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Addressing Ethnic Community and Intra-State Violence

Facilitation: Dorie Wilsnack and Eric Bachman

Ethnic community and intra-state violence, but also intra-ethnic conflicts, have often deep-rooted causes such as mutual fears, insecurities and hatred of ethnic, religious or cultural groups.

Moreover, these causes are frequently exaggerated by political leaders or the media.Various forms of nonviolent strategies and methods exist to address them, two of which were discussed in this theme group: building bridges and nonviolent intervention.

Building bridges can have different objectives, which can be combined in various ways and orders depending on the situation. One objective can be simply to establish personal contacts, for example through intensive short term living together (2-3 weeks) for children, youth or adults or the establishment of safe places for people with diplomatic or government roles to meet privately (out of the public eye).

Another may be to listen to the other side(s). However, a feeling of superiority on one or both side(s) might block dialogue. Nevertheless, different methods have been used successfully to achieve this objective, e.g. compassionate listening projects between Jews and Germans, meetings of victims and perpetrators of the Northern Ireland conflict in Glencree, Ireland, non-violent communication (Marshall Rosenberg), listening projects such as the Rural Southern Listening Project or the creation of safe houses for gatherings and meetings. Communication with, or understanding of each other will improve, if both sides accept and acknowledge the suffering of the other side. Therefore, it is important to show one's pain and not only the anger that one might have. Public actions can set an example that others follow.

Another objective is to find common ground. Working together on an activity or issue that is not directly related to the conflict but which involves people from both groups in the conflict (e.g. international work camps, arts projects, activity dealing with children's needs, etc.) is a common way to approach this objective. But it might also involve actively looking for common points during meetings or dialogue.

A challenging objective is to develop respect and empathy between the opposing groups. Various projects and methods can help to develop more empathy, inter alia exchanges, i.e. living with people in the other community for a period of time, dialogue projects that help to heal wounds from the past, learning about the lives, the needs and pains of the others or a continued international presence in a conflict region.

And finally an objective of building bridges can be to deconstruct the historical myths and stereotypes that fuel a conflict as in the Entangled Lives Project.

However, it is necessary to point out that good facilitation and transparency of actions are extremely important during all the projects and methods mentioned above, as otherwise they may not work as intended but may produce the opposite result. Sensitive and aware use of the way that language and accent can be partisan and can denote extra value being given to one side, can lower reactivity and make it easier for people of different 'sides' to accept and receive facilitators. It is also important to take into account both the groups that have a self interest in maintaining a war or tense situation, and the role of diasporas, which often have considerable influence in a conflict (either in supporting or in de-escalating the conflict).

However, bridge building does not create the necessary structural changes. There is a need to address the economic and political structures that are part of the problem, although some steps might create new problems, e.g. economic reparations. For example, a lack of legal opportunities for redress or change (including the possibility to have greater autonomy) increases the probability of violence. However, bridge building does help to prepare the ground for structural changes.

The second way to address ethnic community and intra-state violence that was explored is Nonviolent intervention -this is a complex undertaking and various factors must be clarified before beginning it.

First of all, early preparation, if possible, is essential for a successful intervention, in particular good training and informing for newcomers. This includes also an evaluation of the effectiveness of the intervention. The intervening group should be invited. It must be also clear that the intervening group has respect or status in the community, local and international, and that it has good communication with the activists inside the conflict. Certain power relationships may have a negative influence on the support. The interveners need to be clear about their motivations (personal, political, etc.). Imposing one's own agenda from outside will almost certainly have negative implications. Other preliminary questions for detailed reflection are the safety of all, public, activists, interveners, consequent to the interventions and the likely effectiveness of the interventions in stopping the cycles of violence in the long and short term.

To increase the flow of information to the outside world often influences the authorities to be less violent, e.g. through Amnesty International. Those involved in conflict are often not prepared and need training in empowerment and in order to know legal rights.

Outsiders might also be able to be a role model to those involved in a conflict and might encourage and strengthen the self-esteem of those in conflict situations. It is also important to support democratic and peaceful voices in the diaspora.

However, several difficulties and dangers must be kept in mind: Intervention or outside support is only useful when it takes place over a longer period of time; Outside expertise may be too overwhelming for the people inside; and financial strength of the outsiders may have too much influence. Out of these considerations, it is possible to develop a catalogue of questions that one needs to ask oneself, and of information one needs to know before participating in a nonviolent intervention:

  • Be aware that attention or awareness about the conflict or issue is often raised by an emotional reaction.
  • What time do I have available to participate?
  • Be well informed about the situation.
  • Who else is doing something on this issue?
  • How can I find others who are working in this issue?
  • What tactics have already been tried?
  • What can I share?
  • Is there a particular role that I and my skills can play?
  • Will I make a difference?
  • What funding is available?
  • How can I cooperate with others?
  • Do a power analysis of the problem.
  • Try to discover what is/are the source(s) of the problem.
  • Be clear about my motivation.
  • Does my motivation make a difference to the efficiency of the action?