Christopher Langton

The Conflict Element of History - Lessons for the Future or a Burden from the Past?

The constant of history is present in all conflicts. It fuels and maintains emotions which in turn hinder conflict management and resolution. Conflict management itself is hindered by adherence to traditional methods and mechanisms that may have been established in a different era to the present. This begs the question; are they relevant to today's context?

In all management and resolution methodologies there is the acceptance that conflict is part of the human condition and is therefore inevitable. This leads to the thought that in moving towards a better state in conflict and ultimately resolution those involved might focus on what is possible rather than adhering to notions such as 'independence at all costs'. In fact it might be worth reflecting on questions such as; '"what is 'independence' in a globalized environment?". "Is it the same 'independence' we thought of when we went to war all those years ago?" " And does our form of 'independence' mean 'freedom' ?"

These are all questions that conflict managers and resolvers can address more actively.

One problem in doing this is the impediment caused by the inability of leaders to break away from the original context in which the conflict started. Emotion and fear of losing material assets and territory are part of this. But while those who 'fight' for this material territory in a basis of no compromise, the context changes.

Alongside a constantly changing context is the far too often fact of unchanging approaches to conflict management. The paths to resolution that are often pursued are suited to the original context in which the conflict is set and not in the context of the present. 1992 to 1994 was a very different age to 2008 to the present day. Yet the attempts to solve conflicts of this type take very little account of change. History and the emotion it carries help to maintain these unreformed attitudes to the detriment of all sides in the conflict and the future of generations to come. So the conflicts become generational and more embedded.

An example of unreformed thinking is the idea that a ceasefire and separation of forces is in some way a solution. Or for some it buys time for them to regroup and establish territorial position. It is not a solution. It can only be a temporary mechanism while other paths to resolution are sought. A ceasefire is by definition, temporary. Yet time and again in conflicts around the world we see no progress beyond this temporary state until inevitably it breaks down and there is a return to conflict.

To break out of this trap there needs to be an understanding that history should be a positive element showing a way to the future and not a mechanism for fuelling subjective emotions that can only be negative. What is important? The improved prosperity of the people of our country in conflict? or the subjective notion of pride that we are somehow 'independent'?

Sadly the ceasefire conundrum is part of the history of Georgia's conflicts. The question, 'how to move beyond ceasefires?' was never answered. So what next? Back to the Future or proactive management?

 Is it possible for the parties to take a calculated risk and allow a free return of IDPs? Thus the moral high ground belongs to the receiving party. Or does a stalemate continue to embed a generational trap in the societies involved?

As a philosopher once said:

"If you do not know where you have been, you do not know where you are, and you do not know where you are going..."

Christopher Langton
Director, Independent Conflict Research & Analysis (ICRA). He spent thirty-two years in the British Army. In that time he served as the Deputy Commander of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) as well as holding various attaché posts in Russia, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. UK


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