1 Dec 2011
“No such thing as ‘non-political’ – even in a conflict resolution process”
The purpose of this article is to reconsider the debate about “politicization” and “the political” within conflict analysis and resolution and specifically to apply these considerations to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The questions I raise are: Is it possible to separate “the political” from conflict analysis and resolution? In other words, can conflict analysis and resolution avoid politicization completely?
Introduction and About the “Political”
My intention is to briefly unpack these rather loaded questions, though it would be impossible to properly address them within the confines of this article. Thus, I recognize the limitations but I hope to use this space as an opportunity to raise some questions and suggest further inquiry about the subject. Moreover, I am not the first one taking on the question about “what is the political.” Philosophers such as Foucault and Habermas have written numerous books and literature on the subject. Recently, scholars within the field of conflict analysis and resolution have also debated the topic and I came across an interesting debate in the Berghof Handbook series, which I will elaborate on later.
As the title of the piece states – there is no such thing as “non-political” – I am firmly of the belief that it is impossible to separate “the political” from the conflict analysis and resolution process. Politics or “the political” here is considered in the broadest sense, which means to be influenced or informed by values or theories and has a certain result or ending in mind (Mitchell 2006, p.2). All institutions and individuals are influenced by politics and thus, all are political and/or have a political stance. Processes of conflict analysis and resolution are not immune.
The question of what is “the political” is very much relevant within the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. How did the conflict emerge and who gets to define how the conflict emerged are examples of “the political” question within the conflict.
When politicians are involved, indeed, the process is a political one. The mediation led by OSCE at the Track I level between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan constitutes a political process. Who are the actors that are negotiating the peace agreement over Nagorno-Karabakh? The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and there is no representation of Nagorno-Karabakh at all. How was it determined who are the actors involved in the negotiations? Who decided the framework of the negotiations? The way in which these issues are determined, in and of themselves, are a political act and it cannot be ignored.
However, when the politicians are removed from the process – the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents as well as the presidents from the OSCE Minsk Group countries – it does not mean the conflict is no longer politicized. Let’s take for example the question of how to determine the current population of Nagorno-Karabakh today. This is a relevant question within conflict resolution because it aims to depict information about a “stakeholder” or a population that is a part of the conflict. There are numerous responses to this question, depending on one’s stance. There are some people who would count only the population living on that territory today. Some people might count all of the people who consider Nagorno-Karabakh to be their homes. Others might consider people who have parents that originate from Nagorno-Karabakh, to be part of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh. Then, one might also state – it depends on what area of land one refers to as Nagorno-Karabakh. The reality is, when one seeks a response to the question of what is the population of Nagorno-Karabakh – there is no objective answer. In other words, how one would seek to determine the population of Nagorno Karabakh is even a politicized process.
Institutions within society that one might consider to be “neutral” are far from being sans politics such as the media, education, as well as cultural events.
For example, I have attended a number of events in the United States that were advertised to be about Azerbaijani culture in university settings. In one such event, the topic of discussion was Azerbaijani poetry and analysis of literature. While the subject of the poems and literature discussed had nothing to do with Nagorno-Karabakh, somehow, the presenter spent a significant amount of time elaborating on the history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and how the Armenians occupied Azerbaijani territory. The presenter essentially turned a “cultural presentation” into an opportunity to politicize the topic.
Another example is how politics is significantly entrenched within the media and news releases. On several occasions, I have read numerous articles from Armenian media where they have reported about an event that took place and only adhere to the discourse of the Armenian government. For one event, an entire panel of speakers presented various opinions about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is a part of the journalists’ job to report the event by presenting all opinions presented at the event. And yet, the Armenian journalists chose to highlight the perspectives and opinions of individuals from the panel that correspond with the Armenian mainstream political opinion. They explicitly quote from individuals who they believe have the “correct opinion” and specifically choose to exclude the other panelists’ opinions.
