OTPIC Officially Retired
As of December 2, 2005, the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC) has been officially retired, and is no longer open to new registrations.
The successor to OTPIC is a course called Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts (DCIC). The new curriculum is built around one of our major projects, Beyond Intractability, and offers a much more extensive and informative set of learning materials than that available through OTPIC.
International Online Training Program On Intractable
Conflict Research Consortium, University
of Colorado, USA
Problem List 2: Core Conflict Problems
Click Here to go to Problem List
1: Complicating Factors
intractable conflicts can involve almost any issue, some kinds of issues are particularly
likely to cause conflicts to become intractable. Among these are the following:
denial of a person's sense of self or the legitimacy of his or her group identity
- The Denial of Identity
- The Denial of Other Human Needs
addition to identity (which is a fundamental need), the denial of other fundamental needs
such as security, or the ability to pursue one's own goals often leads to intractable
- Domination Conflicts
about who is on top of whom in the social, political, and economic structure tend to be
- High Stakes Distributional Conflicts
stakes win-lose conflicts over who gets what and how much can often become intractable.
Problems which arise when one party forces another party to do
something that they do not want to do.
For more information about any of these topics, click
on the title.
Failure to Recognize
Available Force-Based Options
Disputants often fail to recognize that they usually have a large number of force-based
options, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. This lack of awareness of
available options can cause people to pursue ineffective confrontation strategies.
For example, people may pursue violent resistance strategies, when non-violent
action might be more effective. Or, people might pursue hopeless election campaigns when
legal action would be more likely to protect their rights.
Assuming Force is the Only
Source of Power
Faced with a difficult conflict, disputants sometimes overlook the possibility of using
negotiation or persuasion to improve the situation, relying instead on force. This is
especially likely to occur when force has already been used by the other side. In this
case, the most common reaction is to respond with equal or even greater force. However,
this type of response is likely to escalate the conflict, while other options might
protect one's interests just as well or better, without making matters worse.
Absence of Violence
Force based options differ dramatically depending upon whether or not force is being
used in a situation where effective violence limiting mechanisms are in place.
Failure to understand these differences can lead to the selection of inappropriate
and ineffective strategies.
Failure to Anticipate
Opponent Reactions and the Backlash Effect
People or groups who use forced-based strategies often assume that their opponents will
quickly submit to their demands, thereby providing a quick route to victory.
However, most people hate to be forced to do things against their will, so they can be
expected to use any means available to resist the use of force. This can make it
difficult to predict how opponents will respond to one's force-based initiatives. Even if
they appear to submit, they often will try to build up their power so that they can
retaliate or reverse the decision at a later time. (This is what we call the
Relationship Between Threat and Force
While threatening to use force is quite inexpensive, carrying out the threats and
actually using force can be costly and dangerous. Often, parties who fail to understand
this use threat-based strategies too frequently and in ways which limit their ability to
advance their interests.
or Excessive Use of Force
Resentment and retaliation is especially likely when victims of force believe that the
use of force was illegitimate. In this situation, the losing party is likely to try to
build up their own forcing power in hopes of challenging the victor at the earliest
possible opportunity. The result is likely to be a long-term intensification of the
conflict, rather than resolution.
Pursuing Force to the
Disputants often incorrectly assume that there is no alternative to pursuing force-based
strategies to the point of ultimate victory or defeat--in spite of the enormous costs
- Note: the following seven items can be considered either problems or
solutions, depending on one's point of view. They therefore appear on both the
problem and the solution lists, and the write-ups reflect both perspectives.
- In cases where people are subjected to overwhelming force which they do not have the
power to resist, it may be most appropriate to simply accept defeat and try (at least over
the short term) to make the best of a bad situation.
- Often, people who are being subjected to force pretend that they are submitting to the
demands of the forcing or threatening party, when in reality they are pursuing a deceptive
strategy which allows them to avoid complying with those demands.
- The cost of using force-based threats increases dramatically when the opponent responds
to a threat with defiance rather than submission. This forces the threatening party to
carry out the threat or admit that it was only a bluff. Carrying out a threat is likely to
result in an expensive, destructive, and rapidly escalating confrontation, while
withdrawing the threat is likely to undermine a party's ability to use threat and
force-based strategies in the future.
- Defense is a strategy which allows people to prevent others from successfully using
force against them. Successful defense strategies do not, however, give the defending
party the ability to successfully use force against their opponents.
- Coalition Building
- People can build their power base and their ability to pursue (or resist) force-based
strategies by building coalitions with people with complementary interests. Members of
these coalitions promise to help each other advance their interests and defend themselves
from force-based strategies of their opponents.
Counter-Threats (and Arms Races)
- Often disputants respond to force-based threats with counter-threats rather than
submission. Such threats and counter-threats can result in rapid escalation of a conflict.
In military situations, this is called an "arms race." Similar dynamics can
arise with legal, political, or other types of force as well.
