A Guide:

Understanding Conflict and Peace


A. Key Concepts in Conflict and Peace

B. Levels of Conflict and Peace

  1. What is Conflict?
  2. Violent Conflict
  3. The Continuum from Harmony to War

C. Determinants of Violent Conflict or Peace

  1. Systemic Causes: Structural Conditions
  2. Proximate Causes: Political and Institutional Factors
  3. Immediate Causes: Acts and Events
  4. External and Internal Factors
  5. Sample Causal Analysis
  6. "Ethnic" Conflict

D. Violent Conflicts: Emergence and Cessation

  1. Dynamics of Escalation
  2. Early Warning

Life Cycle of a Conflict
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A. Key Concepts in Conflict and Peace

The Greater Horn of Africa suffers from ongoing conflicts and tensions. The degree of conflict varies from country to country: dealing with conflict in the Greater Horn ranges from stopping active wars to protecting and strengthening peace so that violence is not triggered.

§ In areas currently in violent conflict, the main challenge is to contain the conflict, alleviate suffering, and if possible, reduce the violence—for instance, in the Sudan and Burundi.

§ Where conflicts have abated but tensions remain high, principal tasks are reconstruction, social reconciliation and healing so that social and economic progress can be made and future conflicts avoided—in Rwanda, for example.

§ Where conflicts have recently ended and basic political order has been restored (Eritrea, Ethiopia) and in areas that have been at peace for some years (Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania), the main tasks are to further political and social reconciliation while protecting and advancing the social and economic progress that has been made. This means resolving tensions over ethnic relations, human rights, and political representation to ensure that further violence does not destroy or thwart larger achievements.

Conflict prevention can aim to end violence or to keep violence from occurring. Dealing with conflict can also mean pursuing positive goals of preserving, strengthening and building on good things where they exist or are coming into being. Reducing or preventing violent conflict and building peace are parts of a single whole.

This Guide builds on certain basic concepts.

§ Conflict and peace are not random, unexplainable phenomena. Both are created, and both can be influenced.

§ Conflict and peace are not static. They are dynamic, connected processes that evolve over time.

§ Not all conflict is violent; some conflicts are settled peacefully.

§ Preventing violent conflicts requires understanding the dynamics of conflict—peaceful and violent—and understanding the ingredients of peace.

§ Effective conflict prevention and mitigation requires an understanding of the particular conflict’s causes and applying different policies, programs and techniques according to the particular type and stage of conflict.

§ It is possible to develop a framework to analyze conflicts and choose policy options to prevent or mitigate conflict.

To provide this analytic framework, this section will:

§ Examine the nature and ingredients of violent conflict as compared to peace, and look at the gradations between these differing states within societies and in the relations between nations.

§ Discuss the structural, proximate and immediate factors that determine whether a particular place is in peace or in violent conflict.

§ Illustrate the life cycle of a typical conflict, showing gradations from peace to initial conflict to war, then back to peace.

Subsequent sections in this Guide will profile and evaluate policy tools used in conflict intervention, with illustrations from around the world; offer preliminary conclusions about how and why various tools were successful in keeping incipient conflicts from escalating or in reducing outbreaks of violence; and examine the main policy and implementation tasks facing policy-makers and field personnel to be more effective in preventing and mitigating violent conflicts.

B. Levels of Conflict and Peace

Situations do not fall into the simple categories of war and peace, where peace is the opposite of war. Instead, there are degrees of conflict, and conflicts vary in the level of hostility between parties. Whatever the issues, weapons, parties and geographic scale, the intensity of hostility between the parties is a useful way to assess a conflict. This level of hostility can be measured through the attitudes and behaviors the parties exhibit towards each other.

1. What is Conflict?

Conflict is present when two or more parties perceive that their interests are incompatible, express hostile attitudes, or take pursue their interests through actions that damage the other parties. These parties may be individuals, small or large groups, and countries.

Interests can diverge in many ways:

§ Over resources—territory, money, energy sources, food—and how theyshould be distributed.

