Pedagogy of Conflict: Neutrality

by Pushpa Iyer, Director

Neutrality in conflict situations is a hotly debated topic in the field. Should conflict resolvers, peacemakers, and peacebuilders stand right in the middle of warring parties in order to ensure every side has equal access to them? For how else can one expect conflict parties to trust the “resolver”?

In some of the earliest approaches in the field, neutrality was a key characteristic much desired by conflict resolvers. Initial scholarship in the field strongly linked neutrality to trust; the more neutral the conflict resolvers, the more the parties would trust them not to work in favor or to the detriment of any one side.

However, over time scholars have questioned this linkage and many studies have subsequently argued that having conflict resolvers be biased (or more trusted by one side than the other) can actually have positive effects on the outcome of the conflict. This, combined with more “activist” scholars in the field such as Johan Galtung and John Paul Ledrach, has led to new questions in the field: is neutrality possible? And is neutrality even desired in resolving conflicts? Some scholars such as Janet Rifkin and Sara Cobb and Miller argue that neutrality is impossible; a paradox because a true resolver must be impartial over issues but maintain equidistance with all conflict parties. Neutrality implies that conflict resolvers should not be judgmental, but should encourage parties to express their “side” of the story. The approach is a dichotomy.

So, pedagogically, how does one communicate the concept of neutrality?

While everyone at some point in their life has experienced intense, polarizing conflict, for most, neutrality is something that conflict parties lack and conflict resolvers must have. The reason that many newcomers to the field desire neutrality with fervor is because they see neutrality as making them separate or distinct from the positional objectives of the conflict parties. At the same time there are others, including potential or active human rights activists, who view neutrality with disdain. For them neutrality is not desirable; they argue that taking a stand on an issue which invariably involves taking sides is “the” approach. They see it as the only way to securing rights for all.

One way of dealing with these very different groups is to stress that neutrality is neither good nor bad. It is not something that should be pursued in every case, yet neither should it be rejected outright. Neutrality is to be understood contextually and can be practiced in various degrees depending on the conflict context. Neutrality is not something that can be taught, nor is it a skill that can be learnt over time. A degree of neutrality is something that conflict resolvers have to make a decision about and articulate for themselves.

Neutrality is the position that conflict resolvers assume when assisting parties to find solutions to their conflicts. Various factors determine the position of conflict resolvers: their personal bias, prejudices, and agendas. Acknowledging these is what makes conflict resolvers true members of this field. Self-reflection is key and a conscious effort has to be made to make it an integral part of every action taken.

Neutrality becomes especially tricky when social justice is an integral part of conflicts. The field of conflict studies accepts and even advocates certain universal rights and argues that there are basic human needs which, when unmet, could lead to violence. How does one reconcile human rights and basic needs when they clash with cultural rights? Is neutrality the answer? Maybe.

Neutrality is something that conflict resolvers learn to manage by taking into consideration contextual factors and personal values, biases, prejudices, personalities, and agendas. The skill to manage neutrality can only come with practice, but the process emphasizes good analysis of conflicts and strong self-reflection.

Neutrality can be very useful, but at other times it may negatively impact the conflict resolution process. Neutrality should not be evaluated as a concept but evaluated as a process that is managed by conflict resolvers. It is when conflict resolvers put themselves on a pedestal as being incapable of having biases, prejudices, agendas, and positions that they begin to view conflict parties as “irrational.” Once that happens, conflict parties begin mistrusting conflict resolvers, who then become irrelevant in the conflict resolution process.

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