Building Cultures of Peace to Prevent New Wars

Fixing the Roof Before It Rains

A simple truth. If we don’t fix the roof before it rains, we get soaked when the rains come. The obvious solution: fix the roof before it rains.

The person living with AIDS will testify: I should have prevented this preventable disease. The amputated diabetic is quick to say: I should have tested my blood sugar every year. The family of the firefighter who died fighting a forest fire laments: Why wasn’t this forest fire prevented!

All too often, it is after a tragedy that we think about prevention.

People in Northern Uganda still recovering from a recent twenty-year war are starting to think about prevention – prevention of the next war. In Northern Uganda, war is not an abstraction which is why preventing the next war is on peoples’ minds. More than two million people in Acholi, Lango and Teso sub-regions were displaced from their ancestral villages to overcrowded disease-infested camps during the war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Government of Uganda. Most who suffered and died were civilians. Women and children suffered the most. Hundreds of thousands died from attacks and disease. Tens of thousands of women endured brutal gang rapes, torture and mutilations. More than thirty thousand children were abducted and forced into child soldiering. Infants and children were wiped out in large numbers from preventable diseases in the displacement camps.

There have been three major wars in Uganda since independence in 1962. At this rate, historically and statistically, the next war appears to be inevitable – unless it is prevented.

Why preventing new wars is a priority of war-affected and post-conflict communities

When you endure the ordeals of war, you do not want to experience them again. You start to ask the questions: How could this war have been prevented? How can we prevent new wars? War-affected communities see war through the eyes of women and children, their families and communities, through their own experiences.

In our region, not only Ugandans have suffered brutal, protracted wars. In neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), over six million people died from two recent wars, more than in any war since World War II. In Sudan and South Sudan, over two million people died from a war that spanned from 1983 – 2005. In Darfur in Western Sudan, hundreds of thousands of civilians, mostly women and children, have died since 2003 in a war between Darfurian rebel groups and the Government of Sudan. Millions of Darfurians continue to suffer in refugee and IDP camps. In Rwanda, one million women, children and men were slaughtered in the 1994 genocide. In many of these wars and genocides, rape and HIV/AIDS were weapons of war. Damage to culture and community support systems combined with loss of livelihood and soaring HIV/AIDS, alcoholism, depression and domestic violence rates ravage civilian communities following war.

Preventing war, in short, is not a theoretical concept to those who have endured war. It is about life and death, human dignity and the preservation of families, communities and culture.

When is the best time to plant a tree?

Trees prevent soil erosion and therefore, they prevent drought and floods. Trees reforest the terrain, replenish the soil and maintain the rain cycles. Trees are essential to the sustenance of life. So when is the best time to plant a tree? The answer to this Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

The earlier we plant our trees, the earlier we reap their benefits. However if we fail to plant trees, we suffer the consequences.

So too with preventing new wars. It is better to have started creating harmonious relationships, building cultures of peace and reconciling to prevent new wars twenty years ago. However, it is not too late to start now. Indeed, if not now, when?

What happens when we fail to create harmonious relationships, build cultures of peace and reconcile in time to prevent new wars?

Here are some of the answers: Syria. Darfur. Northern Uganda. South Sudan.

Fundamentals of preventing war

There can be many approaches to how war is prevented, i.e. what activities take place and who does what, but there are three fundamentals that must be implemented by groups affected by war in order to prevent new wars:

  1. Creating harmonious, trusted relationships
  2. Building cultures of peace
  3. Reconciliation

No one or two of these fundamentals will create lasting peace, however. All three must be implemented and sustained in a contextually relevant order:

Creating harmonious, trusted relationships between groups and countries

Transforming poisonous relationships between countries and groups to harmonious respectful ones where people and groups co-exist in harmony, and want to co-exist in harmony, is at the heart of preventing war.

