Blog | The Carter Center Conflict Resolution Program: Q&A With Hrair Balian

Hrair Balian, director, Conflict Resolution Program, joined The Carter Center in 2008. Balian oversees the program’s efforts to monitor conflicts around the world and coordinates the Center’s cross-program efforts in the Middle East. He is also an adjunct professor at the Emory University Law School, teaching an advanced international negotiations seminar.

What is the goal of the Carter Center Conflict Resolution Program?

The Carter Center Conflict Resolution Program works to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts by monitoring early warnings in fragile states and through timely, targeted, and impartial interventions. When possible and appropriate, rapid-response interventions–negotiations, mediations, or facilitation–are accomplished through the personal involvement of President and Mrs. Carter, with the support of program staff. In other instances, senior staff conduct interventions with support from senior diplomats around the world. We also engage in sustained post-conflict peacebuilding to promote reconciliation and the restoration of the rule of law. Additionally, the program targets challenging contemporary issues of international peace and security not addressed by other institutions.

How are activities determined by the Conflict Resolution Program?

Currently, our activities are developed on two tracks: (1) Country level interventions, including prevention, peacemaking, and post-conflict peacebuilding activities in the Middle East and West Africa; and (2) Thematic responses to root causes of conflict, including initiatives that cut across geographical boundaries – border disputes and resolution of election disputes.

How is the Conflict Resolution Program engaged in the Middle East?

Intractable tensions in the region, particularly the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, have been a priority for President Carter and the Center for decades. Most recently, President Carter led a Carter Center study mission to five countries in the Middle East and the Palestinian Territories in April 2008. The Center is exploring three narrowly interrelated peace and reconciliation processes in the Middle East: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the internal Palestinian conflict, Lebanon, and Syria. A successful peace process is the best guarantee of human rights and stability in the region.

The Center also observed Palestinian elections in 1996, 2005, and 2006, and has ongoing efforts to assist Palestinian institutions in self-government and human rights monitoring. We have an office in Ramallah and plan to expand to other areas.

At the invitation of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Center is helping the country rebuild its legal infrastructure, which is a prerequisite for lasting peace and democratic progress. We work in partnership with leaders at the highest levels of government, as well as those in the most remote areas of Liberia, and act as a communication bridge between these groups.

In under-served rural areas, local groups are educating people about new laws and legal means for resolving disputes. One of our local partners is a drama club performing skits that explain the how-to’s of access to justice. They are dispelling traditional practices of justice, such as “trial by ordeal,” and teaching people about new rights and laws, and means to resolve disputes. There is an emphasis on empowering traditionally marginalized groups, such as indigenous people, women, and youth, who historically have had little role in the political and legal processes that have shaped the nation.

We also are supporting the Ministry of Justice in developing a Gender Crimes Unit in the Solicitor General’s office; helping to expand training of lawyers, police, and other key legal administrators; and supporting the Arthur Grimes School of Law by assisting with curriculum development and other inputs.

What is the most recent initiative of the Conflict Resolution Program?

The program is developing expertise on border disputes and creative solutions to address them in collaboration with partner institutions and private law firms around the world providing pro bono services.

Border disputes – international and internal – and natural resources found in disputed territories are often root causes of violent conflicts. Often, such disputes are addressed with solutions that impose the winner-takes-all or win-lose formula instead of exploring creative win-win possibilities. Even where a clear delineation of boundaries is required, leaving one side or the other with a sense of loss, certain practical accommodations about issues that underpin most negotiations could transform the loss into a winning solution. Creative accommodations could include: joint or special administration arrangements of border territories; demilitarized buffer zones; shared ownership and exploitation of natural resources in disputed areas for an unlimited or definite period of time; access to rights of passage and other forms of shared land use; and the creation of free economic zones. Such creative solutions coupled with mediation or binding arbitration by eminent persons could bring some of border disputes to peaceful and durable closure.

How is the Conflict Resolution Program involved in resolution of electoral disputes around the world?

Throughout the electoral cycle and in particular once an election is concluded and the results are announced, the processing of follow up complaints and appeals is undeniably the most sensitive phase of the electoral process, especially in post-conflict elections. Yet, the importance of this phase of the electoral cycle is often underestimated. The credibility of an entire electoral event might depend on how these administrative and judicial processes are addressed. Even without any political interference or other mischief, a poorly managed complaints and appeals cycle can impact negatively upon the entire electoral process.

Too often judicial and administrative election management processes have been at odds with each other: discrepancies and loopholes in domestic laws have resulted in duplicative complaints or dual appeals processes; confusing timelines have subverted the rights of voters and candidates; and the absence of — or unclear — sanctions has resulted in enforcement problems. As a result. too many complaints are addressed inadequately or are left unanswered months after an electoral event, generating unnecessary and dangerous tensions.

The challenge in this phase is striking an appropriate balance between the expeditious processing of the complaints and appeals, and providing due process to petitioners. Streamlining and transparency of the process and finality of decisions are important elements.

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