§ Over power, how control and participation in political decision-making are allocated.

§ Over identity, concerning the cultural, social and political communities to which people feel tied.

§ Over status, whether people believe they are treated with respect and dignity and whether their traditions and social position are respected.

§ Over values, particularly those embodied in systems of government, religion, or ideology.

Incompatibilities can be seen in changes in objective circumstances—a lowered standard of living; demographic changes or population movements; technological changes that alter communications, material capacities, weaponry and relative power. Subjective changes can also generate conflict through, for instance, newly felt social resentments or a rising new nationalist ideology; these subjectively felt changes can arise whether or not objective changes have occurred. The parties’ emotional states and mental outlooks influence conflict. Time is a factor as well: observers note that with time, a conflict’s subjective content gains importance as its objective basis is obscured. A group or nation’s objective circumstances do not themselves cause violent conflicts. Conflicts only arise out of these conditions—or changes in them—when it is perceived that interests are threatened by some other party.

Latent conflict. Sometimes an observer may believe that parties’ interests are incompatible but the respective parties are not aware of these incompatibilities. This may be caused by self-delusion, rationalization, lack of knowledge, or suppressed information. We call such unacknowledged or barely recognized conflicts of interests latent.

Conflicts become manifest when these unacknowledged contrary interests become conscious and voiced.

2. Violent Conflict

Conflicting interests can be pursued without violence or coercion: not all conflicts are violent. Conflicts handled peacefully and non-coercively can be positive events. Societies can progress when parties’ changing needs are identified and accommodated, as happens when minorities are recognized and better served.

Peaceful conflicts are handled according to regulated mechanisms to pursue competing interests. Various factors regulate conflict: national constitutions and laws, family and clan structures, court systems, Robert’s Rules of Order, the Law of the Sea, religious codes, habits of decorum, debate and discourse, among other mechanisms. These can be informal and tacit—social mores and customs. They can also be highly formal and institutionalized, as in a nation’s written statutes. Elections are a classic way that conflicts can be addressed peacefully. Recent research shows that violent conflicts—irredention, rebellion, inter-communal violence, civil war—account for less than one percent of potential conflicts in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and the former republics of the Soviet Union.

Peaceful conflict resolution mechanisms can be traditional or modern, local, national, or international. Such mechanisms operate effectively in the regions and communities around the world called "zones of peace," generally keeping these areas’ social and international conflicts from becoming destructive and violent.

Violent conflict. Conflicts can become violent when parties go beyond seeking to attain their goals peacefully, and try to dominate or destroy the opposing parties’ ability to pursue their own interests.

With so much violence around the world, we might assume that violent conflict and coercion are the natural order of things: human beings are inherently aggressive, and wars and violent conflicts are inevitable. Yet violence does not always occur, even when interests differ: violence is not inevitable. Violence is contingent upon the presence or absence of certain conditions.

Different dimensions distinguish violent conflicts:

§ The main substantive issues in contention or interests at stake—natural resource competition, government control, territorial control, governing ideologies.

§ The parties involved—ethnic, religious or regional communities, states, political factions.

§ The types of force or coercion used—nuclear war, conventional war, terrorism, coups, repression, genocide, gross human rights violations, ethnic cleansing.

§ The geographic scope or arena for killing and destruction—international conflicts, inter-communal conflicts, state-sponsored terrorism.

These dimensions are essential to understanding and comparing particular conflicts. But conflicts have many dimensions and exhibit several variations simultaneously; features may fluctuate in importance over the course of a conflict. For these reasons, policy-makers and practitioners should exercise caution in using any single dimension to label a conflict: such simplification can obscure a conflict’s many facets and cause policy errors.

3. The Continuum from Harmony to War

Different levels of conflict vary in the degree of cooperation or hostility. Some conflicts may be handled amicably without coercion or violence. Others rise to high levels of confrontation or involve repression and sustained physical violence.