Building harmonious and trusted relationships takes time and patience. One group may see the other as traitors or collaborators, the very people responsible for all the wrongs that have been perpetrated on the accusing group. Others may see a group as “our oppressors” or “our occupiers.” Still others may want to destroy a group or country as a competitive threat to power and resources. Feelings may be deep-seated and visceral. One group may be so filled with hatred from grievances not reconciled that they see the other as “cockroaches,” or “vermin,” fit for extermination. Another group may have inherited centuries of historical hatred against groups thought to be “Christ killers.” Still other groups may see the very people whose land they now occupy as “savages” when the dispossessed fought back and exacted revenge. Some may see a member of an ethnic group and think, “cattle raider,” “killer,” “former enslaver,” “rapists of our women.” Others may see a group as ethnically inferior or culturally primitive, unworthy of being treated with dignity. Some groups may see themselves as superior, justifying acts of aggression and atrocities against groups deemed inferior. Some see “terrorists,” “oppressors,” “communists,” “capitalists” or ”infidels.” People are born into various circumstances where hating a particular group or country is part of their story, deep-rooted in the culture. In some groups and countries, not to hate such a group goes against the norm.

External factors play a role in wars throughout the world. From the end of World War II through the close of the 20th century, scores of wars killed millions of civilians as super powers seeking realms of power and access to cheap resources fought their wars on African, Asian and Latin American soil. This is happening in other forms today. Preventing new wars has many layers of territory to navigate.

Just as the farmer does not plant seeds before cultivating the ground, peacebuilding initiatives must cultivate relationships in order to plant seeds of peace.

Obstacles abound. The leadership of some groups and countries thrive on having an enemy to justify the use of military force. Extending the hand of peace through relationship building is perceived by some leaders as showing signs of weakness to the “enemy” or to political rivals. In these circumstances, entrenched interests often reap the benefits of war-time economies and live through a cynical worldview rather than one that is enlightened by the power and benefits of peace.

Opportunities are abundant, too. It only takes one side, one group, one country to start the relationship building process. Once there is a will by one side to build relationship with the other, a key tactic is to transition demonizing, alienating language to nonviolent communications to set a new framework for the relationship. Back channel communications and the use of allies and go-betweens will help pave the way for relationship building that will lead to opportunities for reconciliation, building cultures of peace and transforming conflict to peaceful dialogue, hatred to empathy and fear to trust.

Cultivating relationships in order to reconcile and build cultures of peace is the first order of business. Simple, easy, or quick? Not at all. It is a lot of work requiring determination, skills, long term commitment, patience, collaboration and teamwork. Notwithstanding the challenges and hard work entailed, communities who have experienced war see the value in starting the process of relationship building as part of a comprehensive programme of action to prevent new wars.

Building Cultures of Peace

Building cultures of peace as part of the roadmap to prevent new wars needs to take place both within groups and between groups. Building cultures of peace between groups can start as soon as the relationship process has progressed to a point where there is respectful dialogue and willingness to dialogue. Building cultures of peace within groups can start now.

In order to effectively build cultures of peace, it is important to develop shared visions and understandings of peace which may grow and evolve as peace is practiced and the many benefits of peace manifest.

What is peace?

Heȟáka Sápa (Black Elk) a 19th and 20th century spiritual leader of the Lakota Sioux nation spoke about peace in reflection of the wars and displacement that visited his nation: “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”

Beatrice Amiri, deputy head teacher of Sacred Heart Secondary School in Gulu who was affected by the war in Northern Uganda expresses her conception of peace this way: “Peace is when people co-exist in harmony and want to co-exist in harmony.”

Javier Perez de Cuellar, the Peruvian diplomat and former Secretary General of the U.N. observed that “peace must begin with each one of us. Through quiet and serious reflection on its meaning, new and creative ways can be found to foster understandings, friendships and cooperation among all peoples.”

The late musician Jimi Hendrix said: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”

Ubuntu, the Southern African indigenous principle that values harmonious relationships, human kindness, mediation, restorative justice, mutual tolerance and reconciliation can be roughly translated as “I am because we are.”

Mother Theresa echoed this sentiment when she noted: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

For us, peace is not simply a practice or even just a state of being. Peace, like light, is a power, a force for good as strong and real as goodness itself. Peace, like goodness, is inherent in humanity. However, conditions often mask this power as the clouds mask the sun. Just as darkness is not a power but the absence of light, chaos is the absence of peace. We must realize that building cultures of peace includes reaching for the peace inside us. Inside all of us. When we are in touch with our own peace, we can more effectively build cultures of lasting peace within our communities and societies.

