Limiting Violence and Intimidation - For Educators and Trainers

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Heidi Burgess



The news alone illustrates the gravity of the violence problem. For instance:

The front page of any major newspaper will include more such stories — practically every day.

Since our goal is to reduce (and eventually end) war and it's associated human suffering, while promoting good governance and sustainable development, the importance of limiting violence and intimidation is pretty obvious.

The twentieth century was the deadliest in all of human history. With some 8 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust and nearly a million Rwandans slaughtered in a 100-day period in 1994, the 20th century truly earned the moniker "the age of genocide." Two world wars, numerous decolonization struggles, and civil wars also occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century and continued into the twenty-first. Added to that were some of the most horrific acts of terrorism in history, followed by two particularly protracted, difficult, and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those, along with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Iran's nuclear ambitions, and now the multiple challenges to Arab regimes — a few largely nonviolent, but others very violent — continue to destabilize much of the Middle East.[1]

In addition to loss of life, violence has many more long-lasting costs: debilitating injuries to combatants and non-combatants alike, grave psychological harm, destruction of public infrastructure and private property (homes and businesses), and the diversion of capital to destruction, rather than production and human betterment.

More information about the costs of violence and intimidation can be found in the articles below:

What is the Nature of the Problem?

War has changed character considerably over the last several decades. During most of the 20th century, most wars were fought between nation states, or large alliances of nation states (e.g. the two world wars and then a large number of smaller "proxy wars" as part of the overarching Cold War.) After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, internal or civil wars between ethnic or religous groups became far more common. So too did "extra-state" wars between non-state actors, such as the struggle between al Queda and the US, or the U.S.'s more broadly framed "war on terror."

Peace and Conflict 2010 is the executive summary of The University of Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM) bi-annual report on trends in peace and conflict worldwide. It has excellent statistics and analysis of violence world-wide, how it is changing, and what might be done to diminish it. A second useful resource is the ACLED: An Armed Conflict Location and Event Datase.

Considerable effort has gone into understanding the causes of such violence, and tracking trends for "early warning," so that (ideally) problems can be prevented before they escalate and become severe. Unfortunately, while early warning has gotten fairly sophisticated, early response has not. Articles related to the causes of violence and the strategy of early warning are below.