- Flight (Refugees)
- Another possible response to overwhelming force is flight, in which the parties simply
flee the area. It is this strategy which is responsible for the large numbers of refugees
who flee the world's trouble spots.
- Assuming Monolithic, Worst
- Disputants often take the worst possible view of their opponents' intentions and
strategies. Usually, such worst-case scenarios are inaccurate. Using them as
a basis for making strategic decisions is usually unwise, as it is likely to antagonize
moderate members of the opposing group and lead to unnecessary escalation.
Costs and Risks of Using Force
- Parties often decide to pursue force-based strategies based on optimistic assumptions
about the likely costs and probability of success. Leaders often encourage their
supporters to make optimistic assumptions as a way of building support for a particular
strategy. However, this process may lead the disputants to greatly underestimate the costs
and risks of force, resulting in a poor choice of confrontation strategies.
- Human Rights/War
- In extremely polarized and escalated conflicts one group may violate another's
fundamental human rights (through murder, torture, or kidnapping, for example).
Although forbidden by international law, such human rights abuses are, unfortunately,
rather common, and are very difficult to deal with without considerable outside
- Lack of Viable Military
- In situations in which effective violence-limiting mechanisms are absent, disputants
often conclude that military options provide the best mechanism for protecting their
interests. This is not always true, however, as military victory is often difficult
- Tyranny of the
- While there are many effective strategies for helping the disempowered better defend
their interests and resist injustice, these strategies will not work in all situations.
There are times when the more powerful parties are going to win (at least over the
short term), even though their cause is not legitimate.
- Ostracizing Losers
- Often, the losing parties are ostracized by the society to which they belong. In
addition to failing to achieve their objectives, they also often find themselves treated
as second-class citizens who are the subject of scorn and discrimination. This can lead to
continuing hostility and further conflict.
The integrative system is the system of social, economic, and
political bonds that hold people, communities, and societies together. Integrative
problems are situations that weaken these bonds or fail to take advantage of the power
they can provide for constructive conflict confrontation.
For more information about any of
these topics, click on the title.
- Neglecting Opportunities for
- Often disputants fail to take advantage of opportunities for persuasion because they do
not consider this to be a significant source of power.
- Ineffective Persuasion
- Often the parties' attempts at "persuasion" are little more than
selfishly-motivated demands for their opponents to comply with their wishes. This is
likely to arouse further opposition, not compliance.
- ** TOUR ** Differences in Values
- Efforts to persuade people to do "the right thing" are complicated by
differing value systems. Religious and cultural groups have different and often
contradictory images of what is right and wrong, or good and evil--which can make it very
difficult to agree on what is the "right thing" to do.
- Lack of Legitimacy
- In order to be effective, persuasive appeals must be viewed as legitimate. This requires
that the individual or group making the appeal must, itself, be viewed as legitimate.
- While not essential to conflict resolution, when parties to a conflict trust each other,
their ability to resolve the conflict successfully is greatly increased. The opposite is
also true, however. When parties distrust each other--as they often do after a protracted
conflict--it can be very hard to come to any agreements, because both sides will fear that
the other side cannot be relied upon to keep its promises.
- Prejudice / Discrimination
- Prejudice and discrimination are very common problems in societies with different
racial, ethnic, or national groups. Such problems undermine the sense of commonality and
community among the citizens, making conflict more likely and constructive confrontation
- Erosion of Traditional
Conflict Management Institutions (Extended families, churches, or judicial systems for
- Most societies have existing institutions or social structures which are used (and
accepted) as legitimate means of resolving conflicts. When these structures or processes
are damaged, the ability of the society to manage its conflicts successfully is reduced.
- Integrative System Does Not
Exist or Is Very Weak
- All societies and groups are held together, at least to some extent, by social bonds.
When these bonds are strong, the people involved in the society (or group or family unit)
identify as part of that unit and feel allegiance to it. Severe conflict, however, can
break down these bonds to the point that all sense of community or belonging is lost. In
this case the ability to use integrative power to alter the course of the conflict is very
- Upheaval Conflicts
- Upheaval conflicts are conflicts that result from deep cleavages in society that develop
into massive, uncontrolled, and usually violent conflict. Revolutions are one common
Trading or exchange is the second fundamental form of power (the other
two being force and the integrative system).
Exchange problems are problems which prevent the negotiation of
For more information about any of these
topics, click on the title.
- Limits to Agreement: Better
- Opportunities for a resolving a dispute by voluntary agreement are limited by the
parties' alternatives to that agreement. This is because disputants will usually not
accept any agreement that is worse for them than the outcome which they think they can
obtain in another way. For example, if a negotiated agreement requires compromises that
they think they can avoid with a show of force, force will likely be used instead of
negotiation. Sometimes, however, parties have unreasonable expectations of what they
stand to achieve from negotiation or the continuation of the conflict. If they think they
can win more by continuing the conflict than is possible in any circumstance, they may
continue to pursue the conflict, even when it will actually do them more harm than good.
