Conflict Resolution (II): A Risk Evaluation Tool for Mediators

The second part of the article on conflict resolution draws the conclusions from the previously developed argument, that mitigating the risks of peace negotiations, as perceived by the conflict parties, is the key to ending protracted conflict (see Conflict Resolution (I): Peace-Making and Risk-Taking). The risk evaluation tool introduced below, aims to identify and assess the critical barriers to making peace, and might therefore be particularly useful to third parties who are engaged as mediators.

Factors of risk aversion and holistic mediation strategy

Given the powerful factors of risk aversion which often keep conflict parties from settling their issues at the negotiation table, mediators may consider a holistic strategy of tackling the respective risk dimensions simultaneously. The goal of mitigating the socio-psychological factors of risk aversion, in particular the distorting attribution effects,  must be Normalization of relations (A). The cognitive factors of risk aversion, especially the negative framing effects, will have to be neutralized by Positive reframing of peace prospects (B).

The rational-strategic factors of risk aversion that are connected to the uncertainty of the negotiation process and outcome, should be diminished by a Reduction of ambiguity of negotiations (C) as well as a Control of ambivalences in a peace agreement (D). Since conflict resolution does not end with an agreement, and conflict parties are well aware of post-settlement risks, International assurances for peace implementation (E) should be integral part of the mediation strategy from the beginning.

The table below provides a detailed check-list of the risks attached to a peace process, which need to be managed in order to advance the mediation strategy in all dimensions A to E. Based on the expertise acquired over the course of some 15 years of comparative conflict studies, as well as practical experience in developing mediation strategies, the author believes that there will be no sustainable peace agreement if any one of these dimensions is neglected.

The risk-based approach to conflict resolution

Consider, how interrelated the socio-psychological, cognitive and rational-strategic risk dimensions really are. For example, if a conflict party still feels hostility towards the opponent and does not trust the other party, this means that the socio-psychologically induced risks have not been mitigated and the normalization of relations failed. This is bad enough, but the parties will then also be less ready for a positive cognitive reframing of the peace prospects. Furthermore, given the strong psychological risk aversion, it is not very likely that they will take the rational-strategic risk of engaging in ambiguous negotiations either.

Or, let us assume that a conflict party unilaterally begins a cognitive reframing process, which means that the prospect of potential benefits to be gained through a peace agreement will become more prominent. Having positive peace prospects will then also influence the socio-psychological risk dimension, by increasing the readiness to reduce the tensions with the other party, and thus improving the relationship. It must be noted, however, that if just one party lacks any positive prospect and does not clearly see what it could substantially gain through a peace settlement, this might already suffice to block the normalization of relations and the reduction of the rational-strategic risks attached to a negotiation process.

In sum, progress or failure in mitigating the risks in each dimension will positively or negatively reinforce the risk perception of the conflict parties in the other dimensions. Bearing in mind the systemic relationship between the socio-psychological, cognitive and rational-strategic dimension of both the conflict parties’ individual perception and their communication with each other, is the essence of the risk-based approach to peace-making and conflict resolution.

The risk evaluation tool set out here, ensures that a mediator implementing it really does assess the risk perception and will of the conflict parties for peace. Eventually, this is what counts for the strategic goal of conflict resolution, which is defined by a voluntary agreement and effective implementation by the parties (conflict resolution is therefore not to be confused with enforcing a settlement by third party intervention).

Critical variables of risk mitigation in the peace process

The table is structured in four columns. The first column displays the already discussed risk dimensions in the five main categories A to E, including the subcategories of risk areas (16 in total) and the risk variables within each area (50 variables in total). The second, third and fourth column serve to evaluate the variables and aggregate the values on the higher levels of the risk areas and dimensions. Since the risk areas and variables are self-explaining and can easily be understood, the following paragraphs will focus on explaining the evaluation method (each risk variable is discussed in detail in the author’s book Risikoeinstellungen in internationalen Konflikten).

Each dimension comprises three to four subcategories of risk areas (numbered 1, 2, …), and each risk area contains a number of risk variables (sorted a, b, …). The assessment of the variables indicates in how far risk mitigation of the peace process in the individual areas and dimensions has progressed, stagnated or regressed.

The variables are phrased as questions, which the analyst using the tool can answer with not true, partly true, or mostly true. The answer not true means that in view of the conflict parties, significant risk mitigation is non-existent for this variable, which is therefore assigned the value ‘0’. This assessment will often indicate the identification of a critical barrier for the peace process.

In contrast, the answer mostly true, indicates that the variable in question is no longer seen as a major risk factor by the parties, allowing for progress in the peace process. This variable is therefore assigned the value ‘1’. However, the risk evaluation of such a variable might deteriorate again, due to certain incidents or a shift of perceptions and preferences. The evaluation tool is meant for continuous monitoring, in order to keep track of improvement or deterioration over time.

The answer partly true means that although the risk attached to the variable has been reduced, the respective matter is undecided and must still be regarded as a factor of risk aversion on part of the conflict parties. This assessment usually comes with the value ‘0.5’. If a positive or negative trend for that variable can be identified, the analyst might assign a higher or lower value of ‘0.6’ or more, or ‘0.4’ or less, respectively.

The colors red, orange and yellow marking the evaluation columns, represent the messages alert, for no risk mitigation, warning for risk ambiguity, and vigilance for currently reduced risk.

