Peaceful Coexistence ? – “Traditional” and “Non-traditional” Conflict Resolution Mechanisms

The debate about whether peacebuilding should be designed primarily as state building implemented from ‘above’ or as a transformative process from ‘below’ for society as a whole is not new. Clearly, ‘technical blue-print’ peacebuilding approaches – mostly based on the Western agenda of ‘liberal peace’ – do not necessarily provide the best solutions for conflict resolution and sustained peacebuilding, particularly in societies which have parallel systems of governance and whose societal structures differ substantially from Western statehood. However, knowledge about how context-specific systems of conflict resolution function and how they coexist and interact with more non-traditional approaches is extremely limited. Equally limited is information about how these mechanisms and their coexistence affect the security of the communities in question: What forms does this co-existence take? Does this co-existence lead to a strengthening or a weakening of the ongoing peacebuilding processes in crisis-ridden and post-conflict countries? Does it simultaneously do both in certain contexts? What effects do these different mechanisms and their co-existence have on the human security of the communities involved?

This project will investigate the principles, characteristics, and methods of traditional and non-traditional conflict resolution mechanisms and the different patterns of coexistence that exist between the two approaches. Examining how local communities in (post-)conflict regions choose to resolve their disputes – with traditional or state mechanisms, or some combination of both – could potentially have a great impact on the field of peacebuilding and conflict transformation by supporting the work of local and international peace practitioners. After establishing a set of hypotheses regarding such patterns of co-existence, we will then test these hypotheses in depth in our three case countries – Colombia, Liberia, and Northeast India. 


January 2015- May 2016

Conflict Setting

In today’s globalized world, we have witnessed the emergence of ‘universal’ norms and rights, principles by which all levels of society – from individuals to states – are expected to abide. Much of the discourse on these norms and principles has been ‘imported’ from the Western world, and developed upon the model of the Westphalian nation-state. This is true as well for the field of conflict resolution, which is primarily based on Western assumptions about peace and conflict. International peacebuilding and state building interventions in post-conflict and fragile states during the last two decades have been increasingly based upon the concept of “liberal peace”, entailing democratisation, the rule of law, the liberalisation of the market, support for civil society and human rights protection.  

But while much attention has been given to the influence of international actors on state building and peacebuilding processes, little attention has been paid to the fact that the very approaches and mechanisms that external actors promote and emphasize for conflict resolution may contradict or compete with those of the more traditional forms of conflict resolution already in place.  In many societies around the world, conflict resolution mechanisms based on indigenous and/or traditional beliefs and authorities have much influence and power among local communities. Particularly in states considered failed or failing, these structures may be completely independent of the central state, and may carry out tasks that the state cannot.


This project will combine theory-guided research with empirical findings generated through field research in specific settings in three countries. In a first step, this project will develop a theoretical framework based on a set of preliminary hypotheses generated through an extensive literature review. Field research will then serve to test and further improve these hypotheses and expand the theoretical framework. In the current academic literature on traditional conflict resolution, much of the focus has been centred on single case studies of a particular region or of a specific ethnic or indigenous group, examining only the traditional conflict resolution mechanisms themselves and the impact within their own societies. Far fewer studies examine how such mechanisms interact with the more modern systems of the state or how the two can possibly be integrated into each other. For these reasons, we have chosen to look at three (post) conflict countries, Liberia, Colombia and Northeast India, in order to have a broader perspective of what different forms of traditional approaches to conflict resolution exist and in what different ways they interact and co-exist with the non-traditional approaches in the form of the state.

Aims and outcomes

For our research we will establish a framework to analyse characteristics and patterns of coexistence and interaction between state-based, non-traditional conflict resolution mechanisms on one hand and community-based, traditional conflict resolution mechanisms on the other, and examine the effect that such coexistence has on the human security of the communities involved. This project will enhance academic analysis on patterns of co-existence of modern and traditional conflict resolution mechanisms.

The originality of this study lies not only in the examination of the way that traditional mechanisms function and coexist with non-traditional mechanisms, but also in its potential to provide guidance for positive and cooperative interaction among the two. This could be highly beneficial not only for peace practitioners working on the ground among traditional societies, but could also have potential impact on the common theoretical models for peacebuilding and conflict transformation. While external actors working in various post-conflict and crisis-ridden regions are encouraged to take heed of traditional institutions, acknowledging these institutions is not the same as understanding their co-existence with the more modern and ever-expanding non-traditional institutions.  This research will begin to expand this field and provide insight on what is still much unknown.  


Case study research will be carried out in Colombia, Liberia and Northeast India.

We will collaborate with a local research team from the Malviya Centre for Peace Research (MCPR) at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India headed by Dr. Anjoo Sharan and Dr. Priyankar Upadhyaya. In addition, the project will be supported by an advisory board composed by regional and thematic experts from the UK, Colombia and Germany.

The project is funded by the German Foundation for Peace Research.

During the first phase of the project the conceptual framework was further elaborated. Subsequently, field research in Northeast India and Colombia was carried out in June and July. Field research in Liberia will be conducted throughout September 2015. more >

Findings from the case studies and first results from the comparative analysis will then be discussed and reviewed during an advisory board meeting to be held in February 2016.

  • Katrin Planta: Interdependency and Interference: The Wayuu’s Normative System and State-based Conflict Resolution in Colombia. 2016. Colombia Case Study Report . PDF >
  • Katrin Planta: Interdependencia e interferencia. El sistema normativo de los wayuu y los mecanismos estatales de resolución de conflictos en Colombia. 2016. PDF >
  • Janel B. Galvanek: Pragmatism and Mistrust: The Interaction of Dispute Resolution Mechanisms in Liberia. 2016. Liberia Case Study Report. PDF >
  • Priyankar Upadhyaya and Anjoo Sharan Upadhyaya: Traditional Institutions of Dispute Resolution in India: Experiences from Khasi and Garo Hills in Meghalaya. 2016. India Case Study Report. PDF >