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Conflict Resolution Skills

Conflict is the Stuff of Life

This section will introduce you to some of the basic concepts of non-violent conflict resolution. Being aware of these possibilities will help you play your part in making your workcamp experience a path to peace.

Have you ever had a conflict and wished you could have handled it better?

We all have differences – in needs, values and motivations. Sometimes these differences will complement each other, but sometimes they will conflict. Conflict is not a problem in itself – it is what we do with it that counts. Taking positive action to resolve a conflict is important, because whether we like it or not, conflicts will demand our attention. In fact, an unresolved conflict can call on tremendous amounts of our attention. We all know how exhausting an ongoing conflict can be. It is not always easy to fix the problem but a great energy boost can come when we do. Being able to resolve conflict is not dependent on being a ‘nice’ person, rather it is a skill we can develop.

What are Conflict Resolution Skills?

Conflict resolution skills allow us to find ways of bypassing difficult personal differences so we can open up new possibilities of relating to others. Rather than polarising people, using the skills of conflict resolution can draw people closer together as they attempt to balance needs and search for fair solutions. This can create a beneficial shift in the way we interact – instead of seeing each other as adversaries, we can become co-operative partners.

Often we are quite unaware of the way we argue. We may most often use knee-jerk reactions to operates within difficult situations. When challenged, we experience separateness, disconnectedness from those around us – a feeling of “you versus me” – a sense that there isn’t enough for both of us and that if one person is right, then the other person must be wrong. Often we haven’t taken even a moment to consider what is the best approach in the circumstances. One of the first steps to reacting more positively to conflict is to understand that there are often many different levels to such situations.

In the following sections we will discuss the components of conflict, responses to conflict and some methods of conflict resolution.

Four Main Components of a Conflict

Often it is hard to tell what a conflict is ‘really’ about, assuming that it is only related to the most obvious point of difference might obscure a deeper problem – so one of the first things to think about in any conflict is the possibility that it is made up of different components such as;

1. TEXT – Operates at the conscious level. This is the explicit aspect of the conflict, what is being spoken, or argued about. Example: “we want to kick Luis out of the program”.
2. SUBTEXT – Operates mostly at the conscious level, sometimes at the un-conscious level. The subtext is often not spoken about, or is part of a hidden agenda. Example: ” I’m tired of being ignored and I’m going to show that I have a part in decision-making too”.
3. DEEP TEXT – Operates at the un-conscious level. It is also unspoken, but the difference is that the actor is not conscious about it. Eg: Achievement of basic needs: power, security, food, love.
4. SUPER TEXT – Operates at the social level and includes propaganda, political ideologies, cultural ideas of what is acceptable or unacceptable. These are the behaviours or beliefs that you must hold in order to fit into a particular culture or society. Example: Liberal democracy is the most moral method of government.

Styles of response towards conflict

While a conflict may operate on a variety of levels, we can also respond to conflict in many different ways. These styles often vary along two different scales – from assertive to passive, and non-collaborative to highly collaborative. This leads us to four main styles of responding to conflict:

1. Competitive (assertive, non-collaborative)

This style often involves “fighting it out” and will focus on achieving the result the actor wants for themselves. There is little or no concern for the relationship with the other person. Responses might include; physical/psychological attacks, criticism, put-downs, arguing, threatening, or making black and white claims such as; I’m right-you’re wrong, I’m good-you’re bad.

2. Avoidance (non-assertive, non-collaborative)

Avoiding the conflict suggests that neither the results nor the relationship are sufficiently important to work on. Responses might include; walking out, ignoring the other person, distracting them, joking or changing the subject.

3. Adjustable (non-assertive, collaborative)

Often this style will result in one party surrendering to the demands of the other. In this case the participant may believe that the relationship with the other person is more important that the particular issue at hand. Responses might include; agreeing, apologizing or giving in.

4. Collaborative – (assertive, collaborative)

The collaborative style is often the most positive method of resolving conflicts as it attempts to solve the issue, but also seeks to keep the relationship intact. The aim is to find a satisfactory resolution for both sides.

Four methods for conflict resolution

So while we may agree that the collaborative method appears to be the most positive, finding a satisfactory resolution is often easier said than done. This is where the skill aspect of conflict resolution comes into play. In what follows, we will discuss four examples of different methods you might employ to achieve a positive result for all involved. These are not the only possible methods, but may provide you with a good place to start.

