Truth Empowers

Strategic Peacebuilding: Transforming Relationships

By Christopher Sebit


[MA in Peace & Development Studies]


Transforming relationships at all levels of society is the main task of peacebuilding. Relationships are a form of power or social capital. People are more likely to cooperate and constructively address conflict if they are connected through a network of relationships that create opportunities for forgiveness and reconciliation. This network of relationships should reflect the core values of peacebuilding. These core values include meeting human needs and protecting human rights in a way that recognizes interdependence, promotes partnership among peoples rather than domination, and limits all forms of violence (Lisa, 2004: p.45-46).

Lisa stresses that building right relationships require three interrelated support processes: healing trauma, transforming conflict and doing justice. Trauma is a deep psychological wound or threat that overwhelms a person and causes long lasting physical, emotional, or spiritual injury. Lisa (2004, p.46) points out that “Trauma can result… from structural violence, crime, abuse, or acts of war. Some traumas stay with people for years or even centuries”.

Trauma is related to violence. Every act of violence is associated with unhealed trauma. Carolyn (2005, p.5) reveals the relation between trauma and violence by noting that “…trauma and violence are integrally linked: violence often leads to trauma, and unhealed trauma, in turn, can lead to violence and further loss of security”.

There are many types of trauma. They are individual trauma and collective trauma. Individual trauma can take the form of acute trauma (single event), severe trauma (post-traumatic stress disorder), Participatory trauma and secondary trauma. Collective trauma exists in the form of single event trauma, historical trauma, cultural trauma and structural trauma.

Living under abusive, humiliating, degrading or unsafe condition for a length of time causes structural trauma. The ongoing violence of poverty and systems that make people unable to meet basic needs such as healthcare is called structural violence and is a cause of trauma (Carolyn: 2005, p.12).

We speak of collective trauma when a traumatic event or series of events affect large numbers of people. For example, the dead of Dr. John Garang de-Mabior inflicted collective trauma on the people of South Sudan, Nuba Mountains and Ingassana Hills. Any attempt to destroy part or all of a culture leads to cultural trauma. Cultural traumas are created when attempts are made to eradicate part or all of a culture or people (Carolyn: 2005, p.14).

Historical trauma is passed from one generation to another. The pain inflicted on a group of people or community by slavery, colonialism, persecution, child abduction, domination, or genocide is one example of historical trauma. Usually, the traumatic event is in the past, but its effects are accumulative and can be seen in individuals or group attitudes and behaviors in succeeding generations. Even if the trauma story is not told to the next generations as Carolyn (2005, p.14) said a conspiracy of silence surrounds events for which grieving and mourning have never taken place.

Secondary trauma refers to the effects experienced by rescue workers, caregivers, and others who respond to disasters and attend to victims. Many journalists who covered victims’ testimonies in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported post-traumatic stress reactions, even though they were briefed beforehand on how to avoid becoming personally traumatized (Carolyn, 2005: p.14).

Participatory trauma occurs to those who participate actively in harming others. According to Carolyn (2005, p.14) as reported by psychologist Rachael Macnair “the traumatic effects of harming others, intentionally or unintentionally, can be as severe as or more severe than what victims and survivors experience”.

How do individuals and societies respond to traumatic events? When faced with threat or danger, we become afraid and our bodies quickly get ready for action. Fight, flight and freeze are common ways individuals and societies used when responding to trauma. We used an enormous amount of energy when fighting back or escaping the danger. When we freeze, energy is not completely used up, but it is trapped in our bodies. This unused trauma energy is destructive to our bodies.

Shaking, trembling, crying and sweating are normal trauma responses. They are helpful to the body. If we allow ourselves to shake and tremble, we are helping our bodies release or use up the energy that has been accumulated during freeze response.

Traumatic events that overwhelm our ability to cope with threat are many. Carolyn (2005, p.15) believed that the following are common traumatic events or stressors:

  • Abuse or assault: physical, emotional, sexual (including rape)
  • Accidents
  • Causing harm to others deliberately: criminals; torturers; abusers; terrorists including state-sponsored or sanctioned terrorism; abuse of power.
  • Causing harm to others in the line of duty: law enforcement, executioners, military personnel
  • Economic policies, poverty
  • Homelessness, being a refuge
  • Human-caused disasters: chemical spills, dams or levees that break
  • Living under occupation or in conditions of servitude or slavery
  • Mass violence: assault, massacres, genocide, wars
  • Natural disasters: hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, tsunami
  • Neglect of those who cannot care for themselves
  • Serious illnesses, pandemics and epidemics such as AIDS, bioterrorism
  • Structural violence: social structures and institutions that deprive people of their rights and ability to meet basic needs
  • Sudden loss of loved ones, status, identity, possessions, home, territory
  • Sudden changing of the rules, expectations, or norms; social revolutions
  • Surgical, dental, and medical procedures, including difficult births
  • Torture
  • Witnessing death or injury

Traumatic events create needs for victims, offenders and communities. Lisa (2004, p.47) reflects on this fact by observing that “traumatic experiences leave people with lingering needs and wounds”. Therefore, trauma healing is all about addressing these needs and wounds. That is trauma healing provides a space for victims, offenders and communities to identify harms and collaboratively work for a concrete healing and reconciliation process. This process helps both the victims and offenders discharge the physiological effects of trauma, thus preventing further occurrence of trauma.