These levels of interaction in conflicts can be arranged along a continuum from cooperative to hostile relations—from total harmony of interests to sustained all-out war. This continuum shows that there is overlap between peace and war. The overlap is reflected in graduated terms such as "hot war," "cold war," "co-existence," "rivalry," "detente," "alliance," "special relationship," "confederation," and so on.

The gradations from harmony to all-out war defined below are a kind of barometer of peace and conflict. The figure shows terms for important turning points such as the shift from latent to manifest conflict and from non-violent conflict to violence.

In actual situations, these different conditions are not sharply demarcated but are matters of degree which shade gradually from one to another. Situations may exhibit several levels of conflict. Yet distinguishing these gradations has several practical implications for policy-makers and practitioners. The gradations suggest that conflicts and peace rarely, if ever, arise suddenly, shift quickly from one status to another, or end suddenly. Relations do not move from total peace to total war without going through intermediate states—even the "Cold War" evolved through periods of direct confrontation, détente, and renewed hostility.

Numerous factors can cause a shift from one gradation to another.

§ The intensity and number of grievances.

§ Parties’ awareness of their differences; perceptions and attitudes towards each other.

§ The intensity of emotion and psychological investment in the parties’ positions and views of the world.

§ The amount of direct interaction and communication the parties have with one another.

§ The level of political mobilization and organization behind the parties’ positions.

§ Cohesion between the respective parties’ leaders and constituencies.

§ The amount of hostile behavior.

§ The extent that parties use or threaten to use arms.

§ The number of parties supportive of each side.

These factors can be analyzed as a first step to determining ways to stop a conflict from worsening.

C. Determinants of Violent Conflict or Peace

Regions vary widely in how peaceful they are and what kinds of conflict they experience. Policy-makers and practitioners in conflict prevention need to know what factors promote and sustain social peace in each society, and what region- or country-specific variables make conflict more or less likely.

Violent conflicts stem from multiple interconnected causes. Yet there are key factors or variables that are likely to determine whether political disputes evolve into violence or are settled peacefully. These variables can be causes of violence or causes of peace; analysts can examine conflict settings to assess these factors’ relative influence.

Determinants of conflict can be systemic (structural), promxiate (enabling) or immediate (triggering). These factors can be internal or external to the area in conflict. These types of causes overlap and interrelate.

1. Systemic Causes: Structural Conditions

Systemic determinants cause objective changes in parties’ material circumstances; environmental deterioration, population growth, resource scarcity and competition, the colonial or Cold War legacy, breakdowns of values and traditions, poverty, the marginalization of pastoralists, and ethnicity are all examples of systemic causes of conflict. A study of 113 instances of failed states, civil wars, and related national crises from 1955 to 1994 tested 75 political, leadership, demographic, social, economic and environmental factors and found that three factors—a nation’s infant mortality rate, the extent of a nation’s trade, and the extent of democracy—were the most strongly associated with the crises and were linked with other factors that affect the risks of crisis, even though they did not directly cause the crises themselves. The first two variables are systemic.

Systemic sources of conflict are pervasive and affect large numbers of people. Their influence on the probability of conflict operates slowly. Measures like international programs or government policies that seek to prevent or reduce conflicts by treating their systemic sources often show results over the long term.

2. Proximate Causes: Political and Institutional Factors

Proximate sources are problems in the social, political, and communications processes and institutions that mediate the effect of systemic conditions on peoples’ lives and behavior. Proximate factors are crucial influences on whether systemic conditions give rise to violent reactions or to more peaceful ways of dealing with conflicting interests. The linkage between proximate determinants and manifestations of violent conflict are easier to discern and their effect is more direct. Government policies, social organization, economic reform programs, the problems of political liberalization, militarization and external military aid can all be proximate sources of conflict.

3. Immediate Causes: Acts and Events

The most immediate and direct causes of violent conflict are found in actions and events that trigger violent actions—for instance, a government cracks down on an oppressed group which prompts a rebellion. Because they are more visible, these factors may be relatively easier to influence.