And the list goes on. Norms and institutions that one might not initially consider to be “politicized,” have politics at their very core and in their structural foundation. Whether it is in the school system of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh and in the Diaspora, or in the media, religious institutions or cultural organizations, they are all driven by “politics.”
Through the study of conflict analysis and resolution, one can begin to understand how politics is deeply entrenched within peoples’ psyche and perceptions about the “other” or the “enemy.” Conflict analysis and resolution, thus, provides frameworks to analyze conflict and then propose interventions to resolve or transform the conflict. It seeks to de-escalate tensions and transform attitudes and behaviors about conflicting actors through various practices. However, it would be naive to think that even the process of analyzing and resolving conflicts is sans politics.
Conflict Analysis and Resolution and “the political vs. non-political”
Is it possible to remove politics from conflict analysis and resolution altogether? Interventions to resolve conflicts aim to be “non-political” and seek to “de-politicize” the actors and conflict system. In the Berghof Dialogue Series, there was a very interesting debate among Vivienne Jabri, Daniela Körppen and Chris Mitchell where they took on this question.
As Dr. Chris Mitchell (2006, p.2), a founding figure in the field of conflict resolution, explains:
…the practice of conflict resolution is always a political act, especially if we take ‘political’ broadly, to mean value-informed (as well as theory-informed) and with a particular ends in view. To attempt to manage, mitigate, settle, resolve or transform a conflict all imply a particular ethical stance and a view of what is an ‘acceptable’ outcome, just as do efforts to create, recognize, prosecute, exacerbate or win a conflict.
In the complex nature of conflicts and relationships, there is no way to de-politicize the entire process. The “political” and politicization is at the core of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Often times, conflict resolution seeks to de-politicize actors and institutions. The question I am raising here is targeted at this very move – is it even possible to do so?
Jabri (2006) explains conflict resolution seeks to de-politicize conflicts by taking actors out of the social and political context of the conflict, bringing them together and working toward obtaining a positive future. Taking the conflict out of its social-political setting is the effort to “de-politicize.” Thus, what often happens is that stakeholders come together from both sides, are able to come to agreements with each other and then they are faced with the challenge of “going back home” and back to the conflict setting and the rest of the society. The assumption is that these individuals can make rational choices with the “other” when they are taken out of the “politicized” context. The reality is, the individuals must “go back home,” live and operate within the social-political context of the conflict. What happens then? Is it even realistic to take the actors out of the social and political context and then allow them to go back home to follow-up in the current conflict setting?
Conflict analysis is an important step in resolving conflicts, as it helps determine the “parties”, the interests of the parties, the dynamics of the conflict and more. When considering these components, how is it determined who are the key actors? Who conducts the conflict analysis? Who determines what are the issues of the parties involved? As Körppen (2006, p.3) explains, “Defining which stakeholders or which structural causes can be considered as obstacles to change depends very much on the perspective one adopts.” Körppen goes on to elaborate that the process of analyzing conflicts is itself a process that entails taking a political stance.
Jabri (2006) also raises the point that third parties who conduct an intervention to resolve conflicts themselves are a part of the conflict system as well. Moreover, the third party can also influence the outcome of the resolution, “A third party aiming for the resolution of a protracted conflict, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian, might seek to influence how the parties articulate their identities so these are no longer conceived in zero-sum terms; that mutual recognition accrues mutual benefit.” (Jabri 2006, p.5) Those who are involved in trying to resolve a conflict are themselves not “neutral.” The OSCE is now a part of the conflict system for Nagorno-Karabakh and they will ultimately influence the outcome of the solution.
