Local Capacities for Preventing and Rejecting Violent Conflict

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Credit: UN Women via Flickr

By Peace Science Digest, December 2, 2022

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Saulich, C., & Werthes, S. (2020). Exploring local potentials for peace: Strategies to sustain peace in times of war. Peacebuilding, 8(1), 32-53.

Talking Points

  • The very existence of peaceful societies, zones of peace (ZoPs), and nonwar communities demonstrates that communities have options and agency even in the broader context of wartime violence, that there are nonviolent approaches to protection, and that there is nothing inevitable about being drawn into cycles of violence despite their strong pull.
  • Noticing “local potentials for peace” reveals the existence of local actors—beyond only perpetrators or victims—with novel strategies for conflict prevention, enriching the repertoire of conflict prevention measures available.
  • External conflict prevention actors can benefit from greater awareness of nonwar communities or ZoPs in war-affected regions by ensuring that they “do no harm” to these initiatives through their interventions, which might otherwise displace or weaken local capacities.
  • Key strategies employed by nonwar communities can inform conflict prevention policies, such as strengthening collective identities that transcend polarized wartime identities, proactively engaging with armed actors, or building communities’ reliance on their own capacities to prevent or refuse participation in armed conflict.
  • Spreading knowledge of successful nonwar communities in the broader region can aid in post-conflict peacebuilding by encouraging the development of other nonwar communities, making the region as a whole more conflict resilient.

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • Although nonwar communities are usually discussed in the context of active war zones, the current political climate in the United States suggests that U.S. Americans should be paying closer attention to the strategies of nonwar communities in our own conflict prevention efforts—particularly building and sustaining relationships across polarized identities and strengthening cross-cutting identities that reject violence.

Summary

Despite the recent surge in interest in local peacebuilding, international actors often retain primary agency for themselves in the framing and design of these processes. Local actors are often conceived of as “recipients” or “beneficiaries” of international policies, rather than as autonomous agents of peacebuilding in their own right. Christina Saulich and Sascha Werthes instead wish to examine what they call “local potentials for peace,” pointing out that communities and societies exist around the world that refuse participation in violent conflicts, even those immediately surrounding them, without external prodding. The authors are interested in exploring how greater attention to local potentials for peace, especially nonwar communities, can inform more innovative approaches to conflict prevention.

Local potentials for peace: “local groups, communities, or societies that successfully and autonomously reduce violence or opt out of conflict in their environments due to their culture and/or unique, context-specific conflict management mechanisms.”

Nonwar communities: “local communities in the midst of war regions that successfully elude conflict and being absorbed by one or other of the warring parties.”

Zones of peace: “local communities caught in the midst of protracted and violent intrastate conflicts [that] declare themselves peace communities or their home territory as a local zone of peace (ZoP)” with the primary purpose of protecting community members from the violence.

Hancock, L., & Mitchell, C. (2007). Zones of peace. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press.

Peaceful societies: “societ[ies] that ha[ve] oriented [their] culture and cultural development toward peacefulness” and have “developed ideas, morals, value systems, and cultural institutions that minimize violence and promote peace.”

Kemp, G. (2004). The concept of peaceful societies. In G. Kemp & D.P. Fry (Eds.), Keeping the peace: Conflict resolution and peaceful societies around the world. London: Routledge.

The authors begin by describing three different categories of local potentials for peace. Peaceful societies entail longer-term cultural shifts towards peace, as opposed to nonwar communities and zones of peace, which are more immediate responses to active violent conflict. Peaceful societies “favour consensus-oriented decision-making” and adopt “cultural values and worldviews [that] fundamentally reject (physical) violence and promote peaceful behaviour.” They do not engage in collective violence internally or externally, have no police or military, and experience very little interpersonal violence. Scholars studying peaceful societies also note that societies change in response to their members’ needs, meaning societies that were not previously peaceful can become so through proactive decision-making and cultivation of new norms and values.

Zones of peace (ZoPs) are grounded in the concept of sanctuary, whereby certain spaces or groups are considered a safe haven from violence. In most cases, ZoPs are territorially bound communities declared during armed conflict or the subsequent peace process, but occasionally they are also tied to particular groups of people (like children). Scholars studying ZoPs have identified factors conducive to their success, including “strong internal cohesion, collective leadership, impartial treatment of warring parties, [ ] common norms,” clear boundaries, lack of threat posed to outsiders, and lack of valuable goods inside the ZoP (that might motivate attacks). Third parties often play an important role supporting zones of peace, particularly through early warning or local capacity-building efforts.

Finally, nonwar communities are quite similar to ZoPs in that they emerge in response to violent conflict and wish to maintain their autonomy from armed actors on all sides, but they are perhaps more pragmatic in their orientation, with less emphasis on a pacifist identity and norms. The creation of a cross-cutting identity apart from the identities structuring the conflict is critical to the emergence and maintenance of nonwar communities and helps to strengthen internal unity and represent the community as standing apart from the conflict. This overarching identity draws on “common values, experiences, principles, and historical contexts as strategic connectors that are familiar and natural to the community but not part of the warring parties’ identities.” Nonwar communities also maintain public services internally, practice distinctive security strategies (like weapon bans), develop participatory, inclusive, and responsive leadership and decision-making structures, and “proactively engage with all parties to the conflict,” including through negotiations with armed groups, while asserting their independence from them. Furthermore, scholarship suggests that third-party support may be somewhat less important to nonwar communities than it is to ZoPs (though the authors acknowledge that this distinction and others between ZoPs and nonwar communities may be somewhat overstated, as there is in fact significant overlap between actual cases of the two).

