Parties to Intractable Conflict

Heidi Burgess

January 2004

The people involved in conflicts hold many roles. These are described briefly below, and then in more detail in the associated essays.

Disputants or first parties differ in the directness of their involvement and the importance of the outcome for them. Primary parties are those who oppose one another, are using fighting behavior, and have a direct stake in the outcome of the conflict. Secondary parties have an indirect stake in the outcome. They are often allies or sympathizers with primary parties but are not direct adversaries.[1] Disputants also can be divided up according to their stance towards the other side. We divide interest groups into moderates, hardliners, external supporters, conflict profiteers, and spoilers.

Jannie Botes, a South African journalist and Baltimore-based conflict resolution scholar, says journalists need to understand how their coverage affects conflicts, and that they are essentially parties, too, when they start covering conflicts.

In addition to the disputants, there are third parties. Some may be acting in active intermediary roles, such as mediators, arbitrators, or dialogue facilitators, while others may be by-standers. As conflicts become increasingly polarized, however, the by-standers tend to be pulled in, being forced to join one side or the other, and polarizing the conflict even further.

In addition to the traditional intermediaries, William Ury suggests that there are other "third-siders" who can help play a transformative role. These include:

Most intractable conflicts are so deeply-rooted that the parties need outside help to transform the conflict into something more constructive. Most often, people think in terms of mediators. But there are many more roles people can play to help transform intractable conflicts. In his book, The Third Side[1], Ury suggests that there are at least 10 roles that people can play: provider, teacher, bridge-builder, mediator, arbitrator, equalizer, healer, witness, referee, and peacekeeper. Some of these roles are traditional "third party roles," while others are not. The chart below summaries what each role does.

Process Role What they say:
Prevention Provider What is needed here?
Teacher Here's another way. (Or, let's look at this more carefully.)
Bridge Builder I'd like to introduce you to ...
Resolution Mediator Let's work it out.
Arbitrator What's fair here is ...
Equalizer Let's level the playing field.
Healer Let's make amends.
Containment Witness Hey! Look what they are doing!
Referee No knives! No guns!
Peacekeeper OK! Break it up!

This is derived from a graphic on (Note: the parenthetical comment in the "teacher" box is ours; the rest are from Ury's diagram.)

All of these people can contribute to making a conflict less intractable. With many people in each role working at different levels of a conflict, a great deal of good can be accomplished, even when the conflict is not ripe for resolution.

[1] Paul Wehr, "Conflict Mapping" in the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, available at (This was the forerunner to this Knowledge Base Project.)

[2] William Ury, The Third Side New York: Penguin USA 2000.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi. "Parties to Intractable Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: January 2004 <>.

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