How can this complex of conflict situations be handled to reduce, manage and even resolve the conflicts?
Disputes about boundaries can be handled preventively by simply establishing clearly demarcated boundaries. The effort to delimit and then demarcate involves cooperation between neighbours, itself a step toward conflict reduction. It is often objected that sleeping boundaries should be let lie, but the fact is that demarcation in times of peace or at least quiet relations is far better than demarcation in response to a crisis.
Whereas ripeness theory tells us that states do not act until they find themselves in an uncomfortable impasse, the theory can also be applied prospectively, when states realise that they will be in a hurting stalemate if they leave their potential boundary problem to simmer until the boil bursts. There have been repeated calls from the time of the OAU for African states to declare the Year of Boundary Demarcation to stave off future boundary disputes that are so potentially frequent, and the African Union (AU) Border Programme is now actively working on this very task. Even though a segment left undemarcated because unknown was later to cause conflict, most of the Peru-Ecuador boundary was demarcated and thus removed from dispute in the mid-1940s.
But clear definition is not enough. Because of their artificial nature in human terms, boundaries need to be made permeable so that borderlanders can cross easily to do their daily business and make their normal contacts. Often this poses problems for authorities, since illegals and criminals can slide across under the cover of normal contacts, and are often cleverer than the normal controls. The balance between clarity and openness is, as usual, a work of continual tending. The US-Mexican border and the Chinese-North Korean borders – both fully demarcated – pose such problems.
A third word of prevention is need for wise and careful rectifications as conditions change. Rectifications refers to small changes as roads and rivers alter their courses to fit nature, as new terrain features are discovered, or even as new population patterns mean that salients need to be changed or exchanged. The more territory involved, the more delicate the rectifications become, of course, and even rectifications may involve territory that is sacred or strategic for other reasons. Nonetheless, small changes can prevent big conflicts.
Disputes about sacred boundaries or boundaries around sacred lands are obdurate problems with high potential for escalation. Such territories are often presented as absolute and indivisible. The problem is that they engender such tense and hostile relations that it is difficult to make the parties sit down and coldly and creatively examine the problem. There are always technical, objective and innovative solutions available, but the parties are not feeling objective and creative. Trust, the necessary ingredient of any agreement, is lacking, not only in the negotiation process but also in the longer time of implementation. Such situations require confidence- and security-building measures to render the situation as controllable as possible.
Research has shown that a necessary ingredient is third-party monitoring after an agreement. Jerusalem is indeed divisible, but the parties must be open to the principle of division (admitted in Ehud Barak’s proposals in Camp David II in 2000) and must have confidence that each side will administer its part and cooperate in city administration honourably (as the bitterly rival Christian sects have done, more or less, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). The patriotic and holy Serb sites in Kosovo can be handled by open access and administration regimes (or even ‘ownership’ as opposed to ‘sovereignty’, as invented for a Peru-Ecuador site). All that is necessary is mutual trust and creativity, with a little attention from a friendly and committed mediator!
Disputes across boundaries enter into the realm of all conflict management. Conflict between centres is the problem on which efforts need to focus. Escalation in space and parties can be controlled by invoking the regional dimensions of the conflict, using third-party neighbours and regional organisations to dampen the conflict, urge negotiations and respect for common values, and care for borderland populations.
In the Mediterranean islands disputes, the EU’s refusal to side with its members, Spain and Greece, and instead urge restraint, removed the Union as a mediator but did much to calm the tension. Other regional organisations, such as the AU, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the Organisation of American States (OAS) have been similarly helpful in boundary disputes among their members. On the other hand, such organisations are often impeded from acting as mediators, and mediation needs to come from an external source with a certain amount of standing, often the US or the UN, but in the Beagle Channel boundary dispute between Argentina and Chile it was the Vatican. Regional organisations are, after all, groups of members, who may be involved in the conflict, too close to it to be effective mediators.
Despite the difficulties boundary disputes present, the world is well-equipped to act as peacemaker. There is plenty of expertise and many examples of effective conflict management (reducing the conflict from a violent to a political stage) and conflict resolution (settling the issues at dispute). Countries, often assisted by NGOs, need to be ready and willing to limit and mediate conflicts, despite the conflicting parties’ frequent resistance to third-party involvement and the ‘internationalisation’ of their conflict (even while they look for foreign support). Parties in conflict need help, even if they are unwilling to admit it. Often they overcome their unwillingness, only when they find themselves painfully stalemated in their efforts, hence the difficulty of, but crying need for, preventive efforts.