Relationship Between this Topic and Others in the Knowledge Base

  • Human Rights and Violence: The relationship between human rights and violence is something like the chicken-and-egg problem. Are human rights violations caused by violent conflict, or are they the drivers of violent conflict? Interestingly, while we see violence as a cause or symptom of human rights abuses, the Peace Building Initiative sees human rights as a cause (and symptom) of violence. They argue that "it matters whether gross human rights violations resulting from conflict is the main concern, or whether the focus is on conflict resulting from a denial of human rights. The problems to be addressed are different and so are the desired outcomes."They go on to explain, "if human rights violations are first perceived as symptoms of conflict, the primary objective is to protect people from further abuses, to limit the excesses of war, and to protect civilians and other vulnerable groups. Activities of intermediaries are then aimed at mitigating, alleviating, and containing the destructive manifestations of conflict, in particular any form of physical violence. But if human rights violations are perceived foremost as the cause of the eruption or escalation of a violent conflict, the main objective of activities by both human rights and conflict management practitioners is to address the structural, systemic conditions that give rise to violent conflict in a society." They then proceed with a number of steps to do that.
  • Human Needs and Violence: Human needs theorists, such as John BurtonHerbert Kelman, and Christopher Mitchell, (among many others) have argued that the absence of fundamental human needs is a major driver of deep-rooted conflict, violence, and war. These scholars extend human needs beyond the fundamentals of food, water, shelter, and health care to include social-pyschological needs: particularly security (which clearly overlaps with violence prevention), identity, and recongition. They assert that when any of these fundamental needs are threatened, the people who are so threatened will fight — often violently — to obtain these fundamental needs. While interests can be compromised or negotiated, and rights can be adjudicated, needs cannot. They are of primary importance and are usually fought for when absent.
  • Sense of Community and Violence: A subset of the human needs scholars focus on identity as a major driver of conflict, as do social-psychologists who study the development of stereotypes, in-groups and out-groups, and enemy images. When severe conflict occurs, there is inevitably a division of disputants into "us" versus "them," and the sense of community, if there ever was one, breaks down. This makes more likely the processes of dehumanizationdelegitimization, and humiliation, all of which are drivers of violent conflict.
  • Fairness and Violence: Fairness is one aspect of justice, and perceived injustice is an important driver of violence. People may accept minor injustice or unfairness if it happens every once in awhile, but when it is perceived as profound, happens repeatedly, and is there are no institutional remedies, violent response becomes increasingly likely. In addition, if peace agreements are not seen as just (or fair), they are likely to break down into violence again, as spoilers will try to reignite violence to get their needs and interests met.
  • Agreement-Based Problem Solving and Violence: This is one of the topics that is negatively associated with violence. When problems can be worked out through negotiation or agreement, the likelihood of violence diminishes significantly. Trying to get disputants to approach their problems this way, rather than through force is an important way to reduce violence and contribute to better governance and peace.
  • Technical Issues and Violence: The inability to deal effectively with technical challenges is another contributor to violence. Examples are plentiful: inability to deal with water shortages due to technical limitations stresses populations, threatens fundamental needs, and not infrequently leads to violence. (Examples include the DarfurEthiopia/Eritrea and Israel/Palestine conflicts (although admittedly, there are myriad other issues in Israel-Palestine as well.) Inability (or threats to the ability) to obtain other natural resources — such as oil — has also led to many wars, as might the threat of flooding and desertification, both of which are apparently advancing due to climate change. While none of these issues goes away with technical analysis, good technical analysis and decision making processes that effectively make use of that technical knowledge is absolutely necessary to enable people to effectively manage these "natural challenges."
  • Politics and Violence: Violence can be defined as the failure of politics — Clausewitz is famously quoted as saying "war is the continuation of politics by other means." There is no need to continue politics by other means if politics is working. It is when it is perceived to not provide legitimate or fair decisions that protect rights and provide fundamental needs that people go to clearly more costly approaches, such as violence.
  • Legitimacy and Violence: With the current nation-state system, the nation state is supposed to maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. If others use violence, they are committing an illegitimate, criminal act, and can be tried and punished for doing so. But in non-democratic systems, it is fairly common for the state to use violence against its own citizens, or to otherwise behave in a manner that is deemed illegitimate by a significant portion of the population. Sometimes, this illegitimacy leads to either nonviolent (as in Egypt) or violent attempts to overthrow the regime. Such attempts then often lead to a violent response (as in Syria or Libya in 2011) even when the initial attempt was nonviolent. Conversely, the most legitimate political systems tend to be democratic ones, and the democratic peace thesis asserts that violence is less likely among democracies than among autocracies or between democracies and autocracies. Democracies are also less likely to engage in violence against their own populations.

What Are Some of the Key Concepts and Theories that Relate to Violence Prevention?

Theories abound about how to prevent violence. They can be organized in at least two ways: according to the level of action they focus on (elite decision-makersgrassroots, or "mid-level" actors), or by assumed causes of violence (social-psychological causes, economic causes, political causes, etc.). These two factors were brought together by Peter Woodrow and Diana Chigas in an article and very useful chart on Theories of Change/Theories of Peacebuilding. By "theories of change," they mean explicit or implicit assumptions about how desired change (such as the prevention of violence) comes about. For instance, one theory of change (which could also be called a theory of violence prevention) is the intergroup contact theory — that people are less likely to engage in violence against people they know and understand, so if hostile people are brought together to get to know each other better, then they will be less likely to engage in violence agaist each other or others in the other group. The democratic peace theory referenced above is also a theory of change. It asserts that democracies are less prone to violence, so the theory says that if non-democratic political systems can be made more democratic, then violence will be reduced. Though Woodrow and Chigas's article referenced above is no longer available online, it was incorporated into an OECD document entitled Encouraging Effective Evaluation of Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding Activities: Towards DAC Guidance, which is still available. The chart can be found on pages 86-87. In both these documents, Woodrow and Chigas describe myriad theories of change and associated methods of violence prevention. They include:

  1. Individual Attitude Change: Some theories suggest that peace can be obtained (hence violence averted) if individual disputants' attitudes, behaviors, and skills can be changed. These individuals, it is argued, will create a "critical mass" of people who will advocate for peace, thereby making violence less socially acceptable. Such attitude change can be brought about through one-on-one (or small group) interactions such as dialogues, or through the mass media through tolerance-encouraging programming. More information about strategies for bringing about attitude change include:
  2. Individual Relationship Change: This is an extension of the contact theory — if disputants are brought together across groups for dialogue, networking, and relationship-building efforts, prejudice and stereotypes will be reduced and this will reduce violence. Examples of that include:
  3. Social Structure Change: Resources: This theory suggests that large-scale violence needs a continuous inflow of resources and people, so if the supply of people to fight and/or weapons to fight with can be cut off, violence can be reduced or stopped.
  4. Social Structure Change: Social Justice: This theory asserts that violence is caused by frustration about injusticeoppression, or threats to identity and/or security. If these frustrations can be addressed directly with social structural changes that at least begin to reduce the frustration, and give people a sense that there is a non-violent way to improve their lot, then violence can be reduced or prevented.
  5. Political Change: Transitional Justice: Societies that have experienced civil war or other widespread violations of human rights need to be able to close that episode in their personal and civil lives and move on. Transitional justice (TJ) scholars advocate two different approaches to TJ — war crimes tribunals (the theory being the retributive justice must be served if people are to be able to "move on," and those who think the threat of trial prolongs the violence and some combination of amnesty and truth-finding/telling in truth commissions is a superior way to prevent further, revenge-based violence from occurring.
    • Toms, Ron, and Paris review current findings on the effects of various forms of TJ in this article. Nothing, they show, is particularly conclusive.
    • TJ expert Eric Weibelhaus-Brahm concurs, but gives more evidence regarding the impacts of Truth Commissions here. His Beyond Intractability User Guide to TJ is also a useful resource.
    • This is a useful dataset on TJ. compiled by Olsen, Payne, and Reiter.
    • Other materials on TJ can be found here.Clearly, there is a lot of disagreement about what level of analysis to work at, and which cause-and-effect linkage(s) to focus on. If we knew how to prevent people from using violence or intimidation, or how to stop its use and escalation after it starts, there would be many fewer intractable conflicts, violence, or wars.
  6. Political Change: Good Governance: Although we define everything on this list (and much more) to be related to "good governance," Chigas and Woodrow specifically describe good governance as "establishing stable/reliable social institutions that guarantee democracy, equity, justice, and fair allocation of resources." A few useful resources include:
  7. Elite Attitude Change: This theory suggests that violence is driven by the elites, who incite or at times order their citizens to fight. If the political calculus and interests of the elite can be changed in a way that makes fomenting violence more costly than peace, this theory holds that violence can then be reduced.
  8. Elite Level Peace Agreements: This theory also assumes that violence is driven by the elites, and the key to stopping it and preventing further violence is to negotiate peace agreements among elites or their representatives.
    • Whenever peace agreements are negotiated, however, negotiators are faced with the peace versus justice dilemma — or so they think. John Paul Ledrach, however, asserts that this dilemma is actually solvable — in the form of reconciliation. That, however, is not done at the negotiating table, but rather, over the long term.
    • This Peace Agreement Index doesn't explain much about how these agreements were negotiated, but it does explain what is in them.
    • The US Institute of Peace also has a digital collection of peace agreements.
    • When official peace negotiations aren't moving, sometimes "back channel" approaches can break the impasse.
  9. Grassroots Mobilization: Opposite to the elite theories of change, grassroots mobilization theory suggests that "when the people lead, the leaders will follow." This assertion is supported by nonviolence theorist Gene Sharp, who asserts that even the most oppressive regime serves at the will of the people. If people refuse to obey the leader(s), despite threats or actual violent oppression, the leadership will fall — leaders cannot lead if no one will follow. This, of course, can result in a signficant increase in violence — as is being demonstrated in Northern Africa and the Middle East in 2011, but it can also cause a reduction of violence, as was seen by the grassroots effort to end the U.S. involvement both in Vietnam in the 1970s, and Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade.
    • Although it is well recognized that the grassroots is essential to peacebuilding, they are not often included in peace negotiations, as is discussed in this article.
    • All levels of society, but particularly the grassroots, are essential for peacebuilding, as is explained in these Beyond Intractability articles. (Second article is linked here.)
    • An overview of nonviolent direct action explains how this approach is often superior to violence.
  10. Economic Change: Many people see economic decisions as driving most political and personal decision making. So if war is perceived as economically costly, then decision makers are likely to avoid it if possible, and citizens are likely to oppose elite efforts to wage war. If, however, war is seen as profitable (by the "military-industrial complex," for instance) then drivers to wage war, or at least highten fear levels (thereby supporting the continued production of weapons and maintenance of a large army) could increase the chances of violence, not diminish it.
  11. Social and Economic Change: Community Reintegration: This theory holds that violence is driven by displaced people — refugees and IDPs (internally-displaced persons) — who are unable to get their fundamental needs met. If they can be returned to their homes and supported enough to be able to live in relative peace with their neighbors (a big "if," in our mind, but that's the theory), then this will diminish violence, according to this theory of change.
  12. Cultural Change: Cutlure of Peace: This theory suggests that if cultural and societal norms, values and attitudes can be fostered to reject violence and to support tolerancedialoguenegotiation, and consensus decision making, then the conditions for peace can be established and maintained over the long term.
    • Dan Bar-Tal is one of the leading proponents of the culture of peace approach.
    • The media is an important influence in creating or destroying a culture of peace.

