Instead of repeating what others elsewhere have already said about defining terms relevant to peacebuilding and how different and contradictory the definitions seem to be, I would like to relate in brief how we at CNA understand these terms. Our understanding comes from our practical experience of peacebuilding in the Balkans and does not presume to be comprehensive, universal or globally applicable.
Conflict and Violence
Although the terms conflict and violence are often equated, they have clearly delineated meanings. Conflict may but need not necessarily involve violence. Violence always has consequences, both for those exposed to it, those perpetrating it and those supporting it. It influences how we view the world. It is socially widespread and can be direct (physical or visible, where the perpetrator is clearly identifiable) or structural (when it threatens basic human needs but we cannot easily or clearly define the culprit or perpetrator, such as with poverty, discrimination, sexism, etc.). Violence is essentially damaging to people because it deprives them of or narrows their access to their rights, and by imposing a model of behaviour on the perpetrators it also reduces the space for them to meet their human needs or causes them long-term damage. The damage for the perpetrators may take the form of them becoming victims of violence and injustice in the future, because violence begets violence (when considered a righteous response to previous injustice) and creates a spiral that is difficult to stop. It is not unusual for people who have suffered violence to become perpetrators themselves, as they consider such actions justified and necessary and do not think of the violence they commit as unjust but, on the contrary, as a way to dispense justice.
Conflict is not the same as violence. Conflict is a signal of dissatisfaction with the system of interpersonal relationships. Conflict may happen between just two actors or between whole collectives who believe their needs, interests or rights have been withheld, i.e. that they are in an unjust situation. Conflict is not harmful in and of itself; the ways to address conflict vary widely and analysing them can help establish the extent to which they contribute to constructive resolution or transformation of the conflict, as opposed to deepening feelings of dissatisfaction and contributing to an escalation into violence.
Conflict can be understood as an opportunity for change, for transforming existing dissatisfaction into a new situation that will satisfy everyone. That is why it is so important for conflict to be visible, and why confrontation and making the conflict visible, especially in situations of imbalance of power, can contribute to constructive conflict transformation. I use the term “transformation” to indicate the need for a process, while the term “resolution” is primarily focused on the outcome. The key to sustainable solutions of complex social conflicts is to establish a new way of seeing yourself and others and show mutual respect and cooperation, recognising the common interest for everyone’s needs to be met, needs that are often not obvious because they get overshadowed by demands being made by both sides. Such a fundamental change of relations requires time and development in stages, testing out possibilities of cooperation and thus building a relationship of trust. The process has its ups and downs, steps forward and steps backward, which is why it is important to have a space for trying out different solutions, something that cannot be achieved if the focus is on getting quick results while neglecting the importance of the process.
Nonviolence is a commitment to not accept the state of injustice and to actively oppose it, but without resorting to violence. Nonviolence is the readiness to not commit violence against others and to not stand for violence committed against yourself or against others. Nonviolence is the precise opposite of its banal interpretation as “taking a beating”. It means being prepared to stand up to injustice committed against yourself, as well as against others, but without turning into what you are fighting, i.e. without becoming someone who commits violence. This commitment also entails a readiness to re-examine yourself and your behaviour, which is why I find it strange to claim that I or others are nonviolent. Not only am I aware that I sometimes commit violence myself, indirectly or directly, which is something I’m not proud of, but I also want to hear from others about when my behaviour or position causes or supports violence. Violence is the effect you have on other people – and I cannot presume to be the supreme authority on what constitutes an unjust effect on other people. So when I hear from someone that I am supporting or committing violence, I must be prepared to think about it and consider changing my behaviour – not in order to appease others, but to live up to my own need as a social being to be as fair as I can be. This is something that requires constant alertness and self-examination. I don’t believe we become nonviolent by simple choice, and even less that once nonviolent we automatically stay nonviolent.
Nonviolence means refusing to accept the violent model of behaviour as inevitable. Nonviolence is making room for criticism and self-criticism and for changing behaviours of the sides to a conflict, as well as refraining from self-righteousness, from giving myself the right to judge and label others. Nonviolence is when I refuse to humiliate those who threaten me, when I refuse to give in to the desire to hurt them back. If we keep claiming that someone is evil, they are unlikely to make the effort to show us that this is not (always) the case. If we use the same means as those who threaten us, we enter a spiral of violence where we keep alternating between the role of perpetrator and victim.
