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A phenomenon: Why some communities opt out of surrounding violence

2013 July 24

By Sean Barrett

Why do certain “ordinary” communities, neither pacifists nor peace activists, abstain from the violent conflict that surrounds them?

How are they able to maintain neutrality while their neighbors respond with violence?

Where do these types of groups exist in the world?

These are the questions raised at this month’s Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum (CPRF): “Opting Out” of Conflict. The speakers Marshall Wallace and Kristin Doughty, along with moderator SFCG VP Sandra Melone, discussed about how “ordinary people” can manage to avoid violent conflict while it completely surrounds them. The basis of this discussion was Opting Out of War, a book written by both Wallace and Doughty.

9781588268778_p0_v1_s260x420The book looked at communities in 13 countries– Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Fiji, India, Kosovo, Mozambique, Nigeria, the Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka.  Despite being surrounded by conflict, these communities managed to stay out of the fighting. An example given in the forum was the Muslim community in Rwanda during the Genocide of 1994 that somehow avoided all involvement.

Wallace pointed out three common traits among the communities that contributed to their “opting out”:

  1. an awareness of non-violent options
  2. a common sense of identity incompatible with the conflict
  3. the role of local community leaders

In other words, individuals within the communities realized that they were not backed in a corner– they had a choice to not fight. Their identity as a group did not require them to take up arms.

Additionally, one surprising trait was how those in leadership roles actively kept in contact with the fighting parties.  One might think they would remain silent in the hope that their community’s absence would go unnoticed. This was not the case. Leaders of these communities engaged the fighters and managed to establish their community as “off limits” during times of conflict.

Still, the question remains: how can these communities serve as a model for future peacebuilding efforts? Most of the cases of “opting out” centered around smaller communities. How can the ability of removing oneself from violence be scaled up regionally and globally? This was one of many questions that audience members raised in regards to “opting out.”

Overall, the forum managed to inspire hope and constructive thought, which are two primary aims of the CPRF Forum. The attendees (and those who watched the webcast) hopefully left the forum with awareness of the possibility that ordinary communities can rise above violence and remain at peace.


3dda623Sean Barrett, a Communications and Special Projects Intern at Search For Common Ground, is a graduate student at American University where he studies International Peace and Conflict Resolution. His areas of interest include mediation, dialogue, and East Africa.

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