What are cultures of peace?

Cultures of peace are evidenced by communities and societies who believe in peaceful co-existence, believe in the values and are skilled in the practices of dialogue, mediation, reconciliation and nonviolence.

Cultures of peace see conflict as opportunities to address issues and problems through dialogue, mediation and negotiation rather than through confrontation or violence.

Cultures of peace favour conflict transformation over conflict resolution as a means to transform relationships as well as mediate disputes.

Cultures of peace may practice indigenous worldviews of mediation and reconciliation or may have acquired and shaped these values, worldviews and skills as peacebuilding practitioners.

Cultures of peace may have transformed from cultures of violence through conflict transformation, transformative mediation, trainings, relationship building and participation in reconciliation forums.

Cultures of peace value the leadership role of women as peacebuilders.

Cultures of peace embrace, and may be the outcomes of systemic peace education programmes situated in school-based and community initiatives.

Cultures of peace prepare youth to become lifelong peacebuilding practitioners, peer mediators and skilled relationship builders.

Cultures of peace are opposed to war and prevent war through sustained relationship building, reconciliation and peace education.

Cultures of peace reap the benefits of education, community building, sustainable development, environmental restoration and global citizenship.


Reconciliation is a means for people, groups, societies and countries to address past wrongs and grievances and move forward as drops of water from the same ocean.

Reconciliation is a process. Depending on the issue or issues being addressed, reconciliation requires sensitive groundwork, respect for cultural traditions and empathy for all participating parties.

Whereas reconciliation has many variations and worldviews, we think of reconciliation as having at least these three elements:

  • Admission of wrong doing
  • Forgiveness
  • Accountability

Reconciliation may take place at the community and clan level, with groups, countries and societies.

Reconciliation may take the place of punitive justice, such as restorative justice in schools, community forums and judicial institutions.

Reconciliation may be a means to address the large-scale wrongs and damages from slavery, colonialism, war, repression, and state, communal and institutional violence.

Accountability may be restorative so that victims are restored and wrongdoers are transformed.

Reconciliation is not forgive-and-forget. Reconciliation involves forgiveness connected with accountability. Ultimately, reconciliation is part of a healing and restorative process. Combined with creating harmonious relationships and building cultures of peace, reconciliation is an essential component of preventing new wars.

When the same groups are involved in recurring cycles of violence against each other, it is a sign they have not reconciled.

Building cultures of peace to prevent new wars – Whose responsibility?

In West Africa, North Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, the Horn of Africa and Great Lakes Region Africa, in the Balkans in Eastern Europe and Caucasus regions, in Central and South Asia, in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, many governments, political opposition groups, political parties, religious and ethnic groups are in contentious relationships. Many have not reconciled from previous wars, occupations, coups, armed conflicts and historical grievances. Others embrace age-old conflicts and see “the other” as the enemy. Militia and rebel groups, national and proxy armies, mercenaries, vigilantes, war lords and armed factions of religious and political groups terrorize and wage war on civilian communities. They rape women, force children to become child soldiers, massacre families and burn down villages and towns. Millions of women, children and families are refugees and internally displaced in these regions due to ongoing wars, armed conflict and the threat of escalating violence.

Civilian communities affected by conflict are not at fault. The women, children, men, youth and families who are victimized by this massive violence did not start these wars. They do not want these wars. It is not their wars.

However, ironic as it may be, it is their responsibility, our responsibility – as war-affected and post-conflict communities – to build cultures of peace to prevent new wars.

The people who are victimized by war are the very ones responsible to build cultures of peace to prevent new wars?

Yes we are. Why is this? It is because only war-affected communities have the sustained motivation and long term commitment to prioritize preventing new wars because war-affected communities have experienced war and do not want war to turn their lives upside down again.

If we who are war-affected do not build cultures of peace to prevent new wars, who will?

We must understand from the start: the international community will not and cannot prevent wars and genocides. They may serve as genuine support partners and key allies but reliance on the international community to prevent wars and genocides is a misguided strategy.

