Addressing Underlying Causes of Conflict

Charles (Chip) Hauss

July 2003

Intractable conflicts are hard to resolve because their underlying causes are often deeply entrenched and closely interwoven. Conflict resolution strategies that fail to account for the complexity of those causes or expect to resolve the whole conflict quickly are likely to be ineffective in bringing a peaceful end to intractable disputes.

What Are Underlying Causes?

The underlying causes of a conflict are what make it intractable. Since each conflict is unique, there is no one underlying cause of intractability. That said, there is one common denominator to all intractable conflicts they are all based on long-lasting and deep divisions.

For example, during the late spring and early summer of 1994, almost a million Rwandans were killed by their fellow citizens. Almost all the Tutsi and many moderate Hutu were massacred by militant Hutus, urged on by the government and quasi-official radio stations.

There were events that spring that provoked the rampage -- most immediately, the airplane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali. The massacre started that night.

However, the antagonism between the two ethnic groups runs much deeper and is strikingly evident throughout the history of both Rwanda and Burundi. Indeed, the underlying causes of the conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu are so old that no one knows for sure where the two groups came from and why the Tutsi have been richer and more powerful over the last several centuries.

It isn't just Rwanda. The conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland can be traced back to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 which solidified Protestant control over the island-and maybe before that. Racial tensions in South Africa began when the first Dutch settlers arrived in 1652. The roots of racial conflict in the United States go back almost to the founding of the first colonies in Virginia. The first Black indentured servants were sold as slaves in Jamestown in 1619, 12 years after it was founded.

Why Are Underlying Causes Important?

The underlying causes of a conflict are important because they make the conflict intense and keep it so. The causes are embedded in history; the resentments they spawn date from events that occurred decades or even centuries ago -- as in Rwanda, their origins may not even be remembered. Often, the differing historical narratives become a part of the conflict itself.

Those historical roots are often kept alive by people who want to keep the conflict itself alive. Politicians, for example, frequently magnify the importance of these historical animosities for their own gain. By playing to long-standing fears and resentments among their constituents, they can increase their own power and legitimacy.

That was certainly the case with Slobodan Milosevic and other leaders who rose to prominence as Yugoslavia began to collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Tensions between Serbs and Albanians went back at least to the battle of Kosovo Pole in 1389. However, the conflict between them that erupted into war in 1999 was of much more recent origin. It was consciously fomented by Milosevic and his allies in attempt to broaden Serbian control over the rest of Yugoslavia, at least where there was a substantial Serbian population. As Laura Silber and Allen Little put it:

Yugoslavia did not die a natural death. Rather, it was deliberatively and systematically killed off by men who had nothing to gain and everything to lose from a peaceful transition from state socialism and one-party rule to free-market diplomacy.[1]

Identity and Human Needs

Rwanda and Yugoslavia are two examples of a broad category of conflicts which Jay Rothman has called identity-based conflicts.[2] These conflicts typically pit people with deep emotional attachment to "their" religious, racial, linguistic, or ethnic groups against each other. It is not just that Hutu are proud of their heritage. In addition, their identity usually also involved an equally deep fear, hatred, and distrust of the "other," which psychologists have labeled the image of the enemy. Identity-based conflicts tend to be particularly intractable, as identity is non-negotiable, and non-compromisable.

A second set of underlying causes that is often found in intractable conflicts is what John Burton, a pioneer in the field of conflict resolution, called unmet human needs. These include security, belonging, participation, and economic well-being. If people believe that their needs have not been met and that they have been discriminated against for an extended period of time, the resentment that they carry with them can fuel the most intense and violent of conflicts.

Identity and unmet needs came together in Rwanda in the early 1990s and contributed to the genocide which claimed as much as ten percent of the country's total population. Rwanda is one of the world's poorest countries. It is also one in which the minority Tutsi were much wealthier and more powerful than the Hutu. That inequality antedated imperialism, but was reinforced by the Germans and the Belgians during the 75 years they held Rwanda as a colony. Indeed, it was only in 1959 that Hutu insurgents overthrew the Tutsi king and took control as colonial rule was drawing to an end.

How Underlying Causes can be Addressed

Intractable conflicts cannot be resolved unless the underlying causes are addressed. This can be done in a number of ways, but must occur on two levels.

First, it is important to address the substantive issues that give rise to conflict in the first place, such as unbalanced distributions of wealth and power (as existed in Rwanda or Northern Ireland).

The second task, which is normally harder to tackle, is that of diffusing the fear, hatred, and other negative emotions that make a conflict intractable and all too often deadly. Efforts to forge national reconciliation, such as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, are therefore extremely important in creating a successful, enduring peace processes.


