Prevention of violent conflict



In the last lesson we considered proximate and underlying causes of violence according to a number of theories of conflict causation.  These causes have implications for efforts to prevent conflicts from escalating to violence.  As a prelude to examining contemporary cases, we consider problems of prevention between states and within states.  Progress made by European states from the war-prone system of pre-1945 to the managed conflict of the present era suggests tools for preventing violence between states.  The renewed attention to ethno-political and intrastate conflict since the end of the Cold War has yielded research that augments and sometimes contradicts the behaviourist research on intrastate violence of the 1960s and 1970s.  This has resulted in sometimes-contradictory prescriptions for preventing ethnic violence. Evaluation tools can help to identify the right prevention strategy for a conflict as it evolves.  Regional and international organisations can play an important role in conflict prevention, and military planners should be aware of how they can contribute or impede a conflict prevention strategy.


In addition to the texts and academic literature, I have drawn on the UN Training manual, Developing Capacity For Conflict Analysis And Early Response. (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, UNDESA)


Each year the UN sponsors training of several hundred professionals around the world in conflict resolution analysis and skills, using this resource and others like it.  These governmental and non-governmental staff then become the front line for early warning and prevention of conflict.


My purpose in including this material is to introduce military audiences to the same type of material that their civilian counterparts may draw upon in early warning and early response to violent conflict, in order to make communication across civil-military boundaries more effective for the management of violent conflict.


You can find out more about these through the UN Staff College Project on Early Warning and Preventive Measures.


The focus of these activities is conflict within states rather than between states.  An alternative exercise would be to focus on escalating tensions involving major powers, and the roles of regional and international organziations like the OSCE, ASEAN, and the UN, in confidence building, transparency, and de-escalation.  Wallensteen’s description of different approaches to analysis and resolution of different types of conflict helps understand the distinctions between these two exercises (particularly Chapters 5 and 6).

Learning Objectives

On completing this Lesson, you should be able to:

  • describe conflict causes and related preventive strategies
  • Describe tools available to third parties for prevention of violent conflict
  • analyse links between proximate and underlying causes of violence and relevant prevention strategies
  • explain prevention strategies for interstate and intrastate violence
  • explain role of observer missions and special commissions in supporting prevention

Required Reading

Chenoweth, Erica and Maria Stephan (2011) Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press. Chapter 1 The success of nonviolent resistance campaigns.

Evidence that nonviolent civil resistance works better than violent resistance to oppression or occupation is relatively recent, but draws on more than 200 cases from post-second world war data – including the violent conflicts included in the datasets studied in week 3. The heart of the strategic logic is that participation in violence carries a high cost, but participation in nonviolent civil resistance carries a low cost, and hence participation is greater, and this not only ensures success in the long term, but leads to more democratic outcomes, because the resistance actually rehearses the social interactions necessary to develop civil society and build pluralist politics.

Tuck, H. and Tanya Silverman (2016) The Counter-Narrative Handbook. Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

This handbook was sponsored by Public Safety Canada as part of the Kanishka project to counter violent extremism. It is laid out as a how-to manual focusing more on process and tactics than on content. Although it is intended to counter violent extremism, one could equally use the process to counter violence by an oppressive state, and contribute to the objective of nonviolent civil resistance campaigns like those explored by Chenoweth and Stephan.

Kilcullen, David (2013) Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. London: Oxford University Press. Chapter 3: The Theory of Competitive Control.

One of the barriers to purely non-violent civil resistance is the threat of immediate personal violence.  Kilcullen’s theory of competitive control, following classic COIN theorist Bernard Fall (1965) suggests that the actor best able to provide “a predictable, consistent, wide-spectrum normative system of control is most likely to dominate the population…” Brutal regimes tend to be fragile, because they may not throw up much resistance, but they expend a lot of resources on control, and relatively little loyalty or support, but resistance will also be limited because of fear.

This is now 18 years old, but remains of more than historical interest. It describes the evolution of thinking about development and the role of conflict in preventing and complicating development. If there is a simple conclusion, it is that conflict prevention and  post-conflict reconstruction are intimately related; if we don’t get the development piece right, we see recurring cycles of violence. Another point of interest is the inventory of post conflict units, many of them dismantled or de-funded as resources shifted to “counter-terrorism” after 9/11.

This short newsletter article (1999) was written after four years of European support to post-conflict reconstruction in the Balkans, and anticipated further support in the wake of NATO bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. It argues for a more comprehensive approach to economic reconstruction, rather than isolated individual projects.  It reflects the frustration of the conflict practitioner with a holistic vision, facing funding envelopes from isolated sources with narrow aims. It belongs in the “prevention” basket, because if you get post-conflict development wrong, recurring cycles of conflict are more likely.  One question is whether the massive expenditure of development programs under UNAMA in Afghanistan was more or less effective than the relatively piecemeal approach in the Balkans in 1999.

Elizabeth Rogers makes the case that economic sanctions can be used more effectively to increase costs of violent conflict. Since this was written in 1996, there has been an increase in the use of sanctions (including financial freezes and travel restrictions) targeting individual decision-makers, because sanctions are often seen to hurt victims of the conflict in the civil population.

Predating several books on the subject, this workshop report supported by Canada’s IDRC summarizes some of the key insights of practitioners engaged at every level in the 1990s.

This is an interesting compendium of lessons in conflict prevention from the immediate post-Cold War period, and refers specifically to many of the tools referenced in t the UN Handbook on Peaceful Resolution of Disputes, so it is interesting to look at the suite of tools available, and the experts’ review of how effective they were under different conditions.

Lund “raises the issue of what units of analysis might be most useful for codifying recent preventive experience, and describes recent work using two forms of such effectiveness analysis. These forms are case-studies of actual recent successful and unsuccessful multi-tooled preventive interventions (e.g., Macedonia, Burundi), and evaluations of differing policy tools of intervention (e.g., preventive deployment, conditional development aid). How this knowledge might be incorporated into the country-level strategic plans of donors and other third parties is discussed.”

David Last, lastdav(at)gmail.com,  updated December 2016