1. Win-Win

As long as people battle over opposing solutions – “No, that’s no good! Do it my way!” – the conflict remains little more than a power struggle. What we can do in this situation is change the agenda to one which attempts to find the best solution for both parties. This, of course, is the win-win strategy – where you are interested in both parties obtaining a positive result. The problem is how to achieve this result.

One good tactic is to go back to needs.

Strategies for clarifying each party’s underlying needs include asking questions such as; “Why does that seem to be the best solution to you?”, “What values are important to you here?”, “What’s the outcome or result you want?”.
The answers to these questions can significantly alter the course of the discussion. They give both parties the materials they need to start problem solving in a co-operative manner. It also ensures that you both get to express what it is you need from the situation.

Addressing each person’s underlying needs is important because it means you build solutions that acknowledge and value those needs, rather than denying them. This will help both parties to feel that they have been respected and they may also feel as if they now understand the other better. The Win/Win Approach is certainly ethical, but the reason for its great success is that IT WORKS. When both people win, both are tied to the solution. They feel committed to the plan because it actually suits them.

It’s a successful strategy. Usually, co-operation can result in both people getting more of what they want. The Win/Win Approach is Conflict Resolution for mutual gain.

2. Creative Response

The Creative response to conflict is about turning problems into possibilities. It is about consciously choosing to see what can be done, how things can move forward, rather than staying stuck in recriminations or blame games. Responding to conflict creatively affirms that you will choose to extract the best from the situation.

The creative approach focuses on being more aware of the way our attitudes colour our thoughts. Usually we are quite unaware of how our attitudes shape the way we see the world. Two dramatically contrasting attitudes in life are “Perfection” versus “Discovery”. Let’s call them attitude “hats”. What “hat” do you get dressed in each day? The Perfection hat says: “Is this good enough or not?” (Usually not!) “Does this meet my impeccably high standards?”. While the Discovery hat will say: “How fascinating! What are the possibilities here?”

Being overly concerned with perfection can lead to seeing life as a permanent struggle where mistakes are unacceptable. It is easy to become judgmental, because it may often seem that there is only one way to do things – the ‘right’ way. This can be difficult for others around you, but can also mean you place undue pressure on yourself. The search for perfection means there can only ever be either winners or losers.

Approaching the world with an interest in discoveries rather than perfection can mean that you are more enthusiastic about exploring new possibilities. It is easier to take risks and look at things from a variety of angles because you are not interested in being right but rather learning something new. Focusing on discovery means that there are no absolute losses, instead there are winners and learners.

If there are no failures, only learning, your self-esteem and that of those around you can get a big boost. It also means that you can approach conflicts with the attitude – another challenge – how fascinating. This means that you can begin to ask questions about what can be done differently, how else could this be approached, what other solutions will meet these underlying needs. In order to do this you have to be able to occasionally make mistakes. But life doesn’t have to be about winning and losing – it can be about learning.

With this attitude conflict becomes welcomed as an interesting opportunity.

3. Empathy

Empathy is about rapport and openness between people. When it is absent, people are less likely to consider your needs and feelings.
The best way to build empathy is to help the other person feel that they are understood. That means being an active listener.

Listening strategies for different situations


This listening strategy focuses on getting a clear picture – it is often called active listening. The speaker aims to get across what is wanted so there is no confusion, while the listener focuses on gathering information and confirming that they have understood correctly. The listener will try to find out about needs, instructions, background information, but will also ask for clarification about issues the speaker has forgotten to mention. The listener should focus entirely on the other person and try to ignore their own objections, disagreements or anger. You are trying to get a clearer picture of what the other person thinks, not what you think they think.


This listening strategy develops empathy within conflict situations, focuses on affirming, acknowledging and exploring the problem. The aim of the speaker is to talk about the problem at hand, while the aim of the listener is to acknowledge the speaker’s feelings and to help them hear what they are saying. Here you are recognising that the other person would be helped by you taking time to hear their problem.


A third listening strategy involves responding to a complaint or attack on you. In this case, the aim of the speaker will be to tell you that you are the problem. However your aim will be to let the speaker know you’ve taken in what they are saying and to defuse the strong emotion. Here you are choosing the most useful response when someone is telling you they are unhappy with you, criticising you, complaining about you, or just simply yelling.

Four steps make up this strategy;
– Don’t defend yourself or start justifying
Instead you can acknowledge that the situation has got out of hand and you may need to change your approach.
– Deal first with the speaker’s emotions
People shout because they don’t think they are being heard. Make sure they know they are – that you are hearing how angry or upset they are.
– Acknowledge their side
This does not mean you agree with them, only that you are registering their viewpoint e.g. “I can see, if you think that was my attitude, why you are so angry”, “I can see why the problem makes you so upset”.
– Draw them out further
Once the heat is out of the conversation, you might say how it is for you without denying how it is for them. Ask what could be done now to make it OK again. If they heat up again, go back to Active Listening. Move towards options for change or solution. Ask what they want now.