One does not have to be an expert on any of these conflicts to also note that addressing their underlying causes takes a lot of time. Notre Dame's John Paul Lederach once was asked how long it would take the people of Northern Ireland to fully resolve their conflict. He asked the people in the room when the conflict had begun. Most agreed with the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Lederach then said that it would take that same amount of time, about 300 years, before everything could be fully worked out.

It probably is not the case that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the history of a conflict and the time needed to settle it. Nonetheless, Lederach's general point is well taken. No single peace agreement, no single Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and no single visionary leader can solve the complicated, overlapping, and enduring roots causes of a conflict overnight.

Nevertheless, there are things that can be done that help.

What Can Individuals Do?

On one level, individuals are the only people who can address the underlying causes of conflict that are part of their personal value systems. That might seem odd at first glance because individuals rarely have the resources to address the economic or political inequalities that are the underlying substantive causes of many intractable conflicts. There is little, for instance, that a typical white in South Africa can do to end the wretched poverty most blacks live in.

What individuals can do -- and what individuals must do -- is to address what Albert Einstein called our "modes of thinking" -- the values and assumptions people rely on to help them decide how they will behave when confronted with conflict. In 1946, for example, Einstein wrote a letter urging prominent Americans to stop the nuclear arms race before it began in earnest. If we had then stopped our confrontational approach to the Soviet Union, history might have been much different. Similarly, the Tutsi and Hutu of the Great Lakes region of Africa have different histories, cultures, and interests. But they do not have to hate each other. The same is true for the white and black populations of South Africa.

In a world in which there is so much violence and so many conflicts that seem as if they will never end, it is easy to forget that some intractable conflicts have been eased because people have changed the way they think about each other. In the last half century, most Americans have come to believe that the phrase "all men are created equal" applies to people of all races, and women as well as men. Racism and sexism have not disappeared, to be sure, but they are diminishing. The transformation of international relations in Europe has been even more remarkable. France and Germany went to war three times between 1870 and 1945. Today, war between them and, for that matter, most of the countries on the continent is all but unimaginable. As a result of support from the United States, economic recovery, growing integration, and conscious efforts at reconciliation, they have turned all of Western and now much of Eastern Europe into what Max Singer and Aaron Wildavsky have called a "zone of peace."

What Can Leaders Do About The Underlying Causes?

Leaders have at least two responsibilities as far as underlying causes, responsibilities they often do not live up to.

First, leaders do a lot to set the tone for how their followers will think and act.

In his new book, Transforming Leadership, James McGregor Burns notes that there have been remarkable leaders such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Mohandas Gandhi. In his words, transformation occurs when there is a "metamorphosis in form or structure, a change in the very condition or nature of a thing, a change into another substance, a radical change in outward form or inner character, as when a frog is transformed into a prince."[3]

Transformative leaders have often led their people into conflict. But the great ones have also helped their people overcome conflict by helping them address root causes.

Unfortunately, there are all too few Nelson Mandelas in the ranks of world leaders today or at any time in history. By learning to speak Afrikaans, by befriending his jailers, and even by pouring tea for the wife of President P. W. Boetha, Mandela showed respect for the people he disagreed with and who caused him so much harm.

Far too often, leaders have built their careers by fanning the emotional flames of conflict. Whether it is the call for a Greater Serbia by Milosevic or the use of attack ads on American television, political leaders often deepen rather than lessen divisions.

The second thing leaders need to do is summon up the political will to make a prolonged attempt to address the root cause of a conflict.

As noted earlier, it takes a long time to change either the substantive issues or the emotions that are at the heart of an intractable conflict. As Burns argues, transformational leaders can get their followers to make the sacrifices and other commitments needed to take on the extended, demanding process of change. In that respect at least, F. W. de Klerk may have been even more impressive than Mandela, because he asked his fellow Afrikaners to give up apartheid and political power.

But, as Burns also points out, most of the time, most leaders act in what he calls a transactional manner. They try to cut deals or make decisions that will help them out in the reasonably short term. There is no better example of that than the politicians in established democracies who are constantly paying the most attention to the polls and their chances of getting reelected. This often leads to supporting the "comfortable, established" ways of thinking, which support the status quo and continue the inequalities, injustice, and emotions, which perpetuate conflicts, rather than ameliorate or transform them. It takes bold leadership to address the causes of intractable conflicts in a meaningful way, to reduce enmity and pave the way toward more constructive relationships.

[1] Laura Silber and Allen Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation. (London: Penguin Books 1997), 1266. There is also a BBC video version of their book.

[2] Jay Rothman, Resolving Identity Based Conflict in Nations, Organizations, and Communities. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997).

[3] James McGregor Burns, Transforming Leadership. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Books, 2003), 25.

Use the following to cite this article:
Hauss, Charles (Chip). "Addressing Underlying Causes of Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.

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