Even Track 2 civil society organizations and institutions that seek to resolve conflicts “peacefully” are politicized. By having the goal or mission to resolve conflicts through peaceful means, that in and of itself, is a political goal. It means the organization chooses not to advocate for the use of force or violence and that is informed and driven by a certain value system. Körppen highlights an example from the conflict in Aceh/Indonesia of whether or not to include the nationalists within a peacebuilding process. “When a third party decides that the Acehnese nationalists are an obstacle to change, and therefore supports the activities of the Indonesian government, the third party gets involved politically. This signifies that it downplays the components of the conflict that relate to (political) identity and thus ignores the interests and needs of Acehnese nationalists.” (Körppen 2006, p.3)
Thus, in considering these arguments, if it is impossible to remove “the political” from conflict resolution processes – then what can be done?
Highlighting a Few Implications
Conflict resolution practitioners should at least not deny that the process is politicized and there is no such thing as the “non-political.”
As practitioners working to resolve the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh seek to push for alternative methods, a few actions can be considered:
- Work in the highly contextualized conflict context: Bringing conflict resolution work to the societal level, working in the current political and social context, which helps move away from the problem of “what to do when we go back home.” Also, recognize and working within the context helps understand the limits and realities of what can be achieved and steps that can be taken.
- Teaching others conflict analysis and resolution skills: Sharing and promoting these skills can help contribute toward people’s awareness of the “political” nature of conflict. Promoting good communication skills as part of these trainings can help decrease people’s hatred toward each other to a point where people can at least listen or speak to each other.
Be inclusive. Inherent to conflict resolution is the notion of inclusivity. In order to reach a sustainable agreement, all stakeholders must be included. This involves including all stakeholders who have an interest in the conflict and with their various backgrounds and worldviews. It means involving Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijanis. It also means involving nationalists from the conflicting sides as well. Promoting inclusivity among all stakeholders is a conscious choice that practitioners can make to ensure that everyone’s views and opinions are heard. This ensures the legitimacy of the conflict resolution process by including all voices within the process. When a conflict resolution process is inclusive of all stakeholders, there is more of a chance that any agreements or peace achieved will be more sustainable.
Inclusivity in language and terms used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For example, the city of Shushi is known as Shushi to Armenians and it is known as Shusha to Azerbaijanis. Similar to the Kosovo conflict, we must reconsider the dual names for cities in which history exists for both of the populations, herein referring to it as Shushi/a or Shusha/Shushi
If indeed we are to consider that “the political” cannot be removed from conflicts and conflict resolution, then how might one suggest moving forward in order to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? I invite you to reconsider this debate and hear your thoughts and views about the question at hand.
Jabri, V. 2006. Revisiting Change and Conflict: On Underlying Assumptions and the De- politicisation of Conflict Resolution. Berghof Handbook Dialogue No. 5 on Social Change and Conflict Transformation. Available at: http://www.berghof-handbook.net/documents/publications/dialogue5_jabri_comm.pdf
Körppen, D. 2006. The Circularity of Conflict Dynamics. A Critical Review. Berghof Handbook Dialogue No. 5 on Social Change and Conflict Transformation. Available at: http://www.berghof-handbook.net/documents/publications/dialogue5_koerppen_comm.pdf
Mitchell, C. 2006. Conflict Analysis, Conflict Resolution and “Politics”: A Reflection. Berghof Handbook Dialogue No. 5 on Social Change and Conflict Transformation. Available at: http://www.berghof-handbook.net/documents/publications/dialogue5_mitchell_resp.pdf
 And, to be very clear, I should also reiterate the importance of involving the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and the Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijanis because in fact, they are all equal stakeholders to the future of the region.
 I recognize conflict analysis and resolution is much more complex and for those of us who are in the field, we are familiar with the complexities. However, I recognize the audience might consist of those who have studied in the field and also those who have not studied in the field.
 For further information about conflict mapping, I would suggest going to the conflict mapping tools themselves, such as: Wehr (1979) Conflict Mapping Guide, Hocker-Wilmot Assessment Guide and Mitchell’s SPITCEROW framework.
 My previous article on Caucasus Edition further elaborates on this point: “A Question to the Field of Conflict Resolution: Who decides?” Available at http://caucasusedition.net/analysis/a-question-for-the-field-of-conflict-resolution-who-decides/