4. Appropriate Assertiveness

The fourth method of conflict resolution involves learning when to use “I” Statements. The essence of Appropriate Assertiveness is being able to state your case without arousing the defences of the other person. The secret of success lies in sharing your opinion rather than forcing your ideas of what people should or shouldn’t do. Attaching the phrase – “the way I see it…” – to your assertive statements can help.
A skilled “I” statement goes even further.
When you want to state your point of view helpfully, the “I” statement formula can be useful. An “I” statement says how it is on my side, how I see it. You could waste inordinate quantities of brainpower debating how the other person will or won’t respond. Don’t! You do need to be sure that you haven’t used inflaming language, which would be highly likely to cause a negative response i.e. it should be “clean”. Because you don’t know beforehand whether the other person will do what you want or not, the cleanest “I” statements are delivered not to force the other person to fix things, but to state what you need.

Use an “I” statement when you need to let the other person know you are feeling strongly about the issue. Others often underestimate how hurt or angry or put out you are, so it’s useful to say exactly what’s going on for you- making the situation appear neither better nor worse i.e. your “I” statement should be “clear”.

The next time someone shouts at you and you don’t like it, resist the temptation to withdraw rapidly (maybe slamming the door on the way out). Resist the temptation to shout back to stop the onslaught, and deal with your own rising anger.

This is the time for Appropriate Assertiveness. Take a deep breath. Stay centred, feet firmly planted on the ground, and make an “I” statement, with the following three ingredients:
1. When… [I hear a voice raised at me]
2. I feel… [humiliated]
3. And what I’d like is that … [I can debate an issue with you without ending up feeling hurt.]
The best “I” statement is free of expectations. It is delivering a clean, clear statement of how it is from your side and how you would like it to be.

Democratic Decision Making Skills

Your conflict resolution skills will come in handy for another important aspect of commitment to the group process – making decisions as part of the group. This is because IVP workcamps are often run with the aim of using consensus decision making as often as possible. Unlike other democratic methods, such as majority voting, reaching consensus can be a much more involved process, but will give you the chance to learn more about your fellow volunteers. It will also give you practice at the hard work of finding a solution which fits the needs of everyone.

Consensus Decision Making

In consensus decision making there is an attempt to develop a course of action that can be accepted by all members of a group. While not everyone may feel that it is the best personal outcome, all group members should still feel that it is a decision that they can accept. So if a minority disagree with a certain decision the group must listen to their objections and find a solution that will answer these objections. Even so, complete agreement is usually not the goal, rather consensus decision making tries to ensure that all relevant parties have the chance to share their opinion, and that this opinion is taken into account throughout the decision making process.

Because consensus decision-making is a process which seeks to take everyone’s perspective into account, it is often more time consuming than going straight to a vote, or simply asking the workcamp leader to decide for you. In fact, it can often be surprising how long it will take for your group to reach a decision, especially if the members have very little experience of this type of decision-making. While this can be frustrating, it can also be a very interesting experience and will allow you to learn a great deal about the difficult work of building democratic communities, which respect the needs of all their members.

Below are some points to remember when trying to reach a consensus:

Firstly, remember to use active listening. That is, when listening to others – listen for what they are trying to say, rather than what you think they are saying and avoid focusing on how they disagree with you. Make sure the person you are listening to feels that you are actively trying to understand their point of view. This is particularly important in an international group – where everyone will have different language abilities. Watch out for those who may be too shy to speak up, or may not even understand what is going on.

Next – when you are speaking – try to use clean ‘I’ statements, which state your position clearly, but do not make claims about what other people should or shouldn’t do. Also remember to speak slowly and clearly so that everyone will be able to understand what you are saying.

We should also try to be aware if some members of the group are using avoidance to dissolve a disagreement. Be cautious about decisions that are reached too quickly, some might be ignoring the problem or may not really understand what is going on. This means that we shouldn’t accept silence as agreement. Check the reasons why people agree to a certain solution.

When trying to find ways of resolving differences within the group try to avoid using a competitive approach. Instead of assuming there must be a winner and a loser, try to find ways in which you can reach a decision collaboratively. This can involve looking for a win-win situation, or thinking creatively about the situation itself. Maybe there are entirely new possibilities that no one has thought of yet.

