7 Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation

John Ungerleider

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has defied peacemakers and negotiators for generations, even before the communities in conflict defined themselves as Israeli and Palestinians, but rather as Jews and Arabs. While this divide can seem inevitable and impossible to resolve, could it be transformed away from violence, towards more security and equity?  Can repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to solve the conflict be reoriented to more fundamental efforts to transform underlying dynamics, relationships, and systems that hold such a deep-rooted conflict in place? Such peace work seeks to enable a broad culture of peace: shifting goals from agreement-based Conflict Resolution to broader Conflict Transformation and deeper Peacebuilding.

We recognize that systems of conflict, and the wounded relationships that sustain them, may not be completely eliminated. They must be deeply transformed to move away from violence and create a sustainable peace. We begin with an analysis of the situation, assessing the sources and dynamics of the conflict. Then we may intervene strategically in the systems and relationships that sustain the conflict. We work at both personal and political levels.

Pioneers in the field of conflict resolution, like John Burton, realized decades ago that there are deep-rooted conflicts that are not easily resolved like simple disputes between neighbors or colleagues. Underlying interests and needs must be understood and addressed in order to build relationships and reduce hostility. This awareness evolved into the naming of conflict transformation as a field in which early practitioners like John Paul Lederach, Louise Diamond, and Paula Green saw the need to pursue multiple and personal tracks of communication and advocacy to shift intractable conflict systems. Conflict transformation stresses the need to deal with not only the problem, but also with the people involved, the process of addressing the problem, and the sources or politics underlying the presenting problem.

Peacebuilding as an approach, that sits next to peacekeeping (policing and inter-positioning forces between combatants) and peacemaking (negotiating or mediating agreements.)  During his tenure as UN Secretary General, Boutros Ghali defined the roles of peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peacebuilding in An Agenda for Peace.

Peacebuilding promotes the creative use of many approaches, ranging from education, to communication skills, to employing the arts to influence complex systems – to seed and grow increasing levels of positive relationship and power equity. Peacebuilding addresses the underlying elements that cause and sustain a conflict. This is the area—Peacebuilding—that holds the most untapped promise for averting violent conflict in ethnically-divided nations and communities with a history of violence.

In addition to large-scale strategies for changing economic or geo-political relationships that create conflict, we can also do peacebuilding on the psychological and interpersonal level. These personal approaches to building peace include citizen diplomacy, dialogue groups, and activities that promote cross-cultural communication and trust. We can also study how we may have been psychologically conditioned to support or participate in violence.

In my work with teenagers from many communities in conflict around the world, they build friendships and learn to have constructive dialogue in hopes of going home to try to move their countries towards peace. Yet dialogue and relationship building will not be enough if there are not also political, systemic transformations that bring justice and reduce power inequalities. If the situation on the ground doesn’t change, parties who lack power or dignity or safety become frustrated and again distance themselves from historical enemies.

Dialogue seemed promising right after the Oslo Agreement, when there appeared to be progress on the political ground. Then extremists in both communities began using violence — against each other and against peacemakers in their own communities, such as in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish religious extremist. Anwar Sadat had previously been assassinated by Muslim religious extremists after negotiating Egypt’s lasting peace with Israel. Dialogue came to feel increasingly problematic for Palestinians to believe in, and many withdrew, seeing meeting with Israelis as a “normalization” of an abnormally imbalanced power relationship, which had not improved their lives. This is an example of an unfortunate “freezing” of a conflict  into mistrust and negative stereotypes, a social-psychological barrier, in the words of Daniel Bar-Tal.

Practitioners develop creative approaches to address such dynamics within a longstanding, intractable conflict, like in Cyprus, where Herb Kelman pioneered problem-solving workshops between representatives of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. At the political level, Elise Boulding pointed out the need to establish informal and formal mechanisms for minority representation and consultation, power sharing, participation, and recognition. Desmond Tutu, building on Gandhi’s and King’s legacies, wrote about the importance of maintaining the vision and practice of nonviolence—even forgiveness—in the midst of a long violent liberation struggle.

