On two separate occasions, Ben Cook found himself being chased by wild African animals. One ended with an amused gorilla watching the group run away; the other ended with a massive elephant pounding the tree Cook had climbed in to hide, then walking off. Experiences like this, and experiences with human conflict, often stem from a misunderstanding. The animals likely felt threatened by something they were unfamiliar with and acted on a natural tendency to defend themselves and their territory. Similarly, conflict and fear often arise as humans, businesses, and governments connect across cultures and encounter customs and traditions they are unaccustomed to.
Ben Cook, professor of Law at Brigham Young University, has spent much of his career trying to understand these international conflicts and learning how to resolve them. His journey began at Georgetown, a university known for their international law program. While there, he became closely acquainted with international conflicts as he studied education in Uganda. After meeting his wife, who worked frequently in Southern Africa, he developed a dream of promoting development and resolving conflicts in Africa.
Rwanda was a place ravaged by conflict in the 1990s. In just a few short months, nearly a million individuals were slaughtered in what is now called the Rwandan Genocide. Today, Rwanda is a beautiful place. It’s orderly and clean, and the people are welcoming and kind. One of the reasons they have been able to change so drastically is because of the community court systems established to find and punish all those involved in the Genocide. Communities across the nation elected judges to help, even though many lacked legal qualifications.
Having a court system is extremely important to help establish peace between businesses and governments. However, many nations don’t have the governmental and economic support to provide the necessary institutions. While at Harvard, Cook recognized this need and started working with a colleague to understand mediation and how to implement it in Africa. They now work to train law students to be mediators and help provide these services internationally.
Mediation can help resolve conflicts in a more cost-effective and personal manner than other systems. Because there aren’t as many legal hoops to jump through, mediators can incorporate the emotions and personal circumstances of those involved to help make restitution. This requires a higher level of effective communication and certain degree of emotional intelligence on the part of the mediator.
For those reasons, Cook and his colleague spend extra time training their law students in communication and international, cross-cultural interactions. For example, people in the United States respond well to being called by their first names. It feels more personal and intimate. However, in Rwanda, calling someone by their first name in a situation of mediation would be awkward and unprofessional. Having the emotional intelligence to recognize, respect, and effectively navigate these cultural differences produces better outcomes.
Because of the unique and often misunderstood differences across countries, international conflict resolution is an important skill to have. Although official legal courts can be extremely valuable in certain circumstances, mediation provides unique value. It also teaches that peace is established first on a personal level before it can be achieved between different parties. Understanding the emotions, rather than just the facts involved, helps individuals recognize the human in those they are in conflict with. As Cook says, “When people become objects to us, that’s the beginning of conflict and the absence of peace.”
To learn more about international conflict resolution, listen to the full podcast with Ben Cook here.