Ending Ethnic Conflict and Creating Positive Peace in Rwanda and Sierra Leone

By Katherine J. Wolfenden
2011, Vol. 3 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

Although peace and pacifism are familiar ideas to most students today, for much of human history these concepts have been relegated to the religious domain and excluded from the study and practice of politics.1 At the same time, war--organized violent conflict between different groups of people--has traditionally been considered a natural occurrence, based on popular assumptions about the inclinations and limitations of human nature.2 Of course, many today still believe that peace is idealistic and war is inevitable, but other theories have emerged in modern times to explain the existence of war while also allowing for the possibility of positive peace (which entails the absence of war and also the presence of justice).3

Using a social constructivist framework, and invoking the Rwandan genocide and the civil war in Sierra Leone as real-world examples, I will argue that today’s intrastate, ethnically-based conflicts stem from unjust political systems in which ethnic identity becomes a marker of difference and division that privileges some over others. The international community must intervene after violence erupts, but more importantly, peacemakers must act before aggression comes to a head. As Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated, non-violent direct action can address and diffuse the root causes of war; however, for peaceful methods to be effective, we must renounce our misguided, pessimistic ideologies and forego military power to create positive peace in its place.

Before we can theorize the end of violence, we must understand how it arises. In their book Peace and Conflict Studies, David Barash and Charles Webel elucidate many of the theories commonly used to explain why humans go to war. Barash and Webel write that the major justifications for war are grounded in assumptions about human nature: the idea that biologically, we have evolved to be violent and aggressive creatures, for example, or the theory that humanity is fundamentally nasty and warlike.4 Nevertheless, it can be argued that these theories do not hold up to the criticisms levied against them. As Barash and Webel point out, war is widespread, but not universal, so if humans have some sort of genetic coding that leads us to war, peace must also be an intrinsic part of our nature, given that peacemakers are just as human.5 Aggression among animals is often cited to show that war is “natural,” but human beings have a unique capacity for rational and intelligent thought as well as the ability to suppress and overcome our primitive instincts.6

While human nature theories cannot effectively explain the manifestation of war, social constructivist theories provide a rational explanation for both the absence and presence of violent conflict. These theories argue that what determines our behavior, what leads us to choose between war and peace, is our circumstances and the social experiences we live through.7 In this framework, peace is not viewed as some sort of miracle occurrence defying humanity’s evil nature, but instead as one of the many different behaviors humans may exhibit with supportive social experiences under causative circumstances.

The Rwandan and Sierra Leonean conflicts are both excellent examples of how violence can arise from particular social conditions, specifically in reaction to pervasive political injustice. Originally, the Sierra Leonean civil war began as a movement fighting the corruption and inequality its founders saw in their country’s division of resources. As the student leaders’ own ideologies became more radical and they needed soldiers to fight, they inculcated hatred and violence in the minds of child soldiers by making a false association between the people they attacked and those who had killed the young boys’ families.8 In addition to redirected aggression, the Revolutionary United Front also employed socialization to aggressiveness as a tool to toughen their boy soldiers. They created a culture in which violence appeared to be good, necessary and normal. After two years of fighting, Beah said, “killing had become a daily activity.”9 The UNICEF workers at the rehabilitation center expected them to behave like children, but Ishmael and the other soldiers had been “brainwashed to kill.”10

The Rwandan genocide was also begun and furthered through totalism, alienation, socialization to aggressiveness and other social constructions. Before the country was colonized, the Rwandan people lived as one cohesive group, made up of multiple cultural identities, but the Belgians taught them to view one another as different, as enemies.11 The Belgians had a primordialist sense of ethnicity – they issued each Rwandan an identity card, which solidified Rwandans’ previously fluid ethnic identities and allowed the Belgians to arbitrarily privilege one ethnic group over another. As each group vied for political power, then, individuals redirected their aggression towards the other ethnicity as a whole, and their traumatic experiences with injustice led many Rwandans to embrace extremism. Those in power then escalated the conflict by promoting this antagonistic culture; as Gourevitch writes, “genocide, after all, is an exercise in community building.”12 Leading up to the Rwandan genocide, propagandists preached over the airwaves and “conscious-raising meetings” were held by local leaders, backed by the state. These officials described their opponents as devils, unworthy of dignity or respect and criminals, deserving of punishment. They conditioned laymen into joining their case by “[rewarding] them with petty spoils” of war.13

Social constructivist theories not only explain the ways in which violent conflicts begin and are continued, but they also tell us that we can prevent violence and achieve positive peace if we work to create different circumstances. However, this requires us to take a different approach. The international community tends to intervene after conflicts have started, or worse, to lend tacit approval or even concrete support to war wagers. Once violence has broken out, though, and entire generations of children have learned to kill senselessly, it is too late to save the lives of countless victims and the psyches of many participants. It is not impossible to restore positive peace after violence has erupted, but intervening earlier can prevent conflict from becoming violent in the first place.

