Transforming violent conflict

Conciliation Resources supports people and groups affected by conflict to address the causes and make progress towards a lasting and just peace.

Why this matters

The poor record of Western military interventions (Chalmers, 2014) is due in large part to indifference to the myriad complexities of conflict. NATO’s approach to Kosovo in 1999, for example, was not nearly long-sighted enough to ponder the effects of the war’s aftermath on the province’s Serb, Roma and Ashkali communities after the bombing had been hailed a success (Human Rights Watch, 2004).

For similar reasons the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were substantially longer than planners expected and ultimately unsuccessful on their own terms. The sheer, awkward detail of conflict, which ought to trouble any third-party contemplating intervention, is routinely ignored as some states jump bullishly to a military ‘solution’.

In the midst of virtually every violent conflict are individuals, communities and movements committed to resisting violence and making space for a humane and constructive way through (Clark, 2009; Tongeren, et al., 2005; Mathews, 2001; Britain Yearly Meeting, 2014; Rill, et al., 2007).

With the right external support, these groups are well-placed to develop strategies to move conflict from threatened or actual violence towards a just settlement and lasting peace.

This ‘conflict transformation’ approach follows an understanding of security based on inclusion, mutuality, and justice-building. Whereas coercive interventions depend on dominance, conflict transformation operates as solidarity with those affected by violence.

The work is tough, slow, and perpetually threatened by forces (often including global powers) that benefit from the political status quo. It is also complicated by relations of gender, class and ethnicity that ‘inferiorise’ whole social groups (Cockburn, 2010, p. 151). Conciliation efforts that are blind to these influences can unwittingly add to them (Fisher, 2011; Cockburn, 2010), and so a conflict transformation approach has to confront abusive power through a creative, stubborn and often risky effort.

Despite these uncertainties, the available evidence suggests that a conflict transformation is more effective than coercive approaches. A study spanning 323 campaigns for major social change between 1900 and 2006 found that about half of the nonviolent campaigns succeeded in exacting major concessions from government, compared to only about a quarter of the campaigns that used violence (Stephan & Chenoweth, 2008). To explain this difference, the authors pointed to the greater social and political support that nonviolent campaigns tend to gather, as well as their lower risk of provoking a violent backlash.

Regrettably, the UK’s self-perception is as a ‘warrior nation’ (Clarke, 2014, p. 251) has limited its potential role as a peacebuilding state, but that potential remains. Conflict transformation work has been under-funded and under-explored.

In evidence to a parliamentary inquiry, Conciliation Resources, while acknowledging the limits of peacebuilding, made this reasonable plea:

‘There is much that the UK can do to support, accompany, promote, and enable locally driven peace processes and initiatives. Developing good practice, investing in expertise and strategies, and placing mediation and peacebuilding on a higher footing in relation to security and military responses in the toolkit of responses to conflict, would be an economic, people-centred and politically effective way to enhance national security.’

(Conciliation Resources, 2015)


For more about why rethinking security means improving responses to violent conflict, see Rethinking Security: A discussion paper (section 5.5)

For more about work to transform conflict, visit Conciliation Resources


Britain Yearly Meeting, 2014. ‘This light that pushes me: Stories of African peacebuilders’. London: Quaker Books.

Chalmers, M., 2014. ‘The strategic scorecard: Six out of ten’. In: A. L. Johnson, ed. ‘Wars in peace: British military operations since 1991’. London: Royal United Services Institute, pp. 89-136.

Clarke, M., 2014. ‘Brothers in arms: The British-American alignment’. In: A. L. Johnson, ed. ‘Wars in peace: British military operations since 1991’. London: Royal United Services Institute, pp. 237-265.

Clark, H., ed., 2009. ‘People power: Unarmed resistance and global solidarity’. London: Pluto Press.

Cockburn, C., 2010. ‘Gender relations as causal in militarization and war’. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 12(2), pp. 139-157.

Conciliation Resources, 2015. Memorandum of Evidence. In: ‘The next National Security Strategy: Written evidence’. London: HC/HL Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, pp. 36-40.

Fisher, S., 2011. ‘Simon Fisher: Just wasting our time?’. Available at:

Fisher, S. & Zimina, L., 2009. ‘Just wasting our time? Provocative thoughts for peacebuilders’. Berghof Handbook.

Human Rights Watch, 2004. ‘Failure to protect: Anti-minority violence in Kosovo, March 2004’. Available at:

Mathews, D., 2001. ‘War prevention works: 50 stories of people resolving conflict’. Oxford: Oxford Research Group.

Rill, H., Šmidling, T. & Bitoljanu, A. eds., 2007. ’20 pieces of encouragement for awakening and change: Peacebuilding in the region of the Former Yugoslavia’. Belgrade-Sarajevo: Centre for Nonviolent Action.

Stephan, M. J. & Chenoweth, E., 2008. ‘Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict’. International Security, 33(1), pp. 7-44.

Tongeren, P. v., Brenk, M., Hellema, M. & Verhoeven, J., 2005. ‘People building peace II: Successful stories of civil society’. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.