A land of few lawyers

U of W prof releases book highlighting lessons in conflict resolution from Lao

Greg Gallinger

While we’re bombarded with endless coverage of conflict, we don’t often read about how to build peace. On Sept. 15, professor Stephanie Stobbe released a book titled Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding in Laos: Perspective for Today’s World at the Canadian Mennonite University.

Stobbe teaches Conflict Resolution Studies at the University of Winnipeg, which is a slightly misunderstood field. 

“People often don’t realize that it’s a separate discipline or field of study at the university. They often ask whether it’s part of political science, psychology, law, etc,” Stobbe says.

“It takes a little explaining that the Conflict Resolution or Peace and Conflict Studies field is its own area of study with undergraduate and graduate degrees. That it covers interpersonal conflicts all the way to international conflicts.”

Stobbe was born in Laos, during a part of the Vietnam war known as the Lao Secret War. From this legacy of violence, Stobbe was inspired to study conflict resolution, and specifically investigate how peace is upheld in Laos.

“Through stories and discussions with the Lao people, I found that they have elaborate systems of conflict resolution and rituals of reconciliation. In fact they have five levels of mediation models that are used to resolve conflicts in the family, workplace, and community,” Stobbe says.

These mediation models are not just theoretical – they work in real life. 

“Very rarely do they use the formal legal system to address disputes,” Stobbe says. “In fact, in a population of 6.5 million people, they only have approximately 100 lawyers! That’s one lawyer for every 65,000 people.”

Stobbe first began to formulate her idea for this book in 2006. 

“I was invited to Laos to help the local people develop their first peacebuilding program,” she says.

She went back for more research from 2007 to 2011, and then spent 2013 and 2014 writing the manuscript. The book has been available since July 2015.

While those interested in the history of Laos and conflict resolution in general may enjoy the book, there are many useful lessons Stobbe outlines that translate to other situations. She outlines basic tenets of conflict resolution using the acronym “RESOLUTION,” and says that they can also apply locally.

“These tenets remind me of restorative justice principles found in Victim-Offender Mediation, Sentencing Circle, and Community Justice Forum processes that we now have in Canada.”

There are other useful lessons that Westerners could learn from in terms of not only resolving conflict, but rebuilding relationships after the conflict has ended, Stobbe says.

“Often in the West, we shake hands at the end of mediation and go our separate ways. However, in Laos and other places in the world, conflict resolution rituals with ceremonies and food are the norm to mark the end of conflict and a new beginning.”

If you’d like to learn more from professor Stobbe, you’ll have to start with her book, as she’s on sabbatical this year, though she will be chairing a conference here in May 2016, and encourages students to submit to their essay contest.

In the meantime, Stobbe isn’t resting on her laurels.

“I’ll be working on an autobiography that is part of my research project on refugee families in Manitoba and abroad,” she says.  

For more on the conference in May, see carfms.org/category/conferences. Stobbe’s book is available to order through McNally Robinson or Chapters.

Published in Volume 70, Number 2 of The Uniter (September 17, 2015)

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