Montville, Joseph V. "The Healing Function in Political Conflict Resolution." Conflict Resolution Theory and Practice Integration and Application.

Ed. Dennis J. D. Sandole and Hugo van der Merwe. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993. Pp. 112-127.

Summary by Mariya Yevsyvakova.

Copyright 1997 by the Conflict Research Consortium


Ethnic and religious conflicts are the most resistant to management by traditional means of negotiation and mediation, largely due to the painful losses that people experience in the course of their escalation. After many years of work in the field of conflict management, the author came to believe that "healing and reconciliation in violent ethnic and religious conflicts depend on a process of transactional contrition and forgiveness between aggressor and victims" (p. 112). This process involves examination of the conflict history, acknowledgment of injustices and losses, and taking moral responsibility for them.

Victimhood and the persistence of conflict

The author presents three components that define victimhood: "a history of violent, traumatic aggression and loss" (p. 113); a belief in its unjust nature; and a fear of its repetition. To make things worse, usually both parties in conflict have similar feelings of victimhood. Some examples are Serbs and Croats, Arabs and Israelis, Armenians and Turks in Azerbaijan, and Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

From victimhood to healing: The beginning of a process

When the parties are in the middle of fighting, third party mediation is not usually effective. Before moving toward conflict resolution, the parties need to be separated and have some time to cool down. A cease-fire supported by peace-keeping forces is the most appropriate strategy at this point. After the parties' withdrawal from the fight, the conflict resolution process can proceed. The goal of third party communication facilitation should be to delegitimize negative stereotypes that the opponents have about each other. The problem-solving workshop held in 1980 for Egyptians and Israelis is an example. An Egyptian journalist, workshop participant, said that his image of Israelis was transformed from one of heartless fighters to people who can experience a sense of fear. Thus, the workshop created a more human image of the opponent. The most difficult task is to encourage such transformed images in a whole nation.

The problem-solving workshop

The problem-solving workshops started by John W. Burton aim at changing people's negative perceptions about an adversary and reestablishing trust. The process which takes place during the workshops can be described by the concept of "confirming". To confirm means "to remove doubt" (p. 115). Through dialogue, people confirm each others' humanity and recognize beliefs and values of the other person. Conflicting groups are usually represented by three to seven people; the third party facilitators consist of two to five people.

The conflict resolution strategy: Taking a history.

The first stage that the parties go through at the problem-solving workshop is the examination of conflict history. By looking at the history of their relationships, the parties get a chance to present grievances that have not been acknowledged by the other side. The author describes several seminars where he witnessed this type of exchange between adversaries.

Accepting responsibility, contrition, and forgiveness.

The author presents examples that demonstrate the importance of historical analysis, including sharing of grievances and their recognition by the opponents, for encouraging transformation in the parties' relationships. He discusses the contribution made by psychological research in identifying "the role of contrition and forgiveness in the resolution of conflict" (p. 118). He draws the conclusion that in political conflict resolution, the act of unilateral forgiveness does not constitute transformation. There should be a reciprocal process of acknowledgment of injustices committed and forgiveness through dialogue between the adversaries. Transformation also requires negotiations on the future relationships of the former enemies.

Public rituals of contrition and forgiveness

The author notices that even though it is hard to find scholarly works that analyze contrition/forgiveness theory, in reality the cases of such dialogues between representatives of groups and nations are much more common. They usually involve victims and aggressors who review their history and take responsibility and apologize for past injustices. Montville offers a few of such examples that involved French and Germans, Germans and Poles, Russians and Poles, and Jews and Poles.

Transforming public consciousness.

Values and beliefs rooted in the history of parties' relationships and reinforced by a sense of victimization are resistant to change. But empirical evidence shows that new information from reliable sources can alter the parties' beliefs, even if this information contradicts past perceptions. The success of cognitive therapy (used to treat low self-esteem and aimed at altering distorted thinking) provides encouragement for this approach. The task of changing public opinion is more complicated than changing a single person. It has been proven that there are many barriers in the way of its transformation: social factors such as social networks or political leaders, and psychological factors such as family and friends who reinforce negative stereotypes. Howerver, these barriers can be susceptible to new information, if it comes from reliable sources and is disseminated in various ways through mass media and personal networks, and includes both sides of the issue. Research in communication suggests that mass media is successful in "creating knowledge of new ideas", but it fails in persuading people to accept them (p. 124). Personal communication networks play a bigger role in altering people's attitudes. The change should start from altering perceptions of the opinion leaders and those who surround them. If new attitudes are adopted by 15-20%% of the population, this can start a defusion process to the remaining population.

Experimental strategies for changing negative belief systems in Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

The author describes two projects that are based on the ideas presented above. One project is directed at the exploring the concept of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Another project brings together Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars and theologians to study and comment "on sacred writing which support the concept of diversity in community and tolerance of all religions, tribes and nations..." (P. 125). The project will result in a book published in different languages covered by the media world wide. Both projects will rely on credible sources of information that can alter the attitudes of the parties about each other toward recognizing common values. Mass media will be used to make the new information known. But the main strategy is based on the participation of the respected leaders who will learn the new information and make the new ideas known to their constituencies. If the projects are successful, they might generate public opinion supporting peaceful resolution of the conflicts, by adopting a belief system of common humanity with the adversary.