While it may be tempting to try to reach a decision more quickly by using a majority vote, averaging, coin toss or bargaining – try to avoid shutting down the process in this way. Put on your ‘discovery hat’ and remember that the more disagreement there is, the more we each have to learn about other people’s perspectives, preferences and ways of dealing with the world.


A Volunteer’s Impression of Palestine

Marcelina, Germany

“A local volunteer said to me, “What’s wrong? Why are you so sad?” I responded, “We saw a sad film, you know…” And, her answer was: “We have enough sad faces here, we are not in need for more.”… Well, what was the meaning of solidarity then? Why had nobody explained it to me?

Wasn’t it showing your feelings of despair, rage and anger or was it to hide them and to show consideration instead, giving the Palestinians what they are in need of? Are the Palestinian people more in need of the smiles that we can share with them? More than the tears, despite the fact we are not in the mood to be easygoing and to have fun, when we see things that make us scream, shout and cry inside?

Plans were changed everyday, work was cancelled due to the invasion, no way to go out, because it was too dangerous, clashes in the Old City of Nablus, and the frustrations were growing. What were we there for? We came to Palestine to help Palestinians, to show solidarity, not to watch the bad news and discuss politics! We were volunteers and we had only three weeks. How can we stay in our flats because of the curfew? Expectations were unfulfilled. Motivation turned into frustration. Inactivity and the feeling of being useless grew in me. What was it for? Why did it happen to me? But, really it didn’t just happen to me. Suddenly, I accepted and understood the situation, it was the situation of Palestinians, too. It was the feeling of being helpless, bored and not able to do anything. This was the reality we had to accept.

I realised how fast we lose our patience after some days, even if we know that we can leave whenever we want, while thousands of inhabitants can’t leave. They cannot do anything. They are forced to accept this inactivity and all the difficult circumstances that destroy any kind of motivation and growth. Aggressions and depressions, hope and despair, that is not only in the political situation, but also reflected in the everyday life and relations of the people. This is another lesson I had to learn.

It is a big mistake to have any kind of expectations for the success of plans, expectations of changing everything, by working and making fast efforts in order to feel useful. We were not really useful, but our experience was how it feels to be a Palestinian, caged like an animal, humiliated, afraid and reduced to think about food while the Israeli tanks do not let you even sleep at night. There was also the boredom, frustration, feeling useless, powerless, helplessness, getting into troubles and living life with rumours about the withdrawal the whole time.

I shared these feelings with Palestinians. Now, I think I understand the meaning of real solidarity, a completely different kind of solidarity, than we all had planned in a different world, where people are free and responsible for themselves.

Perspectives on Peace and Conflict

It is easy to say we are International Volunteers for Peace but much harder to explain what we mean by peace. Often peace is only understood as the absence of war. This means that peace is only understood in terms of what it is not. Building up an idea of what peace might be is an important aspect of volunteering with any peace organisation. This section will provide some background to how peace and conflict are understood through a variety of perspectives. These perspectives are not included in order to tell you what you should think about these issues, but rather to provide some examples of how others have thought about peace and conflict.

What do we mean by peace?

International Decade for a Culture of Peace

A good place to look for a positive definition of peace is the UN’s notion of a “Culture of Peace”. They have defined this culture as “consisting of values, attitudes and behaviours that reject violence and endeavour to prevent conflicts by addressing their root causes with a view to solving problems through dialogue and negotiation among individuals, groups and nations”. In order to foster this culture the UN General Assembly designated 2001-2010 as the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World.

The UNESCO document “Mainstreaming the Culture of Peace” explains that the idea to use the term culture of peace was inspired by an educational initiative called cultura de paz developed in Peru (1986), and by the Seville Statement on Violence (1986) adopted by scientists from around the world, which stated that war is not a fatality determined by genes, violent brains, human nature or instincts, but is rather a social invention. Therefore, ‘the same species that invented war is capable of inventing peace’.

The Seville statement stakes out eight action areas, which are the focus of the Decade for a Culture of Peace. These areas are:
– Fostering a culture of peace through education
– Promoting sustainable economic and social development
– Promoting respect for all human rights
– Ensuring equality between women and men
– Fostering democratic participation
– Advancing understanding, tolerance and solidarity
– Supporting participatory communication and the free flow of information and knowledge
– Promoting international peace and security

Each of these actions areas are linked to specific tasks – so fostering a culture of peace through education includes promoting education for all, focusing especially on girls; revising curricula to promote the qualitative values, attitudes and behaviour inherent in a culture of peace; training for conflict prevention and resolution, dialogue, consensus-building and active non-violence.