Other documents on theories of change are:

Clearly, there is a lot of disagreement about what level of analysis to work at, and which cause-and-effect linkage(s) to focus on. But a lot more is known about ways to transform such occurrences than is commonly put into use. Sometimes this occurs because people don't know of alternatives, sometimes because they don't trust the alternatives will work or would provide an outcome better than continued conflict; and other times because they feel so disempowered and hopeless, they have pretty much just given up.

One of the main purposes of this knowledge base is to give people hope — to show them through analysis and case studies that even the most difficult and violent conflicts can be successfully transformed or resolved. In addition to the approaches highlighted above, there are other, cross-cutting approaches that are widely used. The Beyond Intractability article on Peace Processes gives an overview of the various arenas, phases, objectives, and steps of processes that are designed to create and sustain peace. Articles on subsidiary processes include:

What More Needs to be Learned / What Are the Major Areas of Debate?

Despite a great deal of scholarly and practical work on peace processes, a lot of questions remain unanswered. Among these are:

  1. When should outside actors intervene in "internal" conflicts?
  2. Who whould these actors be?
  3. What form should the intervention take? (Are there non-military options? What are they?
  4. How can such interventions be most effective — with the least cost?
  5. How can conventional military and diplomatic forces successfully counter largely "invisible" insurgencies?
  6. What can be done to prevent violence and terror before it starts?
  7. What is the role of civil and commercial society in preventing or ending violent conflicts?

These issues are addressed in more detail in the Research and Development section of TGC, but some readings relating to these questions follow:

This list could go on for a much longer time, but we invite our readers to contribute more items of interest, and to read more on our pages for practitioners and researchers, where we develop these ideas more.


[1] This material was updated, but drawn heavily from Brahm, Eric. "Costs of Intractable Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2004 <>; accessed 4-10-2010.

[2] The material in this section (above here) was written by Charles (Chip) Hauss of the Alliance for Peacebuilding. It was originally published as part of his article entitled "Violence" in Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: Sept. 2003. <>; accessed 4-10-2010.