William Ury

February 2005


Some fighting can be salutary. Fighting can serve the function of clearing the air and bringing suppressed problems into sharp focus. If and when people do fight, it is important to reduce the harm. That is the role of the Referee, who sets limits on fighting. Parents know this role well: "Pillows are okay, but fists are not." "No blows above the neck or below the belt." As Referees, we can change the way people fight, replacing destructive weapons and methods with substantially less destructive ones.

Establish Rules for Fair Fighting

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union evolved a code of conduct to contain their periodic conflicts around the globe. Rule number one was: Never use nuclear weapons, even against other parties. This rule turned into a taboo as strong as any tribal taboo. Rule number two was: Never put American and Soviet soldiers into situations where they would be firing directly at one another. Leaders feared that breaching either rule could all too easily escalate into a thermonuclear war. The rules may seem simple but they helped avert World War Three.

The same kind of rules apply on the streets. "If I can get them to have a fist fight, that's great," declares Ron Sinkler, a former gang member and prison inmate who now works for the city of Boston. His main priority, he says, is to persuade gang members to settle their disputes without guns. "I try to explain that if you use a gun, then you're going to prison. Kids aren't stupid. They listen, some of them anyhow."

Referees have even arrived on the Internet. America Online, the world's largest Internet provider, has recruited nearly fourteen thousand volunteers to patrol over a hundred and eighty thousand continuing conversation groups to ensure that people do not harass, threaten, or deliberately embarrass others, a code of conduct accepted by subscribers when they sign up for the service. A further group of about a hundred, known as the Community Action Team help determine when a comment crosses the line. While America Online was criticized, with good reason, when it suspended for three weeks a conversation about Northern Ireland that was getting belligerent, its initiative is an interesting large-scale experiment in the use of a code of conduct and Referees in a public forum.

Codes of conduct have a place in political campaigns as well. "We were frustrated by the personal attacks, one candidate calling the other one a liar," explained one civic activist. "People were getting angry and cynical." So a group of citizens - civic activists, campaign workers, former public officials, members of the media - devised a strategy called "Project Positive Campaign" that, through fliers and public service announcements in the media, urged voters to let their candidates know that they would support only those who ran positive, informative campaigns. As a start, candidates withdrew several negative "attack ads" after voters complained.

Remove Offensive Arms

One way to stop people from using dangerous weapons against each other is to take them away. In Great Britain, the annual murder rate stands at one per hundred thousand people, while in the United States the rate is at least eight times higher. One powerful reason is that firearms, tightly controlled in Britain, are plentiful and easily available in America. The death rate among American children from firearms is nearly sixteen times higher than among children in twenty-five other industrialized countries combined.

To combat teen homicide in Boston in the 1990s, the Boston Gun Project sought to keep guns out of the hands of youth. Researchers at Harvard University provided information about the kinds of guns used by teenagers, and government officials then developed strategies for tracking down and arresting suppliers of these types of guns. The project also established a program to buy back guns from teenagers. Backed by the community, the police rigorously enforced firearms restrictions and the courts imposed heavy sentences on offenders. The collaboration among researchers, government agencies, and the community worked. In 1996, no youths under seventeen died from handgun violence; and homicide rates for people under twenty-four had dropped by three quarters from the 1990 numbers. The successful initiative has now spread to at least seventeen other cities.

Strengthen Defenses - Nonoffensively

It is not easy to persuade people to lay down their arms. Many efforts at disarmament in the twentieth century have failed in good part because the weapons themselves were treated as the primary problem instead of as an unfortunate response to a condition of insecurity. Once people feel safer through strengthened defenses, they become more willing to discard their offensive weapons.

One promising approach advocated by British military strategist Sir Basil Liddell-Hart is simultaneously to strengthen defenses as one gets rid of weapons that could be used to attack. Building stronger castle walls works better if accompanied by efforts to eliminate the siege artillery that could destroy those walls. The aim is simultaneously to reduce the power of offensive weapons and strengthen defenses to the point where the advantage in any fight goes to the defender. Any would-be aggressor would then think hard before attacking.

Switzerland illustrates the approach at work. Centuries ago, it adopted a policy of armed neutrality, actively signaling its intention of threatening no one. Today, its armed forces have no nuclear weapons, no long-range aircraft, no heavy bombers, and no tanks capable of advancing deep into enemy territory. Its weapons consist instead of antiaircraft systems, antitank weapons, antitank traps, short-range aircraft, helicopters, and light vehicles suitable for mountain defense. Switzerland relies heavily on its own people. Eighty percent of the active male population, a force of some six hundred and fifty thousand, can be mustered within forty-eight hours. Other citizens are trained to maintain essential economic activities, provide medical services to the wounded, and offer nonviolent resistance to the invaders. The entire community is thus mobilized to provide defense without offense.

Nonoffensive defense stretches into the schoolyard. "Your mother is nutty!" the ten-year-old bully shouts in a school skit. "So that's why she hangs out in trees so much," responds the hero. "Hey, Spike!" calls out another bully. "I know," comes the response, "I worked really hard on my hair this morning. I even used extra hair spray." This skit was written by ten-year-olds and used to teach other children in school how to defend themselves against insult and provocation with humor, not counterattacks. The children learn that being a leader means going out of their way to befriend children who have no friends, thus putting would-be bullies on notice that these children will not prove easy targets. On a physical level, many children learn the defensive martial arts of judo, jujitsu, and aikido, all ways of protecting themselves without hurting others.

Nonoffensive defense can be used in the workplace as well. When a man was stalking his former girlfriend at the Los Angeles law firm where she worked, "We went out and got a restraining order, hired a guard and locked the doors," recalls her boss. Thanks to the protective intervention of the employee's work community, the harassing calls and visits stopped and the crisis subsided.

Use the following to cite this article:
Ury, William. "Referees." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: February 2005 <>.

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