The way, the evaluation system is set up, enables the analyst to apply two different aggregation procedures. The first approach would consist of building a risk evaluation index. This requires summing up the variables’ values, and dividing the sum by the number of variables; this calculation generates the average value for each risk area and will then accordingly be repeated for aggregating the values of the areas to receive a single value for each risk dimension. Further aggregation of the values for the risk dimensions is not favored here, in order to ensure the development of a meaningful profile.

A more radical risk assessment would, however, focus on those adverse variables with zero values, and transfer the same value to the entire risk area concerned. This second procedure would not aim to build an index but to develop an alarm system prepared to generate ‘red flags’. Urgent action for managing the risks identified would be the adequate response within that context.

In any case, a mediator or the analyst assigned with the task of using the risk evaluation tool, will get both a detailed and comprehensive account of the causes for regression, stagnation, or progress in a conflict resolution process. If the evaluation is done accurately, based on a deep understanding of the conflict parties’ risk perception, and if the assessment is updated regularly, mediation measures can be well targeted and tailored in order to properly address the needs and concerns of the conflict parties.

Table: The risk evaluation tool for mediators

RISK DIMENSIONS – AREAS – VARIABLES Not true Partly true Mostly true
A. Normalization of Relations
1. Neutralization of attribution effects
on the leadership level
a) Mutual recognition as negotiation partners? 0 0.5 1
b) Tensions reduction? 0 0.5 1
c) Confidence-building measures? 0 0.5 1
2. Common understanding on the intermediate factions level
a) Majority for peace within each conflict party? 0 0.5 1
b) Inter-party dialogue and coalition for peace? 0 0.5 1
c) Intra-party control of militant/extremist veto-players? 0 0.5 1
d) Inter-party approach towards spoilers? 0 0.5 1
3. Initiatives for reconciliation on the population level?
a) Inter-communal civil initiatives for project cooperation? 0 0.5 1
b) Reconciliatory moves between community groups? 0 0.5 1
c) Building of a critical mass, demonstrating joint expectations for peace? 0 0.5 1
B. Positive reframing of peace prospects
1. Normalization of reference points
a) Cognitive neutralization of suffered (war) losses? 0 0.5 1
b) Cognitive neutralization of illegitimate (war) gains? 0 0.5 1
c) Joint cognitive frame for peace process? 0 0.5 1
2. Reframing the prospect for relative losses
a) Increasing opportunity costs of non-negotiation? 0 0.5 1
b) Representation of concessions as costs of securing the benefits of peace? 0 0.5 1
3. Improving the prospects of relative gains
a) Finality of political process for the parties’ status? 0 0.5 1
b) Agreed win-win- formula? 0 0.5 1
c) Perceived fairness of political process? 0 0.5 1
C. Reduced ambiguity of negotiations
1. Solving the negotiation dilemma
a) All issues on the table (complete agenda?) 0 0.5 1
b) All stakeholders included? 0 0.5 1
c) Creative and integrative communication? 0 0.5 1
d) Increased acceptance for agreement? 0 0.5 1
2. Optimization of agreement value
a) Trade-offs for treaty efficiency? 0 0.5 1
b) Fair division for treaty equity? 0 0.5 1
3. Risk-sharing for post-settlement phase
a) Procedures for staged and conditioned implementation of agreement? 0 0.5 1
b) Dispute resolution mechanism regarding different interpretations? 0 0.5 1
D. Control of ambivalences in peace agreement?
1. Military and civil security
a) Secure demobilization and demilitarization of conflict parties? 0 0.5 1
b) Reintegration of militias into civil society? 0 0.5 1
c) Balanced future composition of army and police forces? 0 0.5 1
2. Political and democratic institutions
a) Adequate procedure for constitutional reform? 0 0.5 1
b) Fair registration of parties and rules for elections? 0 0.5 1
c) Consensual horizontal government model (e.g. according to power-sharing or proportional rule)? 0 0.5 1
d) Consensual vertical government model (e.g. with territorial and/or cultural autonomy)? 0 0.5 1
3. State-building and development
a) Building of competent justice and administrative system? 0 0.5 1
b) Persecution of corruption and organized crime? 0 0.5 1
c) Effective strategy for socio-economic development? 0 0.5 1
d) Fair distribution of income opportunities (e.g. from natural resources)? 0 0.5 1
4. Reconciliation and civil society
a) Protection of human rights? 0 0.5 1
b) Regard for refugee rights? 0 0.5 1
c) Development of physical and mental health centers? 0 0.5 1
d) Establishment of peace education (e.g. in schools)? 0 0.5 1
E. International assurances for peace implementation
1. International security presence
a) Verification of political process by monitors? 0 0.5 1
b) Adequate number of foreign troops, with effective mandate to secure the peace? 0 0.5 1
c) Establishment of effective police training? 0 0.5 1
2. Financial aid and economic recovery
a) Targeted support for institution-building 0 0.5 1
b) Focus on economic reconstruction and job supply 0 0.5 1
c) Appropriate conditions for financial aid? 0 0.5 1
3. International Coordination
a) Coherent and consistent strategic approach developed by foreign governments, IOs and NGOs? 0 0.5 1
b) Joint support by foreign states’ ‘group of friends’? 0 0.5 1
c) Protection of peace process against unfriendly neighbor states? 0 0.5 1