Both the Rwandan and Sierra Leonean conflicts arose in reaction to political injustice, when the concentration and abuse of power led to social and economic inequality and eventually, the structural violence became unbearable for the oppressed. We can think of these wars, then, as structural violence made physical; it follows that if we can eliminate structural violence and promote equitable social systems, we can prevent violent conflict though the creation of positive peace in its place.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated how unjust political systems can be challenged and changed through non-violent direct action. Although many around them questioned the effectiveness of their tactics, both successfully used moral persuasion and social pressure to make negative peace positive. Conflict is natural, but as Martin Luther King Jr. explained in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” it does not have to become violent. In King’s eyes, non-violent direct action can prevent this from happening. He wrote, “The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides – and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.”14

Instead of allowing tensions to erupt into violence, we must use peaceful methods to resolve conflicts, on the individual, nationwide and international levels. Instead of teaching young children to hate, for example, through the example of adults around them, we must socialize them so that they learn cooperation and peacefulness. Organizations such as Peace Games that teach conflict resolution to schoolchildren should be expanded and replicated worldwide. In addition, microloans and other development programs should be better funded, political inequities must be challenged and addressed, and free trade must be made fair for less powerful nations, so that all people have the opportunity to better their quality of life.

While some work towards peace, the international community cannot stand on the sidelines; intervention is often viewed negatively, but if you are not part of the solution, you ultimately allow the problems to continue and worsen. Of course, foreign countries must stop supplying weapons to warring peoples, as the French did in the case of Rwanda,15 but they must also stop tolerating violent conflict in the world, which was the case for most countries in “the West.”16 Countries such as the United States who hold an incredible amount of political and culture power must actively promote peaceful behavior and also model peacefulness themselves. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, President Obama quoted Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”17 The president called for international agreements to limit the use of force, institutionalized respect for human rights, and increased investments in international development - at the same time, though, President Obama maintained that “war is sometimes necessary.”18 He characterized this position as “a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”19

The underlying assumptions behind such statements, that mankind is fundamentally dissolute and violence is inevitable, serve only to justify war’s existence and discourage peacemaking movements. Regardless of the compliments President Obama gave the leaders who came before him, his viewpoint belittles the work of peacemakers and rationalizes the military-industrial complex that the U.S. maintains. Such a defeatist mentality constitutes cultural violence, which makes it difficult to progress towards positive peace and ultimately becomes another obstacle to peace that must be overcome.

The violent, ethnically-based conflicts in Rwanda and Sierra Leone demonstrated that war occurs when repressed peoples’ tensions violently come to the surface. Structural violence becomes physical when societal tensions are ignored and allowed to fester and grow; however, as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. showed us, conflict can be dealt with on non-violent terms. Non-violent direct action is an effective and realistic means of accomplishing change, but we must invest in educational programs and political reform movements in order to make it effective. Human nature theories espoused by political leaders today – that mankind’s nature is depraved, that violence is necessary – become self-imposed limits on what we can achieve, but if powerful countries put their political and cultural hegemonic power behind peacemaking worldwide, progress towards positive peace would be made possible.


Barash, David and Charles Webel. Peace and Conflict Studies. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2008.

Beah, Ishmael. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2007).

Cortright, David. Peace: a History of Movements and Ideas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda. New York: Macmillian, 1999.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” A Reader in Peace Studies. Ed. David Barash. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Mamdani, Mahmood. When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

“Obama’s Nobel Remarks,” 11 Dec. 2009, The New York Times.


1.) David Cortright, Peace: a History of Movements and Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 2.

2.) David Barash and Charles Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2008) 120.

3.) Cortright, 7.

4.) Barash and Webel, 120.

5.) Barash and Webel, 128-129.

6.) Barash and Webel, 129.

7.) Barash and Webel, 130-136.

8.) Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2007).

9.) Beah, 126.

10.) Beah, 135.

11.) Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002) 34.

12.) Philip Gourevitch, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda (New York: Macmillian, 1999) 94.

13.) Gourevitch, 95.

14.) King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” A Reader in Peace Studies, Ed. David Barash, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 167. 

15.) Gourevitch, 94.

16.) Gourevitch, 148.

17.) “Obama’s Nobel Remarks,” 11 Dec. 2009, The New York Times, 3.

18.) “Obama’s Nobel Remarks,” 4.

19.) Obama’s Nobel Remarks,” 3.

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