4. External and Internal Factors

The source of the cause of conflict is another major dimension influencing a country’s position on the spectrum from conflict to peace. Domestic and regional factors can encourage or help to head off violent approaches to resolving tensions, as can exogenous factors carried out by third parties. Internal and external determinants of conflict can be systemic, proximate or immediate as illustrated in the Table 2-1 below.



Type of Cause

Source of Cause

Within Country or Region


Systemic causes:

structural conditions

Ethnic group imbalance

Global and regional isolation

Proximate causes: political and institutional factors

Ethnic political parties

Cross-conflict spillover

("nearby calamities")

Immediate causes:

acts and events

Leadership extremism

Absence of third party engagement

5. Sample Causal Analysis

Table 2-1 above offers examples of internal and external causes of conflict. The following discussion raises issues to consider in each situation and illustrates how determinants of conflict overlap and interrelate. Appendix C offers an analysis of the causes of conflict in the Greater Horn of Africa.

Internal systemic cause: ethnic group imbalance. Is the society composed of one majority and one minority ethnic group, or is it more heterogenous, with three or more active and sizeable groups competing for political space through shifting coalitions? Societies composed of one single majority and minority group hold higher potential for violent conflict than societies with three or more groups: mutual hostility between two groups is likely to be more focussed, and when groups with similar power compete for the same political space, the zero-sum nature of the game can cause hostilities to build. Macedonia illustrates this tendancy, and the Greater Horn offers numerous examples of ethnic preponderance as a basic cause of violence when combined with other proximate and immediate causes: the Amhara/Tigrayan split in Ethiopia, the Northern Arab-Islamist Sudanese/Dinka conflict in Sudan, Tutsi/Hutu hostility in Burundi and Rwanda, and the many ethnic splits in the various regions of Somalia.

Internal proximate cause: ethnical political parties. Are the most important national political parties organized around ethnic groups, or do parties organize around shared non-ethnic interests such as political ideologies? Where ethnic parties predominate, elections are in effect ethnic censuses where parties relfect the numerical power of the groups they represent. Without alternatively-based parties, political instability can increase when winning groups use state power to dominate others. In anticipation, minority groups may subvert the elections process or take up arms after losing to protect themselves or to take control of national politics. The 1990 Yugoslav elections are a case in point; Burundi (uprona/frodebu) and Ethiopia (tplf and eprdf) are examples within the Greater Horn.

Internal immediate cause: leadership extremism. Do conflicting parties’ leaders show moderation in their words and actions and seek bilateral or multilateral negotiations to resolve disputes, or do they engage in demagogic rhetoric, provocative acts or coercion to achieve their objectives? Studies show that individual leaders’ behavior can shape the political atmosphere and promote or discourage conflict. Coercive actions provoke like reactions, escalating conflicts into vicious cycles of increasing violence and moving parties further from mutual agreements. Conciliatory behavior, moderate declarations of intent and enacting institutional reforms and policies can enhance the likelihood of non-violent outcomes to disputes. These accommodative actions help to preempt extreme demands and can foster a "virtuous circle" of increasing cooperation. Burundi, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Moldova are notable examples of inflammatory rhetoric feeding conflict; Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere’s ethnicity policy illustrates accommodationist leadership.

External systemic cause: global and regional isolation. Does the state enjoy political, commercial and trade relations with neighboring countries and with countries outside the region? Does the state participate in regular meetings and forums or is the state politically or economically isolated? A common variable associated with "state failure" is the extent of economies’ isolation from trade and commercial relations with other economies. Global and regional organizations have procedures that encourage regular contacts and active dispute mediation between governments and internal groups, including regular forums for discussing common issues, special envoys, confidence-buliding measures, and negotiations. Sudan is an example where a fundamentalist Islamist regime is largely isolated from political and economic organizations and has been highly resistant to outsider attempts to resolve its war against non-Islamic peoples in Southern Sudan.

