Peace Building-Based Conflict Resolution: Lessons from Other Conflicts


Pierre Célestin Bakunda – TRANSCEND Media Service

Power, Authority and Leadership for Peace

Legitimate forms of authority, of whatever type, are based on moral principles that provide the essential authoritative framework for effective leadership. Through this framework, right is distinguished from wrong, truth from falsehood, real from imaginary, the constructive from the destructive, and the moral from the immoral. Through this authoritative framework, the appropriate use of power is defined. The knowledge of the society and the group of individuals is essential, that is why social researchers can advise political authorities on the best way to achieve their goals.

Legitimacy refers to the fact or quality of being “lawful”, in accordance with recognised standards or codes. In essence, legitimacy refers to whether the sources of authority is recognized and approved of as authoritative and whether those who are subject to it consent to its rule. Is the world ruled by legitimate authority? A legitimate use of power is one that is considered lawful, just, accepted, reasonable, and right. As such, legitimacy is always linked to the moral and ethical values of a society. Leaders must represent both moral and legal authority in order to be considered legitimate.

1. Conflict Resolution Aspect

Conflicts often arise when a source of authority is not recognized as legitimate by all the individuals or groups that are supposedly subjected to the rule. When a source of authority is not accepted, it is viewed as illegitimate – meaning that the authority is felt to be ruling without the right to rule. The more limited in scope a source of authority, the less likely it is that people will view it as legitimate. In the world, many conflicts occur because of social inequality, regionalism or ethnicity; this brings about the contestation of the legitimacy of authority. Legitimacy is most frequently lost when the moral foundation of leadership is perceived as corrupt, weak or defective. When this happens, the governing institution’s objectives and modes of operation are called into question, their justification is doubted or rejected, there is a loss of confidence  in the efficiency, and fewer  and fewer people abide by its regulations.

2. Conflict Resolution Aspect in Northern Ireland

Conflicts can be seen in all aspects of human life, among all peoples, nations, cultures and institutions. Unfortunately, most conflict-resolution approaches result in the creation of new conflicts because they fail to safeguard unity. The situation in Northern Ireland shows how two opposed groups, Protestants and Catholics, compromised. O’Leary and McGarry, 1999, describe the problem as ”The continuous and bitter struggle between Protestants and Catholics demonstrated that the partition of Ireland in the 1920s was a short-term and tenuous solution at best. The partition of the island allowed the northern Protestant minority, 30 per cent of the island’s population, to remain part of the UK but turned the Catholics in the new Northern Ireland entity into what they defined as an oppressed minority.” Conflict has been defined in a variety of ways, most commonly as the perception of incompatible goals or as competition for scarce resources. By refusing to be part of a united Ireland, Protestants created a province in which they were seen as part of the UK. However, as conflicts can be large and complex (macro) or small and contained (micro), conflict in Northern Ireland showed one religious aspect as others, such as political and economic, were hidden.  This made the conflict intractable and enduring, as it could have been tractable and easy to solve if all three aspects were put forward for debate.

The conflict in Northern Ireland, somewhat like the Israeli-Palestinian, has religious, cultural, political and economic dimensions that are difficult to separate from each other. In a detailed study of the conflict, O’Leary and McGarry describe the relationship between Protestants and Catholics in the province as an ethno-national conflict characterized by ”a systematic quarrel between the organizations of two communities who want their state to be ruled by their nation, or who want what they perceive as ”their” state to protect their nation” (McGarry and O’Leary 1995, p. 344). The root cause of the conflict, therefore, is the existence of two competitive communities in the same territory whose differing views concern the legitimacy of the state and its boundaries (Hayes and McAllister 1999).

For a long time, the conflict was perceived to be intractable. As long as each community believed that its vital interests were at stake, there seemed to be little room for compromise, and the two sides remained deeply entrenched in a zero-sum struggle. The Protestants hoped to ensure their economic, political, and cultural position within Northern Ireland, which was guaranteed, they believed, by their second important interest, continued membership in the UK. Catholics on the other hand, demanded equality in all aspects of life and perceived that this could only be achieved through their second important interest, making Northern Ireland a part of a united Ireland separate from the UK. From the 1960s on, these conflicting national interests led to armed struggle as respective communities attempted to advance their interests and imposed their territorial sovereignty.