An example: Rwanda

Months leading up to the 1994 genocide in which approximately one million civilians were slaughtered, there was a small force of U.N. Peacekeeping forces on the ground inside Rwanda as it was known genocide was being planned. When peacekeeping forces showed up at incidents where people were about to be killed, the perpetrating groups disbanded and lives were saved. The head of the peacekeeping forces, General Romeo Dallaire realized that more peacekeeping forces could prevent what was obviously about to occur. To prevent the genocide, he made numerous urgent requests to his superiors at the U.N. to increase the number of peacekeeping forces by 5,000 additional armed peacekeepers. His pleas fell on deaf ears.

In the meantime, France was selling arms to the Rwandan government and training militia, knowing genocide was being planned. The U.S., equally aware of the planned genocide, had decided in advance not to intervene once the genocide began and was staunchly opposed to additional peacekeeper intervention. Midway into the genocide the U.N. finally decided to send the requested peacekeepers but did not act quickly. By the time additional peacekeeping forces arrived, for most it was too late.

President Clinton and U.N. officials later apologized for their decisions but this will not bring back a million civilians – women, children, youth and men – whose deaths could have been prevented. Unfortunately, this response of the international community to avert war and genocide is not untypical. Worse, industrialized and arms trading nations have supported many of the wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America that have killed many millions of people.

Notwithstanding the history, there is a vital role for the international community to help prevent future wars and genocides. None of us does our work alone and international support partners and allies have critical and valued roles to play in supporting the prevention of war led by war-affected communities. These key roles include financial support for peacebuilding initiatives, institutional strengthening and capacity building support, advocacy, solidarity and long term commitment.

The Who’s and the What’s

There are many innovative and collaborative approaches to creating harmonious relationships, building cultures of peace and reconciliation which are shaped by contextual and cultural considerations. Within these many frameworks are what we believe to be essential considerations in planning and implementing programmes of action to prevent new wars:

War-Affected Communities must take the initiative and lead the way

As state previously, war-affected communities must take the initiative and lead the way. Globally and historically, the most successful social movements and campaigns have been led by those most affected by the conditions sought to be changed.

The world will follow – so long as those who need change are leading the way.

Peace Education

Peace education, especially school-based peace education, can transform a society from cultures of war and violence to cultures of peace and nonviolence.

Peace education is a growing component of public education, appearing increasingly in primary school education on a global basis. If it continues to grow and evolve, becomes bolder in its goals and is sustainable, it has the potential to transform schools, communities and societies to build and sustain cultures of peace.

Peace education helps students acquire values of peaceful living, behaviour and practices and acquire skills to mediate and transform conflict. In its ideal development, peace education helps students prepare to become lifelong peacebuilding practitioners, and helps to build peaceful schools and communities.

As an organization that pioneered peace education in secondary schools in Uganda, we believe peace education should include “building cultures of peace to prevent new wars” as one of its goals.

We further believe in addition to its growing role in primary schools, peace education should be situated in secondary schools, sharing equal status with academic subjects and co-curricular activities.

Peace education is preferably combined with an additional domain, for context and relevance. For instance, in our programme, peace education combines with guidance (life skills) and counseling. Peace Education may combine with other domains, such as community development, the empowerment of women, environmental conservation, agriculture, livelihood, public health, education or combinations.

We believe peace education should be situated in the secondary school system because secondary school is where adolescents transition to young adults. Youth at this age are developing their moral compasses and many are exploring how they can make a difference in their communities and societies. Secondary school students have influence with their peers, their families, communities and out-of-school counterparts. By situating peace education in secondary schools, especially in war-affected communities, students have the opportunity to become lifelong peacebuilding practitioners, peer mediators and youth peace actors.

For peace education to have structural impact, it needs to have a systemic strategy and school-based peace education is both systemic and sustainable by its very nature. This also provides the opportunity to partner and be in relationship with central government.

Our insights and recommendations on implementing peace education programmes include collaborative planning, building ownership of the programme into teachers who are trained as peace educators, and designing the programme so it is sustainable after the launch year.