If you want to find out more information about the UN’s action plan for developing a culture of peace you can download the Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace (A/53/243) from the UNESCO website.

Conscientious Objection

This term commonly applies to those who refuse to participate in war. Conscientious objectors will refuse to be drafted or conscripted into military service and will also refuse ‘peace time’ military service. It is thus the refusal to accept war as a method of resolving disputes. Conscientious objection to war can also entail the refusal to pay taxes, which will support a country’s military. An example of this can be found in Henry Thoreau’s essay, “Civil Disobedience”, which influenced Gandhi’s methods of non-violent resistance, where he recounts his experiences of being jailed after refusing to pay taxes. A more modern Australian example is David Keenen, editor of the magazine Non-violence Today, who withheld 10% of his tax payments from the Australian Tax Office and instead donated them to an organisation researching alternatives to armed defence. Keenan eventually faced court and was threatened with bankruptcy. The full history is available from his website –

While Australian now recognises the right to conscientious objection, this was not always the case. From 1911 to 1929, all males aged 18-26, regardless of their personal beliefs, were required to complete military training. Australia also introduced conscription during World War II and the Vietnam War.

Compulsory military service was quite common in Europe and still continues today in countries as varied as Israel, South Korea, Sweden and Bulgaria. In Germany, for instance, nine months of military service is required by all males after they finish their studies, though there are provisions to complete was is called ‘civilian service’.

During the early 1900’s, at the time when SCI first began, there was no option of social service and instead military service and conscription were common. SCI’s founder, Pierre Ceresole, sought to challenge this and was himself a conscientious objector, refusing to pay military taxes and conscription and was imprisoned several times as a result. This was an irony because Ceresole had inherited a small fortune and believing that it was immoral to have large sums of money that he had not earned, he donated it to the Swiss government.

Ceresole set out to establish an ethical alternative to militarism and so developed the idea of “a peace army”. The early SCI workcamps were to be examples of this ‘peace army’ and showed that young women and men could serve the world in more peaceful and productive ways. Through this example and other direct action, the early SCI confronted the militaristic culture in Europe. SCI is partly responsible for the cessation of enforced military service and the recognition of conscientious objection as a legal alternative in many European countries.


Non-violence can be understood as a group of doctrines that reject war and every form of violent action as a means of solving disputes. This understanding links non-violence to pacifism, though there is a difference in the approach or the two groups and the methods that they might use to achieve their goals. Non-violence might refer to a personal commitment to reject violence in all its forms. But non-violence has also come to refer to certain methods of bringing about revolutionary social change without the use of force.

One of the key ideas that underlie the possibility of non-violent social change is the recognition that those in power can only remain there with the co-operation of the larger population. That is, without a police force, without tax collectors, without transport workers, or even without people to patronise business, a society cannot operate. As Henry David Thoreau writes in his essay “Civil Disobedience” – “when the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished”. A system can’t work if no one will participate in it.

A second key idea is that to end up with just ends you must use just means. For many, using violence to fight for a more peaceful society is self-defeating. But further, non-violent action for social change fundamentally relies on co-operation of individuals rather than their obedience. This can help develop the seeds of democracy, as Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall suggest in their book, A Force More Powerful. They argue that non-violent resistance movements, which do not use top-down power, are more likely to be run democratically from the start and so have the potential to produce quite different end results than more violent revolutions.

There are many different methods that can be used by non-violent activists including; strikes, consumer boycotts, factory slow downs, petitions, raising media-profiles and vigils. However, you are really only limited by your imagination. Gene Sharp’s book The Politics of Non-violent Action, for example, provides a suggestive list of 198 methods of non-violent action.

In 1989, thirteen nations comprising 1,695,000,000 people experienced non-violent revolutions that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations … If we add all the countries touched by major non-violent actions in our century (the Philippines, South Africa … the independence movement in India…) the figure reaches 3,337,400,000, a staggering 65% of humanity! All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that non-violence doesn’t work in the ‘real’ world – Walter Ives

New Wars and Old Wars

In her 1999 book New and Old Wars, Mary Kaldor argues that understanding war as a conflict between states, fought by adult male soldiers, obscures the modern day realities of armed conflict. She suggests that there are three key differences between new and old wars. These differences include why wars are fought, how they are fought and how they are funded. Traditionally wars are understood as conflicts fought by state actors with the aim of capturing territory, paid for by the state itself. New wars are more likely to be motivated by identity politics with the aim of population control and may be funded by a variety of global actors. Because aims are often to create a ‘purified’ state, new wars are marked by dramatic increases in refugees and the internally displaced. They are also more often directly specifically against civilians. Those fighting in new wars are not exclusively male soldiers, but include women and children. Examples of such new wars include the conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, and the Darfur region of Sudan.

