Crawling Back from the Brink: How Conflict Resolution Can Respond to Genocide
Published on: Dec 22, 2006


Many in the conflict resolution field (and, to an even greater degree, in military and other “hard-line” sectors) feel that genocide is too powerful a destructive force to respond to the tools of conflict resolution.1  In fact, conflict resolution in a multitude of forms, including operational conflict prevention,2  structural conflict prevention, post-conflict justice procedures and relational processes can play an important role in lowering the level of violence in potentially genocidal situations.

From the perspective of a conflict resolution professional, two particularly interesting points emerge from the case studies in this forum, suggesting ways in which conflict resolution tools might prevent genocide, and help societies heal from periods of genocidal violence.

The first is the observation that in nearly all the cases we reviewed, periods of recognizably genocidal violence alternated with periods of relative peace. This “sine wave” pattern of violence stands in contrast to the cases that did not step back from the brink (the Holocaust; Rwanda; the Armenian genocide), in which the violence tended to be massive and unrelenting.  This cyclical nature of violence caused me to think about what structures and processes might be put in place before violence escalates to the genocidal level, to help strengthen peacebuilding efforts during lulls in violence.

The second point that has emerged is the potential of truth commissions, tribunals, investigations and other procedures of post-conflict justice for helping societies heal from genocidal violence. These tools remain clumsy, however, and need better connections to reconciliation efforts on the ground.

Creating—and Using—Lulls in Violence

A striking feature of many of the cases examined is how cyclical the violence was. In Guatemala, the Soviet Union, Sudan, and Biafra, there were points at which the genocidal massacres subsided, before welling up again. There is no consensus about the causes of the lulls; a useful social science study would try to isolate variables in these cases, and examine why some genocides continued almost unrelentingly, while other cases were more sporadic and pulled back from the brink. Whatever the cause of the relatively peaceful interludes in our case studies, the lulls did not always represent good news. Sometimes, the lulls simply created room for factions to regroup and begin violence anew.

At other times, a lull in violence can present an opportunity for seeds of peace to germinate, whether imposed from outside intervention or cultivated from within, and it is in these positive lulls that I feel conflict resolution can make a contribution. I am not suggesting that conflict resolution tools by themselves can create lulls in violence. Rather, I want to propose a two-pronged challenge. The first is to create social environments open and flexible enough to allow non-violent conflict resolution initiatives to take root, in the hope that these initiatives will eventually create a base for peacebuilding. The second, and closely related challenge, is to develop better ways of determining which conflict resolution procedures might best take root before the violence escalates, and how these might later bear the best fruit during a time of a lull in violence.

Structural Conflict Prevention
We know a surprising amount about how to create societies in which conflict resolution can take root even during periods of great turmoil and potential violence. “Structural” conflict prevention describes how to build new societal structures in which peace can take hold, citizens can express political and economic choice, and different social, cultural and religious agendas can co-exist. A broad consensus has emerged, in both the conflict prevention and post-conflict peacebuilding communities, about what building blocks make up structural conflict prevention. Each of these conditions is necessary, but not sufficient, for creating a society in which citizens can pursue full lives, in peace. Societies with these characteristics are also more resilient, and might be better able to stop deadly violence in its tracks rather than succumbing to full-fledged genocide.

The building blocks of these resilient societies consist of democracy (or at least a few robust democratic institutions); civil society organizations (an informal infrastructure buffering the government and its citizens—what de Tocqueville deemed to be the great strength of American democracy); a strong framework of human rights and rule of law; security mechanisms; adequate public health; sound development and economic policies; and conflict resolution mechanisms. In more detail:

