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.

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International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict

Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA

Inventory of Available Force Types

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The first key to dealing effectively with force-based confrontation problems is for the parties to conduct a systematic inventory of  force-based options available to them and their opponents. The parties need to look at  their situation and honestly ask themselves what options each of the parties have for advancing their interests--considering all forms of force, not just the most obvious approaches. In addition to listing the force-based options available, parties should also estimate the costs and benefits of pursuing each option.  This requires an assessment of the probable reactions of opponents and decision makers, considering both immediate reactions and likely long-term impacts.  Options which produce short-term victory may not be very desirable if they also strengthen the backlash effect in ways which increase the number future disputes and reduce the party's chances of protecting their interests over the long term.

Also important is an understanding of the force hierarchy which determines the relationship between various types of force and which type of force takes precedence in specific situations. For example, if one party has the ability to win elections, this will be more powerful than another party's ability to persuade existing decision makers to adopt particular policies. Or, legal judgments overturning administrative decisions are take precedence (thus, are more powerful) than those administrative decisions. These more powerful options often, however, take more time to implement. This means, for example, that administrative decisions stand, pending legal challenges, just as legislative decisions stand until the next election

The inventory of force types that follows begins with an illustrative story showing how the various force types relate to one another. Next, the principal force types involved in public policy disputants are listed in hierarchical order from the most powerful to least powerful.  Finally we have included  a section outlining a series of general principles regarding the use of force.

Principal Force-based Options

This public policy force hierarchy is based upon democratic political systems with 1) large governmental bureaucracies controlled by political appointees, 2) some type of legislative or parliamentary body which makes laws, 3) some type of judicial process which resolves disputes concerning the meaning of the laws, and 4) some type of police force to enforce the laws.  Types of force in this category can be used to influence governmental or public policy decisions.  Different force hierarchies obviously apply to different types of political systems. The principal types of force found in democratic political systems include:

  1. Administrative Requests --  requests to government administrators with the authority to make decisions regarding the issue in conflict.
  2. Legal action based upon established legal principles.
  3. Legal action undertaken with the goal of setting new legal precedents.
  4. Lobbying efforts designed to persuade democratic law making bodies to change the law. ("Lobbying" is a figure of speech referring to attempts to persuade legislators to vote in a particular way.)
  5. Electoral campaigns designed to elect more favorable representatives to law-making bodies or change the laws through popular vote.
  6. Public opinion campaigns designed to persuade the electorate to support different candidates and policies.
  7. Peaceful efforts to change the political system in ways which are likely to yield more favorable decisions.
  8. Economic actions such as boycott and strikes.
  9. Other nonviolent direct action trying to force compliance with one's demands.
  10. Violent efforts to change the political system involving small-scale paramilitary units.
  11. Large-scale military action involving organized military and police forces and, perhaps, international intervention..

General Principles Regarding the Use of Force

In general, it is usually best to start with the least forceful methods and only move on to more forceful methods when it becomes clear that less forceful methods will not succeed.  In many cases this means that the parties should actually try each level before moving to the next higher level. If, however, it is clear that lower levels simply won't work, then it may be appropriate to move more quickly to the higher levels. In general, legitimacy seems to be enhanced and the backlash effect reduced when the parties confine their efforts to the lowest possible levels of force.

Within each level there are more and less legitimate ways in which force can be used. In general, force is more likely to be seen as legitimate when it is seen as defending principles of fairness which all parties have an interest in supporting. Legitimacy is likely to be sharply reduced when force is used for purely selfish purposes, with the primary goal being to unfairly take something from someone else.

The determination of fairness and legitimacy is not simple, as the section on legitimacy  more fully explains. In addition, definitions of "fairness" vary substantially from one setting to another. The key question is what principles of fairness are supported by the contending parties. In some cases, there may be a high degree of agreement on these "fairness" principles, while there may be only limited agreement in other situations. Given increasing support for global principles of basic human rights, there are relatively few situations in which there is absolutely no agreement on these "fairness" principles.

Force can obviously be used to pursue purely selfish objectives which violate all reasonable standards of justice.  Our attention, however, focuses on ways of using force to defend, rather than attack, these standards. In other words, our focus is upon strategies for countering selfish and unjust applications of force.

Illustrative Story Showing the Relationship Between Force-based Options

This is a fictitious, but still realistic, story describing the progression through the various force types which might occur in conjunction with a public policy conflict.   This example focuses upon a conflict which has arisen in the U.S. because citizens living downstream from a large mine believe that the mine is polluting their drinking water supply and placing their health in danger. This imaginary case assumes that citizens have tried to persuade mine owners to install expensive pollution control equipment, and that the owners have absolutely refused. This example also assumes that the parties' conclusion that the mine is poisoning their water supply is justified and that residents have successfully resolved fact-finding problems. 

