Role-play: Creating an inclusive peace?
Whilst teaching a final year unit Peace Processes in the Middle East and Europe, I have been impressed by the level of knowledge and historical context students bring to the classroom. Whilst the range of resources available in terms of books and journals as well as blogs and social media can provide a time-line of activity, there is a tendency to overlook dynamics that operate at a more human level. From a distance, and with the benefit of hindsight, actors involved in peace negotiations can more easily be portrayed as internally unified and working towards clear objectives.
Therefore, I was keen to construct an exercise that would enable students to understand and appreciate the nuances of intra and inter-group dynamics during peace negotiations. I also wanted to highlight why certain issues such as decommissioning of weapons and security reform tend to dominate post-conflict agreements at the expense of alternative factors such as ensuring the presence of women and other minorities at the negotiating table. During this unit we also explore the role of international actors and discuss what characteristics are beneficial in facilitating peace talks. Beyond these contextual elements, I have also been keen throughout the unit to build on transferable skills such as problem solving, independent thinking and group work – a role play seemed like a dynamic way to combine all these elements.
Setting the scene
In order to set the context, I constructed a fictitious conflict. I decided not to draw on a real scenario as I was conscious not to be reductionist about a complex and contentious case study (you can only cover so much in a 50 minute seminar). Students were given this brief outline on Moodle a week before the seminar:
A conflict has been taking place in the country of Genovia. Over the last five years violence has occurred between the Genovian government/army and East Genovian forces, who want secession and independence for the region.
There is currently a ceasefire in place and peace talks are taking place between 5 different actors/groups. Each group has three key aims that it wants to achieve via peace negotiations.
Along with the scenario above students were also provided with relevant literature which would hopefully enable them to connect the role play with the academic debates. In other instances I have heard of tutors giving students their roles before the session so they could research in to this further. However, in this instance I wanted students to act more spontaneously and have to formulate a strategy within the time constraints rather than beforehand.
The Role Play
At the start of seminar students were placed in to one of the 5 groups:
1) Women’s Organisation: A small group who have formed a new political party to highlight the lack of access to political and public life for women.
2) Prisoners’ Organisation: An organisation from East Genovia campaigning on a platform to represent the interests of current and former political prisoners.
3) Political Party A – East Genovian Republican Party (EGR): Campaign on platform of independence for East Genovia and linked to a paramilitary group
4) Political Party B – Party of Genovia (PG): Political party wanting to protect the unity of the country
5) International actor: An external mediator who will facilitate talks between all groups and will act as chair of the session.
The groups (which had 5 members each) were provided with the three cards – each with a different objective on them (see example below). The first task was for each group to agree the order of importance of these objectives for when they entered peace negotiations with the other parties. The intention here was to highlight the relevance in intra-group dynamics – were there any disagreements on the importance of the objectives? Were these decisions made democratically? Did one person tend to take on the role of leader?
Secondly, the groups were then separated in to different negotiation tables so that there would be one from each different party present with an international actor to act as chair. At the negotiating table, groups could bargain with one another by trading their cards. It soon became apparent that their own negotiating aims would be in direct conflict with the aims of other groups. For example, whilst the prisoner’s organisation aimed to guarantee amnesties for crimes committed during the conflict others would not accept the early release of political prisoners or the implementation of amnesties. As a result, some difficult decisions would have to be taken by everyone involved– how could they get the best deal possible for their group? Should they go back on the agreed importance of these aims? How would the rest of the group respond if a deal was made with their ‘enemies’?
Finally, whilst also having their own objectives, the role of the ‘international actor’ to the progress of the talks was key. The international actors could decide their own rules for the talks and acted as chair of the session. Therefore, this would test their diplomacy and management of conflicting interests and the extent to which they could act as a neutral actor in facilitating negotiations.
With this exercise there was a lot going on at once and students only had 50 minutes to complete the task. This was not necessarily an issue and the time constraints (and slight chaos) actually helped replicate the expected pressure. However, it was crucial to plan this exercise thoroughly.
My Advice for Colleagues
From this initial experience I would suggest to anyone considering doing a role play exercise to (1) provide print-out instructions to each group – as there is only one lecturer (usually) in the class room this helped clarify the task before questions arose (2) give clear time frames for each task and follow this up with frequent time checks to make sure things are on track (3) ensure you have time for a discussion or de-brief to round off the session. Here it was helpful to have 3-4 key questions in mind in order to bring together the various aspects explored in the role-play and begin to connect this to the academic literature.
I was pleased to see that all students fully embraced their roles for this activity and also enjoyed the experience – some went as far to say it was the best class they have had whilst at Bath. However, there are certainly some tweaks that could be made. Now that I have some experience with how to run a role-play exercise I intend to insert some further aspects or ‘unexpected events’ (such as a break down in a ceasefire) to bring in further elements of the unit.