  • Democracy: Countries in which citizens have venues for participation and free expression, if not full democracy, are better able to channel violent impulses into political action. A country does not need to be a western-style democracy to allow its citizens forums for participation and expression. A non-corrupt, transparent judicial system; venues for public debate on societal issues like health and education; a free press—strengthening any one of these areas can help a society develop a political culture in which fuller democracy can eventually take hold. The key is finding organizations that allow some room in which new institutions can begin to flourish and which encourage public dialogue on issues central to the society’s future.
  • Human Rights/Rule of Law: Human rights and rule of law issues dovetail with issues of conflict resolution and democracy. Human rights abuses can portend future violence. During a conflict, human rights groups can shine a spotlight on military abuses and work to uphold international standards of warfare. After conflict, human rights groups can work toward developing systems of post-conflict justice (e.g., truth and reconciliation commissions), and can work with democracy advocates to build stronger institutions.
  • Conflict Resolution: Conflict resolution provides tools for preventing conflict (for example, dialogue and problem solving processes); helps shape and facilitate public dialogue on important social issues; and helps the healing process during the post-conflict stage. Conflict resolution includes processes such as mediation (either among diplomats or among citizens), negotiation, early intervention, and facilitation of difficult public conversations. Conflict resolution can act as both a catalyst for cooperation, and a bridge between the other sectors necessary for safe societies.
  • Development/Economic Security: Economic opportunity and development can prevent conflict, and can protect against the sort of anomie that contributes to such horrors as terrorism, religious extremism, and suicide bombers. Development helps build stronger societies in which citizens have freedom of choice in their economic futures, and a guarantee of at least basic needs like food, health care, and education.
  • Public Health: Programs focusing on public health—and especially those dealing with the AIDS pandemic—help guard the social infrastructure of fragile societies. In societies in which a third of the working population succumbs to AIDS, children are left vulnerable, economic activity grinds to a halt, and the stage is set for anarchy. Well-tailored public health programs can help shore up the infrastructure of these fragile societies, and keep all sectors of society economically and politically active. The public health sector can also play an important role in the post-conflict society, healing wartime trauma.
  • Strong Civil Society Structures: Strong civil society structures are critical building blocks for democracy; act as agents for dialogue on key social issues; and help collect voices of citizens.  They serve as a buffer between government and its citizens, funneling information from the government level to the citizenry, and from citizens to government. Recent studies have shown that societies with strong civil society organizations are less inclined to violence based on ethnic or religious lines (e.g., between Muslims and Hindus in India, in areas which have strong civil society networks). 
  • Security: Peacemaking and safety are impossible without basic security. A strong, but democratic and responsive police force; a military that protects citizens while respecting their human rights; and firm government control of stand-alone militias are basic requirements for citizens’ safety. Of course, the proper balance between security and freedom is critical to a perception of safety in all senses of the word.
A country does not have to look like the United States or Sweden in order to provide the kind of “space” needed for conflict resolution processes. Tajikistan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, Armenia have all stretched to accommodate long-term non-governmental peace efforts at elite, as well as grass-roots, citizen levels. We understand less, though, about how to prioritize and sequence the kinds of institutional changes that lead to safer societies, less prone to genocidal conflict. More research is necessary on the role of external actors in societal change, the proper sequencing of democracy and civil society building initiatives, the role of international norms in influencing change, ways of bypassing authoritative leaders (who might, like Saddam Hussein, use genocide to achieve political goals), and ways of better circumventing genocidal fringe factions (such as the Presidential Guard in Rwanda).

Choosing Appropriate Conflict Resolution Processes
Once political space has been created for conflict resolution, the challenge of knowing which processes might be most effective remains. It is especially difficult to know which processes might withstand periods of extreme violence, and which might actually be helpful during lulls between genocidal bursts of violence. Scholars and practitioners often talk in terms of the life cycle or physical properties of flora, fauna, and water: “seeds” of conflict resolution; seventeen-year cicadas that will emerge under the right conditions; rocks causing ripples in a pond. These metaphors indicate that actions taken at one point in time can resonate later, in situations either of great stress, or an easing in violence. It is hard to know in advance what kinds of programs will have the most impact. Potential processes for peacebuilding include (among others): grass roots dialogues developing broad support through a particular society; “public peace processes” in which elite and well-connected citizens work together over a long period of time to explore past history and to plan common futures with “the enemy;” and second track diplomacy, in which top level diplomats talk in secrecy. Often these processes must co-exist, in the hope that they will cross-fertilize each other. We desperately need more research on the best ways to coordinate these processes, and how to measure which work the best in particular contexts.

I have been involved with planning and facilitating three sets of public peace dialogues (Israeli/Palestinian; Armenian and Azerbaijani; and Catholic/Protestant in Northern Ireland) in which participants were able to reach out and support one another during times of intense violence (though the violence never rose to the level of genocide), and to redouble their efforts for peace during lulls in the violence. The following characteristics defined the processes that were best able to withstand surges of violent conflict in the region, and then to help move societies forward after the violence.

  1. Participants represented broad constituencies at a high level of power
    Participants in the public peace processes represented broad sectors of the societies under conflict. They were former parliamentarians and local government officials, professors, former military officers, physicians, refugee advocates, computer engineers, and teachers. They were the elite of their countries, and the young people, especially, were particularly fluent in technology (allowing them to use the internet to connect with other groups, both within and outside the region). They were connected to broad social networks and had the respect needed for the successful dissemination of new ideas.