External proximate cause: cross-conflict spillover. Are conflicts crossing borders to increase levels of conflict in neighboring countries, or are leaders taking steps to avoid the conflict outcomes they observed in nearby countries or regions with similar group conflicts? Leaders may be repelled by external conflicts, constraining them from violent escalation and encouraging them to undertake measures to keep domestic angers from destabilizing their own states. Burundi’s leadership struggled to reduce tensions after the Rwandan genocide, and Rwanda’s leaders vowed not to allow their country to follow Burundi’s path once Burundi’s conflict escalated. Greece-Macedonia (1992 on), the Czech and Slovak Republics (1992-1993) and Hungary/Slovakia (1992-1994) conflicts have all been informed and mitigated by the carnage of the Yugoslav wars.

External immediate cause: absence of third party engagement. Have third parties become engaged early in a dispute or is the international community standing by to await developments in a local conflict? Early third party engagement increases the chances that conflicting parties will talk rather than fight. Early third party engagement means positive or negative inducements for peaceful resolution of a conflict, with sufficient political or military pressures on disputants to bring them to work toward a mutual solution. The impact of these pressures will be reduced if they occur once a party has made gains and perceives itself as winning the conflict. The Greater Horn unfortunately abounds with examples of disputes escalating into violence when third parties intervened late (Somalia, Sudan) or even after the conflict (Rwanda). Moldova and Chechnya are recent European examples of conflict escalation without early intervention.

6. "Ethnic" Conflict

Ethnicity, the identity felt by people as a language group, tribe, clan, religion, or region is seen as a factor that drives many current conflicts. There are two general positions about ethnic identity’s influence on conflicts. The "primordial" explanation sees the main source of conflict in a deep sense of identity: ethnic conflicts arise when ancient hatreds are unleashed because certain authoritarian controls were removed. The theory attributes conflicts to systemic causes outside the control group leaders and thus of third parties as well.

The other view, "instrumentalism," sees such conflicts arising from policies pursued by groups who use group identity as a tool to mobilize people in pursuit of specific gains. Conflict may be fomented by elites who manipulate the symbols dear to their group and can stir resentment against other groups. They invoke hatred through propaganda, or they take covert actions to provoke violent reactions from their followers. This implies that group emotion does not usually combust spontaneously: it must be whipped up. From this perspective, ethnic conflicts are less subject to unalterable forces and more contingent on the action of elites and individual leaders.

A reasonable position to take in this debate is not to accept either extreme. We can acknowledge that some societies’ history and physical circumstances may have fostered a much stronger sense of identity in some groups than in others. If ethnic identities are deeper in some people and societies and shallower in others, the amount of "pull" a particular identity has on behavior can be affected by economic interest, history, political persuasion, and other factors. Thus, many analysts prefer to call conflicts with ethnic overtones "ethno-political," suggesting that willful activity may cause feelings of identity to become linked to political causes.

D. Violent Conflicts: Emergence and Cessation

Conflicts change over time; hostilities emerge, grow and abate. Figure 2-2 below depicts the stages—beginning, middle and end—and levels of a dispute that becomes violent.

§ The horizontal axis represents the stages of the conflict over time, distinguishing between early, middle and late phases.

§ The vertical axis measures the levels of the conflict in terms of the degrees of cooperation or hostility between the parties in conflict.

§ The arcing line across the diagram portrays the conflict as hostilities rise and fall.


Figure 2-2. Life Cycle of a Conflict
Click on the graph to view corresponding strategies

The smooth bell curve in Figure 2-2 simplifies conflict; the arrows that deviate from the line show that conflicts exhibit different trajectories, thresholds, jumps or discontinuities, and conflicts that have ceased can re-ignite. Nonetheless, most violent conflicts exhibit periods of initial growth, full-blown antagonism, and abatement from high points of hostility.

Figure 2-2 suggests where current conflicts in the Greater Horn of Africa might fall. While observers may disagree about a particular conflict’s position on this diagram, differentiation according to a conflict’s level and stage is useful in diagnosing the conflict prior to selecting policy interventions.