The possibility for the resolution of the conflict, as several scholars have convincingly argued, was the result of the ability to consider solutions based upon territorial exclusivity and, consequently, a move away from zero-sum, nationalistic approaches to the conflict. Conflicts appear within and in some respects are manifestations of the social, historical, and cultural contexts in which they occur. The same actions and choices that give rise to conflict in one context may not give rise to conflict in another. To understand conflict and resolve it, one has to understand and address the context in which a conflict occurs. For example, if one lives in a society where there is a lot of tension between different races, then the interpersonal conflicts between individuals  – particularly those of different races – may arise or be shaped by the larger racial tension within society. Underlying all conflicts whether large or small is the condition of division. The condition of unity is fundamental to all life, health, growth and creativity. When this condition of unity is weakened or absent, the result is conflict, and ultimately, destruction. That is why both parties must bear in mind that sitting around a negotiation table is essential for any agreements.

Each ‘Agreement’ may have its own characteristics and the outcome may be different due to different contexts. South Africa for instance, after its successful election, preferred a mechanism of conflict resolution based on the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission.

3. Conflict Resolution Aspect in South Africa

Conflict is rooted in our worldviews. The way in which human beings view the world and their place in it contributes to their choice either to enter or not enter into a conflict and influences how they behave when in a state of conflict. Our worldviews are often shaped by and shared with the groups of which we are part. As such, the conflicts we get involved in and how we respond to them may reflect larger patterns shaped by the worldview that most influences the group (s) we belong to. The South African way of conflict resolution focused on establishing justice and unity trough the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The objective of the TRC was to address the legacy of the past by promoting national unity and reconciliation, to contribute to the healing of the nation.

To understand fully the causes of any conflict scenario, we have to understand the observable facts i.e. the particulars of the conflict, the context i.e. the history of larger social or cultural dynamics surrounding the conflict, and the worldviews of the participants in the conflict. It is essential to elaborate good plans that take into consideration the real causes of conflict, nature and extent of the gross violations of human rights committed within a limited period. In addition, it is important to identify where and who carried out the facts, and who was behind them if the acts were not simple and isolated ones. This can lead to a general amnesty once the perpetrators have disclosed their wrongdoings and asked victims for forgiveness, but they are able to grant it or not. However, for the sake of reconciliation and given the fact that the society must look forward to healing their pain, the choice is to forgive and forget even though it is not easy to erase bad events from one’s memory.

4. South African and Northern Ireland common issues

Are there any links between South Africa and Northern Ireland in terms of social issues and the way they were approached, and what can other countries learn from their cases so that they can settle their differences? Many people wonder whether the fact that we see conflicts around the world means that conflict is inevitable. It is certainly a notion that various theorists accept. Galtung and Jacobsen (2000: vii) have stated that “Conflict, incompatible goals, are as human as life itself; the only conflict-free humans are dead humans.” This view is held by others, and usually accompanied by the idea that conflict is somehow desirable: “Conflict is the spice that seasons our most intimate relationships” and it is woven into the fundamental fabric of nature” (Muldoon, 1996:9).

There are some similarities with one or another between South Africa and Northern Ireland and other countries can learn from them even though each case has its own singularities or implicit rules. Indeed, in terms of reconciliation, South Africa succeeded in reconciling its diversity of people through the TRC process and Northern Ireland is committed to achieving its goals by applying the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement. Some countries might have the same obligations like the above-mentioned countries; one solution amongst others is to instigate national talks aimed at national reconciliation. In reality, the open exchange of diverse ideas is the source of creativity. This open exchange is best facilitated when an environment of trust, respect, equality, truthfulness and inclusiveness exists. Indeed, the fruition of ideas can only be achieved when unity between points of diversity is established.

The idea that conflict is the source of vitality, creativity and progress is a fundamental mistake. In practice, this misunderstanding can lead some people to believe erroneously that by deliberately stimulating conflict, they can stimulate progress. The efforts and investments that are put in the reconciliation process can be avoided if leaders put forward the social justice, human rights and human dignity as the key factors of leading human beings. Who can imagine that in the midst of a harmonious working group, someone might deliberately incite conflict in order to stimulate “creativity” and later on to initiate a reconciliation process?


Dr. Pierre Celestin Bakunda is a researcher in Social Sciences. His focus is Conflict Transformation and Reconciliation in African Great Lakes Region. He was graduated as a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Paris in 2005. He is a holder of two MPhils, one in Development and Social Changes, and another one in Strategies of Social Development, University Charles de Gaulle, France. Both Mphil degrees were granted in 2002. He also has a Masters in General Sociology 2001 from the University of Technological Sciences Lille, France. He is a Peace Activist who attended Peace Studies Programmes at the European University Centre for Peace Studies, Schlaining, Austria, and Wold Peace Academy, WPA, Basel, Switzerland. He is the author of: Rwanda, the Inferno of Implicit Rules” L’Harmattan, July, 2006, Paris, 418 pages, his thesis, “The implicit Rules of the Rwandan Society and their Impact on Social, Political and Economic Development, ANRT PRESS, October, 2007, Lille, 530 pages.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 19 Dec 2011.

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