In the following sections, we will look at three different aspects of these changing forms of conflict; the place of gender in conflict, the plight of child soldiers, and refugees.

References and further research:
Coombs, Moira “Conscientious Objection to Military Service in Australia” Australian Parliamentary Library Research Note no. 31 2002-03
Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Fact Sheet, “Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Programme”
Hathaway, J., 1992, “The Emerging Politics of non-entree”, Refugees, December
Kaldor, Mary (1999) New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era Cambridge: Polity Press
Noll, Gregor, 1999, New Issues in Refugee Research, Working Paper 4, “Rejected asylum seekers: the problem of return”, University of Lund, Box 207, Lund/Sweden –
Non-violent Peace force International
Thoreau, Henry David (1993) Civil Disobedience and Other Essays New York: Dover
UN, “Resolution adopted by the General Assembly – on the report of the Third Committee (A/61/436), 61/137”, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sixty-first session, Agenda item 41, 25 January 2007, United Nations, General Assembly
UN, “1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees”
UNHCR, 2007, Informal Consultative Meeting 27 February 2007 – The Protection of Internally Displaced Persons and the Role of UNHCR
UNHCR, 2006, Internally Displaced People, Questions and Answers, UNHCR
UNHCR, 2006, Measuring Protection by Numbers – 2005 November, 2006 Release
UNHCR, 2006, Refugee Numbers 2006 Edition, Basic Facts
“The Wall Behind Which Refugees Can Shelter – The 1951 Geneva Convention, 50th Anniversary” in Refugees, Vol 2, No. 123, 2001
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia

Gender and Peace

“Peace is inextricably linked with equality between women and men” – UN Security Council.

Gender refers to how women’s and men’s roles, social relationships and expectations are built by society. Different cultures have different ideas of what is suitable for men and women to do and to be. This often changes within a culture during a crisis situation like war, when women may take on traditional male roles.

“People are born female and male, but learn to be girls and boys who grow into women and men. They are taught what the appropriate behaviour and attitudes, roles and activities should be for them, and how they should relate to other people. This learned behaviour is what makes up gender identity and determines gender roles, which are made to seem natural and ‘the norm’.” – Diakonia Council of Churches, South Africa.

Boys are socialised to deny feelings, compete with or dominate others, and are often brutalised to prepare them for military service. Girls are socialised to deny their intellect, to place the needs of others first and to remain passive and silent in the face of injustice. Women are socialised to be ‘carers’ and this may be one reason that 85% of IVP volunteers are female.

Gender is also about the power balance between men and women. Women are under-represented in all levels of decision-making, law-making and law-keeping. Because the experiences of males are seen as ‘normal’, women’s experiences are marginalized. These two factors can result in women and girls having little or no say in decisions that affect their lives. There is a need for more women in leadership and for processes to be made more transparent and accountable.

Ideas about masculinity and femininity lie at the roots of violence and are used to support armed conflicts. There is a continuum of violence, from domestic violence to violence in the public sphere, which every peace and justice movement must challenge. UNESCO’s Women and a culture of peace programme states: “Gender inequality and inequity are themselves major causes of the culture of violence and mechanisms for its perpetuation”.

In conflict situations it is women and children who suffer the most, yet women are often the first to reach across ethnic and religious divides in order to rebuild communities torn apart by violence. Women’s different perspectives are a valuable resource in the peace process. The silence around sexual violence against men and boys during war must also be broken.

Gender awareness is important for all peace and justice movements. Because gender is constructed by society, harmful stereotypical notions of male and female roles can be challenged. Gender justice must encourage the greatest possible participation of both women and men on equal terms in society. Gender equality is a necessary pillar in building a culture of peace.

United Nations Resolution 1325 (Adopted by the Security Council, Oct 2000)
Engendering IFOR – June 2002, p.17-20
UNESCO: Women and a culture of peace programme.