In the words of Johan Galtung, we wish to build “positive” as well as “negative” peace, where there is not only an absence of overt violence, but healthy social systems and relationships between people. Conflict transformation seeks to promote nonviolent approaches to conflict, and to create an alternative peace culture. This requires creativity, lateral thinking, coping with complexity, and examining challenging emotionsWe must be aware of diverse cultural values, and be willing to incorporate opposing views of reality

Traditional and tribal societies have developed their own conflict resolution mechanisms for reconciliation and restorative justice. For example, the Polynesian Ho’o ponopono approach to reconciliation is a holistic system that incorporates restitution to victims and forgiveness of perpetrators. The Rwanda brought back its traditional gacaca tribunal system to promote reconciliation and healing after the 1994 genocide. When conflicts arise among the peaceful, aboriginal Semai people in Malaysia, they use the becharaa’ process of informal discussions and formal speeches to arrive at a just solution. They base their communal consensus on traditional values—values which emphasize peacefulness through a world view of nonviolence as a fundamental component of humanity.

When Boutros Ghali introduced this framework, this approach was typically called “post-conflict peacebuilding.” Now practitioners argue that there is no such thing as post-conflict. Post-war and post-violence, yes. But conflict goes on. Such large conflicts do not ever really end, but can be addressed non-violently.

Peacebuilding efforts can be more effective before inter-group tension has erupted into violence, or where that violence has been limited and wounds are not so fresh. What could have been done before Yugoslavia or Rwanda broke into genocidal violence? We can start now to implement peacebuilding efforts to counteract a new set of hostilities and threats of violence—easier than mounting a huge post-war humanitarian relief effort.

In post-violence countries where a peace agreement has gone into effect, like South Africa or Northern Ireland, conflict transformation has been supported by cross-community dialogue and citizen peacebuilding, as well as by transitional justice initiatives that addressed deep psychologies of trauma and the potential for forgiveness. It’s important to say that if you don’t take these measures, and don’t work at this depth, the cycle of violence may begin again.

Our imagination tells us that roles outlined for international peace missions may apply to building peace at other levels: communities, families, groups, teams, relationships: Peacekeepers (to monitor behaviors or intercede and keep feuding members apart), peacemakers (negotiators or mediators), or peacebuilders (trust builders, systems reformers) may need to emerge in order to heal the dynamics in any group. Conceiving of myself as a potential peacekeeper, peacemaker or peacebuilder can change my ability to respond to conflict.  What might I do when a conflict begins to escalate?

As a peacebuilder, I can work directly on conflict systems and dynamics, or more indirectly, on interpersonal  relationships and perceptions. As a peacebuilder, I need to look deeply under the surface of a contentious negotiation or conflict.  I can use a wide variety of techniques to reduce violence and to create an atmosphere in which peace is possible. A well-placed intervention can have a ripple effect.

Reviewing social psychological processes in peace building and how to overcome related obstacles, Daniel Bar-Tal lists key methods for building peace between identity groups in conflict. These include: contact between people from both sides, peace movements led by peace organizations; mass media providing information in times of war or negotiation; education in schools about the costs of war and potential for reconciliation; joint projects between members of elite, influential, or grassroots members of both groups; tourism (called citizen diplomacy during the Cold War; truth and reconciliation commissions or public trials to air dark secrets and help heal social trauma; apology as a form of accountability; payment of reparations to victims; or writing a common history when each party has heard only it’s own side of the conflict.

The challenge is to create a harmony that values diverse styles and contributions, rather than a culture of conformity, or conflict, or even emotional violence—a culture of peace. Think of sourdough starter. It’s made up of old and wild yeasts gathered from the air. A small amount of starter makes a bread dough rise. But it takes time. In many ancient languages around the Middle East there is the expression, “slowly slowly” (siga siga– Greek; yavash yavash – Turkish; leyat leyat – Hebrew; shway, shway – Arabic). This expression can be seen as an approach to life, as well as a sensible approach to transforming seemingly intractable conflicts.



Bar-Tal, D. (2013). Intractable Conflicts: Socio-Psychological Foundations & Dynamics. Cambridge: Univ. Press.

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Burton, J. ed. (1990). Human Needs Theory, New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Diamond, L. & McDonald, J. (1996). Multi-track diplomacy: A systems approach to peace. West Hartford: Kumarian Press.

Galtung, J. (2001). After violence: Reconstruction, reconciliation and resolution. In M. Abu-Nimer, Reconciliation justice and coexistence (pp. 3-21). New York: Lexington.

Green, P. (2002). CONTACT: Training a new Generation of peacebuilders. Peace and change, 27, 97-105.

Kelman, H. (1998). Social-psychological dimensions of international conflict. In W. Zartman & J. L. Rasmussen (Eds.), Peacemaking in international conflict: Methods & techniques (pp. 191-233). Washington DC: United States Institute for Peace.

Lederach, J.P. (2003). The little book of conflict transformation. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.

Tutu, D. (1999) No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday.


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