The purpose of this example is to illustrate the relationships that exists between the different types of force which are available to citizens wishing to force the mine to operate more safely. Other examples could have been created involving responsible mining companies and excessive health concerns. Our use of this example is not meant to imply that all mining companies are selfish and evil or that all citizen groups act fairly. As soon as possible, we hope to add additional examples that view conflicts from the perspective of industrial corporations and other types of parties.  The following fictitious example makes the assumption that company officials cannot be persuaded to do the "right" thing and protect the public health.  Often disputes of this type arise because company officials honestly do not believe that their activities constitute a significant public health threat. In these cases, it may be best to approach the situation as a  fact-finding problem with the goal of determining the true health risks.

In this case, the parties may start with an administrative request in which they ask government health or environmental officials to order mine owners to correct the problem. If the officials agree, the mining agency may comply, they may defy the order, or they may defend their actions in a lawsuit. (See below.) If the officials refuse, then the citizen's group might ask higher ranking administrators to overrule the decision of lower ranking bureaucrats. In democratic societies, this process can can often be appealed through the bureaucracy until a final decision is made by elected government officials.    If these officials fail correct the problem, then legal action might be taken on the basis of established legal principles and the argument that government officials are failing to fulfill their legal responsibilities and enforce the law. (Alternatively, if officials try to enforce the law, but the company refuses to comply, they can pursue their cause in court as well.)  If the lower courts fails to require the government and/or the mine to take corrective action,  then their decision can often be appealed to higher courts.  In some cases this made result in the establishment of a new legal precedent.  In other cases the higher courts may find in favor of the mining company and conclude that existing law prevents the government from taking action to correct pollution and health problems. 

If judicial proceedings fail to force the mining company to clean up their pollution, the  next step available to citizen groups is to attempt to change the law.  In this U.S. this is done by citizen groups trying to persuade legislators to enact new legislation protecting the public health from water pollution.    If  legislators refuse to make desired changes (in spite of promises of political support during the next election), the next option would be for the citizen's group to try to change the makeup of the legislature (or other law making body) during the next election. This electoral strategy could also be used against governors, mayors, presidents or other  elected officials who refuse to support pollution control measures. It should be noted, however, that efforts to force change through election campaigns are only likely to be successful if the public opinion supports the neighborhood groups in their struggle with the mining company.  

If public opinion does not support the neighbors, then some type of public education campaign will be required before mine neighbors can expect to win an election.   In conjunction with this education campaign, citizen groups may decide the organize public demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience  to draw public attention to their problem. In addition to influencing government policies, these public demonstrations threaten the public image of the mining company in the eyes of their customers and stockholders.  This, in turn, can result in strong economic pressure on the mining company to change its behavior.  Such economic pressure can be intensified through techniques such as boycotts and proxy battles (in which efforts are made to persuade  stockholders to force the company to change its behavior).  Prospects for success may also be increased by coalition building activities which develop alliances with other citizen groups.

If all of these efforts fail, citizen groups will be placed in an extremely difficult position.  They can decide to accept defeat with the resulting damage to their health. They can pursue an empowerment effort in hope of developing the stronger forcing power that they need to better defend their interests in the future. They can resort to more revolutionary efforts focused upon changing the political system in ways which make it make it more responsive to their needs. This can involve campaigns for relative modest political reforms (such as term limits for elected officials or limits on campaign contributions). In the most extreme case, political reform can take the form of revolutionary movements which attempt to create a completely new government. (This, obviously, would not occur simply on the basis of a mining pollution conflict, but would be the result of many different conflicts between citizens and their government over a long period of time.)

Links to Examples of this Approach

Aspen Institute Conference on Intervention: Report of Conference Key Findings, Ideas, and Recommendations
This article discusses the costs and benefits of various intervention options for international and intergroup conflicts.
Roger Fischer, Elizabeth Kopelman and Andrea Schneider -- Consider the Other Side's Choice
This article describes a technique for assessing the relative merits of different options.
William Zartman and Saadia Touval -- International Mediation in the Post- Cold War Era
A section of this article suggests that disputants can be encouraged to try mediation by first assessing the costs of alternative approaches to pursuing their interests.   Mediation is often less expensive and more likely to succeed than force, the authors suggest.
Chester Crocker -- Lessons on Intervention
This article discusses the costs and benefits of various intervention options for international and intergroup conflicts.
Tony Armstrong -- Principles of Icebreaking
This article discusses strategies used to transform intractable international conflicts into positive relationships.  It illustrates a variety of options available for such transformations.

Links to Related Problems

Failure of the Parties to Recognize Available Force-based Options

Assuming Force is the Only Available Option

Failure to Anticipate Opponent Reactions and the Backlash Effect

Links to Related Solutions

Forcing Power Shortcuts

Identify Sources of Power/Power Strategy Mix


Copyright 1998 Conflict Research Consortium  -- Contact: crc@colorado.edu