The very existence of these local potentials for peace demonstrates that communities have options and agency even in the broader context of wartime violence, that there are nonviolent approaches to protection, and that, despite the strength of belligerent polarization, there is nothing inevitable about being drawn into cycles of violence.

Finally, the authors ask: How can insights from local potentials for peace, particularly nonwar communities, inform conflict prevention policy and practice—especially as top-down approaches to conflict prevention implemented by international organizations tend to focus inordinately on state-centric mechanisms and miss or diminish local capacities? The authors identify four lessons for broader conflict prevention efforts. First, serious consideration of local potentials for peace reveals the existence of local actors—beyond only perpetrators or victims—with novel strategies for conflict prevention and enriches the repertoire of conflict prevention measures thought to be possible. Second, external conflict prevention actors can benefit from their awareness of nonwar communities or ZoPs in war-affected regions by ensuring that they “do no harm” to these initiatives through their interventions, which might otherwise displace or weaken local capacities. Third, key strategies employed by nonwar communities can inform actual prevention policies, such as strengthening collective identities that reject and transcend polarized wartime identities, “reinforc[ing] the community’s internal unity and help[ing] to communicate their nonwar stance externally”; proactively engaging with armed actors; or building communities’ reliance on their own capacities to prevent or refuse participation in armed conflict. Fourth, spreading knowledge of successful nonwar communities in the broader region can aid in post-conflict peacebuilding by encouraging the development of other nonwar communities, making the region as a whole more conflict resilient.

Informing Practice

Although nonwar communities are usually discussed in the context of active war zones, the current political climate in the United States suggests that U.S. Americans should be paying closer attention to the strategies of nonwar communities in our own conflict prevention efforts. In particular, with the rise of polarization and violent extremism in the U.S., each of us should be asking: What would it take to make my community resilient to cycles of violence? Based on this examination of local potentials for peace, a few ideas come to mind.

First, it is imperative that individuals recognize that they have agency—that other options are available to them—even in situations of violent conflict where it may feel as if they have very little. It is worth noting that a sense of agency was one of the key characteristics that distinguished individuals who rescued Jewish people during the Holocaust from those who did nothing or those who perpetrated harm in Kristin Renwick Monroe’s study of Dutch rescuers, bystanders, and Nazi collaborators. Feeling one’s potential efficacy is a critical first step to acting—and to resisting violence especially.

Second, community members must identify a salient, overarching identity that rejects and transcends the polarized identities of the violent conflict while drawing on norms or histories meaningful to that community—an identity that can unify the community while communicating its rejection of the violent conflict itself. Whether this might be a city-wide identity (as was the case for multicultural Tuzla during the Bosnian War) or a religious identity that can cut across political divisions or another kind of identity may depend on the scale on which this community exists and what local identities are available.

Third, serious thought should be devoted to developing inclusive and responsive decision-making and leadership structures within the community that will gain the trust and buy-in of diverse community members.

Finally, community members should think strategically about their pre-existing networks and their access points to warring parties/armed actors in order to proactively engage with them, making clear their autonomy from either side—but also leveraging their relationships and overarching identity in their interactions with these armed actors.

It is worth noting that most of these elements depend upon relationship-building—ongoing relationship-building among diverse community members such that a common identity (that cuts across polarized identities) feels genuine and people share a sense of cohesion in their decision-making. Furthermore, the stronger the relationships across polarized identity lines, the more access points there will be to armed actors on both/all sides of a conflict. In other research, which seems germane here, Ashutosh Varshney notes the importance of not just ad hoc relationship-building but “associational forms of engagement” across polarized identities—and how this form of institutionalized, cross-cutting engagement is what can make communities especially resilient to violence. As small an act as it may seem, therefore, the most important thing any of us can do right now to stave off political violence in the U.S. may be to broaden our own networks and cultivate ideological and other forms of diversity in our faith communities, our schools, our places of employment, our unions, our sports clubs, our volunteer communities. Then, should it ever become necessary to activate these cross-cutting relationships in the face of violence, they will be there.

Questions Raised

  • How can international peacebuilding actors provide support for nonwar communities and other local potentials for peace, when requested, without creating dependencies that could ultimately weaken these efforts?
  • What opportunities can you identify in your immediate community for building relationships across polarized identities and cultivating an overarching identity that rejects violence and cuts across divisions?

Continued Reading

Anderson, M.B., & Wallace, M. (2013). Opting out of war: Strategies to prevent violent conflict. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers. https://mars.gmu.edu/bitstream/handle/1920/12809/Anderson.Opting%20CC%20Lic.pdf?sequence=4&isAllowed=y

McWilliams, A. (2022). How to build relationships across differences. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 9, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-awesome-career/202207/how-build-relationships-across-differences

Varshney, A. (2001). Ethnic conflict and civil society. World Politics, 53, 362-398. https://www.un.org/esa/socdev/sib/egm/paper/Ashutosh%20Varshney.pdf

Monroe, K.R. (2011). Ethics in an age of terror and genocide: Identity and moral choice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. https://press.princeton.edu/books/paperback/9780691151434/ethics-in-an-age-of-terror-and-genocide

Peace Science Digest. (2022). Special issue: Nonviolent approaches to security. Retrieved November 16, 2022, from https://warpreventioninitiative.org/peace-science-digest/special-issue-nonviolent-approaches-to-security/

Peace Science Digest. (2019). West African zones of peace and local peacebuiding initiatives. Retrieved November 16, 2022, from https://warpreventioninitiative.org/peace-science-digest/west-african-zones-of-peace-and-local-peacebuilding-initiatives/

Organizations

Living Room Conversations: https://livingroomconversations.org/

Cure PDX: https://cure-pdx.org

Key Words: nonwar communities, zones of peace, peaceful societies, violence prevention, conflict prevention, local peacebuilding

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