A polling official carrying a ballot box in Juba during South Sudan’s independence referendum.

The aim of the workshop was to create connections and enable the sharing of information, experiences and lessons across sectors and disciplines, to test assumptions about conflict resolution in self-determination conflicts, and help identify current challenges and approaches to addressing them in policy and practice
Our latest report summarises what we found out and provides some suggestions for forward steps for those working to prevent, manage or resolve conflicts where self-determination is an issue.

In conflicts where self-determination is an issue, parties easily get stuck in often mutually exclusive positions of ‘conflicting rights’ fuelled by fears of either assimilation into - or disintegration of - the state. These dynamics set such conflicts up to appear impossible to resolve, with parties’ red lines assumed to be too polarised and entrenched to enable space for negotiation or dialogue. 

But effective peacebuilding and mediation practice can be adapted to respond to the particular dynamics of self-determination conflicts. It is possible to work directly with parties separately or together to help pinpoint and find creative ways to circumvent sticking points and seemingly intractable problems preventing or blocking a formal peace process, including by enabling wider societal engagement that brings in other perspectives and approaches. Putting affected populations at the centre of their own conflict resolution processes can help shift the underlying conflict dynamics.

It is also essential to address not only the structural causes of conflict, but the underlying emotive and symbolic elements, for example, those relating to identity, historical grievance and loss, that can present serious obstacles even where a ‘logical’ solution is found. New, imaginative approaches, skills and tools for addressing self-determination conflicts are also needed in a changing global political environment and evolving mediation landscape involving multiple actors operating in different spaces and at different levels.

In the following videos, three practitioners draw on their own experiences to highlight some key considerations and approaches for mediating self-determination conflicts.

How can diverse groups in self-determination conflicts be supported to find a common position? 

Working separately with single or fragmented conflict parties to help them find a common position can be a valuable precursor to mediation or help unblock a process. Opponents will readily exploit divisions among those seeking self-determination, or who may have a claim, where they lack a single coherent position. Peace practitioners can help such groups to address and resolve internal differences of opinion and dissent and develop a common strategy. Similarly, when a number of groups with a potential self-determination claim share some goals but do not necessarily agree on their precise form or pathways to achieving them, they can be supported to recognise commonalities, work through differences and potentially facilitate greater alignment.

In this video Anthony Regan describes an exercise undertaken with a group of leaders of diverse Bougainvillean factions seeking self-determination in Papua New Guinea (PNG). This enabled the exploration of different options for self-determination – ranging from immediate independence through to immediate integration into PNG – while also bridging deep divisions between the opponents and supporters of secession. Opposing parties were able to come together to reach a compromise on the preferred option for a political settlement and then negotiate that with PNG. 

*Anthony Regan is Professor in the Department of Pacific Affairs, School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, at the Australian National University. He has lived and worked in Papua New Guinea for 19 years (including over three years in Bougainville). In PNG, he advised the government on decentralisation policy and law and was involved in the peace process. He has been an adviser to Bougainville parties in the peace process since 1994.

Why is the psychosocial dimension so important in mediating self-determination conflicts?

Psychological dynamics underlying any conflict are as important as the structural issues and require attention throughout peace and mediation processes. In self-determination conflicts especially, the visceral nature of claims and the role of more ‘intangible’ and emotive issues of history, loyalties and grievance as conflict drivers cannot be ignored. For those seeking self-determination – and particularly in asymmetric conflicts – the need to be heard and for their grievances and claims to be recognised and taken seriously is often paramount. Negotiating parties and populations on both sides of a conflict may also experience trauma and feelings of loss relating to the past, present or future for example, a fear of future loss of territory or status. How the psychosocial aspects of these conflicts are handled can either facilitate or obstruct a process.

In this video, Marie-Joëlle Zahar explores what happens when a mediation process is treated as transactional, when the claims of a group seeking self-determination and their historical grievances are dismissed and emotions that emerge in the process (on either or all sides of the conflict) are ignored or suppressed in order to broker a deal. She concludes that mediators need the skills to engage with empathy and allow parties space and time to tell their stories, while encouraging them to envision futures that would look better for all parties involved.  

* Marie-Joëlle Zahar is a Professor of Political Science, Director of the Research Network on Peace Operations and Fellow at the Centre for International Research and Studies at the Université de Montréal. From March 2013 until August 2015, she served as Senior Expert on Power Sharing on the Standby Team of Mediation Experts at the UN Department of Political Affairs where she remains on the UN mediation roster.

How might a sub-regional approach help address self-determination conflicts?

In conflicts where self-determination is an issue, negotiations can become an intractable zero-sum game requiring creative approaches. The framing of self-determination claims can feed into polarised positions especially where groups, frustrated by inadequate responses to their grievances and claims, call for independence. States meanwhile often equate self-determination with secession and fear state disintegration, invoking principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity even where groups do not frame claims as self-determination or as demands for independence. In asymmetric conflicts, especially, the dominant power (usually the state) often has little incentive to engage. The legal and political framework within which such conflicts are addressed therefore needs a rethink. 

In this video Joshua Castellino considers how a sub-regional approach can help address the big challenges of the 21st century such as climate change, migration and conflict that need actions that go well beyond the realm of the sovereign state. Understanding the synergies between populations across national boundaries, he argues, can help stakeholders find ways to cooperate in a pragmatic way to create mechanisms to address self-determination conflicts and build sustainable peace.

* Joshua Castellino is Co-Executive Director of Minority Rights Group International and Professor of International & Comparative Law at Derby University, United Kingdom. He has published numerous books and articles on international law and human rights and engages with questions of minority and indigenous peoples’ rights at inter-governmental, parliamentary, apex courts, bar associations, civil society organisations and universities in over 50 countries.