Nonviolence is a conviction. The experience of having witnessed violence can imbue this conviction with special power and credibility.
Nonviolent Conflict Transformation
Nonviolent conflict transformation is a concept in which conflict is viewed as a signal for changing existing relationships, and therefore an opportunity to improve relationships, while at the same time a commitment is made to not using violence. Conflict transformation entails a process of communication, expression of interests and the needs the underpin them, listening to the other side, making an effort to understand the perspective of others and explain your own. Step by step, conflict transformation reveals important elements that are not apparent at the start and the relationship of the sides to the conflict is gradually transformed into one of dialogue and cooperation, which becomes a need in itself, because it creates the necessary feeling of trust and security. This process has its ups and downs, it can entail compromise, but it will always tend towards cooperation. There are no winners or losers in the conflict transformation process, because this is not what the sides to the conflict seek to achieve.
In the context of peacebuilding, reconciliation is not about reconciling victims or their families with the perpetrators of the crime or those in command. Moreover, at this personal level, we believe everyone has the inalienable human right not to reconcile with those who did them harm.
In the context of peacebuilding, reconciliation stands for social reconciliation where the dominant (and therefore socially acceptable) way of communicating views and thoughts is free from hatred and fear. In contrast to the period immediately before and immediately after war, when it is quite common in public discourse to refer to other groups in an insulting, denigrating manner – and through stereotypes and prejudice defining whole groups as enemies – social reconciliation would mean distancing yourself from and condemning such actions. The process of reconciliation in the context of peacebuilding means on the one hand liberating public space by removing and condemning hatred and other forms of verbal violence, while on the other encouraging and establishing communication, trust and cooperation across the border defined by hostility. Reconciliation does not mean conceding to former enemies; it is a process of self-healing of a society with a deeper understanding of the need and significance of establishing constructive cooperation with former enemies that brings about a fundamental change in relations by creating a mutual sense of security. Reconciliation also means that a critical mass of people come to understand that spreading hate and fear is unacceptable and to recognise the damage this causes. Efforts must be made to create space for changing the attitudes of a large number of people who were once swept up in the hysteria of war. Instead of propping up hatred, they would have a chance to liberate themselves from its yoke and thus improve themselves, their lives and their society.
Many things can serve as preconditions for working on reconciliation. The preconditions most frequently invoked include bringing to light the fate and finding the remains of missing persons, as well as punishing those responsible for the crimes. It is quite clear that none of the above preconditions can be fully met, because part of the task is bound to remain impossible, even with the best will (which is often lacking). The truth is that the only precondition that must be met in order to start work on reconciliation is an individual will, a personal commitment. The absence of such will is a good reason not to work on reconciliation: everything else is just a more or less convincing excuse.
Building Peace and Dismantling Peace
Peacebuilding includes all the steps and individual actions that contribute to working across the border defined by hostility to build bridges of communication, cooperation, understanding, trust and thus contribute to a general and mutual sense of security and awareness of being mutually connected. The essence of this is perhaps best described by what Dževad Budimlić, a war veteran of the Croatian Army, said many years ago: “It can’t be good for me if it’s bad for my neighbour.”
Having the right intention cannot be the only criterion to assess whether an action contributes to peacebuilding, takes away from it, or perhaps contain aspects that dismantle peace instead of building it. Just as the social process of peacebuilding is not a linear process of constant progression, but has its ups and downs, the actions aiming to build peace may have effects that could be described as dismantling peace in the short term but building it in the long term. Examples of this include actions such as visits to unmarked sites of wartime atrocities that are often met by resistance in the local community (which is sometimes manifested through denunciation or threats of violence), but that in the long term contribute to the necessary opening of taboos about responsibility for injustice and benefit the whole of society.
Whoever has experienced war from up close knows that the dominant narrative on every side is that they were just defending themselves. They sometimes go so far as to claim that there was never any conflict with those with whom they went to war, but that they were simply attacked, without provocation. However, knowledge of the other side’s narrative about self-defence (of the state, people, city, their own homes, families, social order, freedom, etc.) is usually accompanied by ridicule or outrage over the blatancy of such false claims. Because, for heaven’s sake, it’s clear that “only we were defending ourselves” and the others are just making false claims.