1. Dynamics of Escalation

Dynamic and interactive processes in individual and collective behavior explain whether hostile attitudes and behavior escalate or not.

Escalation may be vertical—hostile behavior becomes more intense—or horizontal—hostile behavior of the same intensity spreads over a larger area. Escalation can take both forms. Escalation can be caused by the parties themselves or by actions that third parties take.

Spiraling conflicts are fueled by a set of social-psychological phenomena within each party’s collective mind and behavior. People get more committed to a struggle as they become more involved. A sense of urgency takes over; time pressures to make decisions narrow options to little more than existing courses of action. The psychological investment that conflict requires shapes each side’s perceptions of the other: one’s own cause is seen as just, the other side’s as evil. Stereotyping and dehumanizing the opposition feed parties’ positions; acts of brutality are seen as completely justified.

Leaders may become more committed to their positions once they are announced publicly: it becomes harder to back down, and if there is competition for leadership positions, rivals can appeal to the broader constituency by questioning the leadership’s determination and ability to conduct the struggle. Moderates may quit or be driven out; leadership is left to militants. Commitment to fight increases; once conflict is being waged, specialists in using force gain influence over the government’s or organization’s leadership and policies. Fighting may widen the discussion: additional issues and grievances are raised, adding more reasons to pursue the struggle.

Escalation proceeds: harmed parties feel justified in striking back, and vice versa. Coercion and violence discourage communication between the parties, limiting opportunities for addressing issues through compromise. Even lack of retaliation may be perceived as weakness and lead the attacking party to persevere in the conflict.

The escalated conflict may affect third parties who feel that intervention would help their own interests. Other parties entering the conflict may prompt additional parties to take sides.

2. Early Warning

Truly preventive action requires early intervention to avoid being caught by surprise when conflicts erupt. Policy-makers must know how to recognize signs of impending conflict in order to make decisions based on informed analysis and marshall the resources required to head off incipient violence. Anticipating possible conflicts is not a matter of precisely predicting specific events and their timing since this level of exactitude is not possible. Instead, early warning means judging the probability that certain events will lead to violence or other crises. This requires reliable information on a range of possible common events—border crises, disintegrating regimes, civil wars, genocide, human rights abuses, refugee flows—and estimating where these are most likely to emerge.

Threats to security and national order emerge subtly out of social, political, economic and cultural, international, national and local conditions and events. These indicators are as diverse as price fluctuations, demonstrations, government policies, social movements, political infighting, leaders’ attitudes, and arms flows. At the same time, change, tension and political turmoil can be positive as well as negative in transitions between economic and political systems. Monitoring and information-gathering must reach deeply into a country’s social fabric and grassroots politics to identify possible sources of conflict. Table 2-2 below draws on recent research into developing reliable early warning systems to illustrate some of the proximate and immediate warning signs analysts have posited as the antecedents of possible civil wars, genocides, secessionist wars, or failed states.


¨ Proximate Factors

§ Governing elites express exclusionary ideologies (beliefs that elevate some ethnic group or class to a position of superiority over other groups).

§ Competition occurs among governing elites in a context in which the state security apparatus has few constraints.

§ A charismatic leadership emerges that attracts a mass following through abstract appeals to a group’s destiny.

§ Severe economic hardship or differential treatment occurs for certain ethnic or other groups. Scapegoats are sought.

§ Provision and distribution of public services decline.

§ Government responds to threats by enacting emergency measures or suspending rule of law.

§ Paramilitary organizations and militias grow or conduct training exercises.

§ Arms flows increase.

§ Politically active communities are increasingly polarized.

§ The state’s perceived legitimacy appears to erode.

¨ Triggering Factors

§ A regime enacts new discriminatory or restrictive policies such as abuses of human rights.

§ Clashes occur between regime supporters and targeted groups.

§ Politically active groups receive external material or rhetorical support.

§ Sudden economic events such as price drops affect large numbers of people.

§ Political leaders call openly to overthrow the government or expel certain groups.