It is imperative, we believe, to integrate secondary school-based peace education into the community to reach out-of-school youth, to build strong relationships between the school and its local communites, to counsel community members and to build capacity of out-of-school youth and community members to serve as community peace actors to transform violent disputes into peaceful dialogue and cultures of violence into cultures of peace.

To fully engage students, peace education should include peace education classes (the study of peace), student centered peace activities such as peace drama, debate, poetry, music, song and dance (the expression of peace), life skills and counseling for personal and emotional development, training as peer mediators and peer counselors and the development of student support groups to activate empathy and to problem-solve, mediate, counsel and heal together.

The role of women

It is difficult to imagine successful prevention of war strategies without the role of women as decision makers and in the leadership of peacebuilding initiatives.

As breadwinners and heads of households, mothers and caregivers, women are responsible for the well-being of their families, children and communities. They see peacebuilding as an essential responsibility to ensure the protection of their children and families from future wars and armed conflict. Women understand better than men the relationship between gender-based violence and war and are more determined than men to halt war-related gender-based violence.

The suffering and plight of women during war is well known and documented. Portraying women simply as victims of war, however, ignores the fact that the suffering women undergo during war equips them as passionate and determined peacebuilders. Women have strong track records in building peace and unlike many men, see peace through the eyes of their families and communities instead of through lines of power. Women’s peace groups in conflict areas work well together and see their role as peacebuilders on behalf of their mutual families and communities, building bridges for the rest of their societies. Palestinian and Israeli women’s groups, for instance, have been working together in common cause for peace for many years as do women’s groups throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, women’s valuable peacebuilding work is still largely seen as anecdotal and seldom becomes policy or replicated and scaled up by peacebuilding funders.

Women work creatively, courageously and have less interest in personal power than men have. Women practice shared leadership and work intuitively. To prevent wars, women must be in the forefront of building cultures of peace within and between groups.

The role of youth

Youth are not only the future of each new generation, they hold the key to building cultures of peace to prevent new wars.

In most conflict-affected and post-conflict areas, however, most youth grow up in poverty and cannot afford the prohibitive costs of secondary school education. The majority of youth in conflict areas, therefore, remain functionally illiterate and uneducated. As out-of-school youth with little formal education, they are excluded from most economic and livelihood opportunities. Uneducated youth are generally not personally developed, increasingly resort to alcohol and are easily influenced to be confrontational in local disputes, such as land disputes. Instead of being community peace actors, far too many out-of-school youth are actors in conflict. In addition, many join national armies as a means to have income and status.

In these common contexts – the circumstances in which the majority of youth find themselves in conflict-affected and post-conflict areas – programmes of action designed to build cultures of peace to prevent new wars must structure youth components that combine training youth in conflict transformation, transformative mediation, peer mediation, peer counseling and reconciliation with life skills and guidance for personal development, psychosocial counseling, HIV/AIDS counseling, mentorship and entrepreneurship skills.

An ideal scenario includes implementing peace education programmes in secondary schools and integrating the programme into local communities so that peace education students and out-of-school youth collaborate in peacebuilding activities. In this scenario, mature, personally developed peace education secondary school students become peer educators to out-of-school youth and conduct trainings in peer mediation, peer counseling, conflict transformation and transformative mediation.

Youth peace actor activities should be the largest sector of programming in building cultures of peace to prevent new wars. Innovative activities will help both in-school students and out-of-school youth play key roles as school-based and community peace actors, help build cultures of peace to prevent new wars, build peaceful schools and communities and prepare youth to become lifelong peacebuilding practitioners.

UMECS Contribution to Building Cultures of Peace to Prevent New Wars

As a conflict-affected organisation whose staff, students, programme constituents and communities we serve have been severely affected by war, our highest priority is the prevention of new wars.

Our experiences in war and as peacebuilders inform our understanding of effective strategies and programmes of action to build cultures of peace to prevent new wars.

In 2009, in collaboration with the Republic of Uganda Ministry of Education and Sports, we pioneered a secondary-school based programme with community components designed to build cultures of peace to prevent new wars and build peaceful schools and communities. The name of the programme: Peace Education and Guidance & Counseling in Secondary Schools (PEGC) The program’s 2009/2010 pilot was supported by USAID/Uganda.

