Everyone, Not Just the Military, Has a Duty to Keep the Peace

October 16, 2017

In 2012, a few months after Muammar Gaddafi’s regime fell, I was in Libya holding a workshop on how to build the rule of law in the wake of dictatorship and conflict. The workshop participants were the kinds of people I had come to expect — community leaders, academics, lawyers, human rights activists, and others with a professional interest in peacebuilding. All except for one man. He was an oil engineer, and he had never been to an event like this. He asked me if he could not only stick around for the workshop but also bring some friends. “Sure,” I said. He returned with half a dozen fellow engineers and students. Afterward, he invited me to visit his town, which had seen heavy fighting. The engineer had fought for the rebels and had lost some close friends. Now, he wanted to help his town put the violence behind it. He started organizing workshops, bringing together militia members, tribal leaders, youth, and officials to talk to each other and try to stem further fighting. It worked: Violence flared less often, and former rivals started to listen to each other and even cooperate. The engineer also became involved in monitoring human rights in prisons. For his trouble, he received death threats. But still he kept on driving around his town in his pickup, chain-smoking, and continually stopping to talk to militia fighters, clerics, and anyone else who he might persuade to give peace a chance.

As that engineer knew, protecting societies from violent conflict is not only a job for soldiers and police. Ordinary people in countries teetering on the edge of violent conflict can also tip the balance back toward peace. Their contribution to keeping or restoring the peace will not be the same as that of soldiers and police patrolling the streets, but it is no less important in the long term.

Halting and reversing a slide toward civil war requires acting on four levels. One level is concrete: demonstrating, and if necessary using, the capacity to impose order through force. That’s a job for professional soldiers and armed police. Government policymakers and experts from international organizations usually operate on two other levels — the political and the institutional — reshaping constitutions and institutions. But there’s also a fourth level that often gets neglected: the personal and intercommunal level. That’s where ordinary citizens come in.

Ordinary citizens have to step up and reach out both to suspicious, angry majorities and to fearful minorities. This is not a soft option: it takes guts, determination, and planning. And it can have a significant cumulative impact: A million small steps taken locally can add up to a national transformation.

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Having worked to combat serious crimes and foster rule of law in at least twenty fragile and war-torn societies, I have learned to spot the warning signs of conflict. While all countries are unique, conflict is not. Many of the same precursors to conflict bubble up almost everywhere in the years and months before violence takes hold.

One does not need intelligence briefings or satellite imagery to spot these signs. An observant citizen is as likely as a government agency or foreign organization to recognize them. In fact, given that the signs are often most visible at the street level — where people interact without the formalities and procedures that constrain behavior in parliaments and negotiating rooms — they may be more visible to ordinary citizens.

Foremost among these signs of impending conflict is a trio of symptoms. One is deepening division between social groups that until recently have lived together peacefully, but now start to fear for their survival. Many stable societies have become war zones as political leaders have reopened old wounds, intensified prejudices, or created new divisions between different national, ethnic, religious, and racial groups. “Conflict entrepreneurs” have created or capitalized on episodes of violence and instability for their own benefit, stoking latent social tensions with fiery rhetoric and other forms of fearmongering. As fear grows and spreads, the readiness to resort to violence increases. Fearful individuals and groups often look for and find threatening enemies even where they do not exist.

These conflict entrepreneurs can be found in all corners of the globe. In the towns and villages of Kosovo, Kosovar Serbian and Kosovar Albanian neighbors had coexisted for many years. But then Serbian officials in Belgrade and Serbian nationalists in Kosovo began to inflame old ethnic animosities, recruiting and arming Serbian militias, denying Kosovar Albanians equal educational opportunities, and fueling Serbian fears that the Albanian population was growing rapidly. Ethnic tensions rose, violence between neighbors flared, and ultimately the militias launched a campaign to cleanse Kosovar Albanians, Roma, and other minorities from the land.

In post-independence Rwanda, Tutsis and Hutus had not always lived together harmoniously, but their differences had rarely led to violence — that is, until Hutu hatemongers used the radio and other media to fuel an extraordinary outburst of violence: Over 100 days, ordinary citizens and militia members slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus with machetes and grenades.

