Inspire Dialogue Summaries: Conflict Resolution

Brendan Simms, Professor of European International Relations, Director of the Forum on Geopolitics 

“We were criticised and ridiculed by other professional groups for coming into a maximum security prison with the word ‘trust’ in mind.”

In our group we started with looking at the root of suspicion and conflict, which of course is fear. Our group was very diverse from the point of view of background and age, but also experience. But everyone had had some kind of direct experience of violence and/or alienation, whether it was working in the prison system, experience of armed conflict, the war on drugs, migration, or schools where fear is endemic. And so we asked: how do we get out of this situation? And we agreed that for this we need trust. But how do we establish trust if it has been broken by a bad experience, or how do you establish it in the first place if we are dealing with strangers? Here again, we had many examples of how tensions were overcome based on experience: for example, of knife violence in a school situation, where the situation was defused simply by advancing physically upon a threatening figure and embracing him. Or, at the other extreme, governmental programmes to integrate groups and reduce barriers in that way.

One of the points that was made is that in order to do this you have to show vulnerability on your own side, in that you have to be able to let your guard down. In the example that was given of the knife attack, this is obvious, but we wondered whether there was some possibility of scaling this up from individuals to states and organisations with a view to better conflict resolution.

The other thing I want to highlight is the matter of timing with both conflict resolution and trust building. If you take the example that I mentioned in my introduction this morning – that of the Thirty Years War in Europe which culminated in the Westphalia Agreement – it is not very encouraging because they had to wait thirty years until everyone was exhausted. The Northern Ireland troubles also lasted decades. And so we wondered whether there was some way of kick-starting the peace process earlier, so that we wouldn’t have to wait until everyone is exhausted – as in, say, the Israel–Palestine conflict. We did not have a particular model about how that could be done, but the question was asked.

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Alison Liebling, Professor of Criminology, University of Cambridge

Photo by Martin Bond Photography

I have been delighted by the conversation about trust today, because of my involvement with a project at a maximum-security prison. I originally studied this prison in the 1990s, but I was asked to go back to it twelve years later because of concerns about radicalisation and risk. We found that the whole place had become paralysed by distrust; in a very short amount of time the prison had changed from being a place where guarded but very real forms of trust were flowing between staff and prisoners, and among prisoners, to it being a place where everyone was afraid of everybody else. Staff no longer recognised prisoners, and the information flow was no longer going on in the wings where the prisoners were living, but off the wings in security information reports.

So we decided to go and study trust. Everyone wanted us to study risk, but we resisted that and went to other maximum security prisons to study trust. We were criticised and ridiculed by other professional groups for coming into a maximum security prison with the word ‘trust’ in mind. But in fact, almost before we arrived at the prison some of the prisoners were waiting for us, excited that we were this important group from Cambridge who were willing to come and talk to them about trust, because nobody else would use the word. And the project has been really valuable: we have learnt all sorts of things about how destructive a lack of trust can be, and how a little bit of trust can build relationships and reduce violence. The prisoners themselves have found it so important to have conversations about trust that they have decided to carry on doing it without us, and they now have a ‘trust committee’. They write us letters; they invite us to their meetings; they invite people from different faith backgrounds to talk to them. The whole point of the dialogue is for them to get to know each other and build trust between themselves. We have seen it make a massive difference not only to the life in the institution, but also to all the individuals living within it.

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