Guy Burgess
Cate Malek

March 2005

Bystanders are the forgotten parties in a conflict. They are neither adversaries nor formal intermediaries. Still, they are often caught in the figurative or literal cross fire. In violent, large-scale conflicts, innocent bystanders bear a large share of the suffering. They are killed and injured, their property is destroyed and they are often forced to flee as refugees. In smaller scale conflicts, bystanders are forced to live in hostile environments. For example, children of divorcing parents often live in households filled with fighting and tension.

One of the first questions when dealing with bystanders is how to limit injury to innocent victims. In January 2004, there were over 17 million refugees seeking asylum outside their countries of origin. The majority of these refugees came from places that have been racked by violent conflict, such as Afghanistan, the Sudan and Palestine. [1] As for interpersonal disputes, at the time of this writing, between three and 10 million children were at risk of domestic violence in the United States alone. [2] Protecting innocent bystanders has proved to be a complicated issue. Much more information on this topic can be found in the costs and benefits of intractable conflict section of this website as well as the essays on human rights violations, women in intractable conflict and human rights protection.

However, the role of the bystander is not only that of the victim. Around the world, bystanders are doing some of the most creative, courageous work on addressing conflict that has been seen in years. One of the key problems with addressing intractable conflict has been finding people with enough interest to give their time, energy, resources and often lives for someone else's war. Wealthy donors looking at a violent conflict from a safe distance talk about preventing intractable conflict, but often pull out when the risks become too great. The conflicting parties themselves are usually too caught up in escalating the conflict to clearly think through ways of ending it. They tend to focus on achieving victory, whatever the cost to themselves and those around them. In the end, it is the bystanders who have so much at stake that they are willing to confront and possibly transform the conflict.

John Paul Lederach tells the story of a group of bystanders who successfully stopped a war. In the 1990s, Wajir, Kenya was caught up in a bad cycle of clan-based violence. Wajir had experienced war many times before and a small group of women were fed up with the constant violence. They held a meeting to see what they could do about it. They decided to focus on the market. These women wanted to make the market safe for people of any clan background to come and buy food for their families. They established monitors who watched the market daily. If there were any infractions, a committee of women would act quickly to address them. Soon, they had created a zone of peace in the market. Once this was accomplished, they began to address the wider violence that was still affecting their lives. They worked with their elders, who were motivated to create the Council of Elders for Peace. They then moved to get the blessing from the government for what they were doing, which they received. Finally, they had conversations with the youth who were fighting in the bush. Some of the key youth in the district formed Youth for Peace. Eventually through the work of all these groups, ceasefires were secured and the clan-based factions were disarmed. Today, Wajir still faces many problems, but the Wajir Peace and Development Committee is going strong. [3]

The question becomes, how can we harness the power of bystanders? For those playing this role, making a stand and addressing conflicts can be extremely risky. Often, those brave enough to make a stand pay with their lives. This was illustrated in a story from Columbia, which was also included in the essay on confronting extremists.

A group of peasants living in the Rio Carare region of Columbia grouped together to make a stand against the various armed groups moving through their area. For years, various armed factions had been competing for the peasants' land, taxes and allegiance. When one of the armed factions took control of an area, they ruled with a heavy hand. The peasants lived in fear and silence. When friends or family members were killed, they remained silent for fear of provoking more killings. In 1987, a small group of peasant leaders decided to take their lives into their own hands. They formed the Association of Peasant Workers of Carare (ATCC). Their code was fairly simple. They agreed to work together in solidarity, to break the law of silence by doing everything publicly and to engage in dialogue with the armed soldiers. They declared their lands a zone of peace and sent delegations to meet with all of the armed groups. When they met with soldiers, they worked to address them as human beings instead of members of an armed group. In this way, they broke down the barriers that had traditionally existed between the soldiers and the peasants. Above all, they swore to die before they would kill. This group was successful in reducing the violence in their area and received both the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize and the UN "We are the people" award. However, unknown assassins murdered several of the founding leaders, effectively ending the movement. [4]

Bystanders around the world are faced with this same predicament. They are forced to choose between risking their lives to take a stand and watching a conflict spiral out of control injuring or killing many who gets in the way. However, because bystanders have the potential to play such a powerful peacebuilding role, it may be possible to offer them support. One way to encourage bystanders would be to develop some kind of support network to help protect them. Another method could be to educate them, giving them examples of other bystanders who have made a significant difference. (See the essay on empowerment.) Many times, bystanders in a conflict are working in isolation, unaware that others have been caught in the same situation and found ways to successfully address it. (For more information also see the essays on third siders and witnesses.)


[1] United Nations High Commission on Refugees Website,, January, 2004.

[2] Denver SafeHouse website, , October, 2004.

[3] From a speech given by John Paul Lederach at the Association of Conflict Researchers Conference; Sacramento, CA; September 30, 2004. Also, John Paul Lederach. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[4] ibid.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Guy and Cate Malek. "Bystanders." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: March 2005 <>.

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