Donate ▸

Iraq latest crucible for Harvard mediation

November 9, 2009

Share this story:
  • linkedin
  • google
  • tumblr

James F. Smith

Boston Globe
November, 2009

Negotiations solve tribal disputes.

CAMBRIDGE - No longer locked in one big war, Iraq has become a land of a hundred little wars. And this promised to be one more of them, as two well-armed tribes clashed over a coveted swath of land.

One tribe brandished a promise to 2,000 acres from the current Iraqi government. The other pointed to a like promise from the regime of Saddam Hussein. Guns were raised, shots fired. There seemed no ground for compromise, beyond the familiar local remedy: blood.

But then something extraordinary happened. The tribes agreed to negotiate and, with the help of the local mayor and others, crafted a deal giving both sides enough land to meet their needs.

“They began thinking of their relationship instead of thinking about revenge upon each other,’’ said Sa’ad Al-Khalidy, one of those who arranged the intervention.

If it sounds like a chapter ripped right out of a dispute mediation manual, well, it was. And the book was written in Cambridge.

The blood not spilled in central Iraq was another victory for the mediation movement spawned by Harvard Law School guru Roger Fisher, coauthor of the 1981 book “Getting to Yes.’’ The Boston area has become a global hub for teaching conflict resolution theory and practice for uses in law, diplomacy, and business in farflung places.

The mediators in the Iraqi tribes’ dispute had all been recently trained in methods developed by Fisher, whose landmark work in the 1960s and 1970s lives on in the many graduate school programs and companies that he and his students have forged.

Dispute resolution programs now offer master’s and even doctoral degrees at some campuses, among them the University of Massachusetts at Boston, MIT, Tufts, and Brandeis. The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School is a renowned source of expertise in the field. Conflict management experts from the Boston area also helped tackle vexing international stalemates, from Northern Ireland to South Africa, Kosovo to China.

No wonder that when the State Department wanted to encourage Iraq to move toward a culture of mediation and away from war, it turned to Conflict Management Group, or CMG, the nonprofit consulting firm launched by Fisher in Cambridge in 1984 that is now part of the international development and relief group Mercy Corps.

A total of 73 municipal officials and tribal sheiks from across Iraq underwent intensive training by CMG staffers in May and June in mediation and negotiation skills. The effort, funded by a $2.5 million State Department grant, grew out of a successful pilot program in southern Iraq that trained 19 mediators.

Already, the newly trained mediators have helped local officials tackle dozens of conflicts, mostly over scarce resources such as farmland, oil income, electricity and water as well as numerous family disputes. The goal is to build a national network of respected local negotiators.

Few countries have as much conflict to manage as Iraq. But Iraq has little tradition of mediation, said Arthur Martirosyan, who lives in Belmont and has run the Iraqi training program for CMG since 2006. Traditionally, arbitration of disputes is left up to local sheiks, whose decisions - picking one claim over another - often leave behind festering anger.

Martirosyan came to Cambridge in 1991 to work with Fisher at CMG, after getting a master’s degree from Yale. An ethnic Armenian born in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Martirosyan has used his negotiation and language skills to mediate conflicts in Chechnya and other regional hotspots as well as the Middle East.

Martirosyan returned to Iraq last month to train 24 more Iraqi mediators, most of whom are tribal sheiks or municipal council officials. He will also offer refresher courses to program graduates - reflecting his conviction that good mediating skills take practice, like playing the piano.

Khalidy, the coordinator for central and southern Iraq based in Diwaniyah, said he has seen remarkable achievements by participants in the pilot program, who went through five intensive rounds of classes. Sixteen of them are full-time mediators, and have helped solve 32 disputes, ranging from an inheritance claim to a tense standoff involving 50 abducted police officers, all of whom were released safely.

“In many conflicts, they have been changed from enemies into partners against the problem, not against each other,’’ Khalidy said by phone from Iraq.

Some successes are small. He described one mediation between two families: one household with young girls built a privacy wall that blocked sunlight from reaching the neighbor’s house. They had argued for months, and were close to blows. A mediator helped them cool down, and get away from their hardened positions. They came up with a solution: The family that built the wall paid for a skylight for the neighboring house.

The training uses methods that Fisher devised over decades of academic study and popularized in “Getting to Yes,’’ published in 1981. The book has been translated into 18 languages - including a new edition in Iraqi Arabic for this project.

Liza Baran, a Ukrainian who is Mercy Corps’ program manager for the negotiation project in Iraq, said the sheiks appreciate the step-by-step, common-sense approach that Fisher shaped. The bottom-line goal is to help the parties identify their own interests, and the other side’s interests - and then figure out ways to serve both sides.

“It’s kind of like getting the ABCs,’’ Baran said. “Here is a whole set of very systematized tools which you can apply, and it works.’’

Fisher, who is 88, lives in Cambridge and still goes to his Harvard Law School office several days a week. Specialists in the field note that some of his early ideas have been challenged and the field has evolved dramatically in recent years, but no one doubts his seminal role.

Paul Cramer, a Harvard Law graduate who lives in Wellesley and is a conflict management specialist for Accenture, the business consulting firm, has traveled to Iraq with Martirosyan to conduct the training. He said Iraqis had become used to having solutions imposed by a dictatorship - and they quickly grasped Fisher’s premise that merely defending entrenched positions was getting them nowhere.

He recalled one mediation by a sheik named Gazzi, who was called in after a showdown between tribes over a murder. The usual solution would be for the tribe to hand over the killer or go to battle. Gazzi helped mediate one cooling-off period, and then another, giving the tribes time to meet and express their longer-term interests. They finally agreed to spare the young killer, lowering tensions in the whole community and clearing the way to progress on their deeper conflicts.

Martirosyan said that building a network of Iraqi negotiators who can then train others will extend the reach of the mediation far beyond what foreigners could achieve trying to mediate cases themselves. He said he is also talking to Iraqi universities, and several have said they want to develop courses and exchanges with American institutions.

“I think negotiation is going to be an important skill set for Iraq,’’ Martirosyan said. “People talk about the US exit strategy. I think to a large degree it will depend how skilled the politicians are, whether Kurds or Arabs . . . There are issues that will require a lot of creative negotiation.’’