  2. The processes placed a strong emphasis on joint projects
    In addition to focusing on relationship and political issues, the participants worked on joint projects at home: drafts of potential working papers and documents (in the Israeli-Palestinian case, they jointly proposed a plan they had drafted at a meeting in California, which foreshadowed almost exactly the Oslo Accords several years later); joint research (Armenian and Azerbaijani psychologists conducted joint research projects on the effects of war on children); joint trips to other areas of conflict in the world (Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland visited groups working on peace in South Africa). These efforts not only mirrored the kind of work needed for lasting peace, but in some instances created new civil society structures within fragile states.

  3. Discussions dealt with the past, but looked to the future
    While the groups discussed at length their experiences with war, and their impressions of history, the most powerful work of the participants looked at developing a common future, in which the “enemy” played a role.

  4. Participants actively reached out to diaspora groups
    Diaspora groups can be more extreme than groups in the home country, and diaspora groups often funnel resources to the most extreme factions of conflicts. In the successful efforts I am discussing here, the participants spent much time visiting with diaspora groups in the United States, educating them about the current realities on the ground; encouraging the support of moderate factions and joint peace efforts; and seeking the political engagement of U.S. politicians representing diaspora groups within the United States (e.g.,members of Congress with many diaspora members in their districts).

  5. The processes consciously bolstered the middle against the extremes on both sides
    Often, moderate representatives at the conferences had more in common with one another across “enemy lines” than they did with extremists within their own groups. Much work was done to bolster this “moderate middle,” and when extremist factions on either side threatened or carried out violence, this middle was able to reach across battle lines to support the moderates on the other side.

  6. The participants developed strong relations with the media
    While the contents of the meetings themselves were usually secret, participants worked closely with the media to change stereotypes of the enemy, to report on joint projects, and to provide more even coverage of the conflict.

  7. Participants and facilitators recognized the need for long-term work
    The successful processes spread out over many years–at least four, and in many cases nearly ten. This allowed sufficient time for the participants to develop trust with one another and with the facilitators. It let the participants weather different political and military storms in their regions, and to test their relationships in times of trouble. In the case of one particularly successful process involving long term dialogue in Tajikistan, members of the process eventually worked their way into government at the end of the civil war.

While we still do not know enough about how to use dialogue processes strategically during times of increased violence and potential genocide, the characteristics listed above clearly seem to be able to create traction within a society for messages of peace during times of “lull” in deadly conflicts. Former U.S. Ambassador Chester Crocker, in describing Angola, once talked about syzygy: the time at which all the constellations come into alignment. He said that all the hard background work of peacebuilding, which might have seemed hopeless during the conflict period, can suddenly come to fruition with one change in leadership, military direction, or regional balance of power. While we do not yet know how best to make the stars align, we can learn to develop strong processes that have the potential to take hold when opportunities and lulls present themselves.

Post-Conflict Justice as a Means for Healing and Preventing Future Genocide

Another striking element of the case studies is the power of post-conflict truth commissions in two of the cases, meant to uncover the truth behind genocidal violence, create a common memory of the violence, and act as a catalyst for healing. The form of the post-conflict justice mechanism varied in the two cases, but the commonality of the impulse was striking

In Guatemala, the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) was established on 23 June 1994, as part of peace agreements between the Guatemalan government and the National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unit (URNG). The CEH was designed to investigate human rights violations in the 36-year armed conflict in this country, and was chaired by distinguished lawyers and academics (including a Mayan woman). 4

In Guatemala, the truth commission report was central to the post-conflict peacebuilding process. Similar processes have taken place in South Africa, Argentina, El Salvador and Nigeria, with generally positive results, to help commemorate the pain of the violence; to assign responsibility; and to tell stories of the victims and perpetrators. The underlying impulse of truth commissions—as opposed to tribunals and war crimes trials—is to understand and memorialize, rather than to punish. More punitive processes, like the war crimes tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, serve as mechanisms for retributive justice for individual leaders and operatives of genocide.

The conflict in Bangladesh occurred well before the surge of truth commissions around the world in the 1980s and beyond. However, in Bangladesh, retired judges wrote a report in 1972, based on incomplete evidence. In 1999, an Indian journalist found a copy of the report and put in on the web. The government refused to release or recognize the report, but nonetheless the content, which recommended that some generals should be court-martialed, and that the military should not be involved with governance, were powerful and had deep resonance in the society.

Some kind of process, whether based on principles of memory (truth commissions) or justice (tribunals) is exceedingly important for post-conflict healing. Since the period after the signing of a peace agreement can be even bloodier than the conflict itself, putting mechanisms in place for truth and justice can help staunch impulses toward revenge and can stop the cycle of violence.