- Poor Timing
- Parties sometimes attempt to negotiate an agreement when one or more key parties is not
ready. Usually this is because one or more disputants believe that they have some other
(usually force-based) option which will yield a better outcome than anything they could
get from negotiation. While this disputant may come to negotiations (just in case they are
wrong), they will probably not pursue the negotiations in earnest, and will still rely on
their alternative force-based strategy to get what they want.
- Overlooking Ripe Moments
- The opposite problem occurs when disputants do not recognize that a conflict is
"ripe" for negotiation. They may be so entrenched in their confrontational
strategy that they may ignore situations where negotiation would likely be
- Refusal to Negotiate
- Another important obstacle to successful negotiation is the common refusal of the
parties to come to the negotiating table. In some cases this refusal to negotiate results
from the parties' fear that they will be forced to accept unwanted compromises. In other
cases the parties believe that negotiations are a waste of time since they will require
substantial resource commitments and are doomed to failure. Parties to a protracted,
escalated conflict may be so angry with each other that they will not pursue or accept a
mutually beneficial agreement, because they do not want to do anything that will help
- Attempting to Negotiate
- When people try to negotiate non-negotiable issues--and fail--they often lose faith in
the negotiation process completely. This sometimes makes them unwilling to try negotiation
for anything, even when it is likely to work.
- No Legitimate Party to
- Sometimes one side wants to negotiate, but there is no legitimate representative of the
other side to negotiate with. If an attempt is made to negotiate with someone who
does not legitimately represent the opponent, the effort is likely to fail.
- Wrong (or Missing) Parties
at the Table
- If negotiation or mediation is undertaken with the wrong parties at the negotiating
table, the results will not be successful. Typical problems are that the people at the
table do not really represent the constituencies or groups that they are supposed to
represent, or they do not have decision-making authority, or even links to it. Another
problem is that critical parties are missing from the table--either because they were not
invited, or because they chose not to come. Either way, this is likely to cause problems
later on when a decision is reached which does not represent the interests of all the
concerned or affected groups.
- Lack of a Negotiating Forum
- Sometimes disputants might be willing to negotiate, but there is no forum in which
negotiation can be pursued.
- When parties distrust each other--as they often do after a protracted conflict--it can
be very hard to come to any agreements, because both sides will fear that the other side
cannot be trusted to keep its promises.
- Requests to Abandon Power
Options as a Precondition to Negotiation
- In many cases potential participants in agreement-based dispute resolution processes
(such as negotiation) are asked to abandon their forced-based options as a pre-condition
for participation. While this is something that less powerful parties are likely to favor,
more powerful parties are likely to refuse to participate under such conditions.
- Attempts to Unfairly
Distribute the Benefits of Agreement
- Opportunities for mutually beneficial agreement are sometimes lost because the parties
feel that the other side would win too much and that they would not win enough.
- All or Nothing Approach
- Sometimes disputants will refuse to consider any type of mutually beneficial agreement
or relationship until the core intractable issues have been resolved. Usually, they hope
that withholding normal relations will pressure an opponent into making concessions. While
this strategy may be effective at times, it also blocks the relationship-building
activities which can provide a basis for constructively addressing the core issues. A
similar problem is that disputants may be unwilling to pursue a short-term agreement and
partial victory, because they fear that such an approach would undermine their long- term
prospects of pursuing their goals.
- Scale-Up Problem
- Typically efforts to transform intractable relationships and negotiate dispute
settlements take place in carefully facilitated small-group settings. However, these
conflicts generally involve large segments of the population-- far more people than could
ever be involved in such small group processes. This means that participants in small
group processes must be able to "scale-up" their experiences or risk being
rejected by their constituents.
- Inexperienced Parties
- Negotiation is a social process in which training and experience increases
effectiveness. This places less experienced parties at a considerable disadvantage
when they negotiate with more experienced parties.
- Poor Process or Structure
- Sometimes negotiation is attempted, but the procedures used are so flawed that it cannot
succeed, even when the potential for a win-win outcome exists.
- Power Imbalances
- Mediators often argue that in mediation, the parties all have equal power. However, this
is seldom true. If one disputant has much more power than another in the outside world,
this will be true at the negotiating table as well. Although an agreement may still be
reached, it is likely to mirror the outside power distribution of the parties. This is
true outside of negotiation as well, as higher-power parties tend to prevail in most
- Third Party Not Effective or
- Sometimes negotiation will be started with a third-party mediator, but that mediator
lacks the ability or credibility to work effectively with all of the parties. If parties
do not trust the mediator's fairness, they are likely to withdraw from the negotiation.
- Failed Mediation
- If mediation is tried and fails because of poor timing, poor process, or a poor
mediator, disputants may be unwilling to try it again, even when conditions are better.
- Click Here to go to Problem List 1:
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