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Concept file Dossier : Conflict Transformation

Grenoble, May 2009

Constructive use of power

The use of power in negotiation and mediation

Following the typology introduced by Kenneth Boulding (1989) there are three sorts of power that can be used to end conflict:

  • Threat powww ;

  • Exchange powww;

  • Integrative powww.

Threat power is, unsurprisingly, associated with hard power and is often part of violent conflict; within mediation/negotiation it would be the use of coercion (the threat of military action) to achieve an agreement (Boulding, Three faces of power, 1989).

The other two types of power are more relevant in this section, being forms of soft power that can be used in negotiation. Exchange power is to do with a bargaining approach whilst integrative power is about transformation and long-term solutions, created in concord rather than through a win-lose approach.

Military victories are one end of the spectrum of how conflicts end, with one party taking power and being able to impose its power on the other. Due to the balance of power achieved in this context conflict is less likely to recur in the case of a military victory than a negotiated settlement, but widespread killing is more likely (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse & Miall, Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 2005, 160).


Negotiations are the process in which conflict parties engage in order to try and settle or resolve the conflict in which they are engaged. Once a conflict is ‘ripe’ for change the next step towards a peace process is to bring the different parties to the negotiating table, which can be understandably difficult in the aftermath of protracted violent conflict.

The involvement of a third party in this process is called mediation.

Making first contact so that the process of negotiation begins, can be difficult: leaders may worry about losing their support if they are seen to be negotiating with the enemy, and of loss of face and credibility should any potential agreement fail.

At this stage third parties can play an important role initiating contact between the conflict parties, in providing neutral places for meetings to take place, and in mediating negotiations. As well as such practical considerations, in the course of a violent conflict the adversary will have been dehumanized and a third party can help to ease the tensions of the first contacts.

Mediation by a third party is important to move from a willingness to start a peace process, and actual face-to-face contact by opening the political space to present their positions, and consider the different options before making any commitment to negotiations.

Types of mediation

Mediation can go from ‘soft’ to ‘hard’ (in the same sense as in the terms soft and hard diplomacy). At the soft end is ‘pure’ mediation, acting as a conciliatory go-between; whilst the harder end includes peace-keeping and imposed agreements. Another distinction within types of mediation is partial and impartial mediation. Mediation is often characterized as by a neutral third party, who can be trusted by both parties as having no vested interest in the outcome of the negotiations; this would be an impartial third party. However it is possible that a conflict party is more likely to trust someone to represent their interests who they know is for their cause, an ‘insider-partial’ third party. In this case more than one third party may need to be involved in successful mediation.

Who are mediators? A range of different actors can act as mediators:

  • NGOs;

  • International Organizations;

  • Individuals;

  • Governments.

A mediator does not as such need ‘power’ to be able to carry out the role effectively; rather this role can be carried out by persuading cooperation and gaining the trust of the conflict parties. Of course at the ‘harder’ end of mediation that we already mentioned, coercion and pressure can be employed to get participation in a peace process; in these cases the mediator can be acting as a trigger to change the dynamic of the conflict. The danger in this last scenario is that a powerful mediator of this kind can end up taking a part in the conflict.

An example of a powerful figure in a conflict also acting as a mediator is Charles Taylor, the Liberian rebel leader and President and his role in the Sierra Leonean conflict. His offers to act as mediator were not welcomed by the international community due to his influence over the Sierra Leonean rebel group the RUF, and the view that he controlled violence in the region (from the testimony of Stephen Ellis at the « trial of Taylor »

An advantage of NGO action is that they can go where a government representative may fear to tread, as well as being more flexible, therefore able to adapt their methods to local needs. As well as this governments are often reluctant to become involved where it does not serve their national interests.

Despite some now notorious failures (Rwanda, Bosnia) the UN still has a significant role to play through out a peace process, in peace-keeping, preparing elections and security sector reform, as well being able to exert pressure as the spokesperson for international opinion.

Who should be at the negotiating table?

Though at first glance it may seem self-evident that all parties to a conflict should be included in negotiations, this can be complicated as the recognition of a party as a negotiating partner means accepting them as an equal, and recognizing their aims to a certain extent.

This problem is more acute when there are both state and non-state parties involved in the conflict. Belligerents in an armed conflict hold equal status in international law (giving them the same rights; as well as duties towards prisoners and non-combatants) whether they are state or non-state parties. The result of this is that sometimes a state will refuse to recognize the other party in the conflict as anything other than a terrorist organization. An example of this is the refusal up until recently of the Israeli government to recognize Hamas as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, or consider it as anything other than a terrorist group; this has had a huge impact on the peace process as the result has been that the Israelis refused to negotiate with the elected government of the Occupied Territories. The problems that can result from the exclusion of a significant party to the conflict are illustrated in the case study on Afghanistan. Mohamed Adan Mohamed illustrates some of the less obvious impacts of negotiations and brings to light the impact the international actors presence in or sponsorship of a peace process.


  • 1. The file is based on Modus Operandi’s analysis on the political transformation of conflicts. More extensive analysis can be found in French.

  • 2. Authors of the file are Claske Dijkema, Karine Gatelier and Alexia Stainer.

  • 3. The outcomes of above mentioned research serve as content for the online course on “Post-conflict politics: state and society relations”. For more information, go to or contact Modus Operandi directly at or