Published: 11 May 2020
Author: Andreas Hirblinger
The peace mediation literature seems to have relatively little to say about arguments. A quick google scholar search with keywords such as “mediation” and “arguments” or “arguing” does not yield a single match that would be relevant to the mediation of armed conflicts. Research on mediation seems more concerned with understanding factors that could impact mediation efforts, such as conflict type and severity, timing and ripeness, or mediator characteristics and approaches. Less focus is put on understanding what conflict parties and their constituents argue about and how these arguments are framed.
In contrast to “arguing”, the term “bargaining” is more commonly used to describe what’s going on in a peace negotiation. This is likely because bargaining makes clear that peace negotiations often demand the brokering of a deal, in which military and political power balances will determine the distribution of value at the negotiation table. It thus seems that peace mediation is about splitting the cake.
However, if the sole concern pertains to bargaining about material aspects, a settlement of conflict likely will not be sustainable. In fact, building and sustaining peace first and foremost requires arriving at a point where the negotiation of political and legal institutions of the state can continue in a non-violent fashion.
A closer look at the literature makes clear that arguments play an important role in the mediation of armed conflicts – and that understanding how conflict parties argue is key in efforts to arrive at a peaceful settlement. A mediator with a facilitative, interest-based approach would for instance aim to unpack the conflict parties’ positions, to support the parties in finding common ground. This also includes working on the underlying interests and assumptions through which conflict parties justify and defend their positions.
Transformative approaches to mediation go even further, as they aim to empower conflict parties and conflict affected populations to express their interests and needs while giving them mutual recognition. This approach allows parties to move beyond antagonistic, violent relationships to form agonistic, non-violent relationships instead. In order to reach this desired outcome, it's necessary to understand and analyze the arguments that underpin conflict parties’ positions, including the premises and claims on which they are based. This is where argument analysis could enable mediators to more systematically assess the thinking that underpins the conflict parties’ positions.
Argument analysis has recently emerged as a powerful tool that can support policy making across a wide range of topics, to understand both pros and cons of specific policy measures. These include responses to climate change and environmental disasters, financial crises, and how to design large-scale public infrastructure projects.
New advancements in machine-learning also make it likely to analyze large amounts of unstructured data. This data could be collected during public participation activities, such as surveys and town-hall meetings, or from social media. While argument analysis has focused on policy making processes, it is increasingly used to better understand political debates and broad-based, participatory processes.
Argument analysis promises to be of particular value for situations shaped by uncertainty and complexity. It is particularly applicable to contexts characterized by so-called “wicked problems”, i.e., problems in which there is little agreement not only about the solution but about what caused the problem in the first place. And depending on how problems are framed, alternative solutions may seem reasonable.
Armed conflicts share similarities with wicked problems: parties maintain different narratives and do not agree on the causes of conflict, which explains why the solution of the conflict remains elusive. Metaphorically speaking, the conflict parties do not agree on what the cake is, or with what tool to split it. We thus first need to get a common understanding of what's on the table. This is why mediators need to look at how conflict parties argue not only about what’s at stake in a conflict, but about different options for its resolution. Argument analysis can help to both define the cake, and understand how to split it.
As Georg Brun and Gregor Betz (2016:45-46) put it, through argument analysis, one may identify reasons to, for example, “support some statement, attack a position, resolve whether to accept a controversial claim, reach consensus on some issue, shake an opponent’s conviction, or explore the consequences of adopting a certain position.” Argument analysis can help mediators to shed light on the reasoning of conflict parties, conflict stakeholders and third parties, in an effort to reach a shared understanding of what is on the table.
Argument analysis thus contributes an additional layer of reflexivity to peace mediation. It will create awareness of the premises on which certain claims are based. This makes it possible to change one’s own (and others’) positions and arriving at adjusted or new conclusions. This method could also support mediators in identifying arguments that force conflict parties to modify their positions to move the negotiation forward. Ultimately, this can help to build a shared perspective on a non-violent political settlement.