More work needs to be done on understanding exactly which sorts of post-conflict justice mechanisms are appropriate for particular conflicts (especially when the levels of violence have approached genocide levels). The robust literature on transitional justice springs primarily from the perspectives of law and human rights, and deals in great detail with the legal structure of and basis for tribunals and truth commissions. Current literature and practice focus on theories of justice (restorative versus deterrent versus punitive); the advantages and disadvantages of amnesty; the role of the International Court of Justice and jurisdictional questions; how “deep” to drill into the ranks of offenders (leaders only, or the cadre of officers and other citizens involved in atrocities); and the trade-offs between truth and justice.

Another facet needs to be added to this lens: specifically, how the institutional goals of the truth commissions and tribunals connect with the goals of reconciliation between citizens after a genocidal conflict. A conflict resolution approach to transitional justice would ask different questions from a legal approach. It would examine exactly how the transitional justice system leads to systemic reconciliation (and, conversely, whether there are reconciliation processes available in the post-conflict period that can make transitional justice more effective). A conflict resolution approach to transitional justice would focus increasingly on the process of formation (how the structure of the transitional justice system is negotiated), on the procedural mechanisms by which society at large integrates the results of the transitional justice process into a larger process of reconciliation, and how complementary processes might dovetail with the transitional justice system to form a durable peace.

Elizabeth Neuffer, in The Key to My Neighbor’s House,5 documents the disjuncture between the establishment of truth commissions and tribunals, and how citizens on the ground feel that justice would have best been satisfied. In her interviews with Rwandans and citizens of the former Yugoslavia, she found them to be disconnected from the elite legal battles taking place in the United Nations-led tribunals. Rather than seeking the trial of a few leaders, Neuffer’s interviewees sought information and closure: they wanted the exhumation of mass graves, in order to learn how their loved ones had died. They wanted to bury their dead with honor, and to put to rest questions about the excruciating ends of the victims. In order to understand the healing process after genocidal violence, we need better tools for connecting citizens with the decision makers on questions about post-conflict justice, and we need to broadcast the results of the justice mechanisms back into the population (a report that is never read cannot have much of an impact). A system of post-conflict justice connected with reconciliation and conflict resolution efforts among citizens would go a long way toward healing the fabric of societies torn apart by violence.


This forum raises fascinating questions about how conflicts that might have become full-scale genocide were able to move to a lower, less deadly (if still very violent) level. Conflict resolution cannot always help in situations of deadly conflict, but with better research, more communication with actors in societies facing genocidal violence, and new understandings about how to use post-conflict peacebuilding to break cycles of violence, we might be able to design more timely, sensitive, and effective interventions.


1 To take this argument to the extreme, in some situations, conflict resolution can be said to have helped set the stage for genocidal massacres (for instance, mediation in Bosnia served primarily as a fig leaf for western inaction, and gave more time to irredentist forces to carry out ethnic cleansing). For a discussion of situations in which neutral conflict resolution can be destructive and, potentially immoral, see Melanie Greenberg “Mediating Massacres,” Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution, Volume 19, pg. 185 – 212.

2 This paper will not focus on operational prevention, though operational prevention is perhaps the best known, and most easily calibrated, set of conflict resolution tools. Operational conflict prevention focuses on military and diplomatic intervention at the time the conflict starts to escalate. Jan Eliasson, Swedish Ambassador to the United States, conceptualizes these operational measures as a “Ladder of Prevention,” and prioritizes the rungs of the ladder as actions ranging from early warning, to fact-finding missions, to the use of coercive sanctions and finally military intervention based on UN Charter Chapter VII authority. Other analysts use somewhat different frameworks to describe this concept, but the overall goal of operational prevention is to use carefully modulated military, economic and diplomatic action to deter violence and punish instigators of aggression before a situation of genocide can develop. See Eliasson “Ladder of Prevention,” in Peter Wallensteen & Frida Möller Conflict Prevention: Methodology for Knowing the Unknown, Uppsala Peace Research Papers No. 7, Uppsala University 2003, p. 12. See also David Hamburg, No More Killing Fields: Preventing Deadly Conflict (Rowman & Littlefield 2002); Michael Lund, Preventing Violent Conflicts (United States Institute of Peace 1996).

3 See, e.g., Ashutosh Varshney, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India (Yale University Press 2002).


5 Elizabeth Neuffer, The Key to My Neighbor’s House (Picador 2002).