Child Soldiers

Often we imagine that wars are only fought by the adult members of armies, militias or guerrilla groups. However this is far from the case, in fact, many children are directly involved in armed conflict. Child soldiers are children under 18 years old that have been recruited into government armed forces, government militias, factional groups and armed opposition groups. The UN estimates that more than 300,000 children are actively involved in armed conflict around the world ( Africa has the greatest problem where it was estimated that up to 100,000 children were involved in armed conflict in 2004 ( However, child soldiers are also recruited in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

Most of the soldiers are aged between 14 and 18 years however children as young as 7 years old are recruited ( Children are forcibly recruited into armed conflict. However, many ‘volunteer’ to become a child soldier as they see few alternatives to enlisting. For instance, circumstances including poverty, lack of work opportunities, limited access to education and the promise of an income are some reasons for joining. Many children living within armed conflict due to war and economic and social disharmony witness family members and friends being killed and brutalised by the forces. Consequently, recruitment is seen as the only option for survival.

Girls are reported to have enlisted to escape violence, sexual abuse, domestic servitude and arranged marriages. However, once they have joined they are especially at risk of rape, sexual harassment and abuse as well as involvement in military fighting. Orphans are particularly vulnerable. All children are subject to harsh conditions including torture, insufficient food, harsh discipline, hard labour, brutal training regimes and dangerous activities such as weapon use and laying explosives. Besides fighting in combat, child soldiers perform duties including cooking, domestic labour, guards, portering, spying and sexual slavery. Many report that their ‘initiation’ involved killing their best friend or family member to test whether they can be trusted. They are forced to commit terrible atrocities and if they don’t kill, they will be killed or beaten so they are left with no option if they are to survive. Hundreds of thousands of children have fought and died in armed conflicts throughout the world.

International legal and policy frameworks for the protection of child soldiers involved in armed conflict are being developed. The International Criminal Court (ICC), established in 1998, permits those found guilty of the recruitment of children under the age of 15 years to be prosecuted for their actions. Furthermore, more governments are now agreeing to legally enforce international laws that ban the use of child soldiers in armed conflict ( Although programs such as the demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) are established to help child soldiers learn new skills and reintegrate into their communities, funds and resources to support such programs are limited. However, if these programs are to be successful, long term investment is required.

Useful websites:


Another important aspect of armed conflict, which can be obscured by traditional understandings of war, is the plight of refugees. That is, soldiers are not the only members of society adversely affected by war. In fact the effects are much more wide reaching. This section will introduce historical and contemporary perspectives on the situation of refugees.

The History of the UN Convention on the Status Refugees

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (The Convention) was a response by Western states to the mass migration of displaced people caused by World War II and officially came into force in April 1954. It was drawn up at the same time as the UNHCR was created and is a legally binding treaty, which aims to facilitate the sharing of the refugee burden.

The Convention was drafted by delegates of 26 participating countries, who agreed that a refugee is a person, who has a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ and who is ‘outside the country of their former habitual residence’ because of that fear. Another important feature of the Convention is the principle of non-refoulement, meaning that no refugee should be returned to a country, ‘where his life or freedom would be threatened’.

However, as history tells us, persecution and refugees did not originate in, nor did they end with, World War II. So it was not long after the Convention was drafted that its limitations became apparent: the Convention only applied to those, who became refugees as a result of events occurring prior to January 1951. Consequently, in 1967, the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted, which expanded the scope of the Convention definition by removing the geographical and time limitations.

Today, there are 146 signatories to either the Convention or the Protocol or both, but an alarming growth in refugee numbers worldwide over the last few decades has put a strain on many countries’ hospitality.

In this respect, it is important to explain the difference between (a) a migrant; (b) an asylum seeker; and (c) a refugee. While a migrant is a person who has left their country voluntarily and can return to his/her country at any time, an asylum seeker is usually someone who was forced to leave and who seeks protection in another country. However before the asylum seeker can be recognised as a Convention Refugee, they must have already left ‘the country of his former habitual residence’ and must have a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ upon his/her return.

Of course, there are a much larger number of persons, who have been forced to leave their homes but who remain within the borders of their country and those, who have returned (returnees). Taken together, they are the internally displaced (IDPs), whose Government is either unwilling or unable to protect, but who do not qualify for refugeehood. They are just as important, for today’s IDPs might be tomorrow’s refugees.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS)

IDPs are persons who were forced to leave their homes because of conflict, violence or natural disasters but who remain within the borders of their country. The phenomenon is also known as forced migration. But, unlike refugees, IDPs are not protected by international law or conventions. Instead, the Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement (1998), which incorporates existing human rights and humanitarian law, only provides authoritative guidance to humanitarian agencies.

