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The causes of violent conflict

By Stephen Cheleda - posted Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The horrors of World War II have prompted many people to try to find systematic explanations for the causes of violent conflict. There was a general feeling of optimism that war was not inevitable; that it was caused by certain conditions, even if those conditions were not yet clearly defined at that time.

The importance of this feeling was clearly demonstrated when the architects of the United Nations created the Economic and Social Council as one of the principal organs of that organisation. As one of the delegates at the San Francisco Conference said in 1945: “One of the most prolific causes of war is social and economic unrest.” (In contrast to this new feeling of determination, it should be noted that in the Covenant of the League of Nations, only one article related to economic and social questions.)

In 1946 the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) was created to “build lasting peace founded upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of humankind”.


Clearly, there were two main areas identified as possible causes of conflict: one relating to certain economic structures; the other being something to do with cultural co-operation (or rather the lack of it). They were confident when identifying these two major sources of conflict, even though they did not have a detailed map that would help them to pinpoint, or to explain, each specific area. The detailed mapping, so to speak, was left to academics, spurred on by the enthusiasm of the great number of people engaged in peace activities.

The best, and probably the most prominent, example of this is the research carried out at the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. This department was established in 1973 following an initiative by the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Before we attempt our brief search for the causes of violent conflicts, we ought to dispel two popular perceptions relating to it. One of these perceptions is the fatalistic view of humanity which, basically, maintains that humans (and men in particular) are aggressive and violent by nature, and hence, we have wars and always will.

The objection to this view is that it ignores an even more basic drive than the propensity for aggression, namely, curiosity, or the urge to discover. It is only when this basic urge is thwarted that aggression may follow. It is incorrect to claim that aggression is the first or predominant instinct of humans.

The second popular perception is that conflicts are caused by “religions”, or deep-seated historical enmities, and nothing can be done about it.

A superficial glance at the many violent conflicts would confirm this impression. However, if we look more carefully, “religion” or “historical enmity” only causes violent conflicts in areas where social institutions - such as the judiciary, the police or the army - have been built in such a way that it favours one particular religious or social group only.


To illustrate that religion per se is not a cause of violent conflict, one can look at Hungary, where Protestants and Catholics are approximately in the ratio of 4:6. In that country there are no institutions that effect peoples’ social or economic activities, which are exclusively Protestant or Catholic. There are no segregated schools. Hence “religion” is not an issue of contention. A similar situation exists in every other Western European country.

So, can the causes of violent conflicts be identified? Are there discernible patterns to them, or are they far too complex to define reasonably clearly?

As mentioned earlier, there has been a lot of research carried out at various universities into the causes of violent conflicts. One of the most influential researches was elucidated by Edward Azar, who proposed ten “commonly observable features in situations of protracted conflicts. Terrell Nurthrup highlighted the psychological dimensions of conflicts, especially the importance of identity in a conflict situation. There are numerous other researchers who are providing valuable insight.

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About the Author

Stephen Cheleda was born in Budapest in 1938 and has lived in the UK since December 1956. After working in industry, he became a teacher of Mathematics in 1971. Stephen did an MA in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. He retired in 2003.

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