Violence -- Overview

Charles (Chip) Hauss

September 2003

Violence is important virtually by definition. In some respects, the whole field of conflict resolution is about finding alternatives to violence.

Violence and Conflict

Visitors to this site who read the newspaper or follow the news on radio and television will have no trouble realizing that there is a link between conflict and violence. On the day this paper was written, we in the Washington, D.C. area were obsessed with a sniper who had killed nine apparently randomly selected victims in the preceding two weeks, a foiled suicide bomb attack in Israel, and the United States government's ongoing preparation to launch a war against Iraq.

Additional insights into violence are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Not all intractable conflicts involve violence, and even for those that do the violence is not necessarily constant. Thus, in mid-2002, there was little or no fighting in Bosnia or Burundi and had not been for some time. Nonetheless, violence is often a part of intractable conflicts at one point or another in their histories.

Not all violence is part of an intractable political conflict. For instance, there have been no hints of political motivations lying behind the sniper attacks in the Washington region. However, much violence in today's world is political; indeed, depending on the estimates one believes, it took in excess of 100 million lives around the world during the twentieth century.

Violence can take many forms. In its classic form, it involves the use of physical force -- beating or torturing prisoners of war, raping women in the enemy camp, and, of course, the bombing and shooting that has made warfare so tragic since the dawn of the industrial age. Some observers claim that violence exists whenever force is used or threatened. For space reasons, this essay is limited to physical and political violence.

Why Violence is Important

Violence is important virtually by definition. While other aspects of conflict are damaging (e.g., the psychological costs of hating another individual or group), violence takes by far the heaviest toll. Estimates of deaths from war and other forms of political violence for the twentieth century top one hundred million. The economic costs of that violence are incalculably large. And, those costs can endure long after the fighting stops. People are still contracting diseases from the biological and chemical weapons used during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Dozens of people are killed or wounded daily from the million or more landmines still in the ground left over from long-concluded conflicts.

What Can Be Done About Political Violence

In some respects, the whole field of conflict resolution is about finding alternatives to political violence. People and governments have, of course, turned to war and violence throughout history. However, that does not mean we are doomed to a life of political violence. The most recent authoritative statement about human nature, the Seville Statement[1], holds that we have built-in capacities for cooperation as well as for confrontation. And, while conflict resolution is a relatively new field, we have learned a lot about how violence can be ended and prevented from happening in the first place.

The Role of Individuals

Some, but by no means all, experts and practitioners agree with the folk singer, Tom Paxton, who's song about peace, includes the refrain, "let it begin with me."

Average citizens may not have the political clout to convince soldiers and politicians to put down their weapons. They can, however, have an important impact in two key ways.

First and most obviously, they can speak out against violence. The history of the twentieth century is filled with examples of men and women forming political movements that changed the course of history. These include such obvious examples as the campaign to gain independence in India or to end the war in Vietnam. Other examples are harder to document, but important nonetheless, including protest movements that slowed the nuclear arms race in the 1960s and again in the 1980s and the work of the International Committee to Ban Land Mines, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.

Second, individuals can practice alternatives to violence in their daily lives. Here, too, it is impossible to document the impact of individuals' actions. Nonetheless, the work of organizations like the Beyond War Movement in the 1980s (now the Foundation for Global Community) introduced several hundred thousand people to basic principles of conflict resolution. That work has made the use of conflict resolution principles more common at the workplace, in families, and in local communities. While this may not have had a dramatic or direct political impact, there is little doubt that it has made terms like "win-win" part of our everyday conversation and placed them squarely on the national political agenda. Thus, during their speeches the night the Supreme Court's ruling determined the 2000 U.S. presidential election, both George W. Bush and Al Gore used the term "common ground," something which would have been unimaginable a few years earlier.


Political officials are always involved in decisions to start and stop using organized political violence. They may not be the initial instigator of the violence. Thus, it was a mentally disturbed Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, who killed Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and set Europe on the path to World War I. But the decisions to actually go to war and then to end a war are always made by political and military leaders.

Traditionally, the decision to start violence occurred when one side either thought it could win or believed that it had no alternative other than to fight. The violence ended when one side or the other won.

Since World War II, however, very few wars have ended with a clear-cut victory for either side. Instead, conflicts reach what is called a mutually hurting stalemate when leaders on both sides realize that they can continue fighting but cannot win or at least cannot do so at an acceptable cost. At that point, they become open to at least the possibility of a negotiated solution. No one has put this better than Nelson Mandela in his autobiography, "it was clear to me that a military victory was a distant if not impossible dream. It simply did not make sense for both sides to lose thousands if not millions of lives in a conflict that was unnecessary. It was time to talk."[2]

In other words, the realization that a conflict has reached such a stalemate marks a major turning point in its history. The existence of such a state of affairs, however, is no guarantee that peace talks will begin, let alone succeed, as the tragic violence in Israel and Palestine since 2000 so clearly demonstrates.

And, it is often hard for leaders who have often built their careers around the violence associated with the causes they espouse to turn to peace talks without losing face. Nonetheless, recent history is filled with examples of people who have done just that, including the leaders of the Irish Republican Army, the African National Congress, and the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

More generally, there is growing awareness on the part of political leaders that they need to develop alternatives to war, including on the part of the military. For example, all Canadian cadets take courses on peacekeeping at the Royal Military College during their second year of study. The Canadians, Germans, and Scandinavian countries have all established special schools for training troops for peacekeeping operations. Similarly, the Bush administration has introduced a whole section on confidence and security building measures on the State Department's Web site.[3]

Third Parties

Help from neutral "third parties" is almost always required to bring intractable conflict to a peaceful end. Indeed, the negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid government in South Africa are one of the few examples in which the parties to a dispute solved it on their own.

Third parties are needed precisely because they are neutral and do not have a vested interest in the outcome. To the degree that they are considered biased toward one side or the other (e.g., the United States in the Middle East) it becomes harder for them to have a positive impact.

Third parties operate in a number of ways. Some operate in an official capacity, as was the case with George Mitchell and his colleagues in Northern Ireland; sometimes they operate in a purely personal and voluntary capacity, as former President Jimmy Carter has done frequently since he left office in January 1981. Some involve taking the leaders of the parties to meetings in a single place as in the talks at Wright-Paterson Air Force Base that led to the Dayton Accords ending the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. Sometimes, diplomats engage in shuttle diplomacy, flying from capital to capital to help forge an agreement, which National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger did during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

However they operate, third parties can be helpful in a number of respects. Because they are neutral, they can gain the respect of both sides and even help build a degree of trust among the adversaries, which both Mitchell's team in Northern Ireland and the Norwegian diplomats who helped produce the Oslo agreement of 1993 were able to do. Because they are not themselves mired in long-standing positions about the dispute, they can help "reframe" the issues in new ways that make interest-based negotiations possible. Last but by no means least, because they are typically people with respected international reputations, their very presence makes the case for peace more credible.


While alternatives to violence are growing in popularity, we should not exaggerate their importance. At any moment, there are still between 20 and 40 wars raging around the world. Violence and intractable conflict seem certain to remain a prominent and tragic part of the human condition for generations to come. 

For more information about violence and intractable conflict, please continue on to read the following essays:

[1] The Seville Statement on Violence available at or for a complete listing

[2] Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom, (Boston: Little Brown), 1994.

[3] "Confidence and Security Building Measures" at the US Department of State website.

Use the following to cite this article:
Hauss, Charles (Chip). "Violence -- Overview." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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