In the 14th century, the Arab philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun identified cycles of violence that take hold in society over successive generations. When dynasties take power and establish social control, he said, they push to the limits, causing stagnation, driving society to the margins – and in time leading to their overthrow by more ruthless successors.
Cycles of self-perpetuating violence still plague our world. As US NGO, Community Beyond Violence says: “Think of this as a wheel that goes around, and around, and around. The more that you go around, the more you get used to it. It gets harder and harder to ‘jump off’ the longer that you are in it”.
It’s a vicious spiral of aggression: the more the State leaves a section of the population economically and politically marginalised, or actively represses them, the more those people turn to violence; to which the Government responds with ever higher ‘security’ measures which lead to yet more violence, and the cycle continues.
As Martin Luther King said: ‘The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy………Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars’.
In West Africa, International Alert’s research, If Victims Become Perpetrators, found that the rise in violent extremism is mainly a reaction to the state’s inability to provide security and services. Interviews with Fulani communities in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger found that state abuse and corruption are the main factors behind some young people’s decision to join armed groups.
Revealing communities’ lack of trust of security forces, the findings serve as a stark warning against hard security approaches to tackling violent extremism. In particular, the report warns that the G5 Sahel Joint Force – the counter-terrorism force drawn from five regional armies and supported by international powers – may be counter-productive, weakening regional stability and communities’ wellbeing, thereby fostering greater violence.
A more effective approach to breaking the cycle of violence and building peace in the Sahel requires greater levels of citizen inclusion and representation in government processes, more public accountability, better access to justice and reduced inequality. International partners can help through supporting work within communities to foster non-violent means of conflict resolution, dialogue skills and peace education.
There is a body of literature about cycles of violence and how to break them. These help inform International Alert’s work in some of the world’s most violent places. But more thinking is needed about how to ensure that peace holds. Simplistic theories draw a straight line: first stop the fighting, then stabilise the country, then build peace. But reality rarely moves in straight lines and societies’ dynamics are constantly shifting: as the wheel starts to turn in a positive direction, violence breaks out again and the cycle slips backwards.
Inevitably, some actors try to pull their communities back into brutality and retaliation. Just as a state or territory starts to move out of violent conflict, fighting resumes. This is because the root causes remain unaddressed, and tensions simmer until they break out again; or because there has been no transitional or restorative justice and people are nursing grievances; or because the incentives for peace are not clear, or worse, nonexistent, whereas the incentives for violence remain compellingly strong – often even materially so. Which is partly why half of all peace deals fall apart within five years.
How can such cycles of violence be reversed, or outweighed, by efforts to advance peace?
In central Mali, International Alert has brought together community members with security forces to establish communication and trust between disenfranchised citizens and state representatives. In the words of one participant who once considered joining an armed group: ‘‘One of the causes of the problem is injustice...I was judging the security forces at the start but now I trust them. My vision is we can extend our Local Peace Committee. We must not fear intimidation. Whenever we talk about peace, people who are against peace will try to intimidate you. But we must not give up on our aspiration and vision.”
The key is to create enough momentum so that cycles of peace keep turning, propelling a community forward, developing resilience to ensure that they can withstand the inevitable violent bumps in the road, rather hurtling backwards.
The terms virtuous, or indeed vicious, cycles refer to complex chains of events in which each iteration of the cycle reinforces the previous one. Supporting cycles of peace requires interventions and changes in society that together create a positive feedback loop. These must continually build on establishing relationships between conflicted communities, as well as actions which increase community confidence that security and justice systems can be relied upon –sometimes called vertical and horizontal cohesion. External geopolitical factors will also need to be brought into the frame. Positive experiences help solutions accumulate, building upon each other, paving the way for resolutions to future challenges - establishing a peaceful muscle memory.
Such virtuous cycles need peace deals that are sustainable and inclusive, behind which people can build momentum and cross-community guardianship. They need to keep momentum going long enough for the key peace dividend of community safety to be established, and so that it becomes harder to reverse the energy and turn backwards to violence. Each turn of the wheel forward reinforces and builds upon the last.
The longer peace holds, the more people become invested in its continued success. Perhaps investment returns to their town, they can get a job, schools re-open and they are no longer scared for their children – and so they are more determined to help hold the peace. As Lisa Rose, an activist in Northern Ireland and Alert Trustee told me: “The more ‘peace tourism’ we get, the more people talk about how peace was reached in Northern Ireland, the more you are helping secure that very peace”.
In Tunis, International Alert has engaged people in a community activity which promoted youth inclusion and local participatory democracy. Young people produced an independent, collective citizens’ diagnostic of infrastructure and public services via OpenStreetMap on mobile phones and they piloted an economic project with rubbish collectors. Through this, they won the respect of elected officials, who then consulted them on the local budget. Feeling confident, the activists formed their own NGO, and then stood for election with the express intention of improving their community.
Initiatives such as these provide evidence of steps towards peace that must be nurtured, sustained and expanded. They have inspired the overarching goals of our new five-year strategy, 2019-2023: ‘Breaking cycles of violence, building cycles of peace’