Some useful principles for trauma healing and recovery have been suggested by Lisa (2004, p.47-48) as follows: name the trauma; work through emotions and physiological effects; find spiritual meaning; form meaningful relationships with others; re-established a sense of personal control; seek root causes of the trauma and work to alleviate them.

The success of trauma healing depends entirely on clearly perceived and formulated trauma healing programs. These programs strengthen the victims and help them identify themselves as survivors, who have the power to change their situation and moved forward as peacebuilders. Without trauma healing and recovery programs, or at least sensitivity to victims’ needs, other peacebuilding processes such as humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, or even negotiation may be more difficult (Lisa, 2004: p.48). Moreover, Lisa observed that the experience of trauma can lead to offending behaviors; it is no accident that so many victimizers have themselves been-or perceive themselves to still be-victims.

Conflict transformation seeks to address the root causes of trauma so as to find acceptable, satisfactory solutions that are binding to all conflicting parties. Conflict transformation is based on several principles. According to Lisa (2004, p.48-49) the principles of conflict transformation are: identification of experiences and issues that have caused a sense of harm, trauma and injustice; building relationships between people in conflict, which hopefully lead to forgiveness and to a process of reconciliation; development of creative solutions that meet everyone’s needs; empowering all people involved to transform their own conflicts.

In order to prevent and end violent, conflict transformation processes should be applicable to all levels of society. That means conflict transformation processes should be comprehensive in the sense that they include efforts of community leaders, politicians, policy-makers, religious leaders, media, business organizations, civil society groups, UN agencies, NGOs, international diplomats, etc.

Conflict transformation processes not only benefit warring groups, they also benefit their allies too. Conflict transformation processes help build effective coalitions and democratic negotiating opportunities within as well as between various sides of a conflict (Lisa, 2004: p.49). Lisa stresses that conflict transformation skills and processes are also necessary within and between peacebuilding organizations to improve coordination and build constructive relationships. Conflict transformation uses a variety of approaches. Conspicuous of which are: dialogue, negotiation, mediation and training.

[a] Dialogue

Dialogue is a collaborative search for a genuine and comprehensive solution to the conflict. It brings together conflicting groups to meet under the guidance of a facilitator or mediator to address important issues and increase understanding of the root causes of conflict. Dialogue promotes democracy. It is particularly important for communities that face an urgent problem, need to make an important decision, have experienced or threatened by violence, or are experiencing increased hostilities among members (Lisa, 2004: p.49).

During dialogue, people share personal views, feelings, experiences, perceptions, or beliefs so as to gain a deeper understanding of the burning issues. Sharing perceptions increases communication between groups in conflict; it enables these groups build relationships and gain capacity to address the structural dimensions of conflict.

[b] Negotiation

Dialogue that aims at finding solution to a conflict is called negotiation. Negotiation is a set of strategies to build and maintain relationships with others while seeking win-win solutions that satisfy the needs of all (Lisa, 2004: p.50).


[c] Mediation

Mediation is a process of guided negotiation facilitated by a trusted person. A mediator helps people in conflict share their perspectives and experiences, identify underlying needs, brainstorm about creative options for addressing needs, and then make a final agreement (Lisa, 2004: p.50).

[d] Training

Training programs provide opportunities for transforming the conflict. For example, training workshops for groups in conflict provide a forum for building relationships, identifying key issues and developing alternative options for addressing the roots of violent conflict. Problem-solving workshops are a forum of training where participants from different sides of a conflict learn skills to help them analyze key issues and solve problems creatively (Lisa, 2004: p.51).

Besides trauma healing and transforming conflict, doing justice is an important element in building relationships. It is a complementary process to trauma healing and conflict transformation. The legal and criminal justice systems are important in establishing law and order, where people can be identified clearly as victims and offenders. In certain situations, these systems are found to be unjust and rarely focus on healing or transforming people and relationships. They are also said to be of limited value where victims and offenders cannot be clearly identified.

Criminal justice tends to focus on identifying what laws have been broken, who broke them and how the state should punish the offenders. One key weakness of criminal justice approach is that offenders are always held accountable to the state rather than to their victims. Lisa (2004, p.52) highlights this fact by observing that “victims are usually left out of the process of justice completely, and their needs and traumas are not addressed. Offenders are not encouraged to understand and address their responsibility to those they have harmed”.