A second symptom is rising anger and intolerance. This symptom often appears alongside the first — the Buddhist gangs that have burned Muslim villages in Burma in recent years are a case in point — but intolerance can target groups that have only recently arrived within a society such as new immigrants. When intolerance is married to anger at perceived injustices, immoral conduct, or infringements on rights or traditions, violence may be viewed as justifiable.

The third symptom is individual and group trauma. Trauma (in a clinical sense) and post-traumatic stress disorder are often byproducts of conflict. Efforts to reconcile a post-conflict society can be hindered by a high incidence of trauma, because people traumatized during the recent fighting may find it difficult to put the past behind them. In post-revolutionary Libya, for example, drug and alcohol use increased, which medical experts linked to trauma resulting from the war.

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When these precursors are present and a tipping point toward conflict is about to be reached, society must create an alternative tipping point — toward peace. This is usually a realistic goal but not always easy to achieve. Many of the forces pushing a society toward war are deep-seated. Moreover, the trio of pre-conflict symptoms is always intertwined with, and often obscured by, an array of political, economic, and security factors. Finding a workable solution demands grappling with the complexity of the situation, working with all sectors of society to find ways to defuse the ticking bomb of conflict, and using the right tools to accomplish specific tasks.

Keeping the peace requires working on four levels simultaneously: security, political, institutional, and personal and intercommunal. Not surprisingly, on the security level, security forces play the most important roles. Militaries and police forces are best equipped to deter or halt the use of physical intimidation and violence. At the political level, domestic and foreign governments, opposition groups, multilateral organizations, and a variety of domestic and international actors with political muscle should take the lead. Some of these same players — especially international organizations such as the United Nations and foreign governments with the appropriate expertise — are best suited to working at the institutional level.

When it comes to tackling heavily armed militias, rivalries between political leaders, or corrupt government institutions, there’s not much the ordinary citizen can do. But at the personal and intercommunal level, the individual is in some ways better equipped to make a difference than soldiers, diplomats, and professional experts.

This need not be just a vague platitude. Indeed, brave and determined individuals in fragile states and conflict-affected societies are already taking a variety of specific and practical measures. Four steps stand out as particularly important: understanding other groups, exploring their differences, connecting with victimized groups, and working with others.

Reaching out to members of other groups to understand them. A peacebuilding individual (let’s call him or her “the peacebuilder”) can engage with and seek to understand other groups, rather than expressing anger or fear at “the other.” If they are angry or fearful, the peacebuilder can try to discover what is driving that anger and fear. If they are using or endorsing violence, the peacebuilder can seek to understand why. The point is not to condone violence but to connect with the fear and vulnerabilities that drive it.

In some cases, peacebuilders have been prepared to put aside their own anger in order to reach out to another group. In northern Iraq, a dialogue facilitator who worked with one of my colleagues at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) recounted a story about the son of a family from the ethnoreligious Shabak community. The son had been stabbed and beaten by a large group of Christians. A tribal council decreed that 60 million dinars be paid in compensation, as is accepted practice in the region. The young man’s family pardoned the Christians and forfeited the financial compensation, seeking to contribute to a broader peace by breaking a retaliatory cycle of violence. In Rwanda, survivors of the genocide whose children and other close relatives were slaughtered have participated in a program that culminates in perpetrators meeting the survivors in person and asking for — and receiving — forgiveness.

Helping groups come together to explore their differences. Fear, discrimination, anger, and trauma all contribute to estrangement and dislocation at the personal, community, and national level. To help build bridges, neutral mediators bring individuals and groups together in “safe spaces” where they can share their thoughts; the goal is not to change people’s minds but to give them an opportunity to voice their concerns and to be heard. Typically, trained professionals lead mediation, dialogue, and facilitation efforts, but individuals with little or no training can also perform these tasks if they are trusted by the conflict parties and have the natural ability to encourage others to speak candidly and listen respectfully.

For instance, in Nepal in 2006, individual police officers and members of civil society reached out to one another as the country sought to build on the hopes for reconciliation inspired by the recently signed peace agreement. Nepal was lucky that individuals on both sides were prepared to put aside the desire for revenge and work together — and that the military, former rebels, and political leaders shared an interest in moving beyond the conflict. Their initial contacts not only led to improved understanding among the people involved but also laid the foundations for a nationwide program of facilitated dialogues.