According to the UNHCR, the estimated number of IDPs globally is 23.7 million in at least 50 countries, compared to 8.4 million refugees. For various reasons, these IDPs are either unwilling or unable to leave the borders of their State and, thus, remain the responsibility of their Government – the same Government, which can often be blamed for their displacement in the first place.

For instance, in the former Iraq, it was the Sunni-led Government of Saddam Hussein, which persecuted its Shi’a citizens. Record number of Shi’a were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Government, many Shi’a have returned to their original homes. However, with most of the infrastructure destroyed by the war, they now find themselves destitute as well as homeless again. (The situation in Iraq is, of course, not limited to only the Shi’a but includes other groups as well.)

We are constantly confronted with media images of the Iraqi war, violence and destruction. But there are many more IDPs in other parts of the world, who deserve just as much attention. Africa, for instance, has for some time been and continues to be the continent most affected by internal displacement. Who can forget the violence and the makeshift camps in Rwanda or the starving population in Ethiopia? Then there is the Americas – the list goes on and on.

There is, however, a group of IDPs, who is especially vulnerable: they are the women (in particular single women) and children. Their plight is multiplied for not only do they lack their Government’s protection but many also don’t have male protection. Females are often exploited and are in constant danger of abuse (both physical and sexual), while male children are often coerced into becoming child soldiers.

Although violence and persecution are the main causes for internal displacement, natural disasters also play a significant part in uprooting people. The December 2004 Tsunami or the 2005 South Asia Earthquake, for instance, turned millions of people into IDPs. Such natural disasters have a devastating effect because, unlike in Western countries, their Government is often unable to deal with the aftermath.

Despite its original mandate, namely to deal with refugees only, the UNHCR has been assisting IDPs in various countries since the 1970s. Initially, international donors were reluctant to interfere in internal conflicts. However, refugee-receiving countries soon realised that assisting IDPs in their own country is a far better solution than to be overwhelmed with possible refugees at a later stage.

Today, there are various non-government humanitarian organizations (NGOs), which, together with the UNHCR, offer assistance to IDPs in various ways. Amongst others, they provide IDPs with some of the basic human rights, namely the right to protection, food and shelter.

The International Perspective

People and peoples have migrated or were forced to migrate throughout history. However, it is only since globalisation that the magnitude of migration gave a new meaning to the concept. The world became connected as politics, economy, ecosystem and social tapestry of various cultures became deeply entwined – for information links people and technology enables them to travel far distances.

Overwhelmed by the number of persons seeking asylum, destination countries have introduced various deterrent measures in order to control the (unauthorised) migration flow into their territory. Most countries have allocated a certain number of places for newly arrived refugees and are reluctant to exceed this quota. For instance, although conflicts have increased in the world over the last few decades, Australia has only recently increased its humanitarian intake from 12,000 to 13,000 per annum.

As signatories to various treaties, countries have an obligation to provide protection and refuge to those in need. But, as refugee-receiving countries argue, not everyone who presents at their borders is a genuine refugee. Rather – many argue -, they are economic migrants, who had the financial means to travel to their destination. Besides, if they were genuine refugees, they should have joined the queues at the various UNHCR posts in designated countries (which, of course, are not accessible to everyone).

For various reasons – some of which are often not easily comprehensible to the Western world (e.g. people in Third World countries or countries in conflict areas do not usually carry a passport or a birth certificate during their flight) – many asylum seekers, who arrive at the borders of a destination country, present with forged or no documents. In anticipation, many States place immigration personnel at points of departure or transit or they impose carrier sanctions for transporting aliens with inadequate documentation.

While many countries have some form of detention for illegal immigrants upon their arrival in order to verify their identity, legislation often stipulates a maximum period of detention. Detention differs from country to country but it rarely exceeds a couple of months – compared to Australia’s mandatory detention policy, which has held (unauthorised) arrivals in confinement for many years. Lately, a number of States have introduced legislation that makes entry with false travel documents a criminal offence.

As if the practice of detention was not bad enough, Australia and the USA have also introduced border patrols along their coastlines, which indiscriminately turn approaching boats away if they carry human cargo. Australia, too, was first to introduce Temporary Protection Visas, which ensured that refugees left Australia after a period of time.

But, apart from the physical deterrent measures, depending on the review processes available in a particular country, asylum seekers also often have to endure a legal mire and often face long periods of uncertainty while their applications are being processed.

In Europe, asylum seekers are often accused of “country shopping” and returned to the departing country because some have crossed another border in order to feel safe. What needs to be remembered though is that the next “safe” country is often the adjoining country (e.g. Iran/Iraq) and that some of the poorest countries in the world house the largest number of refugees.