Since the beginning of the 1990s, there has been a drastic decrease in the number of armed conflicts in the world. This is a positive development that should be recognised. In 2010 the number of deadly conflicts reached its lowest level since 1957. However, there are some concerns about the increase of foreign military involvement in intrastate conflicts and the unusually low number of high-level peace agreements in 2010.

At the end of the Cold War, there were many positive signs of a more peaceful world. The overall trend since then has been positive and the number of armed conflicts has decreased. However, in the period between 2003 and 2008, the number of active conflicts involving state actors rose again from 29 to 37. Even interstate conflicts, once deemed practically extinct, have re-emerged in the shape of US-led unilateralism in the fight against terrorism and the forceful implementation of democracy. In 2009 and 2010 there was a decrease in active conflicts, reported by the Uppsala Conflict Database Program (UCDP), followed in the first half of 2011 by the Arab spring and some new related conflicts.

The most common form of violent conflicts today is intrastate conflicts, usually connected to the formation of states or civil wars. Many spring from struggles over power, rights, economic advantage, natural resources and cultural identity. In most of these struggles, groups fight for control over the government or against a government set against them, and in many cases the struggling groups are ethnopolitically defined. These “new wars” last for long periods of time and have disastrous consequences for entire regions. The effects on economic development alone are horrifying. Intrastate wars create maldevelopment and institutional deformation that further increases the risk of renewed conflict in the unlikely event of a negotiated peace.

The economic losses fade, however, in relation to the human costs. During World War I, civilian deaths made up 5% of the total casualties and by World War II, the number had risen to 50%. As we stepped into the new millennium, 80-90% of those killed in armed conflict were civilians. Although the actual number of people killed in conflicts has decreased since 1990, the trend shows that now more than ever, civilians have a stake in the conflicts of their societies. Groups and individuals have everything to gain by engaging in initiatives aimed at resolving conflict and promoting social change without the use of violence.

Although existing institutions of the international system are still the primary arenas for dealing with interstate conflicts, the emergence of and increased focus on intrastate conflicts has resulted not only in new discourses and terminology, but also in new institutional policies and practices. Within this framework, and in the midst of all the atrocities of war, creative new ways of resisting, resolving and transforming violent conflict are continuously invented. They are invented by people inhabiting some of the most conflict-ridden societies in the world, by people witnessing their societies tread dangerously close to violence and by people who have come out on the other end of violent conflict and refuse to let the cycle of violence draw them back in.

From violent conflict to peaceful societies (Conflict Transformation)

Defining peace is never an easy task. Has peace been achieved when a peace-agreement is signed? If so, which groups need to be included? Is peace the absence of all forms of violence? Can an unequal society ever be a peaceful society?

In public discourse, we tend to equate the state of peace with the absence or termination of violent acts and the signing of a peace agreement. We focus on overt and violent conflict while ignoring latent, covert and non-violent conflicts. By doing so, we ignore the fact that the end of a conflict cycle may very well be the beginning of another. We also ignore the communities of peace that flourish within the borders of many conflict-ridden societies. Groups and individuals continuously engage in conflict transformation, a concept that has received increased attention in the last decade.

According to John Paul Lederach, one of the leading proponents of the so-called conflict transformation, conflicts are natural parts of human coexistence and motors of social change. The goal of any peace initiative should, therefore, be to transform a violent conflict into a peaceful one rather than to end the conflict itself. The goal of transforming a conflict goes beyond resolving particular problems, and encourages us to engage in constructive change initiatives that address both surface issues and underlying social structures.

Actions undertaken in the name of conflict transformation attempt to alter the characteristics and manifestations of conflict. Groups and individuals who are involved and affected by a conflict are enabled to deal with issues in constructive ways and generate strategies to overcome them. It can be argued that conflict transformation deals with the structural, behavioural and attitudinal aspects of conflict. Actions that contribute to conflict transformation include rehabilitation, reconstruction, disarmament, reconciliation, empowerment, community-building activities, preventing crisis and conflict management training.

Conflict transformation also offers important insights for the task of preventing violent conflict. Preventing violent conflict is a way to save both lives and resources so that these can be invested in societal development instead of destructive violence. By addressing conflicts before they become violent, peaceful and constructive techniques are more easily adopted by the parties. However, such prevention requires a good understanding of the issues at hand, as well as of the actors involved. Such understanding can only come from involving local actors and stakeholders in the process, and a lot can be learned from looking at peace efforts initiated at the grassroots level of conflict-ridden communities. Within these communities, the negative images that perpetuate antagonism and solidify conflicts are challenged and space is opened up for compromise, accommodation and political solutions.

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