Conflict is as much a part of human condition as cooperation. This is true at an interpersonal level as well as at a societal level. At times, conflicts come to the surface and are played out in the open, but most of the time, they remain underneath the surface. This seemingly inevitable social phenomenon has occupied the minds of both philosophers as well as social scientists for a long time, giving rise to a large body of literature dealing with the issue. As the world around us clearly demonstrates, conflict is something that we have to face, either to prevent it or resolve it. When a conflict occurs, we have to deal with its aftermath or consequences in a reasonable and rational manner.
" Conflicts, when they are violent, result in deaths, destruction and displacement leading to great human suffering. It is this reality that has persuaded human beings to find ways to facilitate or promote peaceful co-existence "
Even if we leave aside the philosophical and social science discourses on the subject, human beings have no choice but to deal with conflicts of various kinds. It is this compulsion to deal with potential or actual conflicts that has given rise to all forms of practical strategies to prevent or resolve conflict, including the use of force.
As is well known, conflicts usually arise due to conflicting ideas and interests at all levels of human social organisation. With increasing interactions, inter-connections and inter-dependencies among human societies across the world over the last several centuries, a global consciousness has slowly emerged through a complex process of inter-societal exchange of ideas and values. These exchanges have not always been peaceful and orderly as invasions, colonial encounters and wars, etc. have amply demonstrated. Nevertheless, such experiences have pointed to the need to find ways and means of reconciling differences, no matter how difficult it is in practice. On the other hand, such global bodies as the UN and a plethora of international covenants, charters and conventions are also a clear expression of the above-felt need. Yet, it is not more than wishful thinking to assume that human beings, let alone human societies, could shed all their differences with respect to ideas and material interests and agree to live together peacefully devoid of any conflict. For the differences are bound to arise, creating the need to continually find ways and means of reconciling conflicting ideas and interests.
As for material interests, human beings initially learned to exploit the natural environment around them to satisfy their growing needs. And then they began to grab material resources, including labour from others around them and beyond. These human endeavours today encompass the whole planet. As for ideas, human beings used their reflective, imaginative and creative capacities to come up with fantastic ideas that began to shape the ways in which they related to each other and perceived the world around them. The result is an incredible diversity of cultures across the globe. This has long been the domain of social and cultural anthropologists. So, we have the great religions, beside all forms of mundane rituals. All religions are not the same, in spite of the hype about the commonality of values and morals. We have diverse kinship systems, different social hierarchies, etc.
Many people do not want to compromise on their cultural values and social practices because either they highly value them or they serve their personal and collective interests. These cultural differences are real, because they at times divide people into opposing camps at all levels and lead to real conflicts. Conflicts, when they are violent, result in deaths, destruction and displacement leading to great human suffering. It is this reality that has persuaded human beings to find ways to facilitate or promote peaceful co-existence, on one hand, by finding common ground and, on the other, by promoting respect for, and tolerance of cultural differences. We have many examples of both today, at both global and national levels. Yet, conflicts, disputes and disagreements occur all the time, both within and between states. The reason for this is obvious: conflicts of ideas and interests cannot be resolved once and for all. They persist and evolve with changing circumstances. For instance, the dominant ideas and practices of development today have given rise to increased competition for material and human resources and, as a result, many international disputes are related to trade, raw materials, technology and financial capital. Recent revelations regarding inter-state spying both in the West and Asia point to the under-currents of competing national interests that seem to undercut seemingly collaborative trade and security alliances between and among countries.
Nevertheless, the new global economic order has also made countries and regions so interdependent that economic trouble in one country can adversely affect the economies of other countries, as the global economic crisis a few years ago clearly showed. Moreover, economic and political trouble in one country can persuade at least some of its people to jump into boats and head towards countries that are more peaceful and prosperous. This has become a big headache for Australia in recent years.
What is outlined above shows how difficult it is for human societies to avoid conflict over ideas and interests and come up with a set of universal values that can bind them together and provide a basis for peaceful coexistence both within and across societies. The present controversy in the country over human rights clearly illustrates this point.
Many Sri Lankans, including some of our leaders, do not seem to believe that ideas can have any intrinsic value, independent of personal, sectarian or collective interest. This is particularly so when it comes to ideas held by the others, not necessarily the ones held by us, no matter how parochial and sectarian the latter might be. The country is already too divided and, as a result, many people do not have the capacity to transcend cultural, social and political divisions in order to find common ground. Western modernity is rejected and discredited by many, including some of the so-called intellectuals. Fundamental ideas of equality, secularism, social citizenship, reason, rule of law, etc. that inspired many adults and youth in this country several decades back are increasingly replaced by notions of hierarchy, religious fundamentalism, ethnocentrism, religiosity and opportunism.