Restorative and transitional justice processes identify the harms, needs, and responsibilities of the people involved in conflict and/or crime, and create solutions that meet those needs (Lisa, 2004: p.15). Restorative justice processes are alternative or supplementary to state-based criminal justice systems. They encourage people to identify obligations and responsibilities resulting from injustice, meet needs and promote healing. Restorative justice focuses on the needs of victims, such as information about the crime, a place to tell their story of victimization, truth telling by the offenders, empowerment in the justice process, and restitution by offenders to victims (Lisa, 2004:p.52). Lisa went further to pinpoint that in some restorative justice processes, offender needs and deeper causes of their behavior are also explored.

A lot of questions are needed in exploring victims and offender needs during restorative justice processes. The key restorative justice questions to ask are: who are the victims? What are their needs? Who has the obligation to meet those needs? Who has been impacted or has a stake in the situation at hand? What processes can be used to engage stakeholders in finding acceptable solutions to the conflict?

Restorative justice processes aim at making peace through justice. They are components of the transitional justice programs intended for post-war contexts where governmental authority is shaky, weak or non-existent. Transitional justice programs consist of new legal and judicial systems that integrate the needs and desires of local people, cultures, and institutions based upon international human rights laws, norms and standards.

Truth, and/or reconciliation processes are pursued within the context of transitional justice programs. They aim to identify offenders, give victims a process to identify their needs and receive financial reparations. The process of identifying offenders is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive due to sheer number of offenses and tremendous delays in investigations into war crimes. Offenders are often unwilling to confess their crimes for fear of punishment and because they see their actions through the lens of self-defense or as an effort to achieve their own sense of justice (Lisa, 2004: p.53).

To encourage offenders to confess their crimes, they need to be given some sorts of protection, incentives or amnesty as it was done in South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where human rights violators were given some sort of amnesty in exchange of their admission of guilt. Amnesty programs give individual offenders incentives to reveal the facts of their crimes needed by victims and their families (Lisa, 2004: p.53).

It has already been explained earlier here that trauma healing, transforming conflict and doing justice determines right relationships that will enable people heal traumas, forgive one another, reconcile and move forward. Governance and policymaking are central in shaping the direction for right relationships among people. Government is formed by people to guide the way people relate to each other. Governments are expected to respect the trust bestowed upon them by the people, make policies in consultation with the people, and take decisions that do not violate laws and regulations.

Policymaking requires support from civil society groups. Active civil society groups support policymaking by gathering key stakeholders, analyzing important issues, and developing creative proposals for addressing public concerns (Lisa, 2004: p.54). Public processes that include all stakeholders and seek solutions that meet the interests of all groups are increasingly used in the resolutions of conflicts.

The peacebuilding processes explained above largely rely on verbal communication. However, people sometimes find it necessary to express their experiences of violence in words or symbols. They can express themselves using rituals and symbols. Lisa (2004, p.54) explains the important of rituals and symbols in communication by noting that “…in many formal peace talks, facilitators organize elaborate meals for participants. In trauma healing work, candlelight, prayer, or ceremonies help people feel safe to express their emotions and share their trauma. In the courtroom, symbols of justice help mark the special authority and seriousness of doing justice”.

Rituals greatly facilitate the process of transforming relationships. They help transform people’s identity from being victims of trauma to survivors of trauma. Lisa (2004, p.54) observes that “…In mediations, a closing ritual can help people identify themselves as fellow problem-solvers rather than parties to a conflict. In some cultures, traditional rituals of sacrificing a bull or goat, drinking a special tea or liquor, or holding a formal ceremony are essential to peacebuilding”.

In order to create a culture of peace, communities should be equipped with skills and processes that enable them address trauma, transform relationships and secure justpeace. Without the skills and processes to address trauma, transform conflicts, or restore a sense of justice, communities cannot create a culture of peace or support democratic governments that actively protect human rights (Lisa, 2004: p.55).

The processes: trauma healing, transforming conflicts and doing justice discussed in the foregoing sections of this article are in the heart of peacebuilding. The success of these processes largely depends on the quality of the relationships between peacebuilders and the communities they serve. But these processes are not enough to complete peacebuilding cycle. The next article of this column examines a bigger picture of strategic peacebilding: “building capacity for culture of justpeace”.



-Lisa, S. (2004). The Little Book of Strategic Peacebuilding: a vision and framework for peace with justice, p.45-55. USA: Good Books, www.goodbks.com

-Carolyn, Y. (2005). The Little Book of Trauma Healing-when violence strikes and community security is threatened, p.5-15. USA: Good Books, www.goodbks.com





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