Over the next eight years — during which I led USIP’s support for our Nepalese partners — members of the security forces and of local communities met in more than five hundred dialogues and discovered that their mutual mistrust was usually rooted in misunderstanding and misinformation. Mistrust gave way to understanding and then to cooperation and collaboration on a wide range of security and justice issues. The police reported a slew of concrete results. In one district, the program helped police understand the livelihood concerns of farmers who were growing marijuana, which in turn helped the police and farmers reach agreement on a process to wind down the farms without direct confrontation or crop seizures. Marijuana growing in the district was eradicated peacefully and the farmers were able to transition to other crops. In another example, the police worked closely with youth on drug use, high unemployment, and a dearth of recreational options. They met regularly and collaborated on several projects. According to the police, cooperation and communication with youth led directly to a reduction of 80 percent in the number of violent demonstrations.

Peacebuilders often have to help members of hostile groups recognize their own prejudices, understand that conflict looks different from each side, and identify interests they may have in common with the other group or groups. The peacebuilder can also expose the various sides to ideas and information that can change their thinking about the conflict and how to resolve it. The NGO Search for Common Ground (SFCG) launched an initiative in central Africa that focuses on participatory theater, radio, and dialogues to help communities address internal conflicts and social cohesion. In 2016, theater troupes performed in 34 communities, with the actors encouraging villages to interact and explore ways to peacefully solve the problems presented on stage.

SFCG is a well-established organization, but such initiatives have also been taken by committed individuals and their friends. In Kosovo and Serbia, for example, a teenager named Milos Tomic helped found a theater group that performs for communities on both sides of the national and ethnic divide. Before Milos and his friends took this initiative, internally displaced Serbians who had returned to Kosovo after years of fighting were isolated in their enclaves, with limited to no engagement from the government or elsewhere. Everyone seems to think, Milos said, that

everything here is about politics. But what is politics to me? Politics means nothing to me. What you need are cultural activities. We can bring the [Kosovan and Serbian] communities closer with cultural activities: sports, theater, and everything. You need to be tolerant.

Connecting with the groups experiencing prejudice and discrimination. Effective peacebuilders not only reach out to members of the groups who are perpetrating prejudice and discrimination, but also let targeted groups know that at least some of their fellow citizens support them. A peacebuilder should also ask members of the victimized group what type of support they need, thereby avoiding the danger of “imposing” on them the kinds of help that the peacebuilder assumes is wanted. In Karbala, as in many cities in Iraq, people fleeing from ISIL’s advance were met with great suspicion by officials and locals. Some community members reached out to these internally displaced people (IDPs) to ask what they needed in addition to basic humanitarian help. They then brought the IDPs into contact with local officials, who helped the IDPs deal with a variety of financial and safety concerns. 

Joining with others to take action. No one person or group is going to find a solution to societal disconnection, fear, or discrimination. Society as a whole created the problems, and did so over time, and thus society as a whole needs to resolve them and needs time to do so. But the peacebuilder can nonetheless contribute to that society-wide process.

In Colombia, while the government was battling the rebel FARC movement, a schoolteacher who was reviewing the records of her students noticed that many were orphaned or living with grandparents or relatives who were too busy to give the children proper care and attention. The teacher took it upon herself to mobilize the other parents in the school to provide needed support for the children. In doing so, the teacher not only improved the quality of the youngsters’ lives but also made them less likely to be recruited by the FARC, which drew many of its fighters from the ranks of the poor, the neglected, and the orphaned.

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Putting one’s head above the parapet to mobilize others can be a risky business. During my 2012 trip to Libya, I facilitated a workshop on fighting serious crimes in Benghazi, and met an inspiring couple: Salwa Bughaigis and Essam Gheriani. Salwa was a democracy activist and human rights lawyer. She had been at the vanguard of the uprising against Gaddafi and was working tirelessly to coax Libya’s feuding militias to reconcile and support a united and democratic Libya. Essam had trained as a psychologist and was drawing attention to the difficulties anti-Gaddafi fighters were experiencing in returning to civilian life. They were beacons of hope, but that prominence also brought danger from those who wanted to sow discord and strife. Shortly after casting her vote in Libya’s first democratic election, Salwa and Essam were confronted in their home by gunmen. Salwa was murdered on the spot and Essam was taken and has not been seen since.