The goals of the programme are to build cultures of peace to prevent new wars, build peaceful schools and communities, provide psychosocial counseling services to war-affected youth, personally develop youth through life skills, counsel family and community members and mediate a wide range of community disputes.

The programme uniquely combines peace education with guidance & counseling. Major programme components include peace education classes, student centered peace activities, guidance (life skills), psychosocial counseling, peer mediation and peer counseling trainings, community counseling and community mediations.

Implemented in seven secondary schools in four districts in Northern Uganda, PEGC is now in Year 4 and reaches over 3,000 secondary school students. The program has had groundbreaking results including eradication of bullying, improved academic performance, reduced student indiscipline, creation of serious-minded nonviolent school environments, improved student-teacher and student peer relationships, transition from punitive discipline to restorative justice, family and community counseling and mediations of community disputes.

The programme has been so successful, UMECS was selected as a Finalist by World Vision International for its 2011 Peacebuilding Prize due to the impact of this programme, recognizing UMECS for “outstanding achievements in the field of peacebuilding.”

The overarching goal: to mainstream the programme countywide in the secondary school and teacher training systems. In the fullness of time, we will replicate the programme regionally, starting in South Sudan.

For more information, read more about PEGC in the What We Do section of this site, or click here

In the works

1. UMECS Peace Education Center

Building cultures of peace to prevent new wars takes capacity in order to have structural impact, lasting results, to scale to new communities and sub-regions, and to provide opportunities for war-affected youth and community members to participate.

UMECS will construct its architecturally planned Peace Education Center on its land acquired for this purpose in the Bardege division of Gulu Municipality, Gulu district in Northern Uganda. The purpose of the Peace Education Center is to build and sustain peace in Northern Uganda, countrywide and in the region. Moreover, the Peace Education Center will provide capacity for many peace actors to participate in building cultures of peace to prevent new wars in Uganda and regionally.

Our multi-purpose facility will include a conference center, space for trainings, workshops, seminars, events and peace research and will have publishing capacity. It will serve as a resource center for local, regional and international peacebuilding scholars and practitioners.

For more information, please Read about UMECS Peace Education Center

2. Community Peace Actors

UMECS is developing a new, community-based programme in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Sports, Makerere University School of Distance and Lifelong Learning and PEGC, the goals of which are to enhance the capacity of local actors to transform conflict and disputes, to acquire practice-based skills in reconciliation and relationship building, to train others in various disciplines and traditions of peacebuilding and reconciliation, to help youth become lifelong peacebuilding practitioners and to build cultures of peace to prevent new wars, all in the context of conflicts relating to land, the discovery of oil, village and family disputes, gender-based violence, cultural diversity, clan grievances and the residual effects of the LRA conflict in Northern Uganda; within which, to provide mechanisms, training, training of trainers, actions plans and sustainable programmes to achieve these goals.

The road to change

Wars will be prevented as a movement of war-affected grassroots communities organize sustainable programmes of action that grow into a critical mass of change.

To be effective, programmes of action must be contextual in nature, grounded by analysis, fueled by successful strategies and sustainable. In addition to all else, programmes of action through its activities must be learning, research, training and practice-oriented and concentrate on creating harmonious relationships, building cultures of peace and reconciliation.

Programmes of Action will have short term, medium range and long term goals and include peace education. Peace will practically link with education, community development, livelihood, environmental conservation, the empowerment of women or a combination of domains.

Above all, effective movements will be led by grassroots communities affected by conflict who are determined to prevent future wars. Women and youth will be in the forefront of the leadership.

Wars can no longer be tolerated. We cannot allow the past to dictate the future. Communities affected by war have the power to build cultures of peace to prevent new wars.

Great movements have been led by those who are most affected by the conditions sought to be changed. Examples include the South African Liberation Struggle, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the Abolitionist Movement to End Slavery, which was led by former slaves.

Real (lasting) change comes when it works its way up from the bottom, from the people, and is led by people most affected by the conditions sought to be transformed

So too must the movement to prevent wars be led by those directly affected by war. When voices of those affected by war rise up in a chorus of peacebuilding, the world will listen.

When the music changes, so does the dance.

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