Breaking the Cycle of Violence: Fostering peace and reconciliation in post-conflict environments

The examples of reconciliation programmes highlighted within this report emphasise the vital need to address the impact of individual trauma in order to rebuild divided communities and unify nations.

A report for the Peace and Reconciliation programme

Published 18 Dec 2020

An essential handbook providing inspiration to believe that individuals, communities, and nations can emerge from conflict to fulfil their unique potential.

Peace is arguably the essential pre-condition for prosperity. Conflict has been appropriately characterised as ‘development in reverse’, not only preventing nations from embarking upon their own pathway to prosperity but reversing much of the hard-won progress of preceding decades.

Since the mid-1990s, there has been a sharp increase in the recurrence rate of conflict, with the UN estimating that as many as 60 per cent of conflicts in the early 2000s had relapsed within five years of the initial peace. Furthermore, the impact of conflict on civilian populations has increased dramatically since the turn of the twentieth century. Civilian fatalities in wartime rose sharply from just 5 per cent in 1900 to 65 per cent by the end of World War II, increasing to over 90 per cent during the 1990s.

Whilst this undoubtedly reflects the unprecedented scale of conflicts during the twentieth century, it also reflects their changing dynamics; today, civilians are routinely targeted by state and non-state actors. However, the psychological consequences of conflict upon civilian populations have been consistently overlooked in national and international conflict resolution initiatives until the turn of the twenty-first century.

The increasing recurrence of conflict and its increasing impact upon civilians requires us to reconsider the role of reconciliation. There is a clear correlation between the pervasiveness of such latent trauma within post-conflict environments, and the recurrence of war. Thankfully, there is now a growing recognition of the importance of acknowledging and addressing trauma as a precondition of achieving lasting peace, reflected in the issue’s increasing prioritisation within state and non-state responses to conflict.

Whilst peace treaties may end periods of conflict, they do little to help heal the divisions that caused them. Instead, for nations to emerge from conflict, the societal bonds that hold communities together must be rebuilt, and victims of trauma must be supported. There is therefore a pressing need to re-examine existing approaches of post-conflict reconciliation, and its role in breaking the cycle of violence.

This report examines some of the common challenges facing post-conflict nations emerging from periods of internal conflict. It aims to highlight examples of good practice; programmes that have achieved positive results in bringing individuals, communities, and nations back together that may prove instructive for others. It provides a comparative analysis of three nations seeking to address the damaging legacy of conflict: Rwanda, Sri Lanka, and Colombia.

The 1994 Rwandan genocide left an estimated 800,000 people dead, killing up to 70 per cent of the minority Tutsi population, and reducing the total Rwandan population by as much as 10 per cent. According to a study carried out by the National Institute for Statistics of Rwanda, approximately 37,000 people were widowed and 74,000 children orphaned. In addition, an estimated 250,000 women are believed to have been victims of rape.

Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war came to an end in 2009 after claiming the lives of an estimated 150,000 people. As many as 900,000 people were displaced during the quarter of a century of conflict between government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which exposed key ethnic fault lines within the country, principally between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities.

Colombia’s 2016 Peace Accord brought to an end the world’s longest-running civil war. During over half a century of conflict, an estimated 220,000 Colombians were killed, with civilians comprising over 80 per cent of fatalities. The conflict displaced close to seven million people, equating to around 13 per cent of the population. The impact on ordinary citizens, especially in the rural territories, has been so severe that the conflict has been characterised as a ‘war against the civilian population’.

Though each nation is at a very different stage in its journey emerging from conflict, their collective experiences offer a wealth of empirical evidence to inform understanding of individual, community, and national-level reconciliation frameworks. The examples cited in this report are not intended to be an exhaustive list, but rather to shine a spotlight on some of the key initiatives that have proven most effective, often those operating with minimal resources.

We included Colombia as one of our three country case studies, in part to illustrate the strength brought to the process when reconciliation has been ongoing at a grass-root level during a sustained conflict, and because the diverse instruments created as part of their transitional justice framework are widely acknowledged as representing global best practice – these offer us a wealth of lessons and observations.

This report is divided into three parts. The first analyses national reconciliation, exploring the crucial role of unifying national leadership, as well as differing approaches to transitional justice mechanisms and truth commissions. The second assesses the centrality of rebuilding communities, and the importance of social programmes in strengthening social cohesion through facilitating face-to-face contact, community dialogue, and joint development projects. Lastly, the third examines the necessity to address the  psychological impact of conflict on individuals, by maximising the accessibility of trauma care, including – critically – for former combatants.


Breaking the Cycle of Violence: Fostering peace and reconciliation in post-conflict environments:

An essential handbook providing inspiration to believe that individuals, communities, and nations can emerge from conflict to fulfil their unique potential.

Dec 2020

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