Like soldiering, peacebuilding is never an easy option and rarely a safe one. But just as soldiers are essential to ending wars and keeping the peace, so, in many cases, are peacebuilders. Take the example of Keshab Chaulagain, a Hindu peace activist in Nepal. At the onset of what would become a bloody ten-year civil war, he initially resisted becoming involved. As the conflict intensified, however, Keshab helped mobilize Nepal’s diverse religious faiths to form a group and work together to find a peaceful resolution. Since the civil war was primarily political, the religious groups worked toward a solution that didn’t require siding with either the government or the rebels. The religious leaders stressed to both sides that it was not possible to secure a better life for oneself by taking somebody else’s life. When one of the religious leaders was murdered in an attempt to intimidate the group into remaining on the sidelines, there was concern that some might retaliate, turning a political conflict into a religious one. But the religious leaders’ call for a peaceful, political outcome only resonated more strongly with the Nepali people. Ultimately, Keshab told me, it was the appeal of this message that helped push the combatants to the negotiating table and work toward a political solution — and, eventually, participate in democratic elections and accept the results.

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Social transformation cannot be imposed by governments or enforced by armies. Joint actions taken at the interpersonal and intercommunal levels can have a ripple effect, creating new ways of collaborating and ultimately transforming societies that were once beset by fear and intolerance.

But for this to happen, governments and international organizations need to give individual peacebuilders space, time, and encouragement. Policymakers and practitioners must become more pragmatic and flexible, and recognize how ordinary citizens can help them attain their goals.

What might this more pragmatic approach look like in practice? First, individuals need a neutral, safe space in which they can bring antagonists together. To find such a space, they may need military help in providing security, technical help from international organizations in organizing and facilitating dialogues, and government help in allowing such meetings to go ahead, even if they involve representatives of rebel or extremist groups. Policies or laws that reflexively ban contact by peacebuilders with extremist or terrorist groups, even contact designed to persuade those groups to give up violence, need to be reassessed. Some groups, like ISIL, have clearly put themselves beyond the pale, but other groups designated as “terrorists”— as the Maoists in Nepal previously were — may be persuaded to give up fighting and join the political process. It’s an old adage but a true one: “You don’t make peace with your friends.”

Second, individual peacebuilders might welcome some official support, but not if it is contingent on adhering to strict timetables, achieving quick wins, or meeting easily quantifiable targets. Building trust is the key to success. And it takes not months but years, especially in conflict-affected societies where trust has broken down.

Third, high-ranking officers and officials should allow — or, better, encourage — their own people to participate. In Nepal, top leaders in the police strongly encouraged their subordinates to participate in trust-building workshops and to work with communities to achieve concrete goals. It’s an attitude that the leadership of all police and military units can emulate. Obviously, there will be times and places where such participation is unfeasible or dangerous, but it should be seen as the default, not the exception.

Fourth, policymakers and practitioners must avoid holing up in their ivory towers, devising elaborate top-down schemes that don’t allow for input from the citizens of the societies those schemes are supposed to help. All too often, government officials, NGO staffers, and military officers see would-be individual peacemakers as a nuisance or an irrelevance — as irritants, albeit perhaps well-intentioned ones, that threaten to get in the way of official efforts to keep or restore the peace. Those official efforts would be more likely to bear fruit if individual peacebuilders were seen as allies.

While the higher-level efforts of governments and militaries have understandably been the focus of those seeking to understand and prevent violent conflict, examples from around the globe show that the efforts of individual citizens are just as important to build a sustainable peace.


Colette Rausch is associate vice president for global practice and innovation at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). She has directed or participated in missions and projects in numerous countries embroiled in or emerging from conflict, and worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe before joining USIP in 2001. Her latest book is Fighting Serious Crimes: Strategies and Tactics for Conflict-Affected States.

Image: USAID