Peacebuilding entails transforming social consciousness away from a state of collective endangerment and inclination to (defensive) violence against those perceived as enemy groups and towards a state of respecting and protecting individual and collective human rights, condemning all forms of violence, fostering a culture of dialogue and a culture of memory that support peacebuilding efforts (instead of calling for hatred and revenge). Peacebuilding represents a tendency of a society that is alert, where free-thinking citizens from civil society organisations (the media, education sector, associations, artists, etc.) hold the government accountable for the mandate it has received from the citizens.
Constructive Dealing with the Past
Dealing with the past is a pervasive public process in post-war societies. Experiences of war – a time of horror, inhumanity, harm, pain and fear – have such a strong impact on the overall social climate, interpersonal relationships, views of other communities, fundamentals of communication and social organisation that they leave deep traces on the psyche of those affected. Post-war reality becomes firmly determined by wartime experiences. The truths established during the war persist, standing out against the absence of war. The war stops, the killing stops, but the mental war goes on. Feelings of pain linger on, fading very gradually over time.
How the war is interpreted becomes very important because of the need to find and assign some sort of meaning to the loss and suffering, which is where dominant war narratives, the so-called “truths”, find their function. Encountering interpretations different to your own wartime narrative is a painful experience that elicits anger and insecurity, and fear of recurrence. This is why dominant war narratives directly contribute to dismantling peace, because their form is necessarily one-sided and exclusive and more often than not denies others the right to a different view of the conflict and the “truth”.
Dominant narratives, official truths about the war, claim to be the only possible truth, the so- called “real truth”, and seek to delegitimise different perspectives on the past, often using intimidation to pre-empt the development of different or alternative views.
The usual approach to the past of the dominant narrative is to relativise or deny any responsibility on one’s own side while dehumanising the other side, the wartime opponents. This is how war is perpetuated, no longer employing weapons but instead using opposing and mutually exclusive narratives to wage a “war of memories”.
The concept of dealing with the past constructively involves staging a corrective intervention in public space to create dialogue between people; an action that, while accepting indisputable facts, avoids the traps of collective self-victimisation, dehumanisation of others and glorification of violent events that have harmed others, distinguishing between personal culpability and social responsibility. Constructively dealing with the past means establishing cooperation between former enemies to find common ground around the principle of human decency, while accepting objectively established facts on human casualties, respecting all victims, engaging in dialogue about different interpretations of recent history, and ultimately changing the social climate so that hatred, fear and calls for vengeance subside. It means understanding and accepting personal responsibility (but not guilt) for the injustices committed in the name of your collective.
Reducing the process of dealing with the past to the legal determination of the facts (determination of the truth) and punishing the responsible individuals through international and domestic war crimes tribunals, expecting that this in itself will bring peace, as has been done in the twenty or so years since the war, has yielded poor results in terms of peacebuilding in the former Yugoslavia. Lack of recognition of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) among the public in the countries it addressed, constant accusations of bias, and some very unusual first and second instance decisions of the tribunal did a lot of damage to the work of determining the factual truth about the loss of life, which was to a large extent conducted quite well. The work of preventing impunity for crimes was left far from complete.
Loss of life, loss of potential for a happy life, a life of perpetual fear, suffering, hatred – all are consequences of war that cannot be undone. As difficult as it may seem, we need to admit that the loss suffered in war is irreplaceable, both for individuals and for society, and try to learn to live on with the loss suffered. That endeavour to live on in relative freedom and security can certainly be helped by symbolic gestures of “repair” such as sites of memory, monetary “reparations” and benefits, but there is no real compensation for what was lost – the loss is permanent. Processes that build peace and trust among people mean to create conditions for life to go on. In that respect, it is important to bring to light the fact that some people remain trapped in the past, with feelings of hatred, anxiety, a desire for vengeance. It is very important to recognise and show respect for victims and their families, because in a sense, they represent their collectives – the victims became victims because they belonged to a certain collective. On the other hand, it is important not to let the fates of new generation be governed by those who are unable to overcome their own personal pain and trauma, those prevented by loss from imagining a future without fear or hatred, or those who manipulate past suffering to build their positions of power as self-proclaimed protectors of national interests. That is why it is important to open up this conflict – between those who are ready to reconcile and those who put hurdles in reconciliation’s path – to make it visible and to transform it constructively, without adding to the harm, by creating space for change, for finding a minimum common interest that society can rally around.