is a freelance researcher in peace and security issues.

MANY attempts have been made to establish and hold peace, reconcile and heal wounds during and after conflicts. During conflicts — as between occupied Kashmir and India, or Palestine and Israel — civil society groups as well as official ones have been active in promoting dialogue. Various websites and social media groups inviting Indian and Pakistanis to share their stories of Partition, or memories of erstwhile East Pakistan, are active, as are Jewish and Palestinian, Bosnian and Serbian groups. These are not mediation processes, but they provide virtual platforms for sharing of stories and experiences. Mediation experts are also playing their role to bring together individuals from countries previously engaged in bloody wars and assist them to interact and listen to each other.

The war in Afghanistan has just been over and a fragile peace process is in the making. So far, the role of civil society is limited. The wars in Yemen, Syria and the UN declared genocide of the Rohingya continue, although their intensity has reduced. The time to rebuild an almost destroyed Middle East from its ashes will come soon. The situation in India-held Kashmir is a grave one and needs all possible efforts at all levels to bring India to the dialogue table. This seems to be only a dream, unfortunately, considering recent events.

The role of the mediator and peace builder is critical.

Post-conflict stages of peace building and maintenance are often left to people themselves. It takes only a few years to come to all-out war: returning to peace and then building it thread by thread is a decades-long process. All sides, especially the perceived victim and the perpetrator have their stories to tell and their views to communicate. It is important for both sides to listen to each other’s stories and come to a mutual understanding of the conflict.

The role of the mediator and peace builder is critical. One of the main tools they should be able to use is of facilitating stories to be told, as it is “widely accepted that mediation is a storytelling process...”. People often tend to see others as being responsible for inflicting pain upon them. The storytelling process enables a deflection of this responsibility and assists each party to see different ways of looking at specific events.

This approach builds upon the theory that any one account of what has happened does not cancel another’s account and is not truer than that of the other. Any account can never be completely objective and is influenced by the opinions and views one holds. This is why mediation and peace building is so essential. In the storytelling approach, the mediator acts as a third party, providing a space for stories with different perspectives to be told and heard with patience and, ultimately, understanding.

A new approach to mediation, called the ‘narrative approach’ is based on storytelling. This approach to mediation adopts a healing style, instead of a ‘what do I get out of it’ one for the parties. It is, therefore, more useful for people who have been affected, rather than politicians or diplomats who must emerge from the mediation process with some tangible gains.

In this approach, mediators emphasise increasing mutual understanding and overcoming societal prejudices. People talk with each other while the mediator keeps everyone engaged, maintains a non-threatening environment and attempts to probe deeper into underlying issues.

The parties pass through three phases: engagement; unpacking the conflict story, which may be based on one-sided assumptions; and the building up of other possibilities. These stages often overlap. The environment in which mediation is held is important, as are factors such as who is involved, what they say, and how they say it. As stories are told, the mediator invites the parties to think of the conflict outside of themselves and view it as a third party. They are able to face all the issues and tyranny of the conflict together. The conflict can even be given a name, as if it has a life and identity of its own.

The stage is now set for a joint story of the conflict which does not blame one or the other. The mediator probes and explores statements by each party, obviously emotional and often emanating from power dynamics. There are experiences that have not been discussed before because they were not prominent enough for the dominant discourse earlier. Stories that have been coloured by political, social or emotional perceptions need to be discovered and seen through a new lens.

Narrative mediation has yet to be used at Track I level or by mediation teams. Scholars suggest that the absence of emotional aspects of mediation — one of the underpinnings of storytelling — could have been a factor in persistence of long-term conflicts despite formal settlement, as in Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Georgia. It will be worth developing he capacity of mediators and adopting the narrative approach in mediation for peace building.

